Empire and Imperialism
Empire had a mystical or spiritual meaning in the ancient world as well. In the ancient Near East, the course of human history was often symbolized in terms of empires. One of the most famous examples of this is in the biblical Book of Daniel, where there is an image of man composed of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay. Each element represents one of the stages of human history, a history of decline from the best to the worst. The mystical conception of a cycle of empires comprehending the history of mankind continued to reverberate in Christian circles for the next two millennia. Succeeding generations of Christians attempted to interpret their contemporary world in terms of the Fifth Monarchy, the final great empire the appearance of which signaled the end of the world as we know it.
During the Middle Ages and later, the Greek, the Roman, and the biblical conceptions of empire circulated along with new ones that emerged. The most significant new conception of empire emerged in the year 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, as emperor, transferring the Roman imperial office from Constantinople, where it had resided since the Emperor Constantine established that city in 330, to the king of the Franks. While the pope never explained what he intended by this action, it seems clear that his goal was to link the most powerful European ruler to the church and to assert the superiority of the spiritual power over the temporal. In doing this, Pope Leo was initiating the process whereby the empire was brought within the ecclesiastical conception of a right political order with the emperor serving as the agent of the pope in the administration of Christian society.
The Carolingian empire gradually dissolved over the next century, breaking up into several small kingdoms, the most important being France and Germany. The imperial title gradually came to signify less and less. Beginning in 911, however, the title began to acquire increased importance as it became associated with the kings of Germany. The most important of these emperors, the Ottonians (936–1002), bore not only the title king of Germany but king of Italy and king of Arles or Burgundy as well, suggesting that an emperor was the ruler of several kingdoms and the defender of Christian society against its enemies.
The last of the Ottonians, Otto III (r. 983–1002), announced a revival of the imperial vision on his official seal, which read renovatio imperii Romanorum (renewal or revival of the empire of the Romans), suggesting the creation of some vast empire under German leadership. In conjunction with this, he began the practice of identifying the empire as the Holy, or Christian, Roman Empire. This medieval German empire, a combination of a Christian conception of empire and a German one, reached its peak in the reigns of the great Hohenstaufen emperors Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1152–1190), and Frederick II (r. 1212–1250).
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- Empire and Imperialism - Overview - Roman Imperium
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