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.”1

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.2 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 took on the lineaments of a chivalric quest, and Christian and pagan heroes were further conflated: chroniclers formulated comprehensive genealogies which demonstrated the descent of later emperors from Roman, hence ultimately Trojan and semi-divine, secular ancestors on the one hand, as well as from Jewish, hence ultimately biblical and quasi-divine, religious ancestors on the other. At the same time eschatological traditions, deriving ultimately from the Book of Daniel, came into play: the sovereigns of Rome, the last World Empire, would soon preside over the last days of the world.

At the end of the Middle Ages, Tanner argues, these notions, far from losing credibility, enjoyed a strong revival; the Renaissance obsession with antiquity far outran any sharpening of critical faculties. Now their sponsor was the rising “house of Austria,” the dynasty of Habsburg. These princelings from obscure origins in a thicket of petty jurisdictions west of Lake Constance came to parade kinship with the leading clans of classical Rome and—through marriage—with a clutch of medieval emperors and other imagers of mythic rulership. The court humanists of Maximilian I constructed an extravagant blend of classical, biblical, and Teutonic genealogy. They laced it with enhanced prophetic expectations—announcing the defeat of the Islamic Antichrist, the recovery of Jerusalem, and the arrival of the millennium; and added a more fervent and atavistic strain of religious mysticism that was even designated pietas Austriaca. Maximilian’s successor, Charles V, became the “object of a cult veneration not equalled since antiquity,” fed also by eschatological interpretations of his New World conquests. His device, the columns of Hercules, represents the “most enduring symbol in the bid for universal theocratic monarchy.”

Tanner’s analysis culminates in Charles’s son, Philip II, King of Spain between 1556 and 1598 and the “last descendant” of her title. Philip believed he was born to “restore the universal rule of the Roman Empire from East to West”; an empire, moreover, on which the sun never set—hence the extra prominence of solar or Apollonian traditions in contemporary writings, especially those of the Italian friar, Tommaso Campanella. Philip employed the rich associations of the Order of the Golden Fleece “as the mark of divine election…[and] promise of salvation which had been encoded in the heavens since the beginning of time.” He built the Escorial, that “physical vestige of Hapsburg imperial ideology,” planned as Solomon’s Temple, even as the Heavenly Jerusalem. By his reverence for the Cross and the Eucharist, he “established the foundations of the theocratic state in an unbroken tie to the Holy Blood.” He even—most strange and wonderful—discovered or created more ancestors for himself through a kind of arcane genetic coding practiced on the bones of freshly exhumed Roman martyrs.


By this point the initial literary impulse of the classical legends had yielded to spectacular visual depictions, beautifully illustrated in this sumptuous book: Dürer’s portrait of Maximilian, and his allegorical designs for imperial festivities; the Brussels tapestries woven to commemorate Charles V’s imperial coronation; Titian’s majestic likeness of Charles, mounted on his charger at the battle of Mühlberg, and the same artist’s Allegory of Lepanto; El Greco’s Dream of Philip II; above all, the art and architecture of the Escorial. Tanner brings learning and sensitivity to bear on the iconography of such masterpieces, without neglecting the credulous chronicles and crude woodcuts which provided workaday representations of the same themes.

We should be grateful to Tanner for this sympathetic examination of a world of allusion whose “deeper resonances,” as she repeatedly insists, have often been neglected by scholars. Above all she is abundantly right to assert the importance of myth as a real historical factor because it is often really believed. But she displays remarkably little concern with who believed it, when, and how deeply. In nineteenth-century Madagascar, so a recent author tells us, the new year was marked by elaborate ceremonies which involved the whole of society, from highest to lowest. At their climax, the king, having visited the tombs of his ancestors and bathed in water from the springs of renewal, publicly licked the rump of a freshly slaughtered ox which, together with rice, milk, and honey, had been placed on top of his head.3 The ritual was clearly popular—free food and even sexual license were on the program. What observers do not record is how far the participants actually understood or cared about the meanings which modern ethnographers can coax from this material.

Tanner faces the same problem. How could the “symbolic heritage” which she describes be “strong enough…to unite the world under the emperor’s universal monarchy”? Did rulers themselves actually swallow the fantastic inventions of obsequious courtiers or the calculating homage of political underlings? The gullible Maximilian I must have done so much more than (say) Charles IV of Luxembourg, who may have taken the “astonishing direct statement” of his descent from “the pagan gods Saturn and Jove” as lightly as he did the appeals of Petrarch to move his kingdom to Italy.

And what about their subjects? It’s one thing—and a necessary thing—to seek the messages inserted into art or ceremony by creators and patrons; quite another—and a far harder thing—to estimate their public impact. Tanner hardly even tries, treating esoteric manuscripts on the same level as prints, sedentary and secretive rulers no differently from ostentatious ones. She illustrates some emblems, but fails to discuss the genre of emblem books, arguably the most important transmission belt for hidden meanings in the Renaissance.

