The Title of Emperor
An emperor is a particular kind of monarch, often (but not always) hereditary. The most common term for a monarch is king, but the word emperor has also been used frequently. This page presents when, where and why.
A common, but vague notion is that an emperor is the ruler of an empire, and that an empire is a multi-national or multi-ethnic political entity, significant in size and population. In that sense, emperor is seen as higher-ranking than king. There is some truth to the notion, but it is inaccurate and the historical reality is more complex.
This note describes the history of the title emperor. An immediate difficulty is one of language and translation. The focus here is on the word as it appears in English <emperor> and in the Romance languages (French <empereur>, Spanish <imperador>, Italian <imperatore>, etc). The focus is therefore Western European. The common root is the Latin word imperator. The history of the term is closely tied to the history of a title originating in the Roman Empire of antiquity, and its recycling over the centuries.
Under the Republic, the executive power was held by two consuls appointed every year ever since the abolition of the monarchy in 509 BC. The consuls continued to exist into the 6th century AD, even after the end of the Empire. In times of crisis, all powers were vested by the Senate in a dictator. The word imperator was a military title, and meant commander-in-chief. More particularly, it was a title bestowed by acclamation by the troops on their victorious general, a choice later ratified by the Senate and made official during the triumphal ceremony.
When Gaius Julius Casear's nephew Octavus emerged sole victor of the civil war that followed his uncle's assassination, he appeared to restore the republican institutions. It just happened that he was given a variety of existing positions the sum of which represented an unprecedented concentration of power (consul 13 times, pontifex maximus in 12BC, tribune for life in 22BC, imperator or commander-in-chief, etc.; read Augustus's own description of his achievements, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti). In terms of official titles, however, the Senate only bestowed on him in 27BC two titles:
The "Principate", as Augustus's political system of permanent dictatorship became known, was not formally a break with republican traditions and institutions. Nevertheless, Augustus stayed in power 40 years, enough to consolidate it and ensure that it remained in the hands of his extended family for the next 50 years.
The word imperium meant power, command, dominion, and was used in both military and judicial contexts to denote the authority of a magistrate or official over an area or a jurisdiction. In the imperial period it also came to mean the Roman Empire.
An early experiment in splitting the Empire occurred under Diocletian, in the late 3d c. AD. That Emperor instituted a "tetrarchy" composed of two Augusti or ruling emperors, one for each half, and two Caesares or designated successors. The system, often called the Dominate, soon fell apart and Constantine restored the monarchy by defeating all his rivals (313 AD). Later, however, the Empire was permanently split between the two sons of Theodosius, in 395 AD. The Eastern half, with its capital in Constantinople, is also known as the Byzantine Empire.
From Constantine on, emperors both in the East and the West used the same style: dominus noster N. imperator pius felix augustus (our lord N. emperor, pious, happy, august).
The Emperors in Constantinople retained the Latin titles imperator, Caesar, Augustus in Greek translation: autokratôr, kaisar, augoustos. The first term is a pre-existing Greek word meaning literally "ruler of one's self" hence "plenipotentiary" (for an ambassador) or "absolute" (for a ruler). The other two terms are simply transliterations of the Latin terms into Greek (one also finds Augustus translated as sebastos, which corresponds to the common word augustus in the religious sense. On coins and in documents the style was usually Dominus noster N. imperator perpetuus/semper augustus (Leo I had replaced the phrase pius felix with perpetuus).
In 629, Heraclius replaced them with the style pistos en Christôi Basileus, "king faithful in Christ." The word basileus meant king in Greek, and had been commonly used to designate foreign rulers such as the king of the Persians, or even Attila. Afterwards, however, basileus meant more specifically the ruler of the Byzantine empire, and corresponded to the term of emperor. Heraclius also instituted a system of co-Emperors, allowing the Emperor to appoint a successor in his lifetime. The senior Emperor, or only Emperor in the absence of a co-Emperor, became known as the autokratôr (starting with Heraclonas, son and successor of Heraclius in 641); but under the Paleologoi, in the 14th c., it was also conferred on the first co-Emperor.
