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When did the Holy Roman Empire collapse?

When did the Holy Roman Empire collapse?

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In the 1500's, the Holy Roman Empire was a relatively powerful country. By the mid 1800's, it seemed to be superseded by in importance by its states.

When did the unified "Holy Roman Empire" really collapse and why?

The Holy Roman Empire actually persisted into the early 19th century. At this time it was centralized in the loosely defined and allied Germanic states/kingdoms. Following the rise of Napoleon and the defeat of many different, unaligned German kingdoms' forces by Napoleon's forces, Napoleon was able to sweep across the nation we now know as Germany. One of the first things Napoleon did was to dismantle the once-proud Holy Roman Empire as well as install a number of administrative and economic reforms. Doing so actually laid the foundations of a (loose) sense of German nationalism that had not existed prior to this and led the way to many of the revolutionary happenings of the 19th century in central Europe (more specifically in Germany, Prussia, Hungary, Austria, Denmark, France, and many other tiny German principalities and duchies).

Sources used: David Blackbourn's History of Germany, 1780-1918: The Long Nineteenth Century

Officially it collapsed after falling to Napoleon with the 4th treaty of Pressburg, but had been fading for some time before that. The empire was pretty decentrized in nature, but various events such as the Peace of Westphalia after the thirty years war, which granted dominions effectively independence in all but name. Nations, especially the Hapsburgs in Austria, looking to consolidate their own domains over that of the empires, and the thwarting of policies that would have brought more centralization to the empire's rule.

To build on GPierce's answer, the HRE functionally collapsed much before that time. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had really taken a toll on the HRE's central government. It left the country politically and religiously divided, which was a major issue to unification at that point in time. The country was ruled by princes who controlled city states that were loosely connected. This remained until Napoleon, as Gpirece stated, swept across modern day Germany.

The Holy Roman Empire was a bit more unified during even its latest phase than many answers have said.

After the thirty ears war many German sates rallied to support he Emperor in the period calling the Imperial reaction which lasted until the 1720s when Emperor Charles VI had to curry favor with the various states to get their support for his daughter's succession.

By 1720 Charles VI had become about as powerful in Germany as Ferdinand II had been at is peak in the Thirty Years War, but without fighting any battles. But then he had to negotiate support for the Pragmatic sanction with the princes treating them as his equals.

If either Joseph I or Charles VI had had a son who grew to adulthood the imperial Reaction may have continued much longer and the war of The Austrian Succession might not have happened and the rivalry between Prussia and Austria might not have happened.

Also during the War of the Spanish succession Emperor Joseph I was able to confiscate several small states in the Kingdom of Italy or Lombardy, and in one particular year he actually manged to collect more Imperial War Tax from the Kingdom of Lombardy than from the Kingdom of Germany, so Italy was not yet totally outside of the Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire (of the German Nation) officially ceased to exist one fine day in August of 1806 when Francis II went to the Imperial Diet and resigned. He of course continued to be the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, but that is another story.

What only a small number of people thought about was the fact that for the first time since 31 BC,there was not a single political institution called "Roman Empire". In that year, when Octavian had fought the Battle of Actium and established himself as Princeps (First Person) in a situation that was widely regarded as an imperial arrangement, there had been a Roman Empire of some sort. Whether as a Principate, a Dominate, an Eastern and a Western Empire, an Empire in the East that called itself "Romaioi" (Greek for "Romans"), or as a Germanic Empire that called itself "Holy Roman", there had ALWAYS been a Roman Empire! And yet, as TS Eliot would later say of the world, it died, "not with a bang, but a whimper".

Why did it die? Well, it failed to make a Nation-State out of Germany. It failed to ever have a stable method of succession to the throne. And the Emperors had a hard time justifying their right to rule, given the first two limitations.

Of course, the immediate cause of death listed by the Coroner was the Battle of Austerlitz and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine. But the above three reasons had rendered the Empire impotent for years.

As I stated in my answer on Frederick II, the book will be out in a few years and then you will know WHY those three things above happened as they did. But for now, those reasons are sufficient, as explaining why the reasons obtained will be a book-length answer.

When Frederick II came to the throne in 1215, he tried to extend the HRE even more towards Italy (his father married the heiress of the throne of Sicily). His main ambition to create such an empire was because of the constant clashes with the papacy. His vain efforts to gain strength in Italy only weakened him in Germany, leaving the German dukes and princes free to govern Germany.

After the death of Frederick II, the HRE rapidly declined. The German monarchs continued to be called HRE emperors, but they held little power.

The Holy Roman Empire was never a real "country," but rather a motley confederation of mostly independent (mostly German-speaking) states. During the Middle Ages, it did, however, prove itself capable of rallying behind an elected Emperor for crusading or other religious purposes.

In contrast to other answerers above, I date the (de facto, not de jure) collapse of the Holy Roman Empire to the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, between the Swedish-led (Protestant) north German states, and the Austrian-led (Catholic) south German states. By splitting the "empire" into Protestant and Catholic camps, the long war destroyed the common ethos that had hitherto bound the different states, and made the "confederation" a shell of disunited, often warring entities.

