TW Viewpoint | The Restoration of Rome Part 5 - Napoleon

January 08, 2020 | Stuart Wachowicz

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By the late 1700’s Hapsburg power had declined severely from its high point in the heady days of Charles V in the early 1500’s. The situation lead Voltaire to remark: "This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." (Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations, Chapter 70 (1756) However, the dream of a unified Europe would not be lost. A Corsican general would burst on the scene and culminate in one of the most fascinating coronations in history.

The Habsburg Empire had declined under the pressure of European wars and the resulting social and economic instability. The old order was changing. Great Britain was becoming the world’s dominant power, eclipsing its continental counterparts. In France the excesses of the monarchy, as well as financial support to the rebellion of the American colonies left much of the French population in a state of economic depravity, creating an environment ripe for confrontation.

Inspired by a combination of the values of the evolving British political system, the social revolution in America and the influence of the social philosophies of Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire, which encouraged a more egalitarian social order undercutting the sharp class distinctions, the French Revolution began.

The actual revolution commenced as a movement as early as 1787, exploding in full force in 1789, spurred on by a major crop failure the previous year. Orderly governance of the nation fell apart as many factions (bourgeois, peasants and royalists) engaged one another. It was a terrible time which is described by the term, “Reign of Terror” (1793-1794). Rulers of surrounding nations feared revolts in their own lands and foreign wars added to the stress of France.

A royalist effort to regain control of the nation was defeated in 1795 by a force led by a young Corsican officer, who had already, at age 26, risen to be the youngest general in the French army.

Napoleon Bonaparte had been born on the island of Corsica in 1769, only one year after the island had been sold by the kingdom of Genoa to the Kingdom of France. Napoleon’s father was a lawyer of noble birth, and also served as the representative of Corsica to the court of Louis XVI.

At a relatively young age Napoleon attended a famed military academy, excelling in mathematics and history. In 1785, when only 16 years of age, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in a French artillery regiment. During the period after the French Revolution broke out, Napoleon fought in a number of engagements as foreign armies threatened France. He distinguished himself in strategic prowess, and in his twenties rose to the rank of general. In 1798 he led an expedition to Egypt, where on land he was successful, but British Admiral Nelson’s brilliant victory over the French navy in the Nile caused Napoleon to return to France.

Part of the reason for his return is an invitation from one of the Revolutionary leaders (Sieyès), who needed a sound person to participate in a coup to overthrown the existing government.

Napoleon was a willing participant and the government was now in the hands of three Consuls, with Napoleon being the First Consul. After ten years of chaos, France was ready to have the stability offered by a dictator. Napoleon immediately began a series of reforms to put France on a much more stable footing:

In the course of the Revolution, the Republic launched an attack on Catholicism in France. Napoleon, although not personally religious, sensed the unpopularity of the anti-Catholic stance, so for political reasons he mended fences with the Vatican. An agreement was negotiated with Rome in 1801, called “The Concordat”. The Pope, who was now in a position of weakness, accepted French authority in the appointment of bishops and relinquished ownership of state-confiscated lands. France, in turn, agreed to pay the salaries of the clergy, and recognized Catholicism as the state religion. Thus the Church and Napoleon acknowledged their mutual dependence.

In 1804, due to a series of royalist plots, advisors suggested that Napoleon become Emperor of France. The idea was put to the people in a referendum (no secret ballots), and over 99% of the vote was favourable. Preparations were made for a great coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral. Pope Pius VII was invited to Paris to officiate in a ceremony that had all the trappings of Imperial Rome. Napoleon permitted the Pope to anoint him, but placed the crown on his own head, to symbolize his authority over the Church. The imagery of the event harkened back to the Caesars, of whom Napoleon considered himself an heir.

“I am a true Roman Emperor; I am the best of the Caesars…” (Napoleon, 1812)

He also believed himself to be a successor, not of the kings of France, but of Charlemagne, even though Francis II had renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and dissolved the Empire in 1806 after his defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz. That year, Napoleon crowned himself with the “iron crown” of the Lombards (the crown of the Holy Roman Empire). He stated:

“Tell them…that I am Charlemagne, the sword of the Church, their Emperor…”

Alas this new Caesar would have a short-lived Empire. Despite the great reforms he initiated domestically, foreign wars eroded France’s strength, wealth and will. Britain starved France with the Continental Blockade, and German, Russian and other forces began to defeat Napoleon’s once victorious armies. Finally in 1815 the last battle against the British and the Prussians at Waterloo ended the dream of a new Roman Empire.

Napoleon died six years later, a prisoner of the British, of gastric cancer while on the island of St. Helena. The fifth restoration of the Roman system of Church and State was at an end.

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