The Sun Also Sets

The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor

by Marie Tanner
Yale University Press, 333 pp., $45.00

Empires are seriously out of fashion. Insofar as they are taken to be a superior kind of monarchy, then they have shared the fate of that institution in the contemporary world. More abhorrent nowadays is the stronger, broader notion of empire as involving suzerainty over a range of diverse dominions. In an age of democratic rhetoric, where nation states are the norm, the word empire carries damning implications of both arbitrary and foreign rule. Imperialism, as Egypt’s President Nasser defined it, is “the subjugation of small nations to the interests of the big ones.”

A century ago things were very different. The great powers vied for imperial distinction, and their epigones postured all over the globe. The vogue, introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte and reinforced by his nephew, Napoleon III, was always associated, even identified, with ceremonial, with pompous coronations and durbars, pageants and parades, with ostentatious justifications of supreme authority at various levels of receptiveness. But how much did ideology matter in sustaining an empire? For Paul Kennedy, it suffices to study the material foundations of such hegemony in order to explain its waxing and its waning. Professor Tanner has a very different aim.

Napoleon broke the European mold. Before him, the Christian West had recognized not “empires,” but only one single Empire—although it assumed different forms at different times. Imperium meant the supreme military, political, and juridical authority wielded first by Augustus, then by successive caesars, through Charlemagne, the Ottonians, Salians, Hohenstaufens, and other evocative lineages right down to the years of the French Revolution. It embodied the providential disposition whereby Rome became the locus, and the Holy Roman Empire the carrier, of Christian truth. The ideology of this original and authentic Empire is the subject of Tanner’s investigation.

She conducts her reader on an exhilarating journey through an exotic and luxuriant landscape of human imagination, eking out her own enthusiasm with the help of the lavish artistic creations which it engendered. Her starting point is Troy. According to Homeric legend and Virgilian epic, that city was twice destroyed: first by the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece; then by the Greeks, in reprisal for some kind of associated Trojan provocation. Chief among those who managed to flee the doomed city was Aeneas, offspring of the Trojan royal house and of the gods, who eventually reached Italy and became the ancestor of Emperor Augustus. The moral and spiritual resonances of this founding myth were exploited in the Christian era by the fourth-century Latin poet Prudentius and others: Troy was a lost eastern paradise, the Fleece was the lamb of God, Aeneas was a Christ-like savior figure; the emperor—rex et sacerdos—held power inseparably and indissolubly over both Church and State.

These stories, Tanner shows, were adapted and elaborated throughout the Middle Ages, to suit an Empire whose symbolic center continued to lie in Rome, though power came to be wielded by Frankish and Germanic rulers. In the age of the Crusades they …

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