There is a presumption here that "Germany", "France", and "Italy" existed long before unification -- which result was, again a presumption, some good thing. The 20th century demonstrated quite the contrary. France arrogantly tried to remake the map of Europe, Germany twice tried to impose its will on the rest of Europe, and Italy invaded Africa. The success story was Britain which won by losing. Even from a modern trans-European ideal (which is moot), it is not language which unified but religion. With the disintegration of that metaphysical division, one can only hope that European unification will indeed bring peace and prosperitiy -- but religion can play absolutely no role in that process or success will turn into an ignius fatuus and waft away. Europe needs an objective even to survive. I might try unifying peace and prosperity by which means it may bury a VERY sordid past yesterday, and bury it in the past. A little isolationism is good for meditation, and contemplation of the future is a better bet than monumentalizing the past. That is particularly true of Europe, where the reminders keep creeping in between now and the future.

Holy Roman Empire

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Holy Roman Empire, German Heiliges Römisches Reich, Latin Sacrum Romanum Imperium, the varying complex of lands in western and central Europe ruled over first by Frankish and then by German kings for 10 centuries (800–1806). (For histories of the territories governed at various times by the empire, see France Germany Italy.)

How was the Holy Roman Empire formed?

Though the term “Holy Roman Empire” was not used until much later, the empire traces its beginnings to Charlemagne, who took control of the Frankish dominion in 768. The papacy’s close ties to the Franks and its growing estrangement from the Eastern Roman Empire led to Pope Leo III’s crowning of Charlemagne as “Roman” emperor in 800.

Where was the Holy Roman Empire located?

The Holy Roman Empire was located in western and central Europe and included parts of what is now France, Germany, and Italy.

What was the Holy Roman Empire known for?

The Holy Roman Empire ruled over much of western and central Europe from the 9th century to the 19th century. It envisioned itself as a dominion for Christendom continuing in the tradition of the ancient Roman Empire and was characterized by strong papal authority.

Why did the Holy Roman Empire fall?

The Holy Roman emperor’s power was chipped away gradually, starting with the Investiture Controversy in the 11th century, and by the 16th century the empire was so decentralized that it was little more than a loose federation. The empire came to an end in 1806, when Francis II abdicated his title as Holy Roman emperor in the face of Napoleon’s rise to power.


The Holy Roman Empire was located in Western and Central Europe .

To the north it was bordered by Denmark, the Baltic and the North Sea to the west, with France to the east, with Poland and Hungary and to the south with Italy, the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic Sea.

At its peak, in the 11th century, the empire covered about 950,000 km² and included the present territories of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, eastern France, the northern Italy and western Poland.

How Did Rome Fall?

Just as the Fall of Rome was not caused by a single event, the way Rome fell was also complex. In fact, during the period of imperial decline, the empire actually expanded. That influx of conquered peoples and lands changed the structure of the Roman government. Emperors moved the capital away from the city of Rome, too. The schism of east and west created not just an eastern capital first in Nicomedia and then Constantinople, but also a move in the west from Rome to Milan.

Rome started out as a small, hilly settlement by the Tiber River in the middle of the Italian boot, surrounded by more powerful neighbors. By the time Rome became an empire, the territory covered by the term "Rome" looked completely different. It reached its greatest extent in the second century CE. Some of the arguments about the Fall of Rome focus on the geographic diversity and the territorial expanse that Roman emperors and their legions had to control.  

If Rome had not fallen, we would never have had the Dark Ages. Minus the 1000 years lost to the dark ages, humans would have landed on the moon and invented the Internet in the 11th Century, so that today we would now have populated at least a dozen planets in our part of the Galaxy.

What are the longest-lasting empires, governments, or nations? The Pandyan Empire (1850 years) This society of Southern India is considered the longest-lasting empire in history. Byzantine Empire (1123 years) Silla (992 years) Ethiopian Empire (837 years) Roman Empire (499 years) San Marino (415+ years) Aboriginal Australian Cultures (50,000 years)

Fall of the Western Roman Empire 476 AD

Paint showing scene from 455 AD when Vandals entered into Rome. Oil on canvas by Russian painter Karl Briullov (19 century). Source of image: http://www.art-catalog.ru/picture.php?id_picture=3761

Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius (395-408 AD) and Honorius (393-423 AD) as Western Roman Emperor did not really agree in politics. Arcadius even saw an opportunity to be freed from the Visigoths (Western Goths) dangers by asking them to come to the West. Arcadius made a deal with Visigoth leader Alaric and he promise to give Visigoths Illyrian provinces on the Balkan Peninsula .

Alaric accepted the proposal, because he wanted to provide food and better living conditions for his own people. For Arcadius that was killing two birds with one stone, because no matter whether Visigoth will succeed, he took them off his back. The only firm hand in the West, which was somewhat able to keep things under control, was Theodosius military leader Stilicho, which was killed by orders from a silly Honorius. This act made an army of the West terribly weakened. In such conditions it was almost impossible to defend Rome. Honorius had neither the power nor the knowledge to organize something. Besides that he was completely isolated from events, since he was at his court in Ravenna and he never saw Rome.