Nor has she any sense of the tongue in cheek. She runs physiognomy alongside genealogy, drawing attention to “the prominent nose that was the hallmark of the Last World Emperor and of the Hapsburg clan,” and wondering whether Dürer had this in mind when depicting Maximilian with the kind of beak which might suggest to the irreverent an implied descent from Cleopatra rather than Augustus. More seriously, she appears unaware that ancient precept, myth, and prophecy did not necessarily favor established authority: in the sixteenth century they were quite capable of subverting it.

Though Tanner accords the point only the most passing of mentions, the imperial office was, and remained, elective. An inconvenience to ambitious dynasts, this was nevertheless a crucial element in the symbolic legitimation of their rule. The idea of a mandate deriving from the people (Imperium populi Romani) dated from the days when Rome was still a republic, and classical republican traditions exercised a powerful influence in and beyond Renaissance Italy. They then took root especially among Philip’s own rebellious Dutch subjects: the Dutch elaborated a collective genealogy of descent from the ancient Batavians, a people about whom we know precious little, but whom propagandists versed in humanism could present as the embodiment of pristine liberty and justice.


Moreover, Antichrist did not mean just the infidel Turk. In the Reformation age, the passionate theocratic rhetoric of radical Protestants applied the term to Rome itself in its depravity, and to imperial tyranny. Neither Luther nor Calvin is even mentioned by Tanner. This theme again was later taken up above all by Philip’s Dutch subjects. Catholics correspondingly tended to be more suspicious of millenarian and prophetic language than did their confessional rivals. Even within the sacred institution of monarchy itself there lurked a threat. What of the widespread contemporary notion of a hidden, or sleeping, or disguised king, a myth that inspired movements of popular discontent from Portugal to Russia?4

One line of defense Tanner might have used against both skeptics and critics would surely have been to point out that the Renaissance vogue for constructing mythic genealogies did not stop with the Habsburgs. The coinage of such legend, while prone to devaluation, circulated very widely. Tanner has no interest in this. She simply asserts that lesser manifestations of ancestor worship “confirmed the legitimacy” of imperial rule, allowing vassals a subordinate place in the genealogical scheme. That might apply to petty states like Tuscany. Elsewhere, the success of the Habsburgs in protecting themselves against intellectual challenges only earned them exposure to rival claims.

It was not just the French kings who had always contested any Habsburg monopoly of the symbolic legacy of Troy and Rome (and it did Charles V no good at all to admit his adversary Francis I as a knight of the Golden Fleece!). Campanella himself—having endured years in a Spanish dungeon—defected to the camp of the future roi soleil. Nor was it just the popes, though they rarely acquiesced in the subaltern role Tanner attributes to them. From the Donation of Constantine and the coronation of Charlemagne onward, a papal interpretation was always at hand for the relation between the secular and spiritual imperium, which the Habsburgs needed to respect. Maximilian I did indeed, as Tanner observes, seek the papal tiara himself at one juncture; but he did so largely as a political and financial gambit.5 His successors continued to display conspicuous reverence for the papal office, none more than Philip, who would have been appalled, if not baffled, to be vaunted as “the most significant theocratic ideologist of the modern era.”

Tanner ignores Byzantium too, whose imperial claims could certainly not be extinguished by a mere decree of canon law, nor by the naked aggression—glossed over here, as by the genealogists—with which Count Baldwin of Flanders, and through him the Burgundians and Habsburgs, assumed the legacy of Constantinople in 1204. By the sixteenth century Byzantium had been superseded by the lustiest of her Orthodox progeny, and by the ringing declaration from Filofej of Pskov that “two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and there will be no fourth.” In 1547, just as Philip prepared for his own imperial bid, Ivan IV of Muscovy had himself crowned as the first Russian tsar, with the “cap of Prince Monomach,” a supposedly Byzantine confection of gold filigrane with sable trimmings. His book of ranks (stepennaya kniga) stressed the descent of Muscovite rulers from Augustus in Rome.6 His device was the Habsburg double-headed eagle. His successor, Peter the Great, would appropriate the title “imperator.”

At the opposite end of the continent, England was discovering another quasi-imperial identity. Henry VIII’s propagandists drew on one of the most flourishing popular versions of Trojan legend—medieval, with a humanist input—which purported to show how Tudor rulers descended at the very least from Constantine, if not from one Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas.7 The “British” realm, of course, having briefly belonged to Philip’s patrimony in the 1550s, became his nemesis thirty years later.

Yet even in the vanguard of her imperial mission, Spain’s ideological presuppositions did not go unquestioned. Propagandists of the colonization of the New World—Oviedo, Gómara, Sepúlveda, Herrera, and the rest—certainly drew on providential, eschatological, and genealogical imagery, and it is strange that Tanner makes not the least mention of them. For some, America was the Garden of Eden; others saw the Habsburgs as lineal successors to the Incan sun kings or the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl. Yet sixteenth-century Spain generated also—for all the “sacramental status of Christ’s heir and kin, Philip-Apollo”—as biting a critique of the imperial enterprise itself as did any of her modern counterparts. The diatribes of Bartolomé de Las Casas, that Hispanic J.A. Hobson, set the seeds of a separate creole consciousness, a nativist sentiment which would eventually harness foundation myths and prophetic traditions in the service of liberation from European hegemony.8

