Long before its closing chapter was written, people had been filing the empire’s obituary. In 1787, speculating on what form of government the newly independent American colonies should adopt, James Madison built part of his case for a strong federal union by pointing to what he considered the feeble example of the Holy Roman Empire, “a nerveless body; incapable of regulating its own members, insecure against external dangers; and agitated with unceasing fermentation in its own bowels.” Its history, said Madison, was little more than a catalogue “of licentiousness of the strong, and the oppression of the weak . . . of general imbecility, confusion and misery.” By then, the empire had survived for 976 years and was understandably infirm. Given the rather frayed state of the American union after a mere 240 years of independence, one can’t help but wonder what sort of shape—if any—it’ll be in at age 976.
Professor Wilson has made a major scholarly contribution by providing an informed, unclouded view of one of history’s great anomalies. It’s a pity that Western naturalists had not reached Australia in the early years of the Holy Roman Empire. If they had, they could have suggested the perfect animal to support its heraldic crest: the platypus. With its duck’s bill and webbed feet, its beaver-like fur coat and tail, and its hybrid status as an egg-laying mammal, the platypus is as much of an oddity in the animal kingdom as the empire was in the geopolitical realm. The empire lasted a thousand years and the platypus is still with us. Both of them remind us that what seems awkward, inefficient and absurd at first glance may yet contain a hidden value and vitality.
Unlike the platypus and the empire, the structure of Professor Wilson’s definitive work is almost too logical. By organizing his text to consider the empire from four different perspectives—its idealistic origins, its physical composition, its governance and its social structure—he has divided one large narrative into four subsections, each of which could form a short book in itself. This makes a simple, chronological account impossible, but offers the reader multiple perspectives of a complex and fascinating subject. And it is a subject that may still have relevance to a Europe that seemed to leave it behind in 1806. The author concludes,
Like current practice within the EU, the Empire relied on peer pressure, which was often more effective and less costly than coercion, and which functioned thanks to the broad acceptance of the wider framework of a common political culture. However, our review of the Empire has also revealed that these structures were far from perfect and could fail, even catastrophically. Success usually depended on compromise and fudge. Although outwardly stressing unity and harmony, the Empire in fact functioned by accepting disagreement and disgruntlement as permanent elements of its internal politics. Rather than providing a blueprint for today’s Europe, the history of the Empire suggests ways in which we might understand current problems more clearly.
Perhaps the only new lessons history has to offer are the old ones we’ve forgotten.
Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and as a member of the National Council for the Humanities. His writing on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts has been widely published in the United States and overseas.
Image: François Gérard’s The Battle of Austerlitz. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain