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Feb. 27, 2021

51 – Charlemagne: Becoming an Emperor

51 – Charlemagne: Becoming an Emperor

Charlemagne was already a king. Now he ascends still further and becomes the first emperor in the west in centuries.


In 476 the Germanic leader Odoacer overthrew Romulus Augustus, the last Roman Emperor in the West. Centuries passed as migrating peoples entered the previously Roman lands. Rome never disappeared, even though its political leadership, culture and language declined. New kingdoms adopted Roman laws, customs, clothing, military techniques, technologies and often spoke a hybrid language of their own tongue and Latin. But no country could match the glory that was Rome. Even the wealthiest Visigoth or Frank had to look in awe at the arenas, amphitheaters, temples and churches and recognize that the marble and concrete ruins dwarfed their wooden long halls. These new peoples believed that the Romans had become decadent and had rightfully fallen; but at least at some point the Romans had been great, greater than their people had ever been. For three centuries virtually no European claimed to be equal to Rome. Until Christmas Day, 800 when Charles King of the Franks accepted the title of Imperator Romanorum. You might know about Charles’ ascent from King to Emperor, but his rise is a complex affair that redefined Europe and had enormous consequences for its future.

On Christmas Day 795, Pope Adrian I died. Two days later a relatively unknown figure became Pope Leo III. Leo III grew up in a lowborn family but through intelligence and piety rose up the ranks of the clergy until he became God’s vicar on Earth. As touching a story as this is, not everyone was a fan of Leo III, especially the Italian nobility, who viewed the papacy as their property. Powerful potentates perceived how politically profitable the position of pope presented and plotted to preserve it for themselves. They looked at Leo III and thought, “A commoner is the new pope? How did this happen? He’s just a nobody from the countryside. He could have been born in a barn for all we know! He probably spent a good part of his life doing manual labor. Then when he became a man he decided to preach love and charity and tell wealthy people to give money away to the poor? Who thought this guy would be a good fit to lead Christianity?”

Jealous aristocrats schemed Leo III’s downfall and accused him of perjury, simony and sexual impropriety. On 25 April 799 while walking through the city of Rome a cabal of armed men attacked the Pope with the aim of poking out his eyes and cutting out his tongue. Leo III escaped with his entourage and fled north to meet with their secular protector, King Charles. The Pope met Charles at his new fortress at Paderborn, where he was busy preparing a fleet to attack the Danes. There the two discussed Italian politics. As King of the Lombards, Charles controlled the northern half of Italy while much of the southern and northeastern territories were small states loyal to Byzantium. But the Eastern Roman Empire was in chaos. In 797 Empress-Regent Irene had her son’s eyes stabbed out and usurped his place on the throne. The Pope was not at all happy with the wicked empress. Moreover, Popes increasingly supported the Franks as their protectors as the Byzantines lost their hold over Italy.

The Popes were not alone in calling for the Franks to take a more dominant role in the Italian peninsula. In 798 Greek emissaries arrived at Charles’ court and told him that as a woman Irene could not rightfully lead the Roman Empire. In 799 Sicilian emissaries encouraged him to conquer the island and bring order, peace and stability. Charles had many people whispering in his ear to take more Italian territory, but of all these voices perhaps the most important came from Venice.

Venice was a relatively new city, founded in the 5th century as Italians fled barbarian raiders on the mainland and settled on a series of closely connected islands. The Ostrogoths and later Lombards were notoriously bad sailors, which is only natural given that their homelands were hundreds of miles from any sea, ensuring the fledging city was secure. Venice became a last refuge for many Italians and each time war broke out on the mainland refugees fled to the islands, ballooning its population. By the 7th century it became a semi-independent duchy under the nominal protection of the Byzantine Empire. In the 8th century the Franks entered Italy and their power and influence divided the Venetian nobility. A conservative faction wanted to retain their loyalty to the Eastern Roman Empire, while an opposing faction argued that the Byzantines were in decline and allying with the Franks would protect them from the Lombards.

Tied into this was another issue that divided Venice: slavery. The slave-trade was probably the biggest money-making operation in Venice as they transported people from the Dalmatian coast, usually Slavs, from which we get the word ‘slave.’ These slaves were traded across the Mediterranean world to wealthy port cities, eventually even to the Muslim world, as the Venetians expanded their merchant networks. But the Franks were not very keen on slavery. Frankish society was traditionally poorer than the Mediterranean cultures and so people couldn’t usually afford slaves. Moreover, the religious Franks held numerous councils and synods which condemned slavery. In 538 the Third Council of Orléans decided that a bishop must redeem a Christian slave in the service of a Jew if he takes refuge in the church. The 7th century Council of Chalon-sur-Saône condemned the enslavement of Christians. Also in the 7th century, Queen Balthild of Burgundy regularly bought and freed slaves, as she herself had been born a slave and wanted to end the practice. King Charles was a devout man who wanted to lead a morally upright realm and he discouraged slavery, even though his continual conquests actually revived the slave trade in western and central Europe. Oops. Meanwhile the church was nominally anti-slavery, and particularly condemned the enslavement of Christians and their sale to non-Christians. The patriarch of Grado, whose diocese included Venice, repeatedly condemned Venetian slave traders and tried to eject them from mainland cities. The pro-Frankish faction certainly believed that they could keep up the business even if the Franks expanded their influence into Italy, since Charles never fully abolished slavery in his own lands, and the Venetians expected their city would remain autonomous.

