Voltaire, whose corrosive wit did so much to dissolve the faith of the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy in their right to rule (not to speak of their adherence to the Faith) once quipped that “the Holy Roman Empire is neither holy nor Roman.” To those who heard the remark at the time, it would have had a special edge since the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was born a daughter of one ruler of the Empire, Empress Maria Teresa, and was the sister of another, Emperor Joseph II. Like numerous other of Voltaire’s remarks — another example: “I think you are wrong but will defend unto death your right to speak as you do” — this one has ever since been parroted by the mediocre, ignorant of its provenance, who repeat it wishing to impress others, as if it were original with them.
It was his malicious flippancy that made Voltaire one of the great celebrities of his day, but was there any truth to what he said? Was the Holy Roman Empire neither holy nor Roman? As far as that goes, what was the Holy Roman Empire?
Strictly speaking, its history must be dated from Christmas, 800 A.D., when a king of the Franks, Charlemagne, was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. This was at St. Peter’s in Rome. (It was also on Christmas Day, in 496, that Clovis, King of the Franks, with two thousand of his warriors, was baptized in Rheims by St. Remigius.) However, no event in history takes place without being preceded by others. For instance, in our own history as a liberal republic, something as important (in social as well as political terms) as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not simply happen all of a sudden. It was preceded by, and may even be seen as part of, the long aftermath of the War Between the States that had ended a century before.
In the same way, and even though Charlemagne reacted as if it had been totally unexpected, the event of Christmas 800 did not happen all of a sudden; the Holy Roman Empire did not arise from nothing. Its roots could not be more ancient. They reached back to 476, to the brief reign of Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Roman Empire in the West; past him to 323 when Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, became sole ruler of the Empire after sharing its government with others; past him to 27 B.C. when Augustus, nephew of Julius Caesar, became the first Emperor of the Romans; and even beyond that to the Jewish theocracies of which we read in the Old Testament. There was also a period, from 476 to 797, in the last year of which Constantius VI was deposed — after being blinded by his usurping mother, Irene, in the very chamber where she gave him birth — when Emperors reigned only in the East, at Constantinople, known officially as “New Rome.”
Whether as a practical matter we date the Holy Roman Empire from its actual beginning in 800, or to the reign of Constantine the Great, when the Emperors began to rule conjointly, as it were, with the papacy, or all the way back, minus the “holy,” to the founding of the Empire with Augustus, it can be said that, when it was announced in Vienna in August, 1806 (200 years ago next year), that Emperor Francis II had resigned the imperial crown, what ended was the oldest political institution on earth.
That is to speak only of the political institution. Beyond it, the history of the Holy Roman Empire is so bound up with the history of Christendom and of Christendom’s heartland, Europe, as to be inseparable. To speak more exactly, it is inseparable from the idea of Christendom. To be sure, other lands that lay outside the borders of the Holy Roman Empire were also part of Christendom, but as the original and enduring political expression of the idea, the Empire embodied it in a special way. (This was still more the case since most princes of the other lands conceded either a nominal fealty to the Emperor or recognized him as at least preeminent among brother rul-ers.)
As for the lands that lay within its borders in the twelfth century, when the Empire extended as far as it ever would, they included what we now know as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, eastern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, western Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.
That the Holy Roman Empire is inseparable from the idea of Christendom makes it inseparable from the history of the Americas, if not the United States. After all, though America was certainly peopled before the arrival of Europeans, it was with their arrival that she entered history as an outpost of Christendom. So it is that there are old Spanish mission buildings in our Southwest still bearing on their walls the imperial arms of Charles V, who was both the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Spain.
The arms were placed there a century before the so-called Pilgrims landed in 1620, at the spot they called Plymouth, on the coast of today’s Massachusetts. It was when there was no Christian presence in the entire Western Hemisphere except the Catholic one.
The most prominent feature of the imperial arms is the double-headed eagle that surmounts them. Such an eagle looks to both East and West. If we recall that Our Lord commanded His followers to “make disciples of all the nations,” this heraldic device is a reminder that the Empire, embodying the idea of Christendom, was meant to be universal, to be coextensive with the spread everywhere of the religion whose very name Catholic denotes universality. That is, the Empire was to embrace and thus unite all parts of the world.
