Wednesday, September 2, 2020

An Attempt at Empire

In 768, King Pepin had died after a glorious reign, leaving behind his two sons, Charles and Carloman.

-          Millennium, Tom Holland

Tom Holland, in this book, examines the birth of Europe at the time of the first millennium after Christ.  This turn brought on what is considered the high point of medieval culture, prosperity, and advancement.  But before coming to this, he examines the first attempt at rebuilding the Roman Empire in the West.

As was the custom, Pepin’s lands were divided between the two sons.  Carloman, however, survived only three years; Charles, also known as Charles the Great or Charlemagne, would consolidate these holdings.

Invasion would follow invasion.  By the 790s, Charlemagne’s rule would stretch from Barcelona to the Danube, and from Lombardy to the Baltic Sea.  In Western Christendom, only the British Isles and a few small kingdoms in Spain were not in his hold.

Charlemagne converted with the sword, never doubting that he was a new King David:

It was in the perfect consciousness of this that Charlemagne made the wastes of Saxony to flow with pagan blood….

Every spring he would go to battle, and every autumn return with new territories and booty as his prize.  Frankish nobles, bishops, even the Pope had little choice but to recognize him as head of the Christian people; it also served their self-interest to do so.

In 796, with the election of the new Pope Leo III, Charlemagne spelled out the balance of responsibilities: he would defend the Church from pagans and heretics, consolidating the Christian faith across Europe; the Pope would pray for his success.  The Pope was less than thrilled with this division of labor – although he gladly accepted the wagons of gold and treasure that accompanied this outline.

Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the relationship in this form, in 799 Leo made good use of the arrangement.  On April 25, he was set upon by a gang of his enemies.  Having thereafter escaped, he went north to Charlemagne who was in Saxony, and asked that he restore the Pope to his office.  Charlemagne would then march on Rome.

Having taken his time, Charlemagne arrived more than one year later.  The Pope humbly rode out twelve miles to greet him, six miles being the normal custom.  Yet, Leo would not bow so easily:

Papal officials, displaying their accustomed talent for uncovering ancient documents just when they were most needed, presented to Charlemagne papers which appeared conclusively to prove that their master could in fact only be judged by God.

Charlemagne acquiesced, and the Pope took an oath on a copy of the New Testament: he had been innocent all along.  Even now, the Pope was not done.  At Christmas Mass in the shrine of St. Peter, Leo stepped forward and placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head.  At once, Charlemagne was hailed as “Augustus,” the honorific title of the Caesars – but, only by the granting of the Pope!  It seems Charlemagne did not know beforehand that this was the Pope’s intention – he likely would not have obliged, given the signal of superiority.

In any case, such a title was reserved for only the emperor in Constantinople – the new Rome.  Now, the West would have an emperor of its own.  Perhaps good news for the Franks; an outrage to the Greeks.  Outraged as they might be, Constantinople was teetering on the edge of ruin – defeat after defeat for the armies of the East culminating with the emperor killed in battle by the Bulgars in 811.

One year later, envoys from the East made their way to Charlemagne in Aachen.  Holding their noses, they hailed Charlemagne as Basileus – emperor.  This was nothing more than a holding operation – it was believed by the Greeks that this Frankish king and his tribes would soon enough return to their base nature and start fighting amongst themselves.

This devolution would begin in 813, when Charlemagne crowned his son, Louis, as co-emperor – the Pope not doing the crowning and not even invited to the ceremony.  This was only a few months after two of Charlemagne’s sons had died – saving for a future generation the issue of dividing the kingdom.

Louis’ sons survived, and by 840 they had begun scrapping for the inheritance.  On Louis’ death in 843, the three sons met in Verdun, formalizing the split: Charles the Bald would receive the western portion – roughly France; Louis the German would receive the Eastern portion. 

Lothar, the eldest, would get a narrow strip in-between, stretching from the Low Countries, through Burgundy, over the Alps, and into northern Italy.  This region would be fought over even as late as the twentieth century – but I digress.  These brothers would fight sufficiently to weaken the empire.

Louis and Charles swore an oath to each other, and against Lothar.  Louis swore:

For the love of God and for Christendom and our common salvation, from this day onwards, as God will give me the wisdom and power, I shall protect this brother of mine Charles, with aid or anything else, as one ought to protect one's brother, so that he may do the same for me, and I shall never knowingly make any covenant with Lothair that would harm this brother of mine Charles.

Charles would then reciprocate.  Following this, the nobles under each of them swore an oath to the other – Louis’ nobles swore to Charles, and Charles’ nobles swore to Louis:

If Louis keeps the oath that he has sworn to his brother Charles, and Charles, my lord, on the other hand breaks it, and if I cannot dissuade him from it — neither I nor anyone that I can dissuade from it — then I shall not help him in any way against Louis.

Again, the alternating oath taken by Louis’ gathered armies.

Returning to Holland: in order to shore up his prestige, Louis II (the German) went to the pope to receive the crown as emperor – a quick fall from the snubbing that Charlemagne offered when crowning Louis’ father.  It was the pope that would crown the emperor.

Yet this crowning did not end the matter.  From the east came a missive from Constantinople: no longer would this western king be considered emperor.  Seeing the West weakened (as they knew would occur), and their fortunes in the East having taken a turn for the better, this humiliation was no longer necessary.  There was only one empire and one emperor – and the Franks would not hold such a position.

In 901, the grandson of Louis the German attempted to revive the fortunes of his house.  He had himself crowned emperor.  Four years later he was captured by a rival warlord, blinded, and banished to Burgundy.  He was the last in Charlemagne’s line to claim this title.


It was from these depths that the best aspects of Europe in the Middle Ages were born.  Examining this is the purpose of Holland’s book.  I have previously covered this transformation through a book by Paul Collins, The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century

o   Birthing Pains

o   Making an Omelette

o   The Peace of God

o   Clemency

o   Oppressive Western Civilization

I will further this with more posts from Holland’s work.


For those interested, I have written something more on Louis the German, based on the book by Eric J. Goldberg, Struggle for Empire: Kingship and Conflict Under Louis the German, 817 – 876

o   Decentralization: Anathema to the Elite

o   Government Money, Taxes, and War

o   Annual Meeting of the Elite


  1. It's nice to look back at the beginnings of something that worked out to be worthwhile, even if the end isn't turning out so good (I guess the end never is). Gives me an urge to be part of the start of whatever is coming next...

    1. Christianity has had many low points. Tomorrow I will have a post out on one of these, in the time following the Carolingians. What can be considered the best of the Middle Ages and Christendom would follow.

      This is what I think about when considering our current situation. It's been worse in the past, yet Christ does not fail us.