In the area of the Römer, Roman settlements were established, probably in the first century; some artifacts from that era are found to this day. The city district Bonames has a name probably dating back to Roman times – it is thought to be derived from bona me(n)sa. Nida (Heddernheim) was also a Roman civitas capital.
The name of Frankfurt on the Main is derived from the Franconofurt of the Germanic tribe of the Franks; Furt (cf. English ford) denotes a low point passage across a stream or river. Alemanni and Franks lived there and by 794 Charlemagne presided over an imperial assembly and church synod, at which Franconofurd (-furt -vurd) is first mentioned. However, since frank is also an old German word for frei (“free”), Frankfurt was a “free ford,” an opportunity to cross the river Main without paying a toll.
In the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt was one of the most important cities. From 855 the German kings and emperors were elected in Frankfurt and crowned in Aachen. From 1562 the kings/emperors were also crowned in Frankfurt, Maximilian II being the first one. This tradition ended in 1792, when Franz II was elected. He was crowned, on purpose, on Bastille Day, 14 July, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. The elections and coronations took place in St. Bartholomäus cathedral, known as the Kaiserdom (en: Emperor’s Cathedral), or in its predecessors.
The Frankfurter Messe was first mentioned in 1150. In 1240, Emperor Friedrich II granted an Imperial privilege to its visitors, meaning they would be protected by the Empire. Since 1478 book trade fairs have been held in Frankfurt, the Frankfurter Buchmesse being still the most important in Germany and, some might say, the world.
In 1372 Frankfurt became a Reichsstadt (en:Imperial city), i.e. directly subordinate to the Holy Roman Emperor and not to a regional ruler or a local nobleman.
Frankfurt managed to remain neutral during the Thirty Years’ War, but it suffered from the bubonic plague that was brought to the city by refugees. After the end of the war, Frankfurt regained its wealth.
In the Napoleonic Wars Frankfurt was occupied or cannonaded several times by French troops. It nevertheless still remained a free city until the total collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1805/6. In 1806 it become part of the principality of Aschaffenburg under the Fürstprimas (‘Prince-Primate’, 25 July 1806 – 19 October 1813: Karl Theodor Anton Maria Kämmerer von Worms, Reichsfreiherr von Dalberg (b. 1744 – d. 1817), 1803-1806 Prince-archbishop of Regensburg). This also meant, that Frankfurt was incorporated into the confederation of the Rhine. In 1810 Dalberg adopted the title of a Grand Duke of Frankfurt. Napoleon intended to make his adopted son Eugène de Beauharnais, already prince de Venise (“prince of Venice”, a newly established primogeniture in Italy) Grand Duke of Frankfurt after Dalberg’s death (since the latter as a Catholic bishop didn’t have legitimate heirs). The Grand Duchy remained a short episode lasting from 1810 to 1813, when military tide turned in favor of the Anglo-Prussian lead allies, which turns over the Napoleonic order of central Europe. Dalberg abdicated in favor of Eugène de Beauharnais, which of course was only a symbolic action, as the latter effectively never did rule after the ruin of the French armies and Frankfurt being taken by the allies!
After Napoleon’s final defeat and abdication, the Congress of Vienna (1812-1815, redrawing the map of Europe) dissolved the grand-duchy, and Frankfurt entered the newly founded German Confederation (till 1866) as a free city, becoming the seat of its Bundestag, the confederal parliament where the nominally presiding Habsburg Emperor of Austria was represented by an Austrian “presidential envoy”.
After the ill-fated revolution of 1848, Frankfurt was home to the first German National Assembly, which resided in St. Paul’s Church and was opened on 18 May 1848. The institution failed in 1849 when the Prussian king declared that he would not accept “a crown from the gutter”. In the year of its existence, the assembly developed a common constitution for a unified Germany, with the Prussian king as its monarch.
Frankfurt lost its independence after Austro-Prussian War as Prussia annexed in 1866 several smaller states, among them the free city of Frankfurt. The Prussian administration incorporated Frankfurt into its province of Hesse-Nassau. The formerly independent towns of Bornheim and Bockenheim were incorporated in 1890.
In 1914 the citizens of Frankfurt founded the University of Frankfurt, later called Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. This is the only civic foundation of a university in Germany; today it is one of Germany’s largest universities.
After World War I Frankfurt was occupied by French troops as a means of reprisal, because the French found the German side guilty of having violated in some details the clauses of the peace treaty of Versailles concerning the demilitarization of the Rhineland. In 1924 Ludwig Landmann became the first Jewish Mayor of the city, and led a significant expansion during the following years. However, during the Nazi era, the synagogues of Frankfurt were destroyed.
The city of Frankfurt was severely bombed in World War II. About 5,500 residents were killed during the raids, and the once famous medieval city centre, by that time the largest in Germany, was destroyed. The reconstruction after the war took place in an (often-simple) modern style, thus irrevocably changing the architectural face of Frankfurt. Only very few landmark buildings have been reconstructed historically, albeit in a simplified manner.
After the end of the war Frankfurt became a part of the newly founded state of Hesse, consisting of the old Hesse-(Darmstadt) and the Prussian Hesse provinces. Frankfurt was the original choice for the provisional capital of West Germany – they even went as far as constructing a new parliament building that has never been used for its intended purpose, and is now a TV studio. In the end, Konrad Adenauer (the first post-war Chancellor) preferred the tiny city of Bonn, for the most part because it was close to his hometown, but also for another reason; many other prominent politicians opposed the choice of Frankfurt out of concern that Frankfurt, one of the largest German cities, and a former centre of the old German-dominated Holy Roman Empire, would be accepted as a “permanent” capital of Germany, thereby weakening the West German population’s support for reunification and the eventual return of the capital city to Berlin.