World History in Four Empires

Johannes Sleidanus, De quatuor summis imperiis libri tres.

Printed by Ludwig Elsevier in Amsterdam, 1556 (in the frontispiece: 1554).

The Habsburg Empire was certainly a world empire. There was a good reason why it was called the “empire on which the sun never sets”. But even though Joannes Sleidanus was born in this empire, he did not consider the greatest empire of his time when he wrote his book on the “Four Greatest Empires” in 1556. His account was based on a passage from the Book of Daniel of the Old Testament – which became the ancient birthplace of a theory with far-reaching consequences – and Sleidanus thoroughly worked his way through it. His work of history was intended to convince generations of students to believe that world history was a succession of empires that had been foreseen by salvation history. Let’s have a look at the first edition of this important work!

Johannes Sleidanus depicted on a contemporary engraving, probably by Jean-Jacques Boissard (1528-1602) and Theodor de Bry (1528-1598).

Sleidanus: An Objective Chronicler in the Service of the Reformation

The young Johann Philippson was born around 1506 in Schleiden in the Eifel. Back then, the region was part of the Burgundian Netherlands and thus of the Habsburg Empire. Johann received a solid education and studied in various places, taking the humanistic pen name Joannes Sleidanus as was appropriate for an educated man of this age.

Then, the young Sleidanus found himself in the midst of Reformation turmoil. In his new position as secretary of the Paris Cardinal Jean Du Bellay, he was immediately entrusted with a risky mission: as a diplomat, Sleidanus was to arrange an alliance between France and German Protestants. After all, he had good relations with German Reformers. But this made him work against his former superior, Emperor Charles V. Well, the attempt failed anyway and Sleidanus, who translated and published short writings on the side, had to look for a new employer.

Charles V was without doubt the ruler of a world empire, and he portrayed himself like that time and again. This pose continued to be used in painting long after his death, an example is this work by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1604.

In the Holy Roman Empire, Protestant princes by then considered themselves to be of world-historical importance due to their battle against the Catholic emperor. That’s why the alliance of these princes and cities – the so-called Schmalkaldic League – was looking for a shrewd PR expert to spread this message in a way that appeared to be as objective as possible. And this job was given to Sleidanus. He took this task very seriously and extensively studied all sources of information he could get his hands on. However, the emperor triumphed over the rebellious princes and Sleidanus continued his work on Reformation history on his own. His ground-breaking Latin work on the religious policy of Emperor Charles V was published in 1555. It seemed to be so objective and dry that Sleidanus’ former employers weren’t pleased with the result. But Sleidanus made a name for himself with it and immediately followed up with an even greater work. Now he broadened the view to the big picture, to world history!

The Four Empires for Educational Purposes

Protestants of all sorts and Catholics had completely different opinions on many issues. And yet, they had one thing in common: they believed world history to be linear and planned out by God in a certain way. Moreover, God had lifted the curtain that separated the present from the future a little bit through his prophet Daniel. According to biblical tradition, Daniel had interpreted a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar and then received further explanations directly from God in a dream of his own about how the history of mankind would go on. These visions are unparalleled in terms of gloomy drama and apocalyptic imagery; you should absolutely read Chapter 2 and 7 of the Book of Daniel! To sum it up, Daniel came to the conclusion that there will be four great kingdoms, which follow one after the other and each of them will destroy the previous one. There are a few complex details about the last kingdom that have always been a subject of debate but one point is indisputable: the last empire lasts forever. Well, at least until the end of the world.

The problem is: four empires aren’t very much. It’s already hard to tell today which four world empires to pick when we just think of Rome, China and the British Empire. In antiquity, people had fewer scruples and knew exactly which empires were meant: Babylonia (sure, Daniel knew that one too well, he lived in it), the empire of the Medes, the Persian Empire and the empire of Alexander the Great – the last one. Unfortunately, the world did not end after Alexander, which is why Jerome (around AD 400) already replaced the Medes with the Roman Empire.

You know what had to happen: even the Roman Empire wasn’t eternal. And yet, the theory of the four kingdoms of Daniel remained – and we have to write that in capital letters – THE commonly accepted world view of the Middle Ages. How was that possible? Easy! The Roman Empire wasn’t allowed to end ever. More precisely, this is where the concept of “translatio imperii” comes into play, the second key theory of the medieval order in Europe: the Roman Empire passed on its rule like a baton. Think of the coronation of Charlemagne in Rome, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. You see? And we could theoretically go on from there forever; the fourth kingdom simply never ended. Today, this may seem quite naive and artificial to us. However, the idea that most people right now value privacy but still share their lives on Facebook and Instagram with billions of complete strangers might make people giggle in the future too …

But let’s get back to Sleidanus. The man wasn’t a radical extremist, he rather sought to mediate. His new topic was accepted by Protestants and Catholics alike, which was an intelligent choice also in terms of marketing.

In 1556, he published his second great monograph in polished Latin called “De quatuor summis imperiis”, i.e. “On the Four Great Empires”. (Great was the monograph only in its importance, the format was quite small as the 1 franc coin in one of the photos illustrates.) In three volumes – a rather compact number of books from today’s perspective – he presented the sequence of empires, from the Flood to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar. The third book then takes us back to the author’s own era. After a “History of the Germanic peoples”, the reader learns how Charlemagne took over Roman rule in Rome (after all, imperium does not only mean empire but also dominion or command). And this event was followed by an unbroken tradition up to Sleidanus’ age.

A Shattered World View

This account of world history was very popular in schools and accepted by both religions. Briefly said: the work sold like hot cakes and we know of more than ninety different editions. Pupils all over Europe learned the history of homo sapiens with Sleidanus. However, this Christian interpretation of history, which was oriented towards a final apocalypse, did not last forever. In the 18th century, Enlightened thinkers took delight in shattering this theological world view, tearing the work apart to the point that no one spoke of Sleidanus anymore.

Today, we rather think of Sleidanus’ importance as a diplomat and translator. But let’s take another look at the index in the end: it lists the names of great personalities and the places of important battles. If you find an old history textbook from the 50s in your junk room, I bet the differences are alarmingly small. The impact of the idea of a linear course of history shaped by great individuals, as Sleidanus presented it, elegantly leapt over the Enlightenment and is only now beginning to disappear.


Although there is no digital version of the first edition, the University of Halle provides you with a digital copy of an edition from the following year.

Centuries later, another researcher worked as thoroughly as Sleidanus did for his work on history. Back then, the Habsburg descendants of Charles V had a solid genealogy written for their family.

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