Empires Strike Back

the six epochs when Imperial powers returned to dominate the ancient lands of Rome

Last updated: 15th September 2010.

While the Roman Empire at its height was comparable to the contemporary Han Chinese Empire in area and population, there is no comparison when one looks at how many states now lie substantially within their respective borders. For the Roman Empire the number is at least 30, not including micro-states. For the Han Empire, it is only two (China and North Korea). The Chinese Empire has risen and fallen several times over the millennia, often surpassing its extent in classical times. By contrast, the Roman Empire was irretrievably shattered by the events of the 5th and 6th centuries. No power has ever reunited the ancient lands of Rome. Nevertheless there were six epochs, since the fall of ancient Rome, when a handful of mighty Empires shared dominion over her realms.

This page explores those six epochs and those Empires (nine in number, with some reappearing at more than one epoch). To make such absurdly precise claims I have of course made some arbitrary, but mostly reasonable, definitions of terms:

The fourteen dioceses are shown in the map below, on the same scale as the other maps:

Mediterranean Empires Byzantine Frankish 561 Justinian Clothar

The only unreasonable definition in the above is to exclude Britain from the ancient realms of Rome. There is some historical justification for this omission: Britain was the last of these dioceses to be conquered (43 A.D.) and the first to be completely given up (410). But the real reason is pragmatic: if the diocese of Britain were included, there would be no epochs in which all the above conditions would be satisfied. Even if "a handful" of Empires was allowed to be five, there would only be one epoch, that around 1175, when the Angevin Empire ruled England and half of France, which would make for a rather boring web page.

The six years chosen on this web page are relatively evenly spaced, with a maximum separation of 376 years, a minimum of 164, and an average of 250. Not surprisingly, continuations of the Roman Empire, in the Byzantine, Carolingian, and Holy Roman Empires appear several times in these maps. So do many of the "successor Empires": the Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Napoleonic Empires. But a number of the Empires appear nowhere else in this site: the kingdom of France/the Franks, the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Almohad Caliphates, and the Ayyubid Sultanate. All of the maps carry information not found elsewhere on this site. Finally, there is a nice symmetry in that the number of Empires at each of these epochs goes as 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2. Perhaps in the 21st century we will return to a single state governing all of the Roman lands of old.

Note: to view these maps as a coarse "movie", first adjust the size of this window to be slightly larger than a map plus its title, then click on next (>) or previous (<) at the beginning of each title. To return to the Index of Maps, click on the up arrow (^).

Index of Maps

561 --   2 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of the Franks
811 --   3 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, the Frankish-Roman Empire, and the Abbasid Caliphate
975 --   4 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of France, and the Fatimid Caliphate
1175 -- 4 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Almohad Caliphate, and the Ayyubid Sultanate
1551 -- 3 Mighty Empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, and the Kingdom of France
1811 -- 2 Mighty Empires: the Ottoman Empire, and the Empire of the French

    ^  > 561 --   2 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of the Franks

Mediterranean Empires Byzantine Frankish 561 Justinian Clothar
Prior to Justinian's wars of reconquest (533-61) in the former western Empire, the "Byzantine" Empire comprised the eastern 7 of the 14 continental dioceses. The western 7 were divided among four powerful nations (the Ostrogoths, Vandals, Visigoths, and Franks) and some lesser ones. When Ostrogothic resistance in Italy finally ceased in 561, the Empire had added the best parts of 3 western dioceses, and substantial parts of another 2. Only the dioceses of Galliae and Septimania remained beyond Justinian's grasp, under the rule of the Franks. The Franks had benefited from being the first of the barbarians to covert to Orthodoxy, and from being most distant from Constantinople. At this time the Franks had a single king, Clothar, but his realm was divided between his sons on his death in 561.