Initially, the style did not say of whom the Basileus was ruler. The style Basileus Rhomaiôn (emperor of the Romans) appears on seals of Leo III, but its usage remains quite rare until 812. At that date, the emperor recognized Charles, king of the Franks, as Basileus, and thereafter called himself almost always Basileus Rhomaiôn. (We use the word "Byzantine" to refer to the empire based in Constantinople. The Byzantines, however, called themselves Rhomaioi or "Romans". The term was also used by foreigners referring to the area: it was called Rum by the Turks, Romania by the Venitians.) In 913, the patriarch Nikolas Mystikos conferred the title of "basileus" on Simeon the Great, ruler of the Bulgars. After his death in 927, his son was only recognized as "kaisar".
The title kaisar became an honorary title, bestowed usually on members of the imperial family, but occasionally on others as well: Justinian II conferred it to Tervel, khan of the Bulgars, in 705, Andronicus II gave it to Roger de Flor, leader of the Catalan Grand Company, in 1304. Another title was created by Alexius Comnenus in the early 12th c.: sebastocrator, a portmanteau of sebastos and autokratôr, for his brother Isaac, which took precedence over kaisar. Initially meant to upgrade the relatively debased kaisar, it was bestowed later to Stepan Nemanja of Serbia on his marriage with the Emperor's niece in 1191. The word, transformed into Czar in Slavic languages, came to mean "king" rather than "emperor".
Other Empires and Emperors in Eastern Europe
When the 4th Crusade took Constantinople and Baudouin of Flandres was crowned emperor in 1204, he took the title of imperator Romaniae (the full style being Dei gratia imperator Romaniae semper augustus; see a seal of Baudouin II in G. Demay, Inventaire des sceaux de la Flandre, vol. 1, p. 10).
In 1346 Stephen Duschan, king of Serbia since 1331, was crowned in Skopje Tsar of the Serbs and Greeks, in Latin documents Imperator Rasciae et Romaniae (Catholic Encyclopaedia).
Russia came over time to see itself as the heir and successor to the Byzantine empire, and Moscow as the "Third Rome". An important moment followed the council of Florence of 1439, at which the Greek Orthodox church accepted union with the Roman Catholic church as the price for Western support against the imminent Turkish onslaught. The Metropolitan of Moscow, who had participated in the Council, was deposed by the Grand-Duke Vasili II of Moscow and Russian bishops elected their own in 1449, thus making the church of Moscow autonomous. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the notion grew that Moscow was its successor, especially after the marriage of Ivan III with the niece of the last Paleologue emperor in 1472. In a treaty with the city of Pskov in 1473, the Grand-Duke used the title of Tsar; the use became more consistent after he freed himself from Tatar vassalage in 1480, and he had his grandson Dimitri crowned tsar in 1498. In 1489, the envoy of the German emperor in Moscow, Nicholas Poppel, offered to obtain the title of king for the grand-duke, who declined. In 1492, the metropolitan of Moscow, proclaiming the paschal canon for the new millenium, called Ivan III "the new Constantine" and Moscow "the new Constantinople". (See Dimitri Stremooukhoff (1953): 'Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine' Speculum 28(1):84-101.)
Ivan IV formally assumed the title of "Tsar of all Russia" at his coronation in 1547. Whether the title meant "king" (as it originally did in Russian, so say some sources) or "emperor" (as in other Slavonic languages; cf. the use of Tsar as synonym of "autokrator" by the Bulgarians since the 11th c.), it was occasionally translated as "emperor" in English since the 16th c., as shown by the following quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary:
By an Ukase dated 22 Oct/2 Nov 1721, Peter the Great adopted the style of emperor and autocrat of all Russias translated unambiguousy as imperator in Latin versions (Bozhieju milostiju Imperator i Samoderzhets Vserossiyskiy). (See the page on royal styles for more details on the styles of Russian sovereigns).