Visigoths led by Alaric from Illyrian province went to Rome, which was looted in 410 AD. Something unthinkable has happened for Rome and Romans, the Eternal City, which resisted for the last eight centuries, fell into the hands of uncivilized conquer. After Alaric’s death, the Visigoths did not stay for long in Italy. Visigoths crossed the Alps and came to the area of Gaul where they settled and formed their Visigoth Kingdom. At the high peek of their power, in the middle of the fifth century, the Visigoths had spread from Gibraltar to the river Loire. Franks invaded them in the sixth century, and Saracens destroyed their kingdom in Hispania during the eighth century.

Map of Roman and Hunnic Empire 450 AD

Nearly half a century Huns were quite quiet and peaceful. When they got a new leader, Attila, or as it was called in the West Flagellum Dei (Scourge of God), open confrontations with the Rome started. The Huns led by Atilla founded their horde on the plains of Middle Danube, in the Pannonian plain. In the initial phase Attila has even collaborated with the Roman general Flavius Aetius, who used him in conflicts against other Germanic tribes. With time, Attila became stronger and he began to undertake plundering bursts into the Eastern Roman Empire, which attempted to get rid of him by bribery and by paying him an annual tribute in gold. However, the East did not have the money to waste so at one point the eastern Emperor Marcian (450-457 AD) sent a message to Attila: “I have no more gold for you, only iron!” Attila realized that it was no longer fun in the East, and he retreated to Roman province Pannonia.

The real war with the West happened due to a woman. A sister of the Western Emperor Valentinian III (425-455 AD), Justa Grata Honoria, was caught with one servant but she was ordered to marry to an old senator. Honoria sent the message and ring to Attila in order to help her, and Attila demanded all Roman treasury and he wanted half of the western Empire as dowry. Valentinian III refused that, and Atilla declared him war.

Attila with a huge army entered in Gaul, where took place in 451 AD at Catalaunian plains a decisive battle. Roman (not just Roman, because Visigoths, Saxons, Franks, Burgundians participated in the battle…) army was led by a brilliant strategist Aetius, which forced Attila to retreat. Attila returned the following year and burst into northern Italy and robbed Milan. Rome was his next target, but on the way he was welcomed by Pope Leo I, who persuaded him to go back. Why Attila spared Rome remained unclear. Some argued that he was a bit scared that he insulted the Christian God, while cynics argued that at this meeting several bags of gold changed their owners. Whatever the case, Attila returned to Pannonian province, where he died the following year from the consequences of hemorrhoids, after a heated drunk wedding party. He married Germans Ildico. Hunnic empire immediately fell apart, and the remaining Huns retreated to the East.

Western Roman Empire during the fifth century AD was completely exhausted. The economy almost did not exist, and the state government was powerless to stop all this looting and Germanic and Huns invasions. Besides that, the imperial government was fully depended on the commanders of barbarian troops in the Roman army. They proclaimed one king in one moment in the other they would proclaim some other king.

Coin of Romulus Augustus the last of the Western Roman Emperors

In 474 the Emperor in the West was appointed Julius Nepos (474-475 AD), who was installed by the eastern Emperor and thus he had some dignity. Nepos’s named Orestes as a chief military commander, who was a former Atillia army commander. Orestes began pressuring to appoint his son Romulus Augustus as the Emperor and the Emperor while Emperor Nepos fled to Salona, in the Diocletian’s Palace. Romulus nickname was Augustulus or Little Augustus. Romulus Augustus in Ravenna was proclaimed as an Emperor, but this act had no legal significance and in the East people still accepted as a legal Emperor – Julius Nepos.

The next year, 476 AD, a Germanic warlord Odoacer killed Orestes, after which he moved Romulus Augustus from the imperial position, and all signs of imperial rule were sent to the eastern Emperor Zeno in Constantinople. Odoacer crowned himself as the king of Italy, and the transfer of power went so smoothly that he did not even killed a former Emperor Romulus Augustus, but he situated him in a villa near Naples with a good pension, where he lived nicely until 511 AD.

When and how did the Holy Roman Empire collapse/ dissolve?

I am fairly interested in this topic as I have studied some of the HRE. Did it fall bc of neighboring countries/states or ineffective emperors? Was it because of the fued with the Roman Catholic Church that Henry IV years earlier?

Was it because of the fued with the Roman Catholic Church that Henry IV years earlier?

Centuries later! The event you are referring to was in the 11th century, but the Holy Roman empire dissolved during the Napoleonic Wars and was ultimately abolished in 1806. I think the end came relatively sudden, meaning that in the year of 1795 probably no one believed that 15 years later there would be no German emperor anymore.

Until 1795 the HRE was stable but inefficient. The tapestry of a few larger states (like the kingdoms of Prussia and Austria or the elector states) and hundreds of smaller ones seemed to exist for eternity because there could never form a majority for a better solution. The French revolution and the following expansive politics of France let it fall like a card house. The HRE states did not find common ground against France and lost until about 1800 all territories west of the rhine. Many of the remaining states started to favor an alliance with France. In 1806, 16 states of the HRE seceded and formed together the Rheinbund (Rhine confederation) and that was the final nail in the coffin.

