Today, January 16, is one of the more resonant dates on the calendar: on January 16, 26 BCE Octavius Caesar was given the title ‘Augustus’ by a cowed and obedient Senate; it is as good a date as any to mark the end of the Roman Republic and the permanent establishment on its ruins of the Empire. On the same date in 1794, Edward Gibbon died; Gibbon was one of the greatest English historians and prose stylists of all time; his masterwork recounts the decline and fall of the empire Augustus set up.Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of those books that every educated English-speaking person should read, at least the first two volumes which focuses on the two centuries of decline which followed the reigns of the “Five Good Emperors” and ends at the point which the Emperor Theodosius makes a peace treaty with the powerful Goths who have invaded the Eastern Empire. Rome has not yet been sacked, the western empire has not fallen, the Huns have not yet appeared on the European stage.Gibbon’s book is long and not everybody likes it. The Duke of Gloucester greeted the publication of one of the six volumes of Decline and Fall by saying, “Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon. Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?”A just criticism, and not many of the indefatigable scribbler’s readers follow him all the way to the bitter end of his narrative, but the decline of empires can be a slow and long drawn-out business. The western Roman empire perished in its original form in 476, but the next century saw the Eastern Roman Empire re-establish imperial authority in the peninsula; the Emperor Justinian not only brought large chunks of the old western empire back under imperial authority; his codification of Roman law became standard throughout the old empire and, as the basis for church canon law and Napoleon’s civil code of 1806, still today serves as the basis for both civil and ecclesiastical law in the Europe of the Caesars.The Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into western and eastern halves in 286; the eastern half survived through 1452, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the eastern capital of Constantinople (known often as the “second Rome”). Mehmet, however, considered himself less the destroyer of Rome than its renewer; he built his palace close to the old palace of the Byzantine Emperoros and the old Cathedral of the emperors, born again as a mosque, became the major religious shrine in his Sultanate of Rum.The empire refused to die in the west as well; on Christmas Day in 800 AD Pope Leo III crowned Charles the Great (better known by the French version of his name, Charlemagne) Emperor of Rome; this “Holy Roman Empire” would survive as one of Europe’s largest and often most powerful states until Napoleon put it out of its misery in 1896. Napoleon also however, had a papal coronation to establish and, he hoped, legitimize his new empire. Not only did he recodify Justinian’s statues but his son was recognized as the King of Rome, the title that heirs to the Holy Roman Empire were given – in the way that today the heirs to the British throne are the Prince (or Princess) of Wales. Napoleon had eagles made according to the old Roman pattern and ordered his troops to swear to defend their imperial eagles to the death — just as the Roman legionnaires had once done. Napoleon I abdicated in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo, but the imperial idea survived in France. Napoleon’s great-nephew Louis Napoleon followed the family trade by assuming the leadership of the French republic and then overthrowing the republic to establish an empire. Napoleon III (the King of Rome was considered the second emperor in the series; recognized only as the Duke of Reichstadt the young Napoleon II – a Hapsburg on his mother’s side – had died in 1832) reigned until he too was forced to abdicate following another French defeat, this time at the hands of the Prussians. That was not quite the end; Napoleon III’s son, known as the Prince Imperial, hoped for a restoration. After graduating from the British military academy at Sandhurst the Prince Imperial joined the British Army and went to South Africa to see combat, taking with him the sword Napoleon I had worn at his famous victory at Austerliz. In 1879 he was killed there in a skirmish with assegai-wielding Zulu warriors; there were 18 spear wounds in his body when it was recovered.
The death of the Prince Imperial was not the end of Rome. Sophia Paleologue was the niece of the Eastern Roman Emperor who perished in the final Ottoman assault on Constantinople; she married Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow. The Russians soon came to see themselves as “the third Rome,” and the rulers of Russia took the title of tsar – the Russian form of the word ‘Caesar.’ The last of the tsars ruled until 1917, when the February Revolution gave Russia the first of its brief democratic interludes in the twentieth century.Not even the fall of the Romanov dynasty in Moscow or the overthrow of the last Ottoman sultan at the end of World War One drove the last nail in the coffin of imperial Rome. The Second Rome might be under the Turks and the Third under Bolshevik rule, but the First Rome was under the authority of the popes, and they had long claimed a right to rule that came directly from the old empire. When imperial civil authority collapsed in the western empire, the bishops of Rome assumed the leadership of the Eternal City; control of Rome itself led to the development of what were known as the Papal States: a group of mostly Italian territories along with a few outlying fiefs that were under the direct rule of the Pope in his capacity as a sovereign ruler. For much of the Middle Ages, papal rule was justified by a document known as the Donation of Constantine. (A zealous monk had forged a document purporting to be a letter from the first Christian Roman emperor giving the rule of the west and especially of Rome to the Popes.) Secularprinces as well as a spiritual leaders, for more than a thousand years popes raised armies, collected taxes and exercised civil as well as ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the ever-shifting boundaries of the Papal States.The Papal States had to go if modern Italy was to rise; King Victor Emmanuel II and Garibaldi defeated the forces of Pope Pius IX at the siege of Ancona in 1860, but the prestige of the papacy – and Napoleon III’s dispatch of French troops to the city over which Napoleon II had once been proclaimed king – kept the Italians at bay until the French troops were recalled following Napoleon’s defeat; on September 21 1870 the Italians breached the walls around the Pope’s last stronghold in Rome. The Pope locked himself up in his Vatican palace, declared himself a ‘prisoner in the Vatican’ and excommunicated anybody who worked with the Italian government. On the Capitoline Hill itself, the ancient center of Roman power, the Italian government erected a garish monument to its unifying King Victor Emmanuel II directly in the Pope’s line of sight from his bedroom windows in the barricaded Vatican.
This, it might seem, was the end of the Roman Empire once and for all, but no. (more…)