The imperial chancery in Vienna was initially reluctant to concede this style to Peter. Peter claimed that he was only reviving an ancient usage, and had his ambassador display a letter written by emperor Maximilian I to Ivan III in 1502, in which the latter is addressed as "Kaiser" in German. Count Sinzendorff, then high-chancellor of the court, ordered an unsuccessful search for a copy of the letter in the imperial archives; but the handwriting of the secretary and the signature of Maximilian were deemed to be genuine, and the style of emperor was readily conceded. (The anecdote was told by Sinzendorff to Langlet, who recounts it in his entry on Czar in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert).
France agreed to confer the style in 1745, and Spain in 1759, but in exchange the Russian sovereign explicitly promised that no change would be made to precedence between nations as a result. In 1762, Catherine II refused to renew these promises (called reversals, or reversalia); see details).
There was some uncertainty over the feminine form of autocrator in English: the Annual Register 1762, p. 227, has "Catharine II..autocratress of all the Russias" while the Gentleman's Magazine 1762, p. 382 has "Autocratrix of all the Russias."the Holy Roman Empire.
The Western half of the Roman empire was based in Rome. The last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 by Odoacer, who proclaimed himself king of Italy and had the regalia of the last emperor shipped back to Constantinople. The territory of the Western empire broke up into kingdoms ruled by various conquering Germanic tribes (Wisigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Burgunds, Lombards, etc).
Over time, the Franks emerged as the dominant kingdom of Western Europe. When their king Charles destroyed the Lombard kingdom of Northern Italy in 774, he was the sole ruler of modern-day France, Belgium and Netherlands, western Germany and northern Italy. In 800, while visiting Rome at Christmas time, he entered the basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, where the pope Leo III bestowed on him the title of Imperator, much to his surprise and displeasure (according to his biographer Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni, par. 28), not least because it would complicate his relations with Byzantium.
At the time, a woman was ruling in Constantinople, Irene (with the title of Basileus rather than the feminine equivalent Basilissa), an unusual and ambiguous situation which may have made it easier for the pope to think that he was appointing Charles to the imperial dignity rather than creating a second imperial title. Later, however, the Byzantine emperor Michael I Rungabe recognized Charles's title, and in 812 his legates at Charles' court in Aachen addressed him as Imperator and Basileus (Annales Regni Francorum). This recognition was renewed by the next Byzantine emperor Leo V in 814 for Charles and in 815 for his son and successor Louis the Pious. (Ostrogorsky: op.cit., p. 198).
The title of Charles in his own documents was Imperator Augustus Romanum gubernans Imperium (emperor Augustus governing the Roman empire) or serenissimus Augustus a Deo coronatus, magnus pacificus Imperator Romanorum gubernans Imperium (most serene Augustus crowned by God, great peaceful emperor governing the empire of the Romans; see more examples). These styles tactfully left open the interpretation that Charles was simply a co-Emperor of the Byzantine emperor. At the same time, the Byzantine emperor assumed the title of "Emperor of the Romans" to make clear his precedence.
Charlemagne's empire quickly fragmented. He had himself foreseen to divide it between his sons, but, as only Louis the Pious survived him, the latter inherited the whole empire (814). At Louis' death the inheritance was split between Lothar, who received the imperial title and the largest share, Charles and Louis. The last two allied themselves against Lothar and defeated him. As a result, Charles received the western part of the kingdom of the Franks, which became the kingdom of France, while Louis received the eastern half, or kingdom of Germany. The split between the two was consummated in 888 when the Carolingian Charles the Fat, who had reunited the inheritance, was deposed and separate kings were elected in France and Germany. Carolingians ceased to rule Germany in 911, France in 987. Meanwhile, Lothar's share became Lotharingia, the northern half of which turned into the duchy of Brabant, the southern part into the duchy of Lorraine, both nominally part of the Empire. The kingdom of Italy had been taken over by local dynasts (the marquis of Friul). Also, Burgundy had broken off into a separate kingdom (also called the kingdom of Arles) stretching from present-day Burgundy to Provence and Savoie. Finally, the imperial title, held by Carolingians until 899, became an empty title handed out by the pope to various Italian magnates.
