“I am the successor, not of Louis xvi, but of Charlemagne.”—Napoleon Bonaparte
Most history books teach that the Holy Roman Empire began with Charlemagne and ended with the Habsburgs sometime during the 16th century. It is generally believed that the Protestant Reformation ended the church-state relationship. The French Revolution of the late 18th century, during which the Catholic Church was violently removed from France, is also considered a nail in its coffin.
There is no doubt that both these events curtailed the church’s reach, at least temporarily. But it is incorrect to think that the Holy Roman Empire, the cyclical reincarnation of the church-state alliance, ended in the 18th century.
At the turn of the 19th century, in the wake of the French Revolution, another empire allied itself with the Vatican and embraced Charlemagne’s dream of a resurrected Roman Empire. This resurrection, the fifth from Justinian, came not from Austria or Germany, but from France.
The emperor of the fifth manifestation of the Holy Roman Empire, a man endorsed by the Vatican and who adored the heritage of Rome, was Napoleon Bonaparte.
‘I Am a Roman Emperor’
“Naturally, when one thinks of Napoleon’s historical references, the first that comes to mind is Rome,” wrote Thierry Lentz, director of the Foundation Napoléon. “It is true that the emperor of the French relied a great deal on the prevailing Roman fashion” (Napoleon.org; emphasis added throughout).
In 1810, Napoleon himself said, “I am a Roman emperor. I come from the best line of Caesars—the Caesars who build.”
Although Napoleon appeared more than 1,300 years after Rome’s collapse, his supreme ambition was to resurrect the Roman Empire. This, as we will see in Chapter 9, is precisely what the Prophet Daniel and the Apostle John prophesied—that each resurrection would be a revival of the Roman Empire.
You can probably guess the historical figure Napoleon most admired, and even patterned his strategy of creating a European empire after. “[I]n a society where history was the foundation of all thought and even action, the empire could not be devoid of historical roots,” wrote Lentz. “These roots were then created, most notably making use of Charlemagne” (ibid).
Like Charles v and Otto the Great before him, Napoleon considered Charlemagne the ultimate embodiment of the revived Roman Empire. He knew that the best way to revive the Roman Empire was to follow Charlemagne’s example. In fact, the similarities between Charlemagne and Napoleon are striking. Both men pursued their ambition with the sword. Both were ruthless. Both valued and promoted culture and education. And, as was the case with every manifestation of the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon relied on the Catholic Church to provide the moral and spiritual legitimacy required to fulfill his vain ambitions.
Napoleon used the spread eagle, the symbol of both Rome and Charlemagne, as his standard. One of his first acts after becoming emperor was to make a pilgrimage to Aachen, Charlemagne’s home and burial place. While there, he received a delegation of Rhine princes, who hailed Napoleon as the “first of our Roman Caesars to have crossed the Rhine to drive out the barbarians.”
Charlemagne, more than any other historical figure, was omnipresent during Napoleon’s reign!
Like Charlemagne, Napoleon knew he needed the sanction of the Catholic Church. And the church was eager to employ him. When Napoleon became emperor on December 2, 1804, his new crown was called the Crown of Charlemagne.
Statues and pictures of Charlemagne were present everywhere throughout the ceremony. A small statue of Charlemagne even stood on the scepter. The hand of justice and sword used in the ceremony were also said to be of Charlemagne. After he was crowned, Napoleon stated, “I have succeeded, not to the throne of Louis xvi, but to that of Charlemagne.”
Six months after this coronation, Napoleon was crowned king of Italy in Milan, just as Charlemagne had been named king of the Lombards. The president of the electoral college of Tortona told him, “You have regenerated the empire of the Franks and this throne of Charlemagne’s, which has been buried under 10 centuries of ruins.”
Library shelves overflow with volumes exploring the character, leadership and accomplishments of Napoleon Bonaparte. Business leaders, politicians and military students study his life and work to glean lessons and further their careers. Bonaparte is one of the most studied historical figures of our time. But the most significant truth about Napoleon is by far the least appreciated: that Napoleonic France was the fifth resurrection of the prophesied Holy Roman Empire.
Napoleon’s Catholic Weapon
Like the “holy” Roman emperors before him, Napoleon used the Catholic Church as a vehicle to pursue his grandiose ambition of resurrecting the glories of Rome. “Napoleon did not intend to serve religion, but to use it,” writes John Vidmar in The Catholic Church Through the Ages: A History.
Under Napoleon, the church became an important instrument of the government. Napoleon would nominate bishops, the pope would approve them, and the bishops would appoint parish priests. All clergy were paid a salary by the state and the practice of worship was under state control. Many have forgotten, but this was, in many ways, a robust church-state relationship.
During the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was largely expelled from public life. Religious symbols were seized, church bells taken down, and even some steeples leveled. The government tried to wipe out Sunday worship by decimalizing the week—holding a day of rest every 10 days.