This is just a short depiction of a very complicated process, I was even going over the reforms of 1803 when already all church states and many smaller principalities and most of the remaining free cities were dissolved and given to larger states in the HRE.

It was formally abolished by Napoleon so some time after Henry IV!

I'm not an expert but my understanding is it suffered badly after the rise of Protestantism and the Thirty Years War. It was decorated by war and divided by religion. Plus it inxreasiby became part of a Habsburg portfolio of possessions, boy necessarily the most highly valued.

There's a huge book on the HRE by Peter Wilson that friends have told me is worth reading. A thousand odd pages though!

It was not formerly abolished by Napoleon it was abolished by Emperor Francis I (or Francis II of Austria, as his subsequent non-HRE title became) in early 1806, shortly after Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine and turned most of Germany into French client states, essentially removing the majority of territory from the HRE at the stroke of a pen. Even from a ceremonial perspective there was now no more point to continuing with the Empire, since so much of it was gone, and Francis decided to get rid of it and instead switch his imperial title over to his Habsburg dominions directly.

I would say that before the Reformation, the HRE was a net benefit to he emperor and probably to member states. Thereafter. it’s usefulness as an organization is extremely debatable

The HRE fell in 1806, in the sense that it was formally abolished by the Austrian Emperor. At that point however each state had its own policies and it became counterproductive to mantain it (various of these states were also under Napoleonic influence). This process was decided in a series of events that saw the Emperor (who directly controlled Austria and other lands, but not much of Germany which was very decentralized) lose power to the princes and dukes of the Empire. To put it simply the Imperial crown basically lost power to his formal fiefs. First in religious matters (Peace of Augsburg conceded to proestant princes, 1555) and then, when a very catholic Emperor tried to revoke that peace, the HRE ended up being the battleground of the 30 years war between Protestants and Catholics. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 not only mantained the religious fragmentation of the HRE but it added to it a major political fragmentation. Essentially each state started to have its own foreign policy. Taxes were already collected by Princes, and without much collaboration between them and the Emperor the HRE became more and more a remnant of the feudal past.

What you are talking about is the Investiture controversy between the Pope and the Emperor. It took place around 1077, it was about who had the right to appoint the count-bishops. The Pope argued that it was his right because they were bishops. The Emperor saw them as counts, so he argued it was his right. Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII were the first opponents to initiate this controversy. It ended with a compromise favorable to the Pope, but the Empire itself continued to carry on.

End of the Holy Roman Empire

The peace proved short-lived, however, for at the end of 1798 a new coalition directed against France was formed (the War of the Second Coalition, 1798–1802). This time Prussia remained neutral. Frederick William III, a conscientious and modest but ineffectual ruler, was notable for private morality rather than political skill. The government in Berlin drifted back and forth, dabbling in minor economic and administrative reforms without significantly improving the structure of the state. A decade of neutrality was frittered away while the army commanders rested on the laurels of Frederick the Great. Austria, on the other hand, played the same leading role in the War of the Second Coalition that it did in the War of the First Coalition, with the same unfortunate result. The French victories at Marengo (June 14, 1800) and Hohenlinden (December 3, 1800) forced Emperor Francis II to agree to the Treaty of Lunéville (February 9, 1801), which confirmed the cession of the Rhineland. More than that, those rulers who lost their possessions on the left bank under the terms of the peace were to receive compensation elsewhere in the empire. In order to carry out this redistribution of territory, the Imperial Diet entrusted a committee of princes, the Reichsdeputation, with the task of drawing a new map of Germany. France, however, exercised the major influence over its deliberations. Napoleon had resolved to utilize the settlement of territorial claims to fundamentally alter the structure of the Holy Roman Empire. The result was that the Final Recess (Hauptschluss) of the Reichsdeputation of February 1803 marked the end of the old order in Germany. In their attempt to establish a chain of satellite states east of the Rhine, the French diplomats brought about the elimination of the smallest and least viable of the political components of Germany. They thereby also furthered the process of national consolidation, since the fragmentation of civic authority in the empire had been a mainstay of particularism. That Napoleon did not intend to encourage unity among his neighbours goes without saying. Yet he unwittingly prepared the way for a process of centralization in Germany that helped to frustrate his own plans for the future aggrandizement of France.

The chief victims of the Final Recess were the free cities, the imperial knights, and the ecclesiastical territories. They fell by the dozens. Too weak to be useful allies of Napoleon, they were destroyed by the ambition of their French conquerors and by the greed of their German neighbours. They could still boast of their ancient history as sovereign members of the Holy Roman Empire, but their continued existence had become incompatible with effective government in Germany. The principal heirs to their holdings were the larger secondary states. To be sure, Napoleon could not keep Austria and Prussia from making some gains in the general scramble for territory that they had helped make possible. But he worked to aggrandize those German rulers, most of them in the south, who were strong enough to be valuable vassals but not strong enough to be potential threats. Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Nassau were the big winners in the competition for booty that had been the main object of the negotiations. Napoleon’s strategy had been in the classic tradition of French diplomacy, the tradition of Richelieu and Mazarin. The princes had been pitted against the emperor to enhance the role that Paris could play in the affairs of the German states. Yet the German princes did not resent being used as pawns in a political game to promote the interests of a foreign power. Whatever objections they raised against the settlement of 1803 were based on expediency and opportunism. The most serious indictment of the old order was that in the hour of its imminent collapse none of the rulers attempted to defend it in the name of the general welfare of Germany.