To unite them in what way? Quite simply, it was to unite them within itself, which is to say under Christian government; Christian, because it was under the rulership of a monarch anointed by the Church to provide no other kind.
To ensure it would be no other kind, the monarch had the Pope, never standing right next to him, but always very nearby. We speak metaphorically. The Pope, we are saying, was never exactly co-ruler but can be described readily and fairly as acting as pilot to the Emperor’s captaincy of the ship of state. The Emperor manned the helm of the ship. The Pope was in its crow’s nest looking out for reefs. That was the theory. Despite difficulties and even violent conflicts, as when troops of Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, it worked remarkably well for a thousand years; well enough that today, when a time is recalled that men generally lived in society according to the teachings of the Faith (instead of merely professing them), what is recalled is the time when a Catholic Christendom still prevailed.
The history of the Holy Roman Empire is too replete with important events and developments for it to be recounted here, even in summary. Even the editors of the old Catholic Encyclopedia evidently despaired of any writer’s being able to do it really thoroughly within one of their large volumes. There is no entry for the Holy Roman Empire. What is related of it is a bare-bones factual account folded into the encyclopedia’s article on Germany.
(The English-speaking reader who wants more than bare bones cannot do better than to turn to the nineteenth century classic text, The Holy Roman Empire , by James Bryce. An excellent, more recent history is The Holy Roman Empire , by Friedrich Heer. There are also first-rate biographies of particular rulers, like Archduke Otto von Habsburg’s biography of his ancestor, Charles V. The great Catholic general history of the Empire has never been written.)
Given the impossibility of recounting the history in a complete way, what we want to do here is to try to understand the idea of the Empire and the influence of that idea. We do this against the background of a recent event: the signing by heads of numerous European governments on October 29, 2004, of a constitution supposed to guide the actions of governing bodies of the European Union and thereby provide that entity with a measure of institutionalized political unity heretofore lacking. Besides the Holy See, the governments of several EU member states — notably those of Ireland, Poland, Italy, and Spain — urged inclusion in the document of at least some reference to Christianity, if only to its historical role in the formation of Europe. In the end the document was signed with no such reference. Its secularist framers, the chief of whom was former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, willfully chose to omit any. Further, the October 29 signing took place even as an Italian, Rocco Buttiglione, nominated for the position of Justice Commissioner in the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, was compelled to withdraw after the anti-libertarian views he expressed on homosexuality and the place of women in society generated a firestorm of criticism in the European Parliament. The views were based on beliefs the man holds as a practicing Catholic, one of an increasingly small minority among European politicians.
With Christianity as rigidly excluded from the new European constitution (as it always has been from that of the United States), and assuming the thing comes into force, any unity it provides will be grounded in Enlightenment notions as they are manifested today: liberty equating, for instance, with the freedom to divorce, abort, and openly practice sodomy; equality with “diversity” and “multiculturalism”; and brotherhood with a conception of “human rights” guaranteed to everyone and which really amounts to sin legitimized and spread throughout society by political means.
Voltaire, as we have already recalled, quipped that “the Holy Roman Empire is neither holy nor Roman.” A Europe in which even a vestigial role for Christianity in the life of society is officially denied is not likely to be very holy. It will be interesting to see for how much longer it remains recognizably European.
As we begin to discuss the idea of the Empire, let us try, first of all, to settle the question of its Roman character. The question arises because the first monarch of the renewed Empire, the one crowned by Pope Leo III in 800, Charlemagne, was a king of the Franks, a Germanic people of the north, and most of his successors right up to the end in the nineteenth century would be Germanic.
Setting aside the fact that for a long time before the “fall” of Rome in 476 most Emperors had been from someplace else, the Empire could have been other than Roman, but to be so, its inception would have had to be different. By inception we mean its original beginning with Emperor Augustus.
