Translatio imperii

Translatio imperii (Latin for "transfer of rule") is a historiographical concept that originated from 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, e.g., the Eastern Roman 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 describes the translatio imperii concept as "typical" for the Middle Ages for several reasons:[2]

  • 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 progenitor 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.[7]

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").

From the Roman Empire/Byzantine Empire to the Holy Roman Empire

The cardinal point in the idea of the translatio imperii is the link between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.

See also


  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. Latowsky, Anne A. (2013). Emperor of the World: Charlemagne and the Construction of Imperial Authority, 800–1229. Cornell UP. p. 71. ISBN 9780801451485.
  4. De Troyes, Chrétien. Cligès. Circa 1176.
  5. Cipa, H. Erdem; Fetvaci, Emine (2013). Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future. Indiana University Press. p. 86–89. ISBN 978-0253008749.
  6. Prose Edda Prologue}}
  7. Bratu, Cristian. "Translatio, autorité et affirmation de soi chez Gaimar, Wace et Benoît de Sainte-Maure." The Medieval Chronicle 8 (2013): 135–164.
  8. See Garland, p. 89, who explains that Aetios was attempting to usurp power on behalf of his brother Leo.
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