The Final Recess was the next to last act in the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. The end came three years later. In 1805 Austria joined the third coalition of Great Powers determined to reduce the preponderance of France (resulting in the War of the Third Coalition, 1805–07). The outcome of this war was even more disastrous than those of the wars of the first and second coalitions. Napoleon forced the main Habsburg army in Germany to surrender at Ulm (October 17, 1805) then he descended on Vienna, occupying the proud capital of his enemy and finally he inflicted a crushing defeat (December 2, 1805) on the combined Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz in Moravia (now in the Czech Republic). Before the year was out, Francis II was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Pressburg (December 26), which ended the dominant role his dynasty had played in the affairs of Germany. He had to surrender his possessions in western Germany to Württemberg and Baden, and the province of Tirol to Bavaria. Napoleon’s strategy of playing princely against imperial ambitions had proved a brilliant success. The rulers of the secondary states in the south had supported him in the war against Austria, and in the peace that ensued they were richly rewarded. Not only did they share in the booty seized from the Habsburgs, but they also were permitted to absorb the remaining free cities, petty principalities, and ecclesiastical territories. Finally, asserting the rights of full sovereignty, the rulers of Bavaria and Württemberg assumed the title of king, while the rulers of Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt contented themselves with the more modest rank of grand duke. The last vestiges of the imperial constitution had now been destroyed, and Germany was ready for a new form of political organization reflecting power relationships created by the force of arms.

In the summer of 1806, 16 of the secondary states, encouraged and prodded by Paris, announced that they were forming a separate association to be known as the Confederation of the Rhine. Archbishop Karl Theodor von Dalberg was to preside over the new union as the “prince primate,” while future deliberations among the members were to establish a college of kings and a college of princes as common legislative bodies. There was even talk of a “fundamental statute” that would serve as the constitution of a rejuvenated Germany. Yet all these brave plans were never more than a facade for the harsh reality of alien hegemony in Germany. Napoleon was proclaimed the “protector” of the Confederation of the Rhine, and a permanent alliance between the member states and the French Empire obliged the former to maintain substantial military forces for the purpose of mutual defense. There could be no doubt whose interests these troops would serve. The secondary rulers of Germany were expected to pay a handsome tribute to Paris for their newly acquired sham sovereignty. On August 1 the confederated states proclaimed their secession from the empire, and a week later, on August 6, 1806, Francis II announced that he was laying down the imperial crown. The Holy Roman Empire thus came officially to an end after a history of a thousand years.

Nineteenth Century German History: Consequences of the Fall of the Holy Roman Empire (1806-1848) – Part 1

The fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 had drastic consequences for nineteenth century German history. For about a millennium a loose conglomeration of several different semi-autonomous German-speaking kingdoms under the Latin name of Sacrum Romanum Imperium 1 had controlled a vast region in Central Europe which is now composed of Germany, the Netherlands, part of France, Austria, part of Italy, Switzerland, Bohemia and Silesia. 2 The collapse of this empire was caused by several different factors including the French Revolution and the subsequent military victories the French had over Germany under Napoleon. Here the major consequences of the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the ripple effects which led up to the Revolution of 1848/9 are going to be examined. These include the Congress of Vienna, the Carlsbad Decrees, the development of the German Zollverein 3 and the Hambach Festival which all in some way eventually led to the Revolution of 1848/9.

Map of the Holy Roman Empire 1789.
Source: Wikipedia

It is no surprise that with the end of the Holy Roman Empire came vast changes in the German-speaking states of Europe. The end was caused by many different factors. In chronological order, it would make sense to begin with the French Revolution. Although the French Revolution did not have a direct effect on Germany because of social and political reasons such as Germany’s lack of a central concentration of power and the German population’s reverence for their rulers, 4 it did have indirect consequences. The threat of a French invasion under the new regime pushed Austria and Prussia to unite under a defensive pact despite the tension in their relationship. 5 Most significantly are the political changes which took place after the French invaded the Rhineland in 1792. Despite the alliance, neither Prussia nor Austria were able to defeat the French military. Austria had tried and was defeated while Prussia remained neutral. 6 The French set into motion a series of legislation which was published as the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss on February 15, 1803 and which ultimately allowed larger German powers such as Prussia and Austria to seize smaller states, free cities and other small, formerly sovereign areas. 7

It is no surprise, then, that states began to leave the Holy Roman Empire. In 1806, the French, under Napoleon who had declared himself Emperor of the French in December 1804, setup a confederation of states called The Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund). This new confederation began to attract states which were formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire. These states left because they claimed the Holy Roman Empire could no longer protect them and that the system was essentially dysfunctional. 8 This led Napoleon and his officials in France to bring the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, an ultimatum demanding that he either give up the imperial title or face war with the new French Empire. Francis decided it would be a wiser decision not to risk war with France and officially abdicated on August 6, 1806 — the date on which the Holy Roman Empire officially came to an end.