Following the assassination of his uncle Julius Caesar there ensued a struggle for power over Rome and lands ruled by Rome, which were already far-flung. The struggle eventually took the form of a civil war. Its chief belligerents were Octavian, as the young Augustus was known, and Marc Antony, a leading Roman political figure, allied with Cleopatra (daughter of the Greek Ptolemy line), Queen of Egypt, who was the love of Marc Antony’s life as well as his political and military ally. (She had also been the unmarried consort of Julius Caesar.) The decisive battle of the civil war, a naval battle that was one of history’s truly pivotal events, was fought at Actium in Greece in 31 B.C. Forces of Octavian won.
We may suppose that had the victory gone to Antony and Cleopatra, one result would have been that the axis of power in the Mediterranean world would have shifted from the city of Rome to Cleopatra’s capital, Alexandria. History would then have taken a different direction from the one it did and that we know. Assuming simply that something like the Empire would still have come into being, overlooks the fact that (because of Alexandria’s geographical location) its rulers subsequent to Antony and Cleopatra would likely have seen no reason to divide it the way the Roman one would be eventually divided. That is to say, East and West as we have known them for most of two millennia would not have existed.
The division of Christendom into East and West would have been still less likely since it would have been in Alexandria, not Rome, that St. Peter and his successors as Pope would have fixed their seat. (That is, if Peter had seen any reason even to leave Antioch, where he was bishop before journeying to Rome.) In any event, we might now speak of the Alexandrian Empire and the Church of Alexandria or Antioch, instead of the Roman Empire and the Church of Rome.
Of course, that is not the direction history took. Octavian won at Actium. The city of Rome did become the capital of the Empire. And that is where the Popes set up their seat. Then the Empire was in time divided into East and West, and Constantine the Great did establish its capital, New Rome — Constantinople — in the East. This division did not create two separate empires. It was purely administrative, somewhat as for the same purpose the U.S. today is divided into eight federal regions with all of them taking direction from Washington, D.C. The Popes, of course, remained in the West, in the first Rome. (Eventually, after Constantinople [“new Rome”] came under Mohammedan rule, and the Roman [Byzantine] Empire in the East ceased to exist, Moscow took to calling itself the “Third Rome,” but that is a whole different story. Moscow’s historical pretensions do not interest us here.)
The point to grasp is that although the Empire was eventually divided for administrative convenience and its capital moved from Rome to New Rome, nearer to where more of its subjects actually lived in 323 — in the East, not in Italy and the West — real unity continued to exist for a long time between the Empire’s two parts. (As late as 663, a Byzantine Emperor, Constans II, during a tour of his possessions in the West, visited the old capital of the Empire, Rome, as sovereign of the city.)
In practical terms this meant that the Popes, though they had their seat in Rome, looked to the “sword” wielded by the Byzantine Emperors to defend the Church’s secular interests and also the territory of Christendom against the depredations of so-called barbarians in the West and, after the rise of Islam starting in the seventh century, those of Mohammedans in the East. This was natural. Why? We reiterate: Following the deposition of Romulus Augustus in 476 and until Leo III invested Charlemagne with the office of Emperor of the Romans in 800, there was no Emperor except the one who reigned in New Rome — Constantinople.
Since the crowning of Charlemagne, only one development (except, arguably, the so-called Reformation), has been as consequential as the papacy’s turning to the Catholic Franks as the new defenders of the Faith, with the interests thereof, and away from the Byzantine reliance. Certainly the convergence in our day of liberalism, vis-a-vis Communism (being its most extreme expression) — entailing the transformation of the old Soviet Union from the liberal West’s arch-enemy into a “friendly” ally (the Russian Federation) — has not equaled what happened in the year 800 with the Church and the Franks, although this strange new alliance seems so momentous to us western Christians now. (Actually, this new alliance is but a detail in the one ongoing development that has managed to become as consequential as the papacy’s shift twelve hundred years ago.) That consequential development is this: For the past two centuries liberalism itself has risen to replace the authoritative teaching of the Faith as the guiding force in the lives of men everywhere, in what used to be Christendom.
