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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, i.e., the Eastern Byzantine 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).[1]



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.

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:

Later, continued and reinterpreted by modern and contemporary movements and authors (some known examples):

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").


The translatio imperii of Europe runs somewhat parallel between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire, justified by series of events. A few examples below.

Holy SeeEdit

Holy Roman Emperor/Western EuropeEdit

  • 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. When her father-in-law Emperor Constantine V died in September 775, her husband Leo was to succeed to the throne at the age of twenty-five years. Nevertheless, when Leo died on 8 September 780, Irene became regent for their nine-year-old son Constantine, the future Constantine VI.
  • As early as 781, Irene of Athens began to seek a closer relationship with the Carolingian dynasty and the Papacy in Rome. She negotiated a marriage between her son Constantine and Rotrude, a daughter of Charlemagne by his third wife Hildegard. During this time Charlemagne was at war with the Saxons, and would later become the new king of the Franks. 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 approached maturity he began to grow restless under his mother's autocratic sway. An attempt to free himself by force was met and crushed by his mother, who demanded that the oath of fidelity should thenceforward be taken in her name alone. The discontent which this occasioned swelled in 790 into open resistance, and the soldiers, headed by the army of the Armeniacs, formally proclaimed Constantine VI as the sole ruler.
  • A hollow semblance of friendship was maintained between Constantine and Irene, whose title of empress was confirmed in 792; but the rival factions remained, and in 797 Irene, by cunning intrigues with the bishops and courtiers, organized a conspiracy on her own behalf. Constantine could only flee for aid to the provinces, but even there participants in the plot surrounded him. Seized by his attendants on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, Constantine was carried back to the palace at Constantinople. His eyes were gouged out, and he died from his wounds several days later. A solar eclipse and darkness lasting 17 days were attributed to the horror of Heaven.
  • Irene reigned for five years, from 797 to 802. Pope Leo III, who needed help against enemies in Rome and who saw the throne of the Byzantine Emperor as vacant (lacking a male occupant), crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800. This was seen as an insult to the Eastern Roman Empire. Nevertheless, 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.[9]
  • In 802 the patricians conspired against Irene of Athens and placed on the throne Nikephoros I, the minister of finance (logothetēs tou genikou). Irene was exiled to Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning wool. She 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 Charlemagne and by the Donation of Pepin, and provided at the same time that in future the Popes should be elected in canonical form, though their consecration was to take place only after the necessary pledges had been given to the emperor or his ambassadors. In essence, the Emperor was to be the guarantor of Papal independence, but to retain the right to confirm Papal elections. Historians debate, in terms of power and prestige, whether the Diploma Ottonianum was a prestigious advantage for the papacy or a political triumph for the emperor. The Papacy's strategies to free itself from the restrictions of the Diploma Ottonianum in the later 11th century form the background to the Gregorian Reform and the Investiture Controversy.
  • After the Fourth crusade, Byzantine Emperor Alexios III attempted to organise resistance to the new regime from Adrianople and then Mosynopolis, where he was joined by the later usurper Alexios V Doukas Mourtzouphlos in April 1204, after the definitive fall of Constantinople to the crusaders and the establishment of the Latin Empire. At first Alexios III received Alexios V well, even allowing him to marry his daughter Eudokia Angelina. Later Alexios V was blinded and deserted by his father-in-law, who fled from the crusaders into Thessaly. Here Alexios III eventually surrendered when captivated with Euphrosyne, to Marquis Boniface of Montferrat, who established himself as ruler of the Kingdom of Thessalonica. Alexios III was sent to Asia Minor where he plotted against his son-in-law Theodore Laskaris, but was eventually arrested and spent his last days confined to the Monastery of Hyakinthos in Nicaea, where he died.
  • The last descendant of and pretender to the title as Byzantine Emperor after the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks, was Andreas Palaiologos (1453–1502). After his uncle Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Emperor of Constantinople, died defending the capital of the Byzantine Empire on May 29, 1453, Andreas went to live in exile in Rome, where he made a ceremonial entrance as Byzantine Emperor 7 March 1461, styling himself Imperator Constantinopolitanus ("Emperor of Constantinople").[10] Andreas was considered by his contemporaries, most prominently the Cardinal Bessarion the rightful heir to the Roman (Byzantine) throne who, curiously, lived in Rome years after the end of the Eastern Roman Empire.[11] Despite the great expectations Papal officials had for Andreas, his behavior was not imperial. He got poor and sick, and he sold the rights to the Byzantine crown which he possessed since the death of his father. Charles VIII of France purchased the rights of succession from Andreas during 1494.[12] The following Kings of France continued the claim and used the Imperial titles and honors. Before death on April 7, 1498, he again sold his titles and royal and imperial rights to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.[10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Carol Ann Newsom and Brennan W. Breed, Daniel: A Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p. 89.
  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.
  5. ^ See Alexander, et al., p. 423.
  6. ^ Boussard, Jacques (1979). The Civilization of Charlemagne. World University Library, McGraw Hill. p. 23. 
  7. ^ Sullivan, R.E. (1967). Pepin III King of the Franks, New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 11 page 114. Catholic University of America. p. 113-114. 
  8. ^ "Ravenna Document". Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Vatican Publishing House. 13 October 2007. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  9. ^ See Garland, p. 89, who explains that Aetios was attempting to usurp power on behalf of his brother Leo.
  10. ^ a b Norwich, John Julius, Byzantium - The Decline and Fall, p. 446
  11. ^ Nicol, Immortal Emperor, p. 116
  12. ^ Runciman, Fall, p. 184