Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
415 of 1105



EMPEROR. The Sabine tribes gave the name of embratur to their leader in war or pillage. The Romans used the word imperator, and reserved the title for the victorious general, which was bestowed on him upon the field of battle, just as the French at Friedlinger proclaimed Villars marshal of France. It is well known that it was not allowed to bear this title of commander in Rome, and that there could be more than one imperator there at the same time. But after Cæsar had caused himself to be made perpetual dictator by the senate, he had himself saluted as imperator by the people, and permitted Cicero to be so saluted as well as himself. The military power of the imperator was distinct from the imperium with which all magisterial offices were invested by the senate.


—Octavius also declared himself imperator, though he had no fondness for commanding in war. He united the consular and proconsular power with the tribunitial authority; he was pontiff, prince of the senate, so that his was the leading voice, and be attributed to himself a censorship over the morals of others He and his successors favored the title of emperor but little; they preferred prince or Cæsar. It was in the following century that the name of emperor prevailed This title, which in itself only suggested the command of armies, called up as well the idea of all the judicial functions which had accumulated in the person of the prince, but it did not betoken absolute power. In the time of Alexander Severus the jurisconsults pretended that the prince was above the law; but the senatus consultum of investiture only exempted him from the lex Papia, the lex Vorouia, on legacies and inheritances. Trubouian says that the people had conferred their authority upon the prince by the lex Regia. But the people never made such a law. If Tribonian had in mind the law which named the kings of Rome, that law did not imply sovereign authority; and if the lex Regia is the senatus consultum of investiture granted to the emperor, neither does it imply any such authority.


—The senatus consultum which gave the investiture to Vespasian has fortunately been recovered. It only enumerated the magisterial functions of the emperor. The convocation of assemblies, the proposal, sanction and execution of laws, the command of armies, and inviolability, are none of them beyond the prerogative of constitutional sovereigns.


—The despotism of the Roman emperors did not exactly result from the accumulation of power in their hands, for there existed in the senate, in provincial representational and in the laws, enough controlling elements to guarantee liberty, if power had been then, as in modern times, a question of grant. But, the powers being the same, the thoroughly mechanical notion that the ancients had of authority did not give as much play to personal initiative as do modern governments. The despotism of the emperors was further aggravated by the situation which had made the empire a necessity, that is to say, the heterogeneous character of the civilizations and races brought into juxtaposition under the Roman rule, and of which the strongest in numbers were the least capable of self-government.


—The earlier Roman empire of the Flavian Caesars, and even of the first Antonines, was still a Roman magistracy, a dictatorship, but upholding the right of discussion. Otherwise it was military and judicial, and differed essentially from the aristocratic and dynastic royalty that existed among the barbarians. But the more the relations of the empire with the north and east were increased, the nearer did the empire approach that royalty whose name was no hateful to Rome. Adrian established a system of etiquette at his court; Diocletian imitated the eastern kings more and more, to the extent of requiring his feet to be kissed. He did away with public institutions, and thenceforward affairs were transacted secretly and in silence. The Byzantine historians call the emperor indifferently autocrator and basileus, and never call the kinds of Asia anything but basileus.


—The establishment of Christianity, and the addition of Germanic nations to the group of Latin nations already under the discipline of the Catholic church, was the occasion, in the ninth century, of a restoration of the western empire that profoundly modified the features of the first magistracy. The holy Roman empire was a very ingenious conception, of which Voltaire remarked that it was neither Roman nor holy. Whether it was holy or not is certainly open to controversy; but it was undoubtedly Roman, inasmuch as the object of its institution was to unite, in one federal system, all nations of Latin race, speech or education. The sovereignty of the empire among such a diversity of states soon became merely nominal; the kings of France freed themselves from it from the tenth century, although the German government persisted as late as the seventeenth, in treating all the kings of Europe as provincial kings. The empire was therefore limited to Germany and Italy, and even in these two countries the idea of this institution differed widely, while the Italians, attached to their municipal autonomy, only regarded the emperor as the nominal head of the temporal power, and as a mediator, without regal functions, between their domestic governments, the Germans, on the other hand, were disposed to endow the imperial authority with the usual attributes of a national royalty, in order a bring about unity of legislation. The empire had become elective. Moreover up to the sixteenth century the coronation of the emperor at Rome was necessary for his complete investiture. But at the end of the fourteenth century the emperors were hereditarily chosen in the reigning dynasties. Hence the distinction to be met with in authors of the last two centuries between the empire (the German princes and the Free Cities) and the emperor (the nation of which the emperor was hereditary king). The empire made war on the emperor; it was also supported by foreign nations as France, Sweden, etc. The holy Roman empire of the German nation, which came by degrees to be called the German empire, was abolished in 1806. On Jan. 17, 1871, the delegates from the states of the two confederations of Germany, in assembly at Versailles, re-established the "German empire" without alluding to either Rome or Italy, nor consequently to any suzerainty over the other states of Europe.


—How shall we distinguish between an emperor and a king? It is possible to be both at once. Napoleon was king of Italy; the emperor of Austria is king of Hungary; the emperor of Germany is king of Prussia (or rather the king of Prussia is emperor of Germany). At first sight, the choice of title seems arbitrary; by following the empire, however, through its various metamorphoses it will be understood that the adoption of the name of emperor or king is governed by sufficiently strict analogies. The conception of sovereignty in the two cases is not the same.


—In principle, there should only be one emperor, or two at most, one of the east and one of the west, since, according to the imperial idea, the whole civilized world is considered as one republic, governed by the same laws. But as, since the renaissance and the treaty of Westphalia, states are regarded as independent, each nation can give to its chief the title of emperor or of king, according as it approaches or withdraws from the political ideal, represented in pagan times by Cæsarism, and under Christianity by the holy empire.


—Is an empire more despotic than royalty? No, the parliamentary constitutions of contemporary empires and royalties are identical. But at empire is generally considered as a grant, and royalty as a right; a king represents himself, while an emperor represents the people; he is the embodiment of a quantity of collective power which extends to everything. A king is a great lord; an emperor is a functionary. A king may govern through the disposition of subjects by making appeal to their good-will, for he is a privileged person among other privileged persons, lords or commons. But the emperor must govern strictly, because he is a responsible agent. In fact the distinction disappears, because a change of constitution carries away in its rapidity the characteristics of supreme power; but it is plain why such and such a nation imposes upon its dynasty one of the two titles. A new dynasty, which has no ancestry and derives all its force from the law, is rather imperial than royal. A new nation, which has no aristocracy, arrives at a more positive conception of the law, and will demand a king in preference to an emperor.


415 of 1105

Return to top