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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center

Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Chapter XV: The Empire As An International Power.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901

Page Sixteen

We are thus brought back to ask, What was the connection between
imperialism and the literary revival?

To moderns who think of the Roman Empire as the heathen persecuting
power, it is strange to find it depicted as the model of a Christian
commonwealth. It is stranger still that the study of antiquity should have
made men advocates of arbitrary power. Democratic Athens, oligarchic Rome,
suggest to us Pericles and Brutus: the moderns who have striven to catch their
spirit have been men like Algernon Sidney, and Vergniaud, and Shelley. The
explanation is the same in both cases ^1. The ancient world was known to the
earlier middle ages by tradition, freshest for what was latest, and by the
authors of the Empire. Both presented to them the picture of a mighty
despotism and a civilization brilliant far beyond their own. Writings of the
fourth and fifth centuries, unfamiliar to us, were to them authorities as high
as Tacitus or Livy; yet Virgil and Horace too had sung the praises of the
first and wisest of the Emperors. To the enthusiasts of poetry and law, Rome
meant universal monarchy ^2; to those of religion, her name called up the
undimmed radiance of the Church under Sylvester and Constantine. Petrarch,
the apostle of the dawning Renaissance, is excited by the least attempt to
revive even the shadow of imperial greatness: as he had hailed Rienzi, he
welcomes Charles IV into Italy, and execrates his departure. The following
passage is taken from his letter to the Roman people asking them to receive
back Rienzi: - 'When was there ever such peace, such tranquillity, such
justice, such honour paid to virtue, such rewards distributed to the good and
punishments to the bad, when was ever the state so wisely guided, as in the
time when the world had obtained one head, and that head Rome; the very time
wherein God deigned to be born of a virgin and dwell upon earth. To every
single body there has been given a head; the whole world therefore also, which
is called by the poet a great body, ought to be content with one temporal
head. For every two-headed animal is monstrous; how much more horrible and
hideous a portent must be a creature with a thousand different heads, biting
and fighting against one another! If, however, it is necessary that there be
more heads than one, it is nevertheless evident that there ought to be one to
restrain all and preside over all, that so the peace of the whole body may
abide unshaken. Assuredly both in heaven and in earth the sovereignty of one
has always been best.'

[Footnote 1: Cf. Sismondi, Republiques Italiennes, iv. chap. xxvii.]

[Footnote 2: See Dante, Paradiso, canto vi.]

His passion for the heroism of Roman conquest and the ordered peace to
which it brought the world, is the centre of Dante's political hopes: he is no
more an exiled Ghibeline, but a patriot whose fervid imagination sees a nation
arise regenerate at the touch of its rightful lord. Italy, the spoil of so
many Teutonic conquerors, is the garden of the Empire which Henry is to
redeem: Rome the mourning widow, whom Albert is denounced for neglecting ^1.
Passing through purgatory, the poet sees Rudolf of Hapsburg seated gloomily
apart, mourning his sin in that he left unhealed the wounds of Italy ^2. In
the deepest pit of hell's ninth circle lies Lucifer, huge, three-headed; in
each mouth a sinner whom he crunches between his teeth, in one mouth Iscariot
the traitor to Christ, in the others the two traitors to the first Emperor of
Rome, Brutus and Cassius ^3. To multiply illustrations from other parts of
the poem would be an endless task; for the idea is ever present in Dante's
mind, and displays itself in a hundred unexpected forms. Virgil himself is
selected to be the guide of the pilgrim through hell and purgatory, not so
much as being the great poet of antiquity, as because he 'was born under
Julius and lived beneath the good Augustus;' because he was divinely charged
to sing of the Empire's earliest and brightest glories. Strange, that the
shame of one age should be the glory of another. For Virgil's melancholy
panegyrics upon the destroyer of the republic are no more like Dante's appeals
to the coming saviour of Italy than is Caesar Octavianus to Henry count of

[Footnote 1: 'Vieni a veder la tua Roma, che piagne
Vedova, sola, e di e notte chiama:
"Cesare mio, perche non m' accompagne?"']

[Footnote 2: Purgatorio, canto vii. 94.]

[Footnote 3: Inferno, canto xxxiv. 52.]

