Monday, October 26, 2020


[Otto III] had seen the villages of his own people burned and corpse-strewn, and he had torched the villages of the Wends… The Wends, unlike the Saxons themselves, had refused to accept the Prince of Peace at the point of the conqueror’s sword.

-          Millennium, Tom Holland

Otto III (hereafter, Otto for ease) was only three years old when his father died, casting him on the throne.  He was immediately a victim of a plot, an attempt to be overthrown by Henry.  The plot was eventually thwarted by Henry’s own bumbling, and he retired a resentful man to Bavaria.

Otto would struggle with the obvious contradiction offered in the opening paragraph – conversion by the sword was not fitting for the Prince of Peace.  Vigils, prayers, and rivers of tears – this is what Otto could offer...along with the sword. 

After his coronation in Rome, Otto would become acquainted with Adalbert, a monk that would admonish Otto: regard yourself not as a great Caesar, but as a mere mortal.  Adalbert understood something of this: having been run out of town in Bohemia by the local duke whose slave trade Adalbert attempted to halt, he would set his bishop’s title aside and become merely one brother among many.

To Otto, Adalbert offered a possible way out of this contradiction – a way through the darkness.  Adalbert, merely through prayer, could stop the frogs in Rome from croaking.  Indeed, it could be possible to bring the pagans to the City of God without the point of the sword.

In the summer of 996, the banks of the Elbe River were once again ablaze.  Adalbert was on the scene:

The following spring, by the side of an icy lake, a bare day’s journey beyond the borders of Poland and the protection of Boleslav, its Christian duke, Adalbert was hacked to death.  His killers were Prussians, a heathen and turbulent people, much given to tattooing themselves and downing pints of blood, who had scorned the missionary’s preaching as the sinister work of a ‘German god’.

The millennium was approaching, and Otto’s sense of dread was increasing.  Securing the Roman Empire and Christendom in time for this apocalyptic event weighed heavily.  Yes, the Wends had finally been tamed by 997, but time was running out.  And now Rome itself was under a tyrant.  Otto headed south.

In 998, the Holy Lance would be planted before the walls of Rome.  Siege engines were set against the city.  One of the instigators, Crescentius, would disguise himself, slip out of the city, and plead mercy from Otto.  Otto would send him back to face his doom.  Shortly after Easter, the city would be breached, and Crescentius decapitated.  His headless corpse was hung upside down for all to see.

This was a better fate than that reserved for Philagathos, the anti-pope and Otto’s tutor in his youth.  Yes, his life was spared, but his eyes were removed…then his nose…then his lips…then his tongue.  He was brought in this condition to Otto; Otto was appalled to silence, but not to clemency.  Philagathos was handed to the man he intended to replace, Pope Gregory, who had him fitted with a cap of animal skins, placed facing backward on a donkey, and paraded through Rome.  Finally, he was stripped of his priesthood and led away to a monastery to spend his days until his death.

Yes, Rome was restored – but at what cost?  Those from whom Otto most craved approval were horrified by his methods.  Nilus would confront the emperor and Pope Gregory, despite being ninety years old and weak from his Lenten fast: “For if you do not forgive him whom God has delivered into your hands, neither will the heavenly Father forgive you your own sins.”

This was Otto’s dilemma.  He was charged with preserving Christendom from Antichrist, yet all his brutalities served to put his fitness as God’s anointed into question.  Shortly thereafter, Pope Gregory fell suddenly sick and died.  How could it be seen by Otto as anything other than a result of Nilus’s curse?

Otto would head south toward Nilus. Along the way he performed many acts of public penance.  By the time he reached Nilus, it was evident that his contrition had been accepted as heartfelt:

Otto, slipping down from his saddle, knelt in tears before the hermit; and then removed his crown.

Nilus would return the crown to Otto, giving him his blessing.  With the one-thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation approaching, Otto would return to Rome to crown the new pope, Gerbert of Aurillac.  He would now be Sylvester II, a sure sign: just as the first Sylvester served Charlemagne, the new Sylvester would serve Otto.  Together, they would shepherd the flock.

And swell its numbers.  It was long believed that the last Roman emperor – and Otto would be the last, given the apocalyptic events soon anticipated – would summon all the world’s pagans to baptism.  But not by the sword.  He offered a replica of the Holy Lance and a diadem from Sylvester to the chieftain of the Hungarians; he was to be King Stephen, welcomed into the order of Christian royalty.

Next it was off to Poland, where he would humbly walk barefoot into the presence of the Polish duke.  The duke was presented with a crown and a copy of the Holy Lance.  He would now be a friend of the Roman people.

The thousandth year of the Incarnation had come and gone – and Antichrist had not appeared.  This afforded Otto no comfort: who can say which of the many events in Christ’s life on earth were the proper starting point for the countdown.  As the new year approached, reminders of the forces of darkness remained all around. 

Further, Christendom remained divided; in the summer of 1001, Otto would send a second delegation to Constantinople, one – he hoped – more trustworthy than the first.  This time, a demand for a princess had been met.  But, in early 1002, Otto would be stricken by malaria and die.


‘Caesar is gone.  And with him gone, all future ages are thrown into confusion.’  This epitaph, composed in the confused months that followed Otto’s death, was not, perhaps, a wholly exaggerated one.

The dreams of a universal empire as solution to the world’s problems would never again be a practical policy to motivate a monarch of Latin Christendom. 

Otto believed he would be the last Roman emperor, eventually handing his crown to Christ in Jerusalem.  Only one of these two beliefs came true in the end.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to see a king like Otto humble himself to God despite his previous brutality against nonbelievers. Essentially this is the only kind of peaceful constraint on political power one can hope for coming from the spiritual conscience of the King.

    Without that only war can constrain the power of a ruler.