The Holy Roman Empire (Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum; German: Heiliges Römisches Reich), also known as Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in Western and Central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also included the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia and Kingdom of Italy, plus numerous other territories, and soon after the Kingdom of Burgundy was added. Its size gradually diminished over time, particularly from 1648 onward, and by the time of its dissolution, it largely contained only German-speaking territories (although Switzerland and East Prussia were not included), plus the Kingdom of Bohemia which was bordered by the German lands on three sides. At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, most of the Holy Roman Empire was included in the German Confederation.
On 25 December 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish kingCharlemagne as Emperor, reviving the title in Western Europe, more than three centuries after the fall of the earlier ancient Western Roman Empire in 476. The title continued in the Carolingian family until 888 and from 896 to 899, after which it was contested by the rulers of Italy in a series of civil wars until the death of the last Italian claimant, Berengar I, in 924. The title was revived again in 962 when Otto I was crowned emperor, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne and beginning a continuous existence of the empire for over eight centuries. Some historians refer to the coronation of Charlemagne as the origin of the empire, while others prefer the coronation of Otto I as its beginning. Scholars generally concur, however, in relating an evolution of the institutions and principles constituting the empire, describing a gradual assumption of the imperial title and role.
The exact term "Holy Roman Empire" was not used until the 13th century, but the concept of translatio imperii,[d] the notion that he—the sovereign ruler—held supreme power inherited from the ancient emperors of Rome, was fundamental to the prestige of the emperor. The office of Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally elective, although frequently controlled by dynasties. The mostly German prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers as "King of the Romans", and he would later be crowned emperor by the Pope; the tradition of papal coronations was discontinued in the 16th century.
Double-headed eagle with coats of arms of individual states, the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire (painting from 1510)
Before 1157, the realm was merely referred to as the Roman Empire. The term sacrum ("holy", in the sense of "consecrated") in connection with the medieval Roman Empire was used beginning in 1157 under Frederick I Barbarossa ("Holy Empire"): the term was added to reflect Frederick's ambition to dominate Italy and the Papacy. The form "Holy Roman Empire" is attested from 1254 onward.
In a decree following the 1512 Diet of Cologne, the name was changed to the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" (German: Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation, Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum Nationis Germanicæ), a form first used in a document in 1474. The new title was adopted partly because the Empire had lost most of its territories in Italy and Burgundy (the Kingdom of Arles) to the south and west by the late 15th century, but also to emphasize the new importance of the German Imperial Estates in ruling the Empire due to the Imperial Reform. By the end of the 18th century, the term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" had fallen out of official use. Contradicting the traditional view concerning that designation, Hermann Weisert has argued in a study on imperial titulature that, despite the claims of many textbooks, the name "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" never had an official status and points out that documents were thirty times as likely to omit the national suffix as include it.
In a famous assessment of the name, the political philosopher Voltaire remarked sardonically: "This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."
In the modern period, the Empire was often informally called the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) or Roman-German Empire (Römisch-Deutsches Reich). After its dissolution through the end of the German Empire, it was often called "the old Empire" (das alte Reich). Beginning in 1923, early-twentieth century German nationalist and Nazi propaganda would identify the Holy Roman Empire as the First Reich (Reich meaning empire), with the German Empire as the Second Reich and either a future German nationalist state or Nazi Germany as the Third Reich.