With so many people begging him to be their sovereign how could Charles refuse? The king sent Pope Leo III back to Rome accompanied by a royal guard and a cadre of Frankish bishops to investigate the charges against him. In November 800 Charles arrived in Rome and on 1 December assembled a council of bishops and nobles, all loyal to him, to try the pope. On the 23rd the Pope swore he was innocent of all charges and unsurprisingly Charles’ court agreed. The Frank returned the Pope to power and sentenced his enemies to death. Leo III knew his part in this play and ceremoniously begged Charles to have mercy and exile them. Now it was time for His Holiness to return the favor. On Christmas Day Charles went to the altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica to pray. While he knelt the Pope placed a crown on his head and declared him Imperator Romanorum, “Emperor of the Romans.”

Charles’ biographer Einhard claimed that the Frankish king had utterly no idea that the Pope was going to crown him as emperor and was flabbergasted and outraged when he did. But this was an untruth; Charles, his ministers, notably Alcuin of York, and the Pope had coordinated the entire proceeding. As Julius Sykes notes,


“The Frankish king’s name had already been inserted into certain liturgical prayers after the Roman emperor’s, implicitly linking their power and prestige as defenders of the church and guarantors of peace; the practice of mentioning the emperor and the king in the same breath cannot help but have invited comparison between them. [The famous poem detailing the meeting between Charles and Pope Leo] Karolus magnus et Leo papa thrice calls Charles by the distinctively imperial title “Augustus” and speaks of his capital at Aachen as “a second Rome.” Charles’s close friend and adviser, the Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin of York, Abbot of Marmoutier, addressed him in letters as “David,” the archetypal king of Israel beloved by God (with whom the emperors also liked to be identified). As early as 798, Alcuin had already begun describing “David’s” realms as a Christian empire…[Alcuin wrote:]

‘. . . the whole of the territories submitted to Charlemagne’s authority and inhabited by the populus christianus, which is the community of Christians spiritually dependent on Rome. Charles’s task is to govern, defend and enlarge it and closely linked with these obligations is his duty to protect faith and the Church. . . . Charles is master of almost the whole of western Christendom and Rome itself is subject to his protectorate.’”


By 800 Charles ruled over much of the former Western Roman Empire and had accumulated many titles for the areas he conquered, but he lacked a title that encompassed his entire realm. Emperor was the only sufficient title and he accepted it to solidify his claim to such vast territories. But more immediately he took up the title of Roman Emperor because he wanted to expand his power and influence in Italy. The conservative Italians expected to be ruled by a Roman Emperor, even if it was purely ceremonial. Since the Pope declared Irene was illegitimate this was the perfect time for Charles to symbolically and literally seize Italy.

But this ceremony was more than just a grab at a historical title, as Charles’ actions embodied that of a new Christian monarch. The leaders of the post-Roman West ruled through might and claims to power through their bloodlines. This was the case with the Merovingians whose legitimacy stemmed from their descent from King Merovech. Charles wanted to be more than his predecessors. He had to be more. His father Pepin was a usurper; Charles himself had taken Burgundy from his brother’s family and conquered countless territories outside of traditional Francia. The early Carolingians could not base their claims to power on bloodlines and so they legitimized themselves through religion. Pepin had Pope Stephen II crown him King of the Franks and his sons as rightful heirs. In turn, Charles accepted the title of Emperor from the Pope as a sign that he ruled by God’s will and that all his Christian subjects owed him fealty.

The ceremony that accompanied his coronation was part of his legitimizing strategy. Charles knelt at the altar and prayed while the Pope put the crown on his head. Charles’ biographer Einhard claimed he wasn’t seeking power which was a stark contrast to barbarian warlords and Roman generals, both of which lived in societies that glorified ambition. In Christian Europe seeking earthly power was something that immoral people did and in direct contrast to the teachings of Jesus Christ. After his baptism Jesus went into the desert and fasted for forty days and forty nights when the Devil appeared to him. Satan then offered him all the kingdoms of Earth if Jesus would worship him. Jesus then replied, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”

Charles’ coronation ceremony was thus an act, wherein he demonstrated his subservience to God and his will instead of seeking his own power. Yet, Charles received power from God via the Pope, while praying in Saint Peter’s. Charles probably wasn’t the first to enact this trope but he certainly popularized this idea of a monarch who rejects power only to accept it when people demand that he lead them.

