I know that at least in Western Europe, the various dynasties that held the title of Holy Roman Emperor claimed descent from Charlemagne. In France, the Capetians were the first to call themselves Kings of France and when the direct male line died out, the Bourbon and Valois dynasties were cadet branches that took the throne as a result. Even well past the middle ages, there were numerous succession wars that dealt with the concept of legitimacy and blood to vacant kingship titles (The Hundred Years War and the War of Spanish Succession are probably some of the most well known ones).

I don't know the history of the Ancient World as well but it seems to me that blood and family were not nearly as strong sources of legitimacy. While I understand that clans were powerful forces, I understand that many Roman emperors did not produce hereditary sons and instead designated or "adopted" somebody as their successor. Dynasties when they did exist, seem a lot more short lived and prone to decades of military coups and military leaders rather than having any coherent dynastic line that existed throughout the span of the empire. It seemed like having control of the army was a more legitimate source of power than any claim to blood or membership in a family.

Can somebody explain why the concept of dynastic legitmacy seemed so different between the two eras?

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    These adoptions were mostly a close male relative, and were not common. Blood ties were strong in Rome. – Oldcat Jul 31 '15 at 19:31
  • This should be closed as too broad - you're addressing literally millenia of history. You should research the Crisis of the Third Century, plus a host of other topics. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 31 '15 at 19:43
  • What about the Egyptian Dynasties? The 18th was in power for 250 years. – clem steredenn Jul 31 '15 at 19:46
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    It's not like every Roman Emperor adopted heirs; the Julio-Claudian dynasty was followed by the Flavians before the Adoptive Emperors, and the Severans succeeded them. Adoption was far from the rule. Perhaps Roman politics were simply more bloody and more volatile? And by the standards by which later German kings could claim descent from Charlemagne, these were probably more or less one extended family too. – Semaphore Jul 31 '15 at 20:57
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    Hereditary based dynasties and hereditary arguments for power (also, arguments about kinship with a god or such) were pretty common in ancient world, too. Maybe it is just matter of perspective that dynasties and kings of east and west are less known. From ancient Japan, China, Korea to Egypt, many Greek states hereditary based power was the rule, though maybe states and dynasties did not last for a thousand years. – Greg Aug 3 '15 at 2:38

In a nutshell, Europe had a feudal system unlike the Roman world where the monarchy was added on top of the old republican system. The feudal system was based on personal relationships with a liege.


Blood ties were just as strong in Rome, and Rome was only one element of Ancient times, all of which had dynastic lines just as much or more as France and England in the Middle Ages.

Emperors were chosen by the Military, and in times of trouble the current Emperor might be toppled and a usurper put in place, and the relatives of the former regime killed. This isn't a repudiation of the concept of lineal descent, but a confirmation of his power.

The one time, under Diocletian and the tetrarchy, that a true male heir was passed over to rule by someone else, two of them (Maxentius and Constantine) pushed their way into the rulership of the Empire and started a new round of civil wars to get power. Constantine the Great was the last man standing.

Historians vastly overplay the significance of the Adoptive Emperor effect as some universal Roman rule. Instead, it was coincidence. The first time one of these fellows had a son, Commodus, the rule was out the window. And this emperor was Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher.

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