Part 2 of “Consequences of the Fall of the Holy Roman Empire (1806-1848)”

This entry is part of a multi-part series. You can find all of the entries either on the Nineteenth Century German History project page or in the category of the same name.

2 Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Holy Roman Empire,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/

3 Also known as the German Customs Union.

4 Michael Hughes, Early Modern Germany, 1477-1806 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 170.

The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam

W henever modern civilisations contemplate their own mortality, there is one ghost that will invariably rise up from its grave to haunt their imaginings. In February 1776, a few months after the publication of the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon commented gloomily on the news from America, where rebellion against Britain appeared imminent. "The decline of the two empires, Roman and British, proceeds at an equal pace." Now, with the west mired in recession and glancing nervously over its shoulder at China, the same parallel is being dusted down. Last summer, when the Guardian's Larry Elliott wrote an article on the woes of the US economy, the headline almost wrote itself: "Decline and fall of the American empire".

Historians, it is true, have become increasingly uncomfortable with narratives of decline and fall. Few now would accept that the conquest of Roman territory by foreign invaders was a guillotine brought down on the neck of classical civilisation. The transformation from the ancient world to the medieval is recognised as something far more protracted. "Late antiquity" is the term scholars use for the centuries that witnessed its course. Roman power may have collapsed, but the various cultures of the Roman empire mutated and evolved. "We see in late antiquity," so Averil Cameron, one of its leading historians, has observed, "a mass of experimentation, new ways being tried and new adjustments made."

Yet it is a curious feature of the transformation of the Roman world into something recognisably medieval that it bred extraordinary tales even as it impoverished the ability of contemporaries to keep a record of them. "The greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind": so Gibbon described his theme. He was hardly exaggerating: the decline and fall of the Roman empire was a convulsion so momentous that even today its influence on stories with an abiding popular purchase remains greater, perhaps, than that of any other episode in history. It can take an effort, though, to recognise this. In most of the narratives informed by the world of late antiquity, from world religions to recent science-fiction and fantasy novels, the context provided by the fall of Rome's empire has tended to be disguised or occluded.

Consider a single sheet of papyrus bearing the decidedly unromantic sobriquet of PERF 558. It was uncovered back in the 19th century at the Egyptian city of Herakleopolis, a faded ruin 80 miles south of Cairo. Herakleopolis itself had passed most of its existence in a condition of somnolent provincialism: first as an Egyptian city, and then, following the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great, as a colony run by and largely for Greeks. The makeover given to it by this new elite was to prove an enduring one. A thousand years on – and some 600 years after its absorption into the Roman empire – Herakleopolis still sported a name that provided, on the banks of the Nile, a little touch of far-off Greece: "the city of Heracles". PERF 558 too, in its own humble way, also bore witness to the impact on Egypt of an entire millennium of foreign rule. It was a receipt, issued for 65 sheep, presented to two officials bearing impeccably Hellenic names Christophoros and Theodorakios and written in Greek.

But not in Greek alone. The papyrus sheet also featured a second language, one never before seen in Egypt. What was it doing there, on an official council receipt? The sheep, according to a note added in Greek on the back, had been requisitioned by "Magaritai" – but who or what were they? The answer was to be found on the front of the papyrus sheet, within the text of the receipt itself. The "Magaritai", it appeared, were none other than the people known as "Saracens": nomads from Arabia, long dismissed by the Romans as "despised and insignificant". Clearly, that these barbarians were now in a position to extort sheep from city councillors suggested a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Nor was that all. The most bizarre revelation of the receipt, perhaps, lay in the fact that a race of shiftless nomads, bandits who for as long as anyone could remember had been lost to an unvarying barbarism, appeared to have developed their own calendar. "The 30th of the month of Pharmouthi of the first indiction": so the receipt was logged in Greek, a date which served to place it in year 642 since the birth of Christ. But it was also, so the receipt declared in the Saracens' own language, "the year twenty two": 22 years since what? Some momentous occurance, no doubt, of evidently great significance to the Saracens themselves. But what precisely, and whether it might have contributed to the arrival of the newcomers in Egypt, and how it was to be linked to that enigmatic title "Magaritai", PERF 558 does not say.

We can now recognise the document as the marker of something seismic. The Magaritai were destined to implant themselves in the country far more enduringly than the Greeks or the Romans had ever done. Arabic, the language they had brought with them, and that appears as such a novelty on PERF 558, is nowadays so native to Egypt that the country has come to rank as the power-house of Arab culture. Yet even a transformation of that order barely touches on the full scale of the changes which are hinted at so prosaically. A new age, of which that tax receipt issued in Herakleopolis in "the year 22" ranks as the oldest surviving dateable document, had been brought into being. This, to almost one in four people alive today, is a matter of more than mere historical interest. Infinitely more – for it touches, in their opinion, on the very nature of the Divine. The question of what it was that had brought the Magaritai to Herakleopolis, and to numerous other cities besides, has lain, for many centuries now, at the heart of a great and global religion: Islam.