In Germany, the dukes of Saxony came to the throne with Henry I. His son Otto I reconquered Italy and, in Rome, was crowned emperor by the pope (962). This marks the proper beginning of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806). The style Otto assumed was imperator augustus (he briefly used imperator augustus Romanorum ac Francorum in 966). The relative simplicity of the style, and, again, the absence of any mention of "Romans", may be in deference to Byzantium, which would soon reach the medieval apex of its power. Indeed, Otto was anxious to receive recognition of the emperor in Constantinople. Nicephore Phocas treated him as an interloper, but his successor John Tzimisces sent his kinswoman Theophano to marry Otto II in Rome in 972. Over time, however, the opinion of Byzantium became less a concern. By 1040 the emperor called himself Rex Romanorum, and by the 12th century the standard style of the Emperor in the west was Dei gratia Romanorum imperator semper augustus (in German: Von Gottes Gnaden Römischer Kaiser, zur aller Zeit Mehrer des Reichs). The phrase "Holy Roman Empire" appears in official documents in 1254.
From Otto I onward, the kingdom of Germany and that of Italy became bound with the imperial dignity. Within Catholic Europe, the Emperor was seen as successor and heir of the Roman emperors, just as within Ortohodox Europe the Emperor in Constantinople was seen in the same way. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Holy Roman Emperor was the sole remaining emperor in Europe.
In Europe, then, the title of "Emperor" was exceptional, and bound to a particular historical legacy, that of the Roman Empire. The Emperor had precedence over all other sovereigns. His empire was the largest in medieval Europe, and even included several kingdoms: Germany, Italy, Bohemia, many ethnic groups and languages.
Over time, however, the notion that the Empire was the one that happened to be located (mainly) in Germany gave way to the notion that Germany happened to constitute an Empire. In the late 15th c., the phrase das heilige Römische Reich Teutscher Nation (the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) makes its appearance and becomes standard by the mid-16th c. Jurists thereafter long debated the meaning of the phrase, but their own increasing use of the short-hand imperium Romano-Germanicum shows that they ceased to see the HRE as the continuation of the Roman Empire, but rather as a particular political entity that developed in Germany, and was called "empire" for historical reasons.
About the same time (16th-17th c.), the term "emperor" came into use to designate rulers of other political entities than the Holy Roman Empire.
The Spanish "Emperors"
From the mid-11th c. to the mid-12th c., the kings of Castile and Leon used the title imperator Hispaniae. The term appeared to designate the territories conquered on the Arabs, which the king owed to his sword only (see more details).
Once it was accepted in Western Europe that Germany was not "the" Empire but "an" empire, it was possible to extend the use of the term to other rulers outside of Western Europe. And, since the Holy Roman Emperor had always been seen as a pre-eminent ruler, with precedence over kings, ruling over a vast composite empire, it seemed appropriate to use the term for similar rulers abroad.
There are two ways to trace the use of the term "emperor" for other rulers. One is through literary sources, another is through diplomatic documents.
In French literary sources, the term "emperor" is used to designate the Ottoman Sultan as early as 1610 ("empereur des Turcs", in Beroalde de Verville; "empereur de Turquie" 1615, Traité d'OEconomie politique, Montchrestien). It is used for China in the 1680s (Bernier, Bayle) and for Japan at the same time (Journal du Voyage de Siam, 1687). Finally, it is used for Persia and Russia in the mid-18th century (Histoire Générale, Voltaire).
Diderot's Encyclopédie (c. 1760) has entries for:
Although the Empire is par excellence the Holy Roman Empire, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie (1798 ed.) also defines "empire" as the collection of countries under the authority of an emperor ("emperor", of course, is defined as "the ruler of an empire"!), but also states that it is used for all countries under the rule of a great king and gives as example "L'Empire François". That same phrase is used in the text of the decree of 30 Nov 1789 uniting Corsica to France: L'Assemblée Nationale décrète que l'île de Corse fait partie de l'Empire français: ses habitans seront régis par la même Constitution que les autres Français. The phrase was common enough that a patriotic song composed in 1791 (when France was still a monarchy) is called Veillons au salut de l'empire.
