On 25 December 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish kingCharlemagne as Emperor, reviving the title in Western Europe, more than three centuries after the fall of the earlier ancient Western Roman Empire in 476. The title continued in the Carolingian family until 888 and from 896 to 899, after which it was contested by the rulers of Italy in a series of civil wars until the death of the last Italian claimant, Berengar I, in 924. The title was revived again in 962 when Otto I was crowned emperor, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne and beginning a continuous existence of the empire for over eight centuries. Some historians refer to the coronation of Charlemagne as the origin of the empire, while others prefer the coronation of Otto I as its beginning. Scholars generally concur, however, in relating an evolution of the institutions and principles constituting the empire, describing a gradual assumption of the imperial title and role.
The exact term "Holy Roman Empire" was not used until the 13th century, but the concept of translatio imperii,[d] the notion that he—the sovereign ruler—held supreme power inherited from the ancient emperors of Rome, was fundamental to the prestige of the emperor. The office of Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally elective, although frequently controlled by dynasties. The mostly German prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers as "King of the Romans", and he would later be crowned emperor by the Pope; the tradition of papal coronations was discontinued in the 16th century.
Double-headed eagle with coats of arms of individual states, the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire (painting from 1510)
In various languages the Holy Roman Empire was known as: Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum, German: Heiliges Römisches Reich, Spanish: Sacro Imperio Romano Germánico, Italian: Sacro Romano Impero, Czech: Svatá říše římská, Polish: Święte imperium rzymskie, Slovene: Sveto rimsko cesarstvo, Dutch: Heilige Roomse Rijk, French: Saint-Empire romain. Before 1157, the realm was merely referred to as the Roman Empire. The term sacrum ("holy", in the sense of "consecrated") in connection with the medieval Roman Empire was used beginning in 1157 under Frederick I Barbarossa ("Holy Empire"): the term was added to reflect Frederick's ambition to dominate Italy and the Papacy. The form "Holy Roman Empire" is attested from 1254 onward.
In a decree following the 1512 Diet of Cologne, the name was changed to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (German: Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation, Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum Nationis Germanicæ), a form first used in a document in 1474. The new title was adopted partly because the Empire had lost most of its Italian and Burgundian (Kingdom of Arles) territories to the south and west by the late 15th century, but also to emphasize the new importance of the German Imperial Estates in ruling the Empire due to the Imperial Reform. By the end of the 18th century, the term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" had fallen out of official use. Contradicting the traditional view concerning that designation, Hermann Weisert has argued in a study on imperial titulature that, despite the claims of many textbooks, the name "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" never had an official status and points out that documents were thirty times as likely to omit the national suffix as include it.
In a famous assessment of the name, the political philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) remarked sardonically: "This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."