The visionary zeal of the man of letters was seconded by the more sober
devotion of the lawyer. Conqueror, theologian, and jurist, Justinian is a
hero greater than either Julius or Constantine, for his enduring work bears
him witness. Absolutism was the civilian's creed ^1: the phrases 'legibus
solutus,' 'lex regia,' whatever else tended in the same direction, were taken
to express the prerogative of him whose official style of Augustus, as well as
the vernacular name of 'Kaiser,' designated the legitimate successor of the
compiler of the Corpus Juris. Since it was upon this legitimacy that his
claim to be the fountain of law rested, no pains were spared to seek out and
observe every custom and precedent by which old Rome seemed to be connected
with her representative.

[Footnote 1: Not that the doctors of the civil law were necessarily political
partizans of the Emperors. Savigny says that there were on the contrary more
Guelfs than Ghibelines among the jurists of Bologna. - Roman Law in the Middle
Ages, vol. iii. p. 80.]

Of the many instances that might be collected, it would be tedious to
enumerate more than a few. The offices of the imperial household, instituted
by Constantine the Great, were attached to the noblest families of Germany.
The Emperor and Empress, before their coronation at Rome, were lodged in the
chambers called those of Augustus and Livia ^1; a bare sword was borne before
them by the praetorian prefect; their processions were adorned by the
standards, eagles, wolves and dragons, which had figured in the train of
Hadrian or Theodosius ^2. The constant title of the Emperor himself,
according to the style introduced by Probus, was 'semper Augustus,' or
'perpetuus Augustus,' which erring etymology translated 'at all times
increaser of the Empire ^3.' Edicts issued by a Franconian or Swabian
sovereign were inserted as Novels ^4 in the Corpus Juris, in the latest
editions of which custom still allows them a place. The pontificatus maximus
of his pagan predecessors was supposed to be preserved by the admission of
each Emperor as a canon of St. Peter's at Rome and St. Mary's at Aachen ^5.
Sometimes we even find him talking of his consulship ^6. Annalists invariably
number the place of each sovereign from Augustus downwards ^7. The notion of
an uninterrupted succession, which moves the stranger's wondering smile as he
sees ranged round the magnificent Golden Hall of Augsburg the portraits of the
Caesars, laurelled, helmeted, and periwigged, from Julius the conqueror of
Gaul to Joseph the partitioner of Poland, was to those generations not an
article of faith only because its denial was inconceivable.

[Footnote 1: Cf. Palgrave, Normandy and England, vol. ii. (of Otto and
Adelheid). The Ordo Romanus talks of a 'Camera Iuliae' in the Lateran palace,
reserved for the Empress.]

[Footnote 2: See notes to Chron. Casin. in Muratori, S.R.I. iv. 515.]

[Footnote 3: Zu aller Zeiten Mehrer des Reichs.]

[Footnote 4: Novellae Constitutiones.]

[Footnote 5: Marquard Freher, Scr. rer. Germ. iii. The question whether the
seven electors vote as singuli or as a collegium, is solved by shewing that
they have stepped into the place of the senate and people of Rome, whose duty
it was to choose the Emperor, though (it is naively added) the soldiers
sometimes usurped it. - Peter de Andlo, De Imperio Romano.]

[Footnote 6: Thus Charles, in a capitulary added to a revised edition of the
Lombard law issued in A.D. 801, says, 'Anno consulatus nostri primo.' So Otto
III calls himself Consul Senatus populique Romani.']

[Footnote 7: Francis II, the last Emperor, was one hundred and twentieth from
Augustus. Some chroniclers call Otto the Great Otto II, counting in Salvius
Otho, the successor of Galba.]

