Can The Roman Empire Be Transferred? Chapter 29 ~ William Of Ockham

PUCELLE, Jean 
Book of Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux 
1325-28 

What is the source of the Roman Empire?

Opinion 2: The Roman Empire was established by God through the Roman people

Can The Roman Empire Be Transferred?

Chapter 29

Student There are still more things that remain to be dealt with concerning the origin of the Roman empire and perhaps an opportunity will arise later to talk about these. So putting them aside for the moment let us investigate whether the Roman empire can licitly be ruined, destroyed, made smaller, divided or transferred. And so let us ask first whether the Roman empire can be transferred.

Master That the Roman empire can be transferred is proved by three examples. The first is that it was transferred from the Romans to the Greeks (dist. 96, c. Constantinus [c.14, col.342]). The second is that it was transferred from the Greeks to the Germans, in the person of Charlemagne (Extra, De electione, c. Venerabilem [c.34, col.79]). The third is that it was transferred from the Franks to the Teutons. Whence a gloss on the word Franks in dist. 63, c. Ego Ludovicus [c.30, col.329] says, "Note that the empire of the Franks was earlier, but later the Teutons deserved the empire because of their virtues.

Student It does not appear that it should be doubted that the Roman empire can be transferred from people to people. But to many people it perhaps seems doubtful how and by whom it can be transferred. Tell me, therefore, how, according to some people's opinion, the empire can be transferred.

Master The Roman empire can be understood to be transferred in many ways: in one way the empire is so transferred from the Romans that it is no longer the Roman empire, that is that the Romans have no particular right in the empire more than other nations. The empire can be transferred from the Romans in another way, so that it remains the Roman empire and the Romans have some power or particular right in the empire more than other nations. And a translation of this kind can be further understood in many ways: in one way so that the empire is given to someone whose descendants possess the Roman empire by right of succession; in another way so that it is decreed that the emperor is elected from a certain nation or people, if it were ordained, for instance, that no one should be elected emperor unless he is a Teuton; in another way that the power and right to elect an emperor from any nation at all is given to some person or persons.

Student Who has the power to transfer the empire in one way or another?

Master The reply is that the power to transfer the empire in one way or another belongs principally to the totality of mortals, just as the power of establishing the empire belongs principally to them. If the totality of mortals wished to do so, therefore, they could transfer the Roman empire from any people at all to another.

Student Could the totality of mortals, with the exception of the Romans, transfer the Roman empire from the Romans?

Master The reply is that the whole rest of the world could not transfer the empire from the Romans despite their opposition without some fault of theirs or some clear reason, because they should not be deprived of their right without some fault or reason. Nevertheless, if there were some fault of the Romans or some reason, the rest of the world could transfer the empire from them, because, as we read in dist. 93, c. Legimus [c.24, col.327], "The world is greater than the city." This is not only true of the world as it includes the city, in that the whole is greater than a part of it, but it also represents the truth about the world as distinguished from the city. And so the power of transferring for a reason or because of a fault of the Romans is in the power of the rest of the world. However, the power of transferring the empire secondarily is, according to one opinion, in the power of the Romans. For because anyone can cede a right of his and grant it to another, the Romans can cede the right that they have over the empire and transfer that same right to another or to others, just as the Roman people transferred to an emperor the power of making laws and ruling the empire. There are nevertheless various opinions about the way of transferring the empire by the Romans. One is that the Romans were not and are not able to transfer the empire from themselves in the first way, so that, that is, they retain no particular right over the empire more than other nations. For just as an emperor can not impose a law on an emperor because he does not have the empire from an emperor and can not, therefore, deprive his successor of any right which he has, so the Roman people can not impose a law on the people to come and can not deprive them of any right which they have over the empire. And so the Roman people can not cede any right that they have over the empire. Another opinion is that the Roman people could cede every right that they have over the empire. They could also transfer every right to another or to others. For although an agreement among individuals does not modify a public right (Extra, De foro competenti, c. Si diligenti [c.12, col.251]), yet by the agreement and consent of the whole community which some public right affects, that public right is modified, as long as that public right is not a divine or natural right but is a positive and human right. For although no cleric can renounce the clerical privilege which has been granted to the whole college of clerics, yet the whole college of clerics could renounce that privilege. Since the right that the Romans have over the empire, therefore, is a human and positive right, although it is a public right granted to the community of the Romans, that right could, with the agreement of the whole community of the Romans, be modified. And so with their agreement that right can be totally transferred to another or to others.


William of Ockham, Dialogus
part 3, tract 2, book 1, chapters 18-31

Text and translation by John Scott.
Copyright (c) 1999, The British Academy

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