<  ^  > 811 --  3 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, the Frankish-Roman Empire, and the Abbasid Caliphate

Empire Carolingian Byzantine Abbasid Caliphate Charlemagne 811 812
The Frankish realm was reunited twice more for short periods under the Merovingian kings. But it far surpassed its early extent under the succeeding dynasty, the Carolingians: Pepin (chancellor 687-714), his son Charles Matel (Major-Domo 714-41), his son Pepin the Great (sole ruler 743-51, king 751-68) and his son Charles the Great (sole king 771-800, emperor 800-814). Charlemagne's Imperial title, bestowed upon him by the Pope, was "Emperor governing the Roman Empire". The Byzantines however recognized him only as Emperor of the Franks. Their own Roman Empire had begun to decline within three years of Justinian's death, with the Lombard invasion of Italy in 568, and continued almost unabated for two centuries. The greatest cause of that decline was the rise of the first great Muslim Empire: the Umayyad Caliphate. Between 632 and 712, it conquered the four southern dioceses of Oriens, Aegyptus, Africa, and Hispaniae (except for the extreme north-west of the last). The Umayyad Caliphate does not appear on this page (though see here), because one must wait until c. 810 before the Byzantine Empire recovered enough territory from the Slavs to have a significant presence in all the Balkan dioceses. By this time, the Moslem world had been rent by a great civil war (747-756). The Umayyads clung to power in Spain, but even there they lost the north-east to Charlemagne (a territory just large enough to count as a substantial presence in Hispaniae). Elsewhere they were replaced by the Abbasid Caliphate, which however had little interest in Africa, losing its westernmost provinces and granting autonomy to the Aghlabid Emirate. In 811 a civil war began in the Abbasid Caliphate, and the Bulgars inflicted a comprehensive defeat on the Byzantines --- Nicephorus was the first Roman Emperor to die in battle since Valens in 378.

<  ^  > 975 --  4 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of France, and the Fatimid Caliphate

Fatimid Caliphate Holy Roman Empire Byzantine 975
The Abbasid Caliphate declined and fragmented, in fits and starts, until the role of Caliph was reduced to a purely spiritual one by c.943. By this time thre was a rival Caliphate, the Fatimids, who had replaced the Aghlabids in Africa in 909. The Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz (953-75) captured Cairo in 969 and Damascus in 970. The Byzantine Empire also took advantage of Moslem disunity to advance further into Oriens  than they would ever do again. Emperor John Tzimisces, having reconquered all of Thracia from the Bulgars in 971, retook Damascus from the Fatimid Caliphate in 975. He planned to push onwards to Jerusalem, but died the next year. Meanwhile, the Carolingian Empire had finally fallen apart in 888. The two largest successors were the kingdoms of France (here in red) and Germany. The reunification of the latter, under the Saxon King Otto, with Italy as far as Rome in 962 created the Holy Roman Empire (here in maroon), with Otto as its first Emperor. The kingdom of France (where the Carolingian dynasty persisted) still held suzerainty over the Catalan Counties in north-east Spain. Together with the Fatimid's territory in Morocco, these again just make the grade for a substantial presence in Hispaniae.

<  ^  > 1175 -- 4 Mighty Empires: the Byzantine-Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Almohad Caliphate, and the Ayyubid Sultanate

Almohad Caliphate Ayyubid Saladin Byzantine Empire Holy Roman 1175
In 985, Lothair, the last Carolingian King of France, ignored a plea for help from Barcelona against the Umayyad Caliphate, and thereby lost any influence his Kingdom had in Hispaniae. The Umayyads gained little, however, and from 1010 to 1031 their Caliphate was completely shattered by civil war. From 1069, a new power rose in the African part of Hispaniae, the Almoravid Empire, and it conquered all of Moslem Spain (which was, not surprisingly, rapidly shrinking) by 1115. Their successors, the Almohads, rose to power in the same place in the 1140s, but as well as replacing the Almoravids in Spain by 1172, they had conquered the whole of Africa by 1160. In this conquest they were not resisted by the Fatimids, as they, like the Abbasids before them, had allowed their western territories to slip into independence. The remnant Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt was attacked by both Crusaders and the Zangids, a Turkish people, but the latter emerged victorious in 1169. The Zangid ruler, Nureddin, was succeeded in 1174 by his famous Kurdish general Saladin, who founded the Ayyubid Sultanate. The Byzantines had by this time recovered somewhat (with help from the Crusaders) from a disastrous defeat by the Turks in 1071, but soon after suffered another crushing defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Myrocephalum in 1176. In the same year, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was defeated by the forces of the league of Lombard cities within his own territory in Italia Annonaria.