And all this historical antiquarianism, as one might call it, which
gathers round the Empire, is but one instance, though the most striking, of
that eager wish to cling to the old forms, use the old phrases, and preserve
the old institutions to which the annals of mediaeval Europe bear witness. It
appears even in trivial expressions, as when a monkish chronicler says of evil
bishops deposed, Tribu moti sunt, or talks of the 'senate and people of the
Franks,' when he means a council of chiefs surrounded by a crowd of half-naked
warriors. So throughout Europe charters and edicts were drawn up on Roman
precedents; the trade-guilds, though often traceable to a different source,
represented the old collegia; villenage was the offspring of the system of
coloni under the later Empire. Even in remote Britain, the Teutonic invaders
used Roman ensigns, and stamped their coins with Roman devices; called
themselves 'Basileis' and 'Augusti ^1.' Especially did the cities perpetuate
Rome through her most lasting boon to the conquered, municipal
self-government; those of later origin emulating in their adherence to antique
style others who, like Nismes and Cologne, Zurich and Augsburg, could trace
back their institutions to the coloniae and municipia of the first centuries.
On the walls and gates of hoary Nurnberg ^2 the traveller still sees
emblazoned the imperial eagle, with the words 'Senatus populusque
Norimbergensis,' and is borne in thought from the quiet provincial town of
to-day to the stirring republic of the middle ages: thence to the Forum and
the Capitol of her greater prototype. For, in truth, through all that period
which we call the Dark and Middle Ages, men's minds were possessed by the
belief that all things continued as they were from the beginning, that no
chasm never to be recrossed lay between them and that ancient world to which
they had not ceased to look back. We who are centuries removed can see that
there had passed a great and wonderful change upon thought, and art, and
literature, and politics, and society itself: a change whose best illustration
is to be found in the process whereby there arose out of the primitive
basilica the Romanesque cathedral, and from it in turn the endless varieties
of Gothic. But so gradual was the change that each generation felt it passing
over them no more than a man feels that perpetual transformation by which his
body is renewed from year to year; while the few who had learning enough to
study antiquity through its contemporary records, were prevented by the utter
want of criticism and of that which we call historical feeling, from seeinghow
prodigious was the contrast between themselves and those whom they admired.
There is nothing more modern than the critical spirit which dwells upon the
difference between the minds of men in one age and in another; which
endeavours to make each age its own interpreter, and judge what it did or
produced by a relative standard. Such a spirit was, before the last century
or two, wholly foreign to art as well as to metaphysics. The converse and the
parallel of the fashion of calling mediaeval offices by Roman names, and
supposing them therefore the same, is to be found in those old German pictures
of the siege of Carthage or the battle between Porus and Alexander, where in
the foreground two armies of knights, mailed and mounted, are charging each
other like Crusaders, lance in rest, while behind, through the smoke of
cannon, loom out the Gothic spires and towers of the beleaguered city. And
thus, when we remember that the notion of progress and development, and of
change as the necessary condition thereof, was unwelcome or unknown in
mediaeval times, we may better understand, though we do not cease to wonder,
how men, never doubting that the political system of antiquity had descended
to them, modified indeed, yet in substance the same, should have believed that
the Frank, the Saxon, and the Swabian ruled all Europe by a right which seems
to us not less fantastic than that fabled charter whereby Alexander the Great
bequeathed his empire to the Slavic race for the love of Roxolana.

[Footnote 1: See p. 45 and note to p. 143.]

[Footnote 2: Nurnberg herself was not of Roman foundation. But this makes the
imitation all the more curious. The fashion even passed from the cities to
rural communities like some of the Swiss cantons. Thus we find 'Senatus
populusque Uronensis.']

It is a part of that perpetual contradiction of which the history of the
Middle Ages is full, that this belief had hardly any influence on practical
politics. The more abjectly helpless the Emperor becomes, so much the more
sonorous is the language in which the dignity of his crown is described. His
power, we are told, is eternal, the provinces having resumed their allegiance
after the barbarian irruptions ^1; it is incapable of diminution or injury:
exemptions and grants by him, so far as they tend to limit his own
prerogative, are invalid ^2: all Christendom is still of right subject to him,
though it may contumaciously refuse obedience ^3. The sovereigns of Europe
are solemnly warned that they are resisting the power ordained of God ^4. No
laws can bind the Emperor, though he may choose to live according to them: no
court can judge him, though he may condescend to be sued in his own: none may
presume to arraign the conduct or question the motives of him who is
answerable only to God ^5. So writes Aeneas Sylvius, while Frederick the
Third, chased from his capital by the Hungarians, is wandering from convent to
convent, an imperial beggar; while the princes, whom his subserviency to the
Pope has driven into rebellion, are offering the imperial crown to Podiebrad
the Bohemian king.

[Footnote 1: Aeneas Sylvius, De Ortu et Authoritate Imperii Romani.]

[Footnote 2: Thus some civilians held Constantine's Donation null; but the
canonists, we are told, were clear as to its legality.]

[Footnote 3: 'Et idem dico de istis aliis regibus et principibus, qui negant
se esse subditos regi Romanorum, ut rex Franciae, Angliae, et similes. Si enim
fatentur ipsum esse Dominum universalem, licet ab illo universali domino se
subtrahant ex privilegio vel ex praescriptione vel consimili, non ergo desunt
esse cives Romani, per ea quae dicta sunt. Et per hoc omnes gentes quae
obediunt S. matri ecclesiae sunt de populo Romano. Et forte si quis diceret
dominum Imperatorem non esse dominum et monarcham totius orbis, esset
haereticus, quia diceret contra determinationem ecclesiae et textum S.
evangelii, dum dicit, "Exivit edictum a Caesare Augusto ut describeretur
universus orbis." Ita et recognovit Christus Imperatorem ut dominum.' -
Bartolus, Commentary on the Pandects, xlviii. i. 24; De Captivis et
postliminio reversis.]

[Footnote 4: Peter de Andlo, multis locis (see esp. cap. viii.), and other
writings of the time. Cf. Dante's letter to Henry VII: 'Romanorum potestas
nec metis Italiae nec tricornis Siciliae margine coarctatur. Nam etsi vim
passa in angustum gubernacula sua contraxit undique, tamen de inviolabili iure
fluctus Amphitritis attingens vix ab inutili unda Oceani se circumcingi
dignatur. Scriptum est enim

"Nascetur pulchra Troianus origine Caesar,
Imperium, Oceano, famam qui terminet astris."'

So Fr. Zoannetus, in the sixteenth century, declares it to be a mortal sin to
resist the Empire, as the power ordained of God.]

[Footnote 5: Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (afterwards Pope Pius II), De Ortu et
Authoritate Imperii Romani. Cf. Gerlach Buxtorff, Dissertatio ad Auream

But the career of Henry the Seventh in Italy is the most remarkable
illustration of the Emperor's position: and imperialist doctrines are set
forth most strikingly in the treatise which the greatest spirit of the age
wrote to herald or commemorate the advent of that hero, the De Monarchia of
Dante ^1. Rudolf, Adolf of Nassau, Albert of Hapsburg, none of them crossed
the Alps or attempted to aid the Italian Ghibelines who battled away in the
name of their throne. Concerned only to restore order and aggrandize his
house, and thinking apparently that nothing more was to be made of the
imperial crown, Rudolf was content never to receive it, and purchased the
Pope's goodwill by surrendering his jurisdiction in the capital, and his
claims over the bequest of the Countess Matilda. Henry the Luxemburger
ventured on a bolder course; urged perhaps only by his lofty and chivalrous
spirit, perhaps in despair at effecting anything with his slender resources
against the princes of Germany. Crossing from his Burgundian dominions with a
scanty following of knights, and descending from the Cenis upon Turin, he
found his prerogative higher in men's belief after sixty years of neglect than
it had stood under the last Hohenstaufen. The cities of Lombardy opened their
gates; Milan decreed a vast subsidy; Guelf and Ghibeline exiles alike were
restored, and imperial vicars appointed everywhere: supported by the
Avignonese pontiff, who dreaded the restless ambition of his French neighbour,
king Philip IV, Henry had the interdict of the Church as well as the ban of
the Empire at his command. But the illusion of success vanished as soon as
men, recovering from their first impression, began to be again governed by
their ordinary passions and interests, and not by an imaginative reverence for
the glories of the past. Tumults and revolts broke out in Lombardy; at Rome
the king of Naples held St. Peter's, and the coronation must take place in St.
John Lateran, on the southern bank of the Tiber. The hostility of the Guelfic
league, headed by the Florentines, Guelfs even against the Pope, obliged Henry
to depart from his impartial and republican policy, and to purchase the aid of
the Ghibeline chiefs by granting them the government of cities. With few
troops, and encompassed by enemies, the heroic Emperor sustained an unequal
struggle for a year longer, till, in A.D. 1313, he sank beneath the fevers of
the deadly Tuscan summer. His German followers believed, nor has history
wholly rejected the tale, that poison was given him by a Dominican monk, in
sacramental wine.

[Footnote 1: It has hitherto been the common opinion that the De Monarchia was
written in the view of Henry's expedition. But latterly weighty reasons have
been advanced for believing that its date must be placed some years later.]

Others after him descended from the Alps, but they came, like Lewis the
Fourth, Rupert, Sigismund, at the behest of a faction, which found them useful
tools for a time, then flung them away in scorn; or like Charles the Fourth
and Frederick the Third, as the humble minions of a French or Italian priest.
With Henry the Seventh ends the history of the Empire in Italy, and Dante's
book is an epitaph instead of a prophecy. A sketch of its argument will
convey a notion of the feelings with which the noblest Ghibelines fought, as
well as of the spirit in which the Middle Age was accustomed to handle such

Weary of the endless strife of princes and cities, of the factions within
every city against each other, seeing municipal freedom, the only mitigation
of turbulence, vanish with the rise of domestic tyrants, Dante raises a
passionate cry for some power to still the tempest, not to quench liberty or
supersede local self-government, but to correct and moderate them, to restore
unity and peace to hapless Italy. His reasoning is throughout closely
syllogistic: he is alternately the jurist, the theologian, the scholastic
metaphysician: the poet of the Divina Commedia is betrayed only by the
compressed energy of diction, by his clear vision of the unseen, rarely by a
glowing metaphor.

Monarchy is first proved to be the true and rightful form of government
^1. Men's objects are best attained during universal peace: this is possible
only under a monarch. And as he is the image of the Divine unity, so man is
through him made one, and brought most near to God. There must, in every
system of forces, be a 'primum mobile;' to be perfect, every organization must
have a centre, into which all is gathered, by which all is controlled ^2.
Justice is best secured by a supreme arbiter of disputes, himself unsolicited
by ambition, since his dominion is already bounded only by ocean. Man is best
and happiest when he is most free; to be free is to exist for one's own sake.
To this grandest end does the monarch and he alone guide us; other forms of
government are perverted ^3, and exist for the benefit of some class; he seeks
the good of all alike, being to that very end appointed ^4.

[Footnote 1: More than half a century earlier the envoys of the Norwegian
king, in urging the chiefs of the republic of Iceland assembled at their
Althing to accept Hakon as their suzerain, had argued that monarchy was the
only rightful form of government, and had appealed to the fact that in all
continental Europe there was no such thing as an absolutely independent

[Footnote 2: Suggesting the celestial hierarchies of Dionysius the

[Footnote 3: Quoting Aristotle's Politics.]

[Footnote 4: 'Non enim cives propter consules nec gens propter regem, sed e
converso consules propter cives, rex propter gentem.']

Abstract arguments are then confirmed from history. Since the world
began there has been but one period of perfect peace, and but one of perfect
monarchy, that, namely, which existed at our Lord's birth, under the sceptre
of Augustus; since then the heathen have raged, and the kings of the earth
have stood up; they have set themselves against their Lord, and his anointed
the Roman prince ^1. The universal dominion, the need for which has been thus
established, is then proved to belong to the Romans. Justice is the will of
God, a will to exalt Rome shewn through her whole history ^2. Her virtues
deserved honour: Virgil is quoted to prove those of Aeneas, who by descent and
marriage was the heir of three continents: of Asia through Assaracus and
Creusa; of Africa by Electra (mother of Dardanus and daughter of Atlas) and
Dido; of Europe by Dardanus and Lavinia. God's favour was approved in the
fall of the shields to Numa, in the miraculous deliverance of the capital from
the Gauls, in the hailstorm after Cannae. Justice is also the advantage of
the state: that advantage was the constant object of the virtuous Cincinnatus,
and the other heroes of the republic. They conquered the world for its own
good, and therefore justly, as Cicero attests ^3; so that their sway was not
so much 'imperium' as 'patrocinium orbis terrarum.' Nature herself, the
fountain of all right, had, by their geographical position and by the gift of
a genius so vigorous, marked them out for universal dominion: -

'Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera,
Credo equidem: vivos ducent de marmore vultus;
Orabunt causas melius, coelique meatus
Describent radio, et surgentia sidera dicent:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;
Hae tibi erunt artes; pacisque imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos.'

