Translatio imperii (Latin for "transfer of rule") is a historiographical concept, originating in the Middle Ages, in which history is viewed as a linear succession of transfers of an imperium that invests supreme power in a singular ruler, an "emperor" (or sometimes even several emperors, e.g., the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Holy Roman Empire). The concept is closely linked to translatio studii (the geographic movement of learning). Both terms are thought to have their origins in the second chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible (verses 39–40).
- the idea of linearity of time and history was typical for the Middle Ages;
- the translatio imperii idea typically also neglected simultaneous developments in other parts of the world (of no importance to medieval Europeans);
- the translatio imperii idea didn't separate "divine" history from the history of "worldly power": medieval Europeans considered divine (supernatural) and material things as part of the same continuum, which was their reality. Also the causality of one reign necessarily leading to its successor was often detailed by the medieval chroniclers, and is seen as a typical medieval approach.
Each medieval author described the translatio imperii as a succession leaving the supreme power in the hands of the monarch ruling the region of the author's provenance:
- Adso of Montier-en-Der (French area, 10th century): Roman Empire → Carolingian Franks → Saxons
- Otto of Freising (living in German region): Rome → Byzantium → Franks → Longobards → Germans (=Holy Roman Empire);
- Chrétien de Troyes (living in medieval France): Greece → Rome → France
- Richard de Bury (England, 14th century): "Athens" (Greece) → Rome → "Paris" (France) → England
Later, continued and reinterpreted by modern and contemporary movements and authors (some known examples):
- Fifth Monarchists (England, 17th century): Caldeans (Babylonians) → Persians → Macedonian Empire → Rome → England (and the British Empire later)
- António Vieira (Portugal, 17th century): Assyro-Caldeans (Babylonians) → Persians → Greeks → Romans → Portuguese Empire
- Fernando Pessoa (Portugal, 20th century): Greece → Rome → Christianity → Europe → Portugal
Medieval and Renaissance authors often linked this transfer of power by genealogically attaching a ruling family to an ancient Greek or Trojan hero; this schema was modeled on Virgil's use of Aeneas (a Trojan hero) as progenitor of the city of Rome in his Aeneid. Continuing with this tradition, the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman authors Geoffrey of Monmouth (in his Historia Regum Britanniae) and Wace (in his Brut) linked the founding of Britain to the arrival of Brutus of Troy, son of Aeneas.
In a similar way, the French Renaissance author Jean Lemaire de Belges (in his Les Illustrations de Gaule et Singularités de Troie) linked the founding of Celtic Gaul to the arrival of the Trojan Francus (i.e. Astyanax), the son of Hector; and of Celtic Germany to the arrival of Bavo, the cousin of Priam; in this way he established an illustrious genealogy for Pepin and Charlemagne (the legend of Francus would also serve as the basis for Ronsard's epic poem, "La Franciade").
From the Byzantine to the Holy Roman Empire
The cardinal point in the idea of the Translatio imperii' is the link between the Byzantine to the Holy Roman Empire.
- Emperor Constantine I established Constantinople, a New Rome, as a second capital of the Roman Empire in 330.
- After the death of Emperor Theodosius I, the Roman Empire is permanently divided into the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).
- With the demise of the Western Empire in 476, the Byzantine Empire remained as the sole Roman Empire.
- Byzantine Emperor Constantine V married his son Leo IV to Irene of Athens on 17 December 768, brought to Constantinople by the father on 1 November 768. On 14 January 771, Irene gave birth to a son, Constantine. Following the deaths of Constantine V in 775 and Leo IV in 780, Irene became regent for their nine-year-old son, Constantine VI.
- As early as 781, Irene began to seek a closer relationship with the Carolingian dynasty and the Papacy. She negotiated a marriage between her son Constantine and Rotrude, a daughter of Frankish king Charlemagne. Irene went as far as to send an official to instruct the Frankish princess in Greek; however, Irene herself broke off the engagement in 787, against her son's wishes.
- As Constantine VI approached maturity, the relationship between mother/regent and son/emperor was increasingly strained. In 797 Irene deposed her son. who died soon afterwards.
- Some western authorities considered the Byzantine throne, now occupied by a woman, to be vacant and recognized that Charlemagne, who controlled Italy and many of the cities of the Western Roman Empire had a valid claim to the imperial name. Pope Leo III, crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800, an act not recognized by the Byzantine Empire.
- Irene is said to have endeavoured to negotiate a marriage between herself and Charlemagne, but according to Theophanes the Confessor, who alone mentions it, the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her favourites.
- In 802, Empress Irene was deposed by a conspiracy and replaced by Nikephoros I. She was exiled and died the following year.
- Pax Nicephori, a peace treaty in 803 between the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I, Basileus of the Eastern Roman Empire
- Recognition of Charlemagne as Emperor (Basileus) in 812 by Emperor Michael I Rangabe of the Byzantine Empire (crowned on 2 October 811 by the Patriarch of Constantinople), after he reopened negotiations with the Franks. In exchange for that recognition, Venice was returned to the Byzantine Empire.
- On February 2 962, Otto I was solemnly crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII. Ten days later at a Roman synod, Pope John XII, at Otto's desire, founded the Archbishopric of Magdeburg and the Bishopric of Merseburg, bestowed the pallium on the Archbishop of Salzburg and Archbishop of Trier, and confirmed the appointment of Rother as Bishop of Verona. The next day, the emperor issued a decree, the famous Diploma Ottonianum, in which he confirmed the Roman Church in its possessions, particularly those granted by the Donation of Pepin.
- Carol Ann Newsom and Brennan W. Breed, Daniel: A Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p. 89.
- Le Goff, Jacques. La civilisation de l'Occident médieval. Paris. 1964; English translation (1988): Medieval Civilization, ISBN 0-631-17566-0 – "translatio imperii" is discussed in Part II, Chapter VI, section on "Time, eternity and history".
- Latowsky, Anne A. (2013). Emperor of the World: Charlemagne and the Construction of Imperial Authority, 800–1229. Cornell UP. p. 71. ISBN 9780801451485.
- De Troyes, Chrétien. Cligès. Circa 1176.
- Bratu, Cristian. "Translatio, autorité et affirmation de soi chez Gaimar, Wace et Benoît de Sainte-Maure." The Medieval Chronicle 8 (2013): 135-164.
- See Garland, p. 89, who explains that Aetios was attempting to usurp power on behalf of his brother Leo.