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Emperor is also a Norwegian black metal band: see Emperor (band). See also The Emperor disambiguation page.

An emperor is a monarch and sovereign ruler of an empire or any other imperial realm. Emperors are generally recognised to be above kings in honour. An empress is a female emperor. The most famous empress recently has been Queen Victoria, Empress of India.

The use of the word emperor across traditions from several parts of the world makes it pretty much a mixed bag concept. Emperors were defined as different from kings for a variety of reasons, amongst others:

  • for avoidance of the word "king" (example: Ancient Rome)
  • as a king above other kings or "king of kings" (examples: Persia/Iran and Ethiopia)
  • as the name for a king with mythological and/or divine characteristics (example: China; see also Imperial cult)
  • as a translation issue, for distinguishing the several types of rulers in foreign monarchies (example: Japan)

Across these traditions emperors obtained their position by inheritance and/or by election and/or by force (such as a coup d'état) and/or by accumulation of offices,... Augustus, who generally is considered the first Roman Emperor, combined all of these:

  • He inherited part of his power from the by that time "divine" Julius Caesar;
  • He was elected by the Roman senate to several offices, titles and honours, some of which were made perpetual for the first time by the votes of the senators;
  • By force he got rid of (amongst others) Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, the most important contestors of his power;
  • He accumulated about every "top function" there was in the Roman Republic.

Derivation of emperor

The English term for emperor is derived from the Latin imperator (literally, "one who prepares against"; loosely, "commander"). In German the title Kaiser (Császár in Hungarian) was used in both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire. In some Slavic languages tsar was used. Both of these are derived from Caesar.

Historical development

Roman Emperors

Main article: Roman emperor

Ancient Rome

Imperator was originally a title used by the highest-ranking Roman commanders, roughly comparable to field marshal or commander-in-chief. Caesar was a traditional family cognomen (nickname) of Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC), who was not so much the first emperor than the last dictator of the Roman Republic. The name of Caesar lived on by adoption in the first Roman Emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (better known as Caesar Augustus).

Being Emperor in the Roman Empire was not a constitutional office but rather a complicated collection of offices, titles, and honours, that were consolidated around a single person (while in the republic the "taking of turns", often in shared offices, had been the principle for passing on power). The first Roman Emperors did not rule by the virtue of any particular republican or senatorial office, neither did they derive their power directly from the title Princeps ("First Citizen") as such: they had enough offices and powers accumulated that in any field of power they were "unsurpassable", and besides: everybody just knew they had supreme power. Eventually that supreme power could be demonstrated by a proces for high treason, or poisoning, or whatever, for those who gave semblance not to understand.

The first Roman Emperors could not be qualified anything near king of kings, while in the late Republic being "king" for a Roman ruler was anathema. Even where some ally kings had to be "ruled", it would as a rule not be the Emperor who got involved directly: depending on case it would be the army generals or consuls, etc, who would deal with these kings. In ancient Rome the name for qualifying these persons who had supreme power after the epoch of the republic, rather grew from the necessity to avoid the word "king", hence the long list of different names to indicate that power: Emperor/imperator - "Caesar" - "princeps" - etc.

Eastern Roman Empire

After the title of Emperor had disappeared by the end of the 5th century in Western Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), still continued for about a millennium until 1453, where the name of the office of its rulers would afterwards be translated to "Emperor" in English, although the Greek term, Basileus, used from the time of Emperor Heraclius in the 7th century on, had originally meant King. After the capture of Constantinople by western Crusaders in 1204, one of their number became so-called Latin Emperor of Constantinople. Although Constantinople was recaptured by the Greeks in 1261, there continued a titular Latin Emperor until at least the mid-14th century.

Following the final fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Turkish sultan sometimes designated himself as successor to the Roman Emperors, and used the title of Emperor in addition to that of Sultan.

