The Last Descendant of Aeneas

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The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor

Marie Tanner

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From antiquity to the eve of the modern era, rulers of Western empires inspired hero worship by proclaiming their divine origins. In this fascinating original study, Marie Tanner presents the history of the emperor's mythic image and its continuing influence on Western political thought. She shows that these pretensions to divinity were based on the Trojan legend and the myth of Rome as developed in Vergil’s Aeneid and that later Christian emperors expanded these claims by tracing their lineage not only to the pagan gods but also to the priest-kings of the Old Testament. Through this amalgam of heritages each successive Holy Roman emperor proclaimed that he was the last descendant of Aeneas, destined to yield the terrestrial rule of Rome to Christ and thereby inaugurate millennial peace.

By examining a wide range of literary, artistic, and historical sources plus a corpus of new illustrations, Tanner discovers remarkable chains of evidence for this process, one that culminates with the Renaissance Hapsburgs who imbued the holiest symbols of the faith with dynastic meaning as they attempted to consolidate all priestly and secular powers in their grip. On these foundations Philip II of Spain, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the first monarch to rule the four known continents, created a new concept of absolute monarchy that shaped the principles of modern statecraft and determined the dominant form of government in Europe for the next two centuries.

Marie Tanner has taught at Rutgers University and at Queens College of the City University of New York, and is currently an independent scholar residing in New York City.

"Tanner has traced the evolution of the thinking behind the imperial image in the West from its beginnings up to the end of the Renaissance. This epic story, of mythmaking and the persuasive power of a historical heritage, is an impressive and original achievement."—John Beldon Scott, University of Iowa

"A lively and sweeping exposition of the history of a body of ideas as it underwent continuous development from antiquity to the sixteenth century."—Choice

"[Tanner] conducts her reader on an exhilarating journey through an exotic and luxuriant landscape of human imagination, eking out her own enthusiasm with the help of the lavish artistic creations which it engendered. . . . We should be grateful to Tanner for this sympathetic examination of a world of allusion whose "deeper resonances," as she repeatedly insists, have often been neglected by scholars."—R.J.W. Evans, New York Review of Books

"It is exhaustively detailed, rich in fine illustrations, and will clearly be a vital work of reference for years to come."—Anthony Pagden, Times Higher Education Supplement

"An ambitious undertaking. . . . Tanner's important study opens up new vistas for the scholar tracking the power of myth and image in early modern Europe."—Howard Louthan, Renaissance Quarterly

"Tanner skillfully combines her talent as an iconographer and literary historian to produce a handsome volume of cultural history."—H. Liebel-Weckowicz, American Historical Review

"A stimulating, well-written book, which contains many interesting illustrations, and the extensive notes and index make it a valuable source of reference."—Rosemarie Mulcahy, Apollo

"A useful addition to the fast-growing literature on the public images of early modern European monarchs. . . . The main value of her book is in providing a synthesis, a general discussion of some recurrent themes in Habsburg propaganda and of their inter-connections."—Peter Burke, English Historical Review

"[A] riveting and beautiful book. . . . A fascinating book."—Anne Lake Prescott, Comparative Literature Studies

Winner of a 1993 George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award given by the Art Libraries Society of North America
ISBN: 9780300054880
Publication Date: June 23, 1993
272 pages, 7 x 10
141 b/w illus.