The pattern is the same in English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., s.v. Emperor), " In wider sense, as a title of sovereignty considered superior in dignity to that of `king'. In the Middle Ages, and subsequently, the title was often applied to extra-European monarchs ruling over wide territories. We still speak of the Emperors of China, Japan, Morocco, and historically of the Mogul Emperors of India and the Emperor of the Aztecs. Since the early part of the 16th c. the title has been used as the equivalent of the Russian Tsar (or czar). The Sultans of Turkey (who assumed the style of Keisar-i-Rum, `Cæsar of Rome', as successors of the Byzantine emperors) were occasionally spoken of as emperors. Until the present century [i.e., the 19th] `the Emperor' always, unless otherwise interpreted by the context, denoted the `emperor of Germany'." The examples quoted include Mandeville (c.1400) calling the Great Khan "the gretteste Emperour..of alle the parties beyonde" and a quote of Shakespeare with "the Emperor of Russia." The use of "Empire" to denote England or Great Britain is also attested: Matthew Carter: Honor Redivivus (1660, p. 70) writes: "Yet our Kings have been styled Emperors, and this Realm of England called an Empire."
The other source on the use of the word consists of treaties: this is probably most interesting as it shows us, not what rulers called themselves, but what others were willing to call themselves. All texts are found in the Comprehensive Treaty Series (the Moroccan examples are from Rouard de Card, Edgard: _Traités de la France avec les pays de l'Afrique du Nord_ (Paris, 1906).
By the 18th century, it appears well accepted that the term "emperor" is appropriate for a certain number of rulers other than the Holy Roman Emperor. The Emperor himself has used that style for the Ottoman Sultan since the 17th century. Grugdingly, it conceded the "Majesty" to the Czar of Russia in 1675. Peter the Great's assumption of the title "imperator" became gradually accepted in the course of the 18th c. In the literature, if not yet in formal treaties, the term appears acceptable for China, Japan, Morocco, and probably Persia too.
It is notable, however, that in 17th or 18th c. treatises where a European king calls a non-European ruler "emperor", he frequently calls himself "emperor"; in other words, the fact that the king of France called the rulers of Siam or Morocco "emperor" does not mean that they had equal status with the Holy Roman Emperor.
The style of King of Kings (Shahan Shah) is very ancient, and has been used by various dynasties in Persia since the Achaemenids.
JapanSee Jeff Taliaferro's page on the emperor of Japan.
As related elsewhere, when the king of Great Britain changed his styles and arms in 1800, it was suggested to him that he adopt the style "emperor of the British dominions". This shows that title inflation was already in progress, even before Bonaparte's big move of 1804.
In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was then dictator-for-life of France, was granted the "imperial dignity" by the French senate. A referendum ratified not the title, but its hereditary nature. (See more details). With the style of empereur des Français, he was drawing both on the German legacy of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as on the neo-classical impulses of late 18th c. Europe and the fondness for Roman antiquity. The Senate's law of May 16 was proclaimed on May 20. The coronation ceremony, led by the Pope (as had been the case for Charlemagne, and as had not been the case for any Holy Roman Emperor since Charles V) took place on December 2, 1804.
It can be said that Napoleon's choice of titles set off a period of severe inflation in royal titles. On August 11, 1804, the German Emperor announced to the Reichstag that he was assuming the style of hereditary emperor (Erbkaiser) of his possessions. This move shocked many, because it seemed logically incoherent to have an emperor within the Holy Roman Empire; and the Habsburg prince, as ruler of the Habsburg hereditary lands, was just another vassal of the Emperor.
With the secession by a number of German states from the Holy Roman Empire and the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, it became obvious that the Holy Roman Empire had come to an end, and this was formally stated by the Austrian emperor on August 6, 1806, when he relinquished the imperial dignity and announced the dissolution of the Empire.
The 19th century witnessed the emergence of a number of empires:
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