Further use of the title in western Europe

Holy Roman Empire

On December 25, 800, at a time when the throne of the Eastern Empire was being usurped by a woman, Irene, Charles I, King of the Franks , was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome. This was seen as a revival of the Western Empire, and descendants of Charlemagne continued to be crowned in Rome through the 9th century. The increasing divisions within the Frankish lands, however, led to a suspension of the office. In 962, Otto I, King of Eastern Francis (or Germany) was again crowned Emperor by the Pope. His successors became known as Holy Roman Emperors. The Holy Roman Empire, such as it was, consisted of the Kingdoms of Germany , Italy, and Burgundy . After the 13th century and the fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the universalistic aspirations of the Emperors became increasingly theoretical, and their control over Italy, still seen as the locus of the proper empire, became increasingly tenuous. Rather than being hereditary, emperors were elected by the great German magnates, in a process codified by the Golden Bull of 1356. Coronations in Rome became rarer and rarer, until in 1508, King Maximilian I declared himself Emperor-Elect without having been crowned in Rome. Although Maximilian's grandson and successor, Charles V, was crowned in Bologna by the Pope, he was the last, and thereafter the position of Holy Roman Emperor was a wholly German post until the Empire's dissolution in August 6, 1806. Even in Germany itself, real control was increasingly tenuous, as various local princes put increasing amounts of power into his own hands, so that the Habsburg emperors who ruled almost continuously from 1438 until the end of the empire derived their power much more from their hereditary lands in the eastern part of the monarchy than from their position as emperor. This became even more true after the defeat of Habsburg attempts to reassert authority over the Empire in the Thirty Years War, which ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The impotence of the Emperors' position became most nakedly apparent during the brief reign of Charles VII from 1742 to 1745. As Duke of Bavaria, Charles was the only non-Habsburg emperor for the last three hundred fifty years of the empire's existence, and his utter inability even to protect his own hereditary lands from the forces of his enemy, Maria Theresa, the Habsburg heiress, showed how empty the position of Holy Roman Emperor had become. The conquests of the French revolutionary armies in the 1790s made the Empire itself untenable, so that Emperor Francis II in 1804 took the title of Emperor of Austria as Francis I, and ultimately, allowed (perhaps illegally) the dissolution of the Empire two years later.


The exclusivity of the title Emperor in western Europe was lost on October 31, 1721 when, at the request of his jubilant Senate and the Holy Synod, the recent victor of the 21-year-long Great Northern War Peter I ("Peter the Great") proclaimed the establishment of the Russian Empire and accepted the title Emperor of Russia in addition to the traditional (since 1547) title of Tsar of specific lands, which itself can be considered to be an equivalent term to Emperor. He based his claim partially upon a letter discovered in 1717 written in 1514 from Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor to Vasili III, Grand Duke of Moscow, in which the Holy Roman Emperor used the term in referring to Vasily. The title has not been used in Russia since the consecutive abdications of Emperor Saint Nicholas II and his brother Grand Duke Michael on March 15, 1917.


Napoleon I declared himself Emperor of the French on May 18, 1804. He relinquished the title of Emperor of the French on April 6 and again on April 11, 1814, but was allowed to style himself Emperor of Elba, the island of his first exile. After his attempted restoration and defeat in 1815 he was stripped of even that usage during his second exile. His nephew Napoleon III resurrected the title on December 2, 1852 after establishing the Second French Empire in a Coup d'état, and lost it when he was deposed on September 4, 1870 by the Third Republic. It has not been used in France since then.


On August 11, 1804 anticipating the eventual collapse of the Holy Roman Empire (the "First Reich") at the behest of Napoleon I, Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire assumed the additional title of Emperor of Austria (as Francis I thereof). The precaution was a wise one, because two years later on August 6 1806 he was obliged to proclaim the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. The title has not been used in Austria since Emperor Karl of Austria "relinquished every participation in the administration of the State" on November 11 1918.


Upon the formation of the Second Reich the Prussian king had himself crowned German Emperor as Wilhelm I on January 18 1871, as part of the competition with the Emperor of Austria for dominance in the German-speaking lands. The Prussian Crown Prince was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria, and when he came to the throne his wife would naturally carry the title of Empress, outranking her more-powerful mother whose title was merely Queen. The title was no longer used in Germany after the announcement of the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II on November 9 1918.

United Kingdom

It being intolerable to the British that their mighty Queen be outranked by her own daughter, and encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1876, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom followed suit and was given the additional title Empress of India by an Act of Parliament. That title was relinquished by George VI with effect from August 15 1947, when India was granted independence.

(In 1801 when Great Britain was united with the Kingdom of Ireland, it was proposed that George III become Emperor of the British and Hanoverian Dominions, and therefore Emperor of the British Empire. George III however rejected the idea, favouring the traditional title of king.)