It was the prompting hand of God, not a mere wanton desire to extort sheep, that had first motivated the Arabs to leave their desert homeland. Such, at any rate, was the conviction of Ibn Hisham, a scholar based in Egypt who wrote a century and a half after the first appearance of the Magaritai in Herakleopolis, but whose fascination with the period, and with the remarkable events that had stamped it, was all-consuming. No longer, by AD 800, were the Magaritai to be reckoned a novelty. Instead – known now as "Muslims", or "those who submit to God" – they had succeeded in winning for themselves a vast agglomeration of territories: an authentically global empire. Ibn Hisham, looking back at the age which had first seen the Arabs grow conscious of themselves as a chosen people, and surrounded as he was by the ruins of superceded civilisations, certainly had no lack of pages to fill.

PERF 558 … the receipt for 65 sheep, issued in year 22, written in Greek and Arabic. Photograph: National Museum In Vienna

What was it that had brought the Arabs as conquerors to cities such as Herakleopolis, and far beyond? The ambition of Ibn Hisham was to provide an answer. The story he told was that of an Arab who had lived almost two centuries previously, and been chosen by God as the seal of His prophets: Muhammad. Although Ibn Hisham was himself certainly drawing on earlier material, his is the oldest biography to have survived, in the form we have it, into the present day. The details it provided would become fundamental to the way that Muslims have interpreted their faith ever since. That Muhammad had received a series of divine revelations that he had grown up in the depths of Arabia, in a pagan metropolis, Mecca that he had fled it for another city, Yathrib, where he had established the primal Muslim state that this flight, or hijra, had transformed the entire order of time, and come to provide Muslims with their Year One: all this was enshrined to momentous effect by Ibn Hisham. The contrast between Islam and the age that had preceded it was rendered in his biography as clear as that between midday and the dead of night. The white radiance of Muhammad's revelations, blazing first across Arabia and then to the limits of the world, had served to bring all humanity into a new age of light.

The effect of this belief was to prove incalculable. To this day, even among non-Muslims, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood. Whether in books, museums or universities, the ancient world is imagined to have ended with the coming of Muhammad. Yet even on the presumption that what Islam teaches is correct, and that the revelations of Muhammad did indeed descend from heaven, it is still pushing things to imagine that the theatre of its conquests was suddenly conjured, over the span of a single generation, into a set from The Arabian Nights. That the Arab conquests were part of a much vaster and more protracted drama, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, has been too readily forgotten.

Place these conquests in their proper context and a different narrative emerges. Heeding the lesson taught by Gibbon back in the 18th century, that the barbarian invasions of Europe and the victories of the Saracens were different aspects of the same phenomenon, serves to open up vistas of drama unhinted at by the traditional Muslim narratives. The landscape through which the Magaritai rode was certainly not unique to Egypt. In the west too, there were provinces that had witnessed the retreat and collapse of a superpower, the depredations of foreign invaders, and the desperate struggle of locals to fashion a new security for themselves. Only in the past few decades has this perspective been restored to its proper place in the academic spotlight. Yet it is curious that long before the historian Peter Brown came to write his seminal volume The World of Late Antiquity – which traced, to influential effect, patterns throughout the half millennium between Marcus Aurelius and the founding of Baghdad – a number of bestselling novelists had got there first. What their work served to demonstrate was that the fall of the Roman empire, even a millennium and a half on, had lost none of its power to inspire gripping narratives.

"There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said." So begins Isaac Asimov's Foundation, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon's magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall. The influence of the novel, and its two sequels, has been huge, and can be seen in every subsequent sci-fi epic that portrays sprawling empires set among the stars – from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica. Unlike most of his epigoni, however, Asimov drew direct sustenance from his historical model. The parabola of Asimov's narrative closely follows that of Gibbon. Plenipotentiaries visit imperial outposts for the last time interstellar equivalents of Frankish or Ostrogothic kingdoms sprout on the edge of the Milky Way the empire, just as its Roman precursor had done under Justinian, attempts a comeback. Most intriguingly of all, in the second novel of the series, we are introduced to an enigmatic character named the Mule, who emerges seemingly from nowhere to transform the patterns of thought of billions, and conquer much of the galaxy. The context makes it fairly clear that he is intended to echo Muhammad. In an unflattering homage to Muslim tradition, Asimov even casts the Mule as a mutant, a freak of nature so unexpected that nothing in human science could possibly have explained or anticipated him.

Parallels with the tales told of Muhammad are self-evident in a second great epic of interstellar empire, Frank Herbert's Dune. A prophet arises from the depths of a desert world to humiliate an empire and launch a holy war – a jihad. Herbert's hero, Paul Atreides, is a man whose sense of supernatural mission is shadowed by self-doubt. "I cannot do the simplest thing," he reflects, "without its becoming a legend." Time will prove him correct. Without ever quite intending it, he founds a new religion, and launches a wave of conquest that ends up convulsing the galaxy. In the end, we know, there will be "only legend, and nothing to stop the jihad".