We now come to our author’s largest omission of all. Philip II may have been “unofficial emperor” of the Indies and of much else besides, but he did not become actual emperor of anywhere. “This emperor-manqué [was] denied his legitimate right to rule the universe by the capriciousness of Fortune,” as Tanner puts it in her grandiloquent way. But sound political reasons determined why all the ceremony and symbolism of Philip’s tour of central Europe in 1548–1549—“the most elaborate triumphal entry in history”—failed to win over the German electors (just as they explain his father’s success in doing so, thirty years earlier, without too much resort to airy assertions about the role of prophecy). Far from witnessing any apotheosis of universal monarchy, the 1550s saw an unedifying dynastic squabble between the aging and cantankerous Charles and his loyal but ambitious brother Ferdinand, between the vain and obstinate Philip and his urbane Austrian cousin Maximilian. Even the Habsburgs had dirty linen to wash in public.9

Long before the Renaissance, the imperial authority wielded by Charlemagne and his successors had become inextricably enmeshed in traditions of Teutonic kingship; and the word “Reich,” originally just the German equivalent of regnum, had extended its meaning accordingly. In the age of the humanists—some of whom even claimed that the Argonauts had found their way to Germany—patriotism expressed itself in the formula “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” (teutscher Nation). Classical fables were melded with native mythology, albeit the most celebrated Germanic quest for gold as the attribute of divine kingship—the saga of the Nibelungs—only came to the fore later.

Tanner has a limp grip even on that most mythopoeic of Austrian Habsburgs, Maximilian I.10 She garbles the picturesque legend about his miraculous rescue when “injured while hunting at Martinswand, [he] lay at the point of death.” In fact the Martinswand (“Martin’s Wall”) is a Tyrolean precipice, on which the impulsive emperor found himself stranded—for three days, so the story goes, until an angel in the guise of a local peasant (the Lederhosen and Hutfeder are optional extras) showed him a secret passage through the rock, as thousands of his subjects gathered below in fervent prayer for his deliverance. Philip II’s contemporaries, Ferdinand, Maximilian II, and Rudolf II, whose patronage of classical culture was very much the equal of his own, sustained the same dynastic rigmarole, with tame genealogists and antiquaries, like the Strada family, and with their pet symbols of Roman authority. Chief among the latter at Rudolf’s court was the exquisite Gemma Augustea, the greatest surviving gemstone from the ancient world, which would have furnished a perfect illustration for the Virgilian tag much cited by Tanner, “parcere subjectis et debellare superbos” (“spare the humble and subdue the proud”).

Moreover, Philip conceded the Austrians’ exclusive right to the imperial title. Occasional hints, cited here, that he might assert a rival status, were mere hearsay. Perhaps Philip did not, in practice, need it after all. Perhaps his politically weaker cousins genuinely did, and it therefore suited Spain to toe their line, even if this involved certain kinds of formal subordination to them—in northern Italy, for example, where the Spanish crown held imperial fiefdoms. Altogether, might not the finer flights of imperial fancy reflect vulnerability in the real world, at least as much as strength? If Austria’s power was “little more than a symbol,” is not that preeminently the currency in which Tanner trades?

Where does this leave us with respect to modern imperialism? Stray observations toward the end of her book suggest that the author attributes lasting political and cultural importance to the mythical constructions of the Habsburgs. Philip, she says, “formulated the concept of absolute monarchy on which the dominant political systems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would be structured.” If so, his Spanish branch of the family proved a remarkably bad advertisement for it. One of the latest of the works of art which Tanner illustrates, Luca Giordano’s Virgilian vision of the age of gold which he painted for a ceiling of the Buen Retiro palace in Madrid, saluted Philip II’s great-grandson, the last Habsburg king of Spain, the dim-witted ruler over an effete and impoverished monarchy.

Their Austrian cousins did better; they saved the legacy of Roman imperialism for the modern world. Clinging to their caesarist dignity throughout an age when the Reich fell into steady decline, they simultaneously built up a patrimony of their own, based on the Austrian lands, and infused it with the same claim to at least formal predominance over other European rulers. Briefly they found themselves in the bewildering and surely unique position of being emperors simultaneously over two different empires.11 Yet the Austrian fleece was increasingly threadbare, and the latter-day Habsburg Empire a vehicle largely for prophecies of doom.

The tradition of the Empire found indirect heirs in Britain, France, Russia, even America, with their ideas and ideals of expansive sovereignty. But the most direct legatee of Renaissance concepts of empire was the old-new German Reich of Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns, with its quasi-Roman political ambitions—alongside a Nibelung drive for mastery—and its Greek cultural enthusiasms, which spurred on Schliemann to excavate Troy, and inspired modern scholarly evaluation of the classical tradition. That scholarship reached its acme in the school of Aby Warburg, which the new barbarism of the Nazi state then forced, Aeneas-like, into westward exile. Tanner’s book belongs squarely to that intellectual heritage. It is a pity that her own universalist vision is so blinkered.

This Issue

February 17, 1994