Other traditions

Persia (Iran)

In Persia (or Iran), from the time of the Cyrus the Great, Persian rulers used the title "Shahanshah" which is sometimes translated as emperor and is literally "King of Kings". Persians were founders of one of the earliest and largest empires of the world, extending from India to Greece and Lybia. The last Shah abdicated in 1979, when Iran became a republic. See also: List of kings of Persia


In Ethiopia, Emperors claiming descent from the ancient King Solomon of the Israelites, and the Queen of Sheba, used the title of "Niguse Negest" which also translates to Emperor and is literally "King of Kings" as well. This title ended following revolution in 1975. From 1936 to 1941, the Kings of Italy, which had conquered Ethiopia, took the title of Emperor of Ethiopia.


In 221 BC, Zheng, who was king of Qin at the time, proclaimed himself shi huangdi, where huangdi is generally translated as "emperor", and shi as "first (generation)" or "commencing". huangdi is composed of huang ("august one") and di ("sage-king"), and referred to some sort of legendary/mythological sage-emperors (supposed to be) living several millenia earlier, of which three were huang and five were di (the sānhuáng wǔdě, see: The Three August Ones and the Five Emperors). Thus Zheng became Qin Shi Huang, abolishing the system where the huang/di titles were reserved to dead and/or mythological rulers. The shi indicated he was the first to wear it, and so started the Qin Dynasty.

The imperial title continued in China until the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1912. The title was briefly revived in 1916 and again in 1917.


In Japan a ruler in Yamato court was called "Tenno" (usually translated as emperor), although Japan is usually not considered an "empire" in the traditional sense of the word except during the brief period of the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa emperors. In the Japanese language, tenno is strictly distinguished from koutei who rules an empire — both are translated as emperor. Often in Japan, retired emperors would wield effective power over a child-emperor. At other times, a Shogun or Regent would wield effective power. By the end of the 20th century Japan was the only (real) country with an Emperor on the throne.


Haiti was declared an empire by its rulers, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who made himself Jacques I, in 1804. He was assassinated two years later. Haiti again became an empire from 1847 to 1859.


Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822, and made Dom Pedro, eldest son of the then-King of Portugal, who was acting as Regent, Emperor as Pedro I. The empire came to an end with the overthrow of Emperor Pedro II in 1889.


In Mexico, there were two short-lived attempts to create an Empire. Agustín de Iturbide, the general who helped secure Mexican independence from Spanish rule, was proclaimed Emperor Agustín I in 1822, but was overthrown the next year. In 1863, the invading French, in alliance with Mexican conservatives, proclaimed an empire and invited Archduke Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian Emperor, to become emperor as Maximilian I. After the withdrawal of French protection in 1867, Maximilian was captured and executed by liberal forces.


Following the Chinese defeat by Japan in 1895, Korea declared total independence from China, and its King took the title of Taehan Hwangje, translated as Emperor. The empire came to an end with Japanese annexation in 1910.


After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, they proclaimed it to be the Empire of Manchukuo, and Pu Yi, the last Qing emperor of China, became puppet emperor. This puppet state came to an end with the Japanese defeat in 1945.


Although the Vietnamese rulers acknowledged the supremacy of China, and were known to the Chinese emperors as simply Kings of Annam, domestically they took on a full Chinese-style imperial regalia in 1806, and are usually referred to as Emperors in English. The line of Emperors came to an end with Bao Dai, who was deposed in 1945, although he later served as head of state of South Vietnam from 1949 to 1955.

Central African Empire

In 1976, president Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, proclaimed the country to be the Central African Empire, and made himself Emperor as Bokassa I. The expenses of his coronation ceremony actually bankrupted the country, and he was overthrown three years later, and the republic restored.

Lists of emperors

Emperors of traditional empires

Ancient empires

Medieval empires

Newer empires

Emperors of short-lived 'empires'

Self-proclaimed emperors

Fictional emperors

see list of fictional rulers

Fictional emperors by empire

Fictional emperors without named empire


  1. Although the Emperor of Japan (born 1945) is classified as constitutional Monarch Emperor among political scientists, the constitution of Japan defines him only as a symbol of the nation and no law states his status as a political monarch or otherwise.
  2. Although not an Empire in the traditional sense of a large state with a large culturally diverse population, the Ethiopian monarchy (abolished in 1974) referred to its monarchs as Emperors.

See also

Last updated: 10-19-2005 08:27:44
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