As momentous as was the papacy’s turning from the Byzantines to the Franks to defend the interests of the Church and the Faith, it is peripheral to what we are trying to get at. By the time Leo III crowned Charlemagne, Rome had little importance in the Empire apart from its being the seat of the papacy. Numerous other places, beginning with Constantinople itself, had far more political, economic, and cultural weight. However, that it was the seat of the papacy was a constant reminder to men of the cityformer greatness. The papacy, after all, would not have settled there except that once upon a time Rome, not Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, or anyplace else, was the center of the Empire in every sense. This is a way of saying that if Rome still seemed great by 800, still seemed to be anything like it once was, it was only in the minds of men and only on account of Peter’s residing there. In other words, it was as an idea that Rome had its only real importance.
In truth, the idea of a Rome that was still great, independent from the actual city, first took hold with the imperial court’s transfer from it to Constantinople. Rome might no longer be its center, but men everywhere in the Empire still called themselves Roman. Their affairs were still regulated by Rome’s laws; they still lived according to Rome’s customs; the army was still organized Rome’s way, and the new capital was even named New Rome — as if to underline that nothing had changed except the physical location of the seat of political power. Then, when in the century following the transfer of the capital, the actual city of Rome was “conquered” by barbarians, the conquerors supplanted nothing. Some did have ambitions of establishing a Gothic empire. Instead, however, they now called themselves Roman and embraced Rome’s laws, customs, etc. Thus did Rome, a Rome that was still great, continue to live as an idea when the actual city had become a provincial backwater. Out of this idea would be born the idea of Christendom, especially as embodied by the Holy Roman Empire. In other words, though we may speak of the Holy Roman Empire as a revival of the Empire that “fell” in 476 — and it was that — what Charlemagne’s coronation did was to give flesh to something that had never ceased to exist, if only in the minds of men.
It is striking that the idea of “Rome” independent from the actual city still exists. We hear it expressed when there is some dispute within the Church and it is said, “Rome will decide.” We have also heard it expressed whenever the Popes traveled in recent decades and it has been said, “Rome is now in New York,” or wherever the pontiff happened to be. Wherever it is, he takes “Rome” with him. This is to speak of Rome as embodied by the papacy, of Rome in the sense of its being the capital, not of Italy, but of Christianity. It is the sense in which every one of us who is Catholic may rightly feel himself to be, as the late Frederick Wilhelmsen once memorably entitled a collection of his essays, a “Citizen of Rome.”
It is somewhat to recapitulate, but that sense is close to the one meant by Pope Leo when he crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans. That is, in 800 there had been no Emperor seated in Rome since 476; Rome was the capital of nothing except Christianity; Charlemagne’s own political capital, his seat, would not be Rome but Aachen in what is now Germany. He would still be Emperor of the Romans. Why? Because the Pope, whose office embodied the only Rome that really mattered, said so, and did it by so consecrating him— as most of his successors would continue to be consecrated, in a ceremony in Rome by a Pope, until Charles V in the sixteenth century.
Still, monarchy, or any other kind of rulership, does not exist simply as an idea. A ruler exercises political, juridical, and other powers or he is no ruler. Though no historical document exists to tell us, there can be little question that Charlemagne would not have felt himself fully confirmed in his powers as Emperor, or Emperor in the West, until Byzantine Emperor Michael I sent emissaries to Western Europe to formally so recognize him in 812.
Perhaps that was stated poorly. To say that Charlemagne might not have felt fully confirmed in his powers until acknowledged as Emperor in the West by Michael could suggest that until then he had been tentative in their exercise. Such a suggestion would be wrong. There was never anything tentative or weak about Charlemagne’s rule as monarch, no more than in his actions as a military commander. It might be better to say that, with Michael’s recognition, Charlemagne could finally rest assured there would be no challenge either to the legitimacy of his rule or the existence of the revived Empire from the one direction where challenge would have to be taken seriously.
There were several reasons why the papacy turned from the Byzantine Emperors in New Rome to the Franks, and that their ruler, Charlemagne, was made Emperor of the Romans — a title whose bestowal signalized the turning away as nothing else could. First, the legitimacy of any claim of New Rome’s monarchs regarding their rule over the Empire was thrown into serious doubt once Irene seized the imperial throne from her son in 797. This matriarchal usurpation set a precedent replicated by so many palace revolutions in times to come that the very word “Byzantine” would become synonymous with intrigue, treachery, and betrayal, as well as those kinds of bureaucratic procedures which are so hopelessly complex that men in government can evade taking responsibility for anything by hiding behind them. Also, New Rome’s rulers were proving incapable of defending the Faith’s interests as, one by one, Christian lands of the Empire in the East were submerged by the rising tide of Mohammedan conquest. Additionally, there had arisen the first really serious difference between the practice of the Faith in the East and its practice in the West.
This departure from traditional and incarnational Catholic artistic expression began in 726, when a series of Byzantine rulers prohibited the veneration of religious paintings and statues. (We know the prohibition, and the destruction it entailed, as iconoclasm, and there would be no development comparable to it in ghastliness until the Protestants started smashing statues and burning pictures in the 16th century.) Finally, nearer to Rome and directly threatening to her, a Germanic tribe known as the Lombards was marauding throughout northern Italy. With New Rome’s rulers no longer able to project their power that far, and the papacy itself totally without resources to corral the Lombards, only the Franks among Christian peoples seemed willing and physically capable to do so.
Though themselves Germanic, the territory the Franks controlled was much of what we now know as France. Devoutly Christian, it was from there that they marched into Italy under Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne, who first joined the Lombards in battle. It was Charlemagne who finally subjugated them, as he did the other peoples of most of western Europe between 768 and his death in 814, incorporating all of them into the revived Empire.
We wish there were space here to trace in detail the career of Charlemagne (or Carolus Magnus, as he was named in the official language of the Empire, Latin). Emperor by title, he became in reality the veritable father of Western Christendom by his conquests and able rule of the lands he conquered.
To say simply that he made his mark on history as have few men and that it has endured would be to trivialize him, so great were his achievements. It is no wonder that to this day, all distances in France are measured from a statue of him in Place de Notre Dame in Paris. Though history is a closed book to many, if not the majority, in our day, it tells us that somehow the memory of Charlemagne is still so reverenced that in 1,200 years nobody has dared ever to sit in his marble throne, which is preserved in Aachen, except Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels — one more measure, if another were needed, of Nazi barbarity. Not even Napoleon did it when all Europe was under his sway, and he had presumed to bestow on himself the title of Emperor, which, until then, had been borne since 800 by no one in the West but Charlemagne’s successors.
We have spoken of Charlemagne’s coronation as giving flesh to the idea of the Roman Empire that had not disappeared from the minds of men even though the Empire itself, or more exactly Rome, was greatly reduced. To speak of the idea being given flesh is to speak, naturally, of much else besides the coronation. It is to speak of laws being enacted, procedures formulated, a government established. To such things we shall come in a few moments. Right now, it needs to be recalled that, although the Empire in the West had been pagan for most of its history, it was Christian when it “fell” in 476, and it was this Christian Empire that was revived in 800. But what is meant by describing the Empire as Christian? Simply that Christianity was the religion professed by the greater part of its subjects who professed any? That would be like describing today’s France as Catholic simply because a majority of Frenchmen still profess the Faith. Leaving it aside that comparatively few of the professing actually practice their Catholicism anymore, the government of the Fifth Republic under which they live has its laws and legitimizing traditions firmly rooted in the Revolution of 1789 and its principles, not the teachings of the Faith. There is nothing Christian about it. And no nation (or empire) can truly be described as Christian if its government is not, any more than that the modern state of Israel would be called Jewish if its government, in accommodation to Mohammedan and Christian minorities, were based on religious pluralism.
Liberals in nineteenth century France used to talk about a “free Church in a free society.” They meant a society — a nation — no longer governed according to Christian principles, beliefs, and laws, but in which citizens were left perfectly free to live as Christians, to practice Catholicism or any other religion. This was the essence of secularism. Our own liberals in the U.S. today talk along the same lines as those Frenchmen, but the historical experience of the past two centuries shows that citizens living in a society governed by secularist principles, beliefs, and laws end by living as secularists.
