Translatio imperii

And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.

Daniel 2:39-40, KJV

It’s axiomatic that the more you poke into medieval Matters, and other matters medieval, the more frequently you’ll stir up emberish kings claiming descent from Trojan refugees.

It isn’t totally clear that this tradition began with patrician Roman families like the Julii – who were surely less interested in being associated with the losers of a legendary war than in the semi-divine status conferred by lineage from Homeric characters like Aeneas (a literal love child, of Aphrodite and Anchises); a knot that subsequent, Christian kings would try to undo by re-tracing the ancestry of Trojan heroes back to descendants of Noah rather than pagan gods – but what they, the early Caesars they produced, and the imperial poets who mollycoddled them did with the idea spawned all sorts of imitators in the millennium that followed the dissolution of the western Roman Empire.

While visiting London in November, before a foodborne illness caused the distinction between my insides and outside to thin, I stumbled onto the Lord Mayor’s Show, where effigies of the giants Gog and Magog were paraded. If Geoffrey of Monmouth is to be believed – which, now that I’ve reintroduced whisky into my diet, I make a firm practice of doing – one of these giants was originally a Trojan: Corineus, who accompanied Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, to the island he’d rename Britain after himself, and, settle, having first hurled its last, largest indigenous giant off a seaside cliff, in a region he’d name Cornwall after himself. That giant’s name, depending on the source, was either something like Gawr Madoc or else, garbled in unfamiliar mouths, Gogmagog.

Geoffrey got the idea of Brutus for his 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae from the 9th-century Historia Brittonum; all the subsequent Bruts, starting with Wace’s Roman de Brut, got it from him. The anonymous group that compiled the Historia Brittonum (eventually attributed, “Luther Blissett”-style, to “Nennius”) were undoubtedly familiar with the 7th-century Chronicle of Fredegar, in which the lineage of the Merovingian dynasty is traced back to Astyanax – the son of Hector, crown prince of Troy – who would later be called Francus and sire the Franks.  

When, in the 9th century, Charlemagne caught the Frankish baton, his claim of descent from Aeneas – i.e., Hector’s second cousin, rather than Hector (and therefore Priam) himself – raised an interesting question to do with the medieval concept of Translatio imperii – that is, transfer of rule – from Rome to whomsoever was strong enough to seize and hold power in the aftermath of the western empire for himself and his children, however briefly; namely, whether one’s claim to imperium was stronger the closer one got to direct descent from the specific Trojan the Julii emperors claimed to be be descended from, or from those whose rule extended over Troy itself, Aeneas included.

Subsequent European dynasties went back and forth on this. According to his biographer, Wipo of Burgundy, Conrad II, the first of four Sallic kings also crowned Holy Roman Emperor, was descended from one scion of the royal Trojan house through his mother, Adelaide of Metz. In the Gesta Hungarorum, an anonymous 13th-century chronicle of the Hungarians (which cites Dares Phrygius as its authority, no less!), the claim to lineal descent for the Dacian-Transylvanian princes flowed through a different son of Troy.

In his prologue to the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson wrote that Odin was descended from a population of Trojan refugees that intermarried with Thracian sibyls, and that Asgard was another name for Troy.

Twenty year earlier, in 1204, at the climax of the Fourth Crusade, European soldiers sacked Christian Constantinople. I’ve read that French aristocrats justified this outrage, at least in part, as being punitive against the Greeks on behalf of their Trojan ancestors. I’m not sure how believable that is, but I love it anyway.

I also love the fact that there were post-Byzantine panegyrics – composed for predictable reasons – that claimed Mehmed II was descended from the Trojans and had, in conquering Constantinople, simply re-fought the ancient conflict with a better outcome. Suffice it say that Mehmed, who declared himself Kayser-i Rûm (Caesar of Rome) in 1453, and whose Ottomans had emerged from the ashes of the Sultanate of Rûm, was no stranger to the idea of Troy.

Whether associated geographically with Achilleion (in the Troad; one of several towns so-named in ancient Turkey) or the Sigeion promontory a few miles north that antiphrastically marks the ‘Silent’ mouth of the Hellespont, for at least fifteen hundred years since the Greek archaic this tumulus in northwestern Anatolia, now called Beşiktepe, was regarded as the tomb of Achilles. According to Plutarch, Alexander paused at it in 334 BC to pay his (naked, oiled) respects en route to his Asian conquests. Five centuries years later, in 216 AD, the Roman emperor Caracalla – an extreme Mégas Aléxandros fanboy (who may have gone so far as to pocket the nose of his idol’s embalmed corpse in Alexandria) – marched his legions toward war with the Parthians via Beşiktepe in a self-conscious historical echo.

And coming from the other direction in 1453, Mehmed, just twenty-one at the time, did the same – for slightly more complicated historical reasons, presumably – before he stamped out the last embers of the Imperium Graecorum and got himself re-branded Mehmed the Conqueror.

2 Responses to “Translatio imperii”

  1. priezza Says:

    Good one. 

  2. wchambliss Says:


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