The coronation was also an incredibly important symbolic event in the transformation of the Western and Central European psyche. For centuries the new polities were derided as ‘barbarian’ kingdoms and pale imitators of their Latin civilizers. The early Merovingians and many other leaders pledged fealty to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople. These pledges were mostly bull…I mean, ceremonial, and the Franks still warred against the Byzantines even though they professed loyalty and obedience to the Emperor. But while these oaths had no practical political impact they reinforced the idea that the post-Roman world was inferior in every way. Charles’ ascent to the role of Emperor affirmed that the Frankish kingdom was Rome’s rightful successor and worthy of the title of empire. Finally, through Charles Western and Central Europe were reborn as Christendom. According to Charles’ propagandists the Frankish Empire was not ruled through might, but through the divine guidance of God and his chosen monarchs who were blessed by the Pope to lead a morally-upright realm of self-identified Christians.

If you thought that Europeans would be ecstatic that they finally had a new emperor, you would be very wrong. Most Franks either didn’t care or they viewed it with suspicion since they feared an overly-powerful monarch interfering with their estates. Many Germans only vaguely knew what an emperor was. Italians started sweating as they realized Charles wanted to expand his power there. Meanwhile the Byzantines absolutely lost it. Irene was furious that the Pope declared her illegitimate and launched a war against the Franks in what sounds like an epic conflict worthy of its own HBO miniseries. Just think: the rising power of the Western Franks versus the declining Greek Empire of Eastern Rome, each with the power to assemble huge armies of diverse soldiers. But if you’re expecting a superpower showdown, I’m going to have to disappoint you. Emperor Charles was busy subduing the Saxons, while the Byzantines defended themselves against Arab invasions. The two sides barely engaged each other. Instead, different factions within territories competed for power, most importantly in Venice.

Conflict between the pro-Byzantine and pro-Frankish Venetians reached a fever pitch in 802. At the time Giovanni Galbaio was the 8th doge of Venice, whose family almost certainly acquired their wealth at least partially through slave-trading. He naturally led the pro-Byzantine faction in the city since Charles opposed slavery. But he had more immediate concerns than the Franks because the nearby patriarch of Grado condemned him and the other slave-traders. Galbaio wanted the church to soften its anti-slavery stance and he appointed his nephew to the position of bishop of Olivolo. But the patriarch refused to consecrate him and continued barring Venetian traders from entering ports. Galbaio had enough and launched a naval assault on Grado. The Venetians took the city, captured the patriarch and threw him off a tower. [Sigh] You know, as much as a person might fantasize about throwing someone off a building, that usually doesn’t solve anyone’s problems, and Galbaio’s had just started. Refugees fled the city, including priests and the patriarch’s nephew who they elected to replace his deceased uncle. Then the clergy fled to Frankish-controlled lands to stir up support for an invasion of Venice.

Before Charles’ son and King of Italy Pepin could act the pro-Frankish faction in Venice launched a coup. In 803 Obelerio degli Antenori seized power, forcing Galbaio and his allies to flee. Antenori spent the next few years cozying up to the Franks as he sought to legitimize his rule and secure his succession. On Christmas Day 805 he paid homage to Emperor Charles at his palace at Aachen and acknowledged him as suzerain of Venice. Meanwhile Pepin launched an invasion of the Dalmatian coast, which if successful would give the Franks control of the Adriatic Sea. In response, Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I sent an armada to invade Venice, which was defeated by a pro-Frankish fleet. But the Venetians had enough of Antenori; he had brought war to their city, he was corrupt and he was far too close to the barbarian foreigners. Seeing no other option, Antenori begged Pepin to invade. The Franks marched on Venice, but it was too late for the doge who was finally forced to flee.

Pepin’s army rapidly secured the mainland before conquering the island of Palestrina. Only the fortified island of Malamocco stood between the Franks and Venice. But the Venetians cleverly removed all buoys and channel markers in the area, turning the lagoon into a death trap of sudden currents, shoals and unseen rocks. Pepin’s ships regularly sunk or ran aground. Worse, his men camped in the marshes where mosquitos feasted on the tender northmen’s flesh. After six months the King of Italy himself fell ill and called a retreat, though it was too late for him and he died a few months later.

In 812 the Franks and Byzantines came to an agreement known the Peace of Aachen. The treaty largely affirmed the status quo with Venice, Southern Italy and the Dalmatian coast under Eastern control while Charles ruled the north. The Byzantines still refused to acknowledge Charles as an emperor, though by now the Frank had softened his stance in order to maintain peace with his eastern neighbors. Instead of “Emperor of the Romans,” Charles referred to himself as “governing the Roman Empire.” He had made a power play in Italy, but obligations up north and Venetian resiliency hindered his ambitions. He never visited Rome after 800, and instead spent his time at Aachen securing his empire. But Charles maintained his imperial title and in 813 crowned his son Louis emperor without mentioning the pope. Thus, the aging monarch affirmed that his divinely-ordained dynasty led an empire worthy of Rome.




Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, 2001.

Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.

Julius Sykes, “Roman Holiday: December 25, 800, and the Philosophical Origins of Charlemagne’s Purple Reign,” 2015.