<  ^  > 1551 -- 3 Mighty Empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, and the Kingdom of France

Charles V Hapsburg Empire 1551 Ottoman
The hollowness of the Holy Roman Empire was fully exposed when the Papal States (including Rome) seceded in 1278. The Byzantine Empire had fallen more dramatically in 1204, when Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders. In 1212, the Almohad Caliphate lost Spain following a devastating defeat at the hands of a Christian coalition there, and by 1269 had ceased to exist. In the Mediterranean region, the age of Mighty Empires seemed over, except in the east where the Mamluke Sultanate had supplanted the Ayyubid Sultanate, and now held the line against the Mongol Khanates. The Mamlukes, like the Zangids who had preceded the Ayyubids, were a Turkish people, and had been warrior-slaves under the Ayyubids. The Mamluke Sultanate was finally conquered by the Ottomans, another Turkish people, in 1516-7. By this time the Ottoman Empire had also eliminated the feeble remnants of the Byzantine Empire (giving Constantinople its second sack in 1453) and conquered almost the whole of the 7 eastern dioceses. Continuing this seemingly unstoppable expansion, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) went on to capture much of Hungary by 1538, and most of Africa by 1551. At this time, a worthy Christian rival had finally arisen: the Hapsburg King Charles V of Spain (1516-56), the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope. The title itself held little significance, but Charles' power in Spain, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, and the New World, was very real indeed. He had inherited most of his territories through various accidents, and needed all his resources and wits to protect them from the Ottomans and their oft-time ally, the Kingdom of France. The latter had only recently emerged, under Francis I (1515-47), from its feudal period of provincial autonomy. Francis' successor Henry II renewed the war against the Hapsburgs in 1551, allied with Charles' nominal subjects, the Protestant Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, and had some early successes. Charles V abdicated in 1556, dividing his Empire between his brother (Austria and the Imperial title) and his son (Spain and everything else).

<  ^    1811 -- 2 Mighty Empires: the Ottoman Empire, and the Empire of the French

Napoleonic Empire of the French 1811 1812 Ottoman
France, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs continued to dominate the once-Roman lands, until the war of the Spanish succession and its aftermath (1701-20). This resulted in the Austrian Hapsburgs taking over the scattered European territories of Spain (now under a Bourbon King), confining it to Hispaniae. But by 1735 the Austrians had lost the Kingdom of Naples, and with it their presence in Italia Suburbicaria. It was left to Napoleon, Emperor of the French (1804-14), to recreate a western Empire to rival the Ottomans. His Empire reached its peak in 1811, but fell to nothing (outside France) within a few years, following his catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812. The Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, was well past its peak by this time, but remarkably continued to dominate the 7 eastern dioceses, and have a substantial presence in another 2 (Africa and Illyria), until 1878. Its continuation, the Turkish republic (1923-), still occupies 2 (Pontus and Asiana) and has a substantial presence in another 2 (Thraciae and Oriens). While Britain, France and Italy built overseas Empires in former Ottoman lands, and Germany and Italy conquered vast areas in Europe in the 2nd World War, Hispania always remained under the control of the minor powers of Spain and Portugal. Even if we were to regard the European Union (which has included Spain and Portugal since its formation in 1993) as an Empire, there has been no substantial presence of any "Mighty Empire'' in the diocese of Africa since the French withdrew in 1962. Thus there is yet to be a seventh epoch when a handful of mighty Empires shared dominion over the former lands of the Roman Empire.

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