Though he attempted no detailed blueprint of it, it was St. Augustine who first outlined the shape of Christian government, who described the features that distinguished it from other kinds that had existed before, and James Bryce, in his history, tells us that Augustine’s influence, “great through all the Middle Ages, was greater on no one than on Charlemagne.” We want to consider at this juncture what there was in the writing of the great African saint that furnished Charlemagne and his successors with their conception of the Holy Roman Empire, and a good way to start is by quoting a passage of Bryce, one wherein he relates succinctly how the revived Empire was holy as well as Roman. The line with which the passage concludes was drawn by Bryce from Augustine’s City of God .
“It is on the religious life that nations repose. Because divinity [in pagan times] was divided, humanity had been divided likewise; the doctrine of the unity of God now enforced the unity of man, who had been created in His image. The first lesson of Christianity was love, a love that was to join in one body those whom suspicion and prejudice and pride of race had hitherto kept apart. There was thus formed by the new religion a community of the faithful, a Holy Empire, designed to gather all men into its bosom, and standing opposed to the manifold polytheisms of the older world, exactly as the universal sway of the Caesars was contrasted with the innumerable kingdoms and republics that had gone before it. The analogy of the two made them appear parts of one great world movement toward unity: the coincidence of their boundaries, which had begun before Constantine, lasted long enough after him to associate them indissolubly together, and make the names of Roman and Christian convertible. Ecumenical councils, where the whole spiritual body gathered itself from every part of the temporal realm under the presidency of the temporal head, presented the most visible and impressive examples of their connection. The language of civil government was, throughout the West, that of the sacred writings and of worship; the greatest mind of his generation consoled the faithful for the fall of their earthly commonwealth, Rome, by describing to them its successor and representative, the ‘city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.'”
A modern liberal is someone who, if he mouths the Lord’s Prayer, does not really mean it, because the modern liberal insists that the Kingdom of Christ, in its monarchical and visible manifestation, is only to be realized (if at all) in the hereafter, not in any earthly Christendom. The liberal imagines that when Christ is hailed as King once a year in October, it is a reference to His being Ruler of men’s souls and no more than that (our liberal may well call himself “conservative”); he will fancy that a city with foundations built by God must be a purely Heavenly one. Where else could it exist but Heaven?
If we do not wish to fall into the liberal’s way of thinking, we need, first, to understand St. Augustine’s language, as some who perhaps have not read him may not. That is, what does he mean by “city”? Then, what would be a city with foundations built by God?
In The City of God , having described very many things men had done (and today still do) to make life Hell upon earth, St. Augustine says of it all that “the deserved penalty of sin would have hurled all headlong even into the second death, of which there is no end, had not the undeserved grace of God saved some therefrom. And thus it came to pass, that though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities.”
How characterize these two “cities”? “One consists,” St. Augustine says, “of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit.” A little later the saint further clarifies that “in enunciating this proposition of ours, then, that because some live according to the flesh and others according to the spirit there have arisen two diverse and conflicting cities, we might equally well have said, ‘because some live according to man, others according to God.'”
A few lines after that, St. Augustine speaks of the two cities as “earthly” and “heavenly”: “Two cities have been formed, therefore, by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to contempt of God; the heavenly by love of God, even to contempt of self. The former glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, ‘Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.'”
Now St. Augustine becomes very specific: “In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, ‘I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.’ And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God ‘glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened; professing themselves to be wise’ — that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride — ‘they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.’ For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, ‘and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever.’ But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, ‘that God may be all in all.'”
Anyone unfamiliar before now with The City of God would do well to reread the lines we have quoted, for within them is contained, summarized, defined the entire basis of the conception of the Christian commonwealth, of the idea of the “city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God” and therefore everything that the Holy Roman Empire was to be about.
Leaving aside our subject, the Holy Roman Empire, the reader who thoroughly grasps St. Augustine is bound to see that the Christian “city” is not the one we live in today. In the heavenly one, the Christian one, the ultimate aim certainly is that men may eventually find their reward “in the society of the saints” — in Heaven — but in terms of organizing the city, governing it, enacting laws and formulating procedures that will better enable everybody to attain the ultimate aim, or at least not make it more likely they will fail as by enacting laws that expand freedom to the point of legitimizing sin, the guiding principle is that those who govern and those who are ordinary citizens of the city should “serve one another in love.”
In a city that kills 4,000 of its own offspring every day by “legal” abortion, that trumpets as a right the launch of “preventive” war, that thinks nothing of corrupting its youth by exposing them daily to pornographic images and “music” meant to rouse wantonness, that makes as the object of its politics (1) the safeguard of a false freedom that really enslaves and (2) limitless economic growth through the exploitation of resources limited by nature — in such a city love is not being served. In fact, it is obvious that few in it even understand the meaning of love, not the love that Christians also know by the name of charity .
We said we wanted to consider the laws enacted and procedures formulated by Charlemagne to give flesh to the idea of the Christian Empire, the Holy Roman one, the one that was meant to be the “city” of God, but we really cannot do it as we wish, not in the space remaining to us, not much beyond saying that the Emperor’s accomplishment was the foundation of that entire civilization which is now maligned with two words that have been made to stand like epithets for everything that supposedly was most wrong before the dawning of the modern age: “feudal” and “Medieval.”
Christians know there was nothing “dark,” nothing uncivilized, primitive, or barbaric about the Middle Ages that had their beginning with Charlemagne. In fact, those centuries constitute the Age of Faith, the one time in the past 2,000 years that all men, which is to say society, lived according to Christian standards, or at least aspired to do so. Indeed, it was the time when there were no standards — none recognized by society as ideal — except Christian ones. It was when the word “Christendom” signified far more than simply a collection of peoples most of whom claimed Christianity as their religion, or had done so in the past.
Society at that time could conceivably have been organized along other than feudal lines, as doubtless it will be when the forces unleashed by the past two centuries of liberalism finally exhaust themselves, and a second Christendom arises. In any event, it was Charlemagne who divided territories of the Empire into large landholdings called “fiefs.” These fiefs he granted to military commanders to whom he gave the title of “duke.” He did not hesitate to make duke numerous conquered tribal chieftains while appointing many of his own Frankish officials to the lesser posts of count and margrave.
Within his fief a duke exercised all the political, juridical, and military authority of the Emperor. In order to oversee the actions of these local rulers — to ensure that they exercised the imperial authority as Christian rulers — Charlemagne established a system of traveling representatives of himself. Today we would call such officials inspectors general. Under Charlemagne they were known as missi dominici (the Lord’s emissaries).
Unfortunately, not all of the tribal chieftains of Europe could be assimilated by the Empire. Even some who were absorbed could not resist placing personal interests above those of the Empire when Charlemagne was gone from the scene.
When he died in 814, he was succeeded by his son Louis I. Louis proved too weak a ruler to prevent certain dukes from transforming their fiefs into hereditary estates. Five of these duchies — Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Lorraine — were soon strong enough to threaten the authority of the Emperor. Worse, after Louis, civil wars fought between his sons and the new rulers shattered unity altogether, and the Empire became divided.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, it was split among Louis’ three sons. West Francia (most of today’s France) went to Charles II. The imperial title and a territory that ran from the North Sea through Lotharingia (Lorraine) and Burgundy to northern Italy were received by Lothair I. Louis II received East Francia (the German duchies of Saxony, Swabia and Bavaria). Three decades later Lothair’s kingdom was divided, with Lotharingia (and the imperial dignity of its ruler) going to East Francia and the remainder to West Francia. Thus did there come into being the boundaries more-or-less within which would arise, after the passage of much time, the nation-states of France and Germany. In the ninth century, however, these territories still consisted of very numerous lesser states ruled by nobles of different degrees.
Within East Francia — Germany — the nobles would elect a king for the entire realm. This election was in accordance with ancient Frankish custom. However, it was a formality. As long as the hereditary line begun by Charlemagne (the Carolingian dynasty) was intact, it was always his descendants who were elected. The imperial title was not automatically conferred on the early German monarchs. Some reigned for years before their coronation in Rome as Emperor. However, the elevation of the German kings to the imperial dignity was only another formality as long as there were Carolingians.
