How did an attempt to blind a pope establish the Holy Roman Empire?

Emperor Constantine.

French poet an­d historian Voltaire once wrote that the Holy Roman Empire was "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." Given that the first true leader of the empire was Otto I of Germany, the Enlightenment thinker had a good point. Yet, the authenticity of the Holy Roman Empire's sacredness and imperialism doesn't shake out as easily. First, it's crucial to differentiate between the Roman Empire (think Caesar and Mark Antony) and the Holy Roman Empire (think Christendom and the pope).

The Roman Empire lasted from 27 B.C. to A.D. 476. In 395, the empire split into eastern and western divisions after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Constantine established Constantinople as the capitol of the Byzantine Empire in modern-day Asia Minor and the Balkans peninsula. German tribes invaded the western remnants and divided the land among the Goths, Lombards, Franks, Vandals and other clans.


Until 1453, the Byzantine Empire was more or less squared away, but the West spiraled into a frantic land grab. Jumping forward to the mid-700s, the Franks emerged as the most powerful Germanic clan in the West. Things got interesting when Pepin the Short, mayor of the Frankish palace, aspired to become the king of the Franks. Another royal bloodline, the Merovingian, still sat on the throne, but Pepin pulled enough weight as mayor to attract a powerful ally.

­Pope Stephen II lived in northern Italy, nestled between the kingdoms of the Franks and Lombards. The pope sought Pepin's assistance because the Lombards attempted to overtake the papal territory. Seizing the opportunity for mutual gain, Pepin agreed to intervene with the Lombards in exchange for the Frankish crown; the pope was still the ultimate decider in Earthly matters.

Both parties made good on the bargain in 755. Pepin the Short conquered the Lombard kingdom, thus creating the papal states, and Pope Stephen II journeyed to the Frank kingdom to crown Pepin as king. That marked the first time a pope traveled such a long distance, symbolically legitimizing the change in royal lineage from the Merovingian to the Carolingian lineage [source: Barbero and Cameron].

By that time, King Pepin had two sons; the oldest, named Charles, would be known to history as Charlemagne.


His Name is Charles, But You Can Call Him Charlemagne

Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne.

When Pepin the Short died, the Frankish kingdom passed down the Carolingian line to Charles and his younger brother, Carloman. In 771, Carloma­n fell sick and died, and Charles seized control over his lands as well. Charles the Great, aka Charlemagne, proved proficient on the battlefield. Beginning in 773, he conquered the Lombