Translatio imperii

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Translatio imperii, Latin for "transfer of rule", originating in the Middle Ages is a concept for describing history as a linear succession of transfers of an imperium that invests supreme power in a singular ruler, an "emperor".


The idea originates in Jewish eschatology during the Hellenistic era, with the "four empires" narrated as the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel, chapter 2. In the story, Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar's dream for him to the effect that his own empire "of gold" would be followed by three further empires, of silver, bronze and iron, respectively, followed by a divided empire partially of "iron" and partially of "clay", leading up to the end times.[1]

In the interpretation of Jerome, the four empires were Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome, with the division of the Roman empire into West Rome and East Rome the final stage preceding the end of the world.[citation needed]

During the Western and Central European Middle Ages, the identity of the fourth empire had to be extended in order to salvage the validity of the prophecy, while removing the need to acknowledge the Byzantine Empire as legitimate ruler of the known world. This was done by declaring the empire established by the Carolingians the "Holy Roman Empire", i.e. a continuation of the fourth and final empire, or an image to the Roman Empire proper.

Another way to look at this translation is to note that in the medieval period the Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Holy Roman) Emperors often recognized each other and their offspring even inter-married. In the East, the direct line of Roman Emperors – ignoring Ottoman claims – ended with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. However, the Russian rulers took up the title Caesar (tsar) and claimed to continue in the role of the Eastern Roman Emperors to whom some were related and with whom they shared their Eastern Orthodox Christianity. They declared Moscow to be the Third Rome.

In the West, after the direct line of Western Roman Emperors ended in 476, the rule over Rome and other western areas by the Eastern Emperor was recognized both indirectly via his grants of titles and directly via agents like the Duke of Rome. However, the Eastern Empire's inability to defend Rome from the Lombards, its Islamic-influenced bouts of iconoclasm, and the Empress Irene's 797 coup led the pope to crown Charlemagne "Emperor of the Romans".


Jacques Le Goff[2] describes the "translatio imperii" concept as typical for the Middle Ages for several reasons: 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.

Not surprisingly, 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:

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 mythic founder 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.[4]

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").

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Flusser, D. (1972). "The four empires in the fourth Sibyl and in the book of Daniel". Israel Oriental Studies 2: 148–75. 
  2. ^ 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".
  3. ^ De Troyes, Chrétien. Cligès. Circa 1176.
  4. ^ Bratu, Cristian. "Translatio, autorité et affirmation de soi chez Gaimar, Wace et Benoît de Sainte-Maure." The Medieval Chronicle 8 (2013): 135-164.