There is an irony in this, an echo not only of the spectacular growth of the historical caliphate, but of how the traditions told about Muhammad evolved as well. Ibn Hisham's biography may have been the first to survive – but it was not the last. As the years went by, and ever more lives of the Prophet came to be written, so the details grew ever more miraculous. Fresh evidence – wholly unsuspected by Muhammad's earliest biographers – would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and to pick up a soldier's eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was yet one more miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.

Herbert's novel counterpoints snatches of unreliable biography – in which Paul has become "Muad'Dib", the legendary "Dune Messiah" – with the main body of the narrative, which reveals a more secular truth. Such, of course, is the prerogative of fiction. Nevertheless, it does suggest, for the historian, an unsettling question: to what extent might the traditions told by Muslims about their prophet contradict the actual reality of the historical Muhammad? Nor is it only western scholars who are prone to asking this – so too, for instance, are Salafists, keen as they are to strip away the accretions of centuries, and reveal to the faithful the full unspotted purity of the primal Muslim state. But what if, after all the cladding has been torn down, there is nothing much left, beyond the odd receipt for sheep? That Muhammad existed is evident from the scattered testimony of Christian near-contemporaries, and that the Magaritai themselves believed a new order of time to have been ushered in is clear from their mention of a "Year 22". But do we see in the mirror held up by Ibn Hisham, and the biographers who followed him, an authentic reflection of Muhammad's life – or something distorted out of recognition by a combination of awe and the passage of time?

There may be a lack of early Muslim sources for Muhammad's life, but in other regions of the former Roman empire there are even more haunting silences. The deepest of all, perhaps, is the one that settled over the one-time province of Britannia. Around 800AD, at the same time as Ibn Hisham was drawing up a list of nine engagements in which Muhammad was said personally to have fought, a monk in the far distant wilds of Wales was compiling a very similar record of victories, 12 in total, all of them attributable to a single leader, and cast by their historian as indubitable proof of the blessings of God. The name of the monk was Nennius and the name of his hero – who was supposed to have lived long before – was Arthur. The British warlord, like the Arab prophet, was destined to have an enduring afterlife. The same centuries which would see Muslim historians fashion ever more detailed and loving histories of Muhammad and his companions would also witness, far beyond the frontiers of the caliphate, the gradual transformation of the mysterious Arthur and his henchmen into the model of a Christian court. The battles listed by Nennius would come largely to be forgotten: in their place, haunting the imaginings of all Christendom, would be the conviction that there had once existed a realm where the strong had protected the weak, where the bravest warriors had been the purest in heart, and where a sense of Christian fellowship had bound everyone to the upholding of a common order. The ideal was to prove a precious one – so much so that to this day, there remains a mystique attached to the name of Camelot.

Nor was the world of Arthur the only dimension of magic and mystery to have emerged out of the shattered landscape of the one-time Roman empire. The English, the invaders against whom Arthur was supposed to have fought, told their own extraordinary tales. Gawping at the crumbling masonry of Roman towns, they saw in it "the work of giants". Gazing into the shadows beyond their halls, they imagined ylfe ond orcnéas, and orthanc enta geweorc – "elves and orcs", and "the skilful work of giants". These stories, in turn, were only a part of the great swirl of epic, Gothic and Frankish and Norse, which preserved in their verses the memory of terrible battles, and mighty kings, and the rise and fall of empires: trace-elements of the death-agony of Roman greatness. Most of these poems, though, like the kingdoms that were so often their themes, no longer exist. They are fragments, or mere rumours of fragments. The wonder-haunted fantasies of post-Roman Europe have themselves become spectres and phantasms. "Alas for the lost lore, the annals and old poets."

So wrote JRR Tolkien, philologist, scholar of Old English, and a man so convinced of the abiding potency of the vanished world of epic that he devoted his life to conjuring it back into being. The Lord of the Rings may not be an allegory of the fall of the Roman empire, but it is shot through with echoes of the sound and fury of that "awful scene". What happened and what might have happened swirl, and meet, and merge. An elf quotes a poem on an abandoned Roman town. Horsemen with Old English names ride to the rescue of a city that is vast and beautiful, and yet, like Constantinople in the wake of the Arab conquests, "falling year by year into decay". Armies of a Dark Lord repeat the strategy of Attila in the battle of the Catalaunian plains – and suffer a similar fate. Tolkien's ambition, so Tom Shippey has written, "was to give back to his own country the legends that had been taken from it". In the event, his achievement was something even more startling. Such was the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and such its influence on an entire genre of fiction, that it breathed new life into what for centuries had been the merest bones of an entire but forgotten worldscape.

It would seem, then, that when an empire as great as Rome's declines and falls, the reverberations can be made to echo even in outer space, even in a mythical Middle Earth. In the east as in the west, in the Fertile Crescent as in Britain, what emerged from the empire's collapse, forged over many centuries, were new identities, new values, new presumptions. Indeed, many of these would end up taking on such a life of their own that the very circumstances of their birth would come to be obscured – and on occasion forgotten completely. The age that had witnessed the collapse of Roman power, refashioned by those looking back to it centuries later in the image of their own times, was cast by them as one of wonders and miracles, irradiated by the supernatural, and by the bravery of heroes. The potency of that vision is one that still blazes today.

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