[Footnote 1: 'Reges et principes in hoc unico concordantes, ut adversentur
Domino suo et uncto suo Romano Principi,' having quoted 'Quare fremuerunt

[Footnote 2: Especially in the opportune death of Alexander the Great.]

[Footnote 3: Cic. De Off., ii. 'Ita ut illud patrocinium orbis terrarum
potius quam imperium poterat nominari.']

Finally, the right of war asserted, Christ's birth, and death under
Pilate, ratified their government. For Christian doctrine requires that the
procurator should have been a lawful judge ^1, which he was not unless
Tiberius was a lawful Emperor.

[Footnote 1: 'Si Pilati imperium non de iure fuit, peccatum in Christo non
fuit adeo punitum.']

The relations of the imperial and papal power are then examined, and the
passages of Scripture (tradition being rejected), to which the advocates of
the Papacy appeal, are elaborately explained away. The argument from the sun
and moon ^1 does not hold, since both lights existed before man's creation,
and at a time when, as still sinless, he needed no controlling powers. Else
accidentia would have preceded propria in creation. The moon, too, does not
receive her being nor all her light from the sun, but so much only as makes
her more effective. So there is no reason why the temporal should not be
aided in a corresponding measure by the spiritual authority. This difficult
text disposed of, others fall more easily; Levi and Judah, Samuel and Saul,
the incense and gold offered by the Magi ^x; the two swords, the power of
binding and loosing given to Peter. Constantine's donation was illegal: no
single Emperor nor Pope can disturb the everlasting foundations of their
respective thrones: the one had no right to bestow, nor the other to receive,
such a gift. Leo the Third gave the Empire to Charles wrongfully: 'usurpatio
iuris non facit ius.' It is alleged that all things of one kind are reducible
to one individual, and so all men to the Pope. But Emperor and Pope differ in
kind, and so far as they are men, are reducible only to God, on whom the
Empire immediately depends; for it existed before Peter's see, and was
recognized by Paul when he appealed to Caesar. The temporal power of the
Papacy can have been given neither by natural law, nor divine ordinance, nor
universal consent: nay, it is against its own Form and Essence, the life of
Christ, who said, 'My kingdom is not of this world.'

[Footnote 1: There is a curious seal of the Emperor Otto IV (figured in J. M.
Heineccius, De veteribus Germanorum atque aliarum nationum sigillis), on which
the sun and moon are represented over the head of the Emperor. Heineccius says
he cannot explain it, but there seems to be no reason why we should not take
the device as typifying the accord of the spiritual and temporal powers which
was brought about at the accession of Otto, the Guelfic leader, and the
favoured candidate of Pope Innocent III.

The analogy between the lights of heaven and the potentates of earth is
one which mediaeval writers are very fond of. It seems to have originated
with Gregory VII.]

[Footnote x: Typifying the spiritual and temporal powers. Dante meets this by
distinguishing the homage paid to Christ from that which his Vicar can
rightfully demand.]

Man's nature is twofold, corruptible and incorruptible: he has therefore
two ends, active virtue on earth, and the enjoyment of the sight of God
hereafter; the one to be attained by practice conformed to the precepts of
philosophy, the other by the theological virtues. Hence two guides are
needed, the Pontiff and the Emperor, the latter of whom, in order that he may
direct mankind in accordance with the teachings of philosophy to temporal
blessedness, must preserve universal peace in the world. Thus are the two
powers equally ordained of God, and the Emperor, though supreme in all that
pertains to the secular world, is in some things dependent on the Pontiff,
since earthly happiness is subordinate to eternal. 'Let Caesar, therefore,
shew towards Peter the reverence wherewith a firstborn son honours his father,
that, being illumined by the light of his paternal favour, he may the more
excellently shine forth upon the whole world, to the rule of which he has been
appointed by Him alone who is of all things, both spiritual and temporal, the
King and Governor.' So ends the treatise.

Dante's arguments are not stranger than his omissions. No suspicion is
breathed against Constantine's donation; no proof is adduced, for no doubt is
felt, that the Empire of Henry the Seventh is the legitimate continuation of
that which had been swayed by Augustus and Justinian. Yet Henry was a German,
sprung from Rome's barbarian foes, the elected of those who had neither part
nor share in Italy and her capital.