The last of the East Francia Carolingians died in 911. Thereupon the electors of East Francia chose Duke Conrad of Franconia as their King. Before he died in 918, he was able to arrange that Henry I, Duke of Saxony, would be elected to succeed him. Henry and his successors successfully reasserted a real measure of imperial control over the German nobles. Thereby did they make of the Germanic kingdom one whose power was felt beyond its own borders. That is to say, it became imperial in fact as well as having as its monarch a king who also bore the title of Emperor.
We must not speak of the East Frankish King-Emperors of this period without mentioning Henry II. Not notably effective as a ruler, he was unquestionably very holy. He has been venerated by Catholics since the twelfth century as St. Henry the Emperor. Crowned Emperor by Pope Benedict VIII in 1014, he (it is said) once presented himself to the abbot of Saint-Vanne in Verdun, requesting that the abbot accept his obedience and make him a monk. The wise abbot accepted the obedience and then commanded Henry to go on ruling the Empire. St. Henry’s spouse, Cunegond, is also a saint. The Church canonized her in 1200.
If Emperor St. Henry II was not notably effective as a ruler, a predecessor of his, Otto I, was nearly as great as Charlemagne. As a military commander, he permanently ended the threat to Western Christendom of the still-pagan Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. Also, after a triumphant Italian campaign, Otto would guarantee the claim of the Popes as temporal rulers over most of central Italy. In return, Pope John XII agreed that future popes would give their political fealty to the Emperor, never forming alliances with other rulers against him.
The Empire’s alliance with the papacy was further solidified when Otto broke up important duchies into nonhereditary fiefs that he bestowed on bishops and abbots. These Churchmen became known as capellani (chaplains) and functioned much as had the missi dominici of Charlemagne’s day — as representatives throughout the realm of the king-emperor.
Having glanced at the Carolingian Empire and seen the beginning of the Ottonian one, we would very much like to continue to trace in the same way the history of the Holy Roman Empire through the periods of the Salian Emperors, the Hohenstaufens, the Wittelsbachs, the Luxemburgs, and, above all, the Habsburgs. If nothing else, this would show more than has already been done how there came into being many institutions, some of which have now lapsed, and even entire nations which still exist. We said at our beginning, however, that such a history would be impossible to relate in the space available here.
It is especially regrettable that the centuries of Habsburg rule must be ignored. It was with one of them, Francis II, that the Holy Roman Empire came to its end in 1806, slightly more than a thousand years after Charlemagne’s coronation. Napoleon, whose empire embodied the Revolution, not Christendom, demanded its end. It was inevitable. There was not room enough in Europe, or the world, for the Revolution and the Empire, the city of man and the city of God, not if the one was to be universal as the other was meant to be.
For another 113 years after 1806 a truncated successor state of the Holy Roman Empire did continue to exist in the form of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the very long reign (1848-1916) of Emperor Franz-Joseph, it finally came to an end under the rulership of the recently beatified Karl I. It could not be more fitting than that the last ruler of what was left of the Holy Roman Empire should be a saint.
If the Holy Roman Empire no longer exists, neither now does the Christendom it embodied. The same revolutionary enterprise that brought down the Empire — all of the false ideas and the forces inspired by them — also ended Christendom. There is not a single nation anymore that can be described as Christian, not in the sense of it being a society whose life is governed by Christian principles, beliefs, and laws.
So far is life in today’s society from being Christian that many who still cling to the Faith despair of its ever being otherwise. Well, it almost certainly will not, within their lifetime. However, it ought to be recalled that within the lifetime of persons now living, including Archduke Otto von Habsburg and other of Bl. Emperor Karl’s children, a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire still existed and was ruled by a saint. Then let it be remembered that the last time the Empire “fell” (496), more than three centuries had to pass before it was revived by Charlemagne. Eighty-six years is but a fourth of the time it took.
We must not suppose a second Christendom can never exist. Whether three more centuries must pass before it does, God knows. We should not much concern ourselves with the question. (Neither do we want to equate its restoration with that of the Empire as such. There is no telling what form it might take.) All we can know is that, when it does exist again, it will be due not simply to God’s wanting it, but to man’s keeping the idea of it alive as the idea of Rome was kept alive in the minds of the men who produced the Holy Roman Empire. Keeping alive the idea of Christendom, when there is so much that would obliterate it, is work enough for today.