Initially, Bonaparte continued the revolution’s opposition to the church. His armies arrested cardinals and even took Pope Pius vi prisoner. But after Pius vi died in prison, Napoleon came to the same conclusion that Justinian, Charlemagne, Otto and the Habsburgs had all come to before him: To have maximum power, he needed moral and spiritual cover provided by the Catholic Church.
Napoleon reintroduced the church to the French people. “The advantages to the French government are obvious,” Vidmar writes, but the “church benefited as well. Revolutionary cults would be abandoned, as well as ‘constitutional’ worship. The pope was recognized as having the right of canonical institution of bishops, and the clergy would be materially provided for. … The church would maintain its right to own property, to form religious orders, and to regulate its own affairs.”
Paul Johnson also noted Napoleon’s positive impact on the Catholic Church. “Thus we have the paradox that the convulsion which threatened to engulf Roman Christianity ended by endowing a dying papacy with a new cycle of life,” he writes. “And the papacy, thus reborn, returned to an ancient theme but with a modern orchestration—populist triumphalism” (A History of Christianity).
After decades of fighting Protestantism, and having survived the waves of revolution that swept across Europe, the Catholic Church was suddenly back as an influential force in the world.
To make peace with the church, Napoleon signed the Concordat of 1801 with Pius vii. This agreement reversed a lot of the setbacks the revolution had inflicted upon the church. It proclaimed that Catholicism was the religion of the great majority of the French citizens. It guaranteed Catholics freedom of religion—but also brought that religion under some state control, stating that bishops had to swear loyalty to the government.
But Napoleon could not afford to upset the Protestants. The concordat did not make Catholicism the only allowed religion. It also allowed all those who had received land from the Catholic Church during the revolution to keep it.
Just as he was with Charlemagne, the pope was intimately involved in Napoleon’s coronation. But Napoleon found it hard to take orders from anyone. He choreographed his own coronation. Instead of making the long journey to Rome for the ceremony, Napoleon made the pope come to him. And when the moment arrived for him to be crowned emperor, Napoleon took the crown from the altar and placed it on his own head.
In his book Napoleon, Paul Johnson describes how significant the title of emperor was to Bonaparte’s accomplishments. Becoming emperor, Johnson writes, “became the foundation stone of a mounting edifice of satellite kingdoms, princedoms and duchies, of medals, honors and stars, of protocols and privileges that the new emperor created and bestowed at will, and frequently revoked, too.”
Napoleon may not have been an ardent Catholic like Charlemagne, but he knew history. He knew that to achieve his dream of a united European empire, he needed the sanction of the Roman Catholic Church. And the church, after suffering major setbacks during the Reformation and French Revolution, saw Napoleon as a means of restoring its place and power.
Of course, much like it was with previous emperors, Napoleon’s relationship with the Catholic Church was fleeting. Napoleon later fell out with the church as the Vatican finally grew tired of his overbearing influence in its affairs. Napoleon was eventually excommunicated. He responded by having Pius vii taken prisoner. Despite the falling out, though, the pope stood by Napoleon once he was finally defeated and taken prisoner by the British, even writing to the British government asking for Napoleon to be treated better.
Late in his rule, Napoleon admitted regret at the heavy-handed approach he sometimes took toward the church, and for having not harnessed more of the Catholic power to use to his advantage. “I should have controlled the religious as well as the political world,” he wrote, “and summoned church councils like Constantine.”
Like earlier resurrections of this empire, Napoleon’s reign was dominated by almost perpetual conflict, destruction and death. In his book Napoleon’s Wars, Charles Esdaile identifies a number of causes of these wars—but, he writes, “the prime mover was Napoleon’s own aggression, egomania and lust for power ….”
“Napoleon Bonaparte was not just the ultimate warlord—a man who would have been nothing without war and conquest—but he was never capable of setting the same limits on himself as the rulers and statesmen who had waged the conflicts of the 18th century,” writes Esdaile.
It was “the emperor’s determination to eschew compromise, to flex his muscles on every possible occasion and to push matters to extremes” that forced the Napoleonic Wars, Esdaile writes. They were exceptionally bloody. The French invented the concept of universal conscription during their revolution, and for the first time Europe was engulfed in a war where nations on both sides conscripted soldiers. The result was catastrophic. Around 4 million died, an almost unfathomable figure for the world at that time.
In the War of the Spanish Succession—which occurred about 100 years earlier and unfolded over the same length of time as the Napoleonic Wars—around a dozen major battles were fought. During the Napoleonic Wars, there were at least 40. Soldiers were no longer a scarce resource that took a lot of time and money to train; their lives could be thrown away more cheaply.
But Napoleon’s reign did not last long, and he did not pass his power to a successor. It ended with his fall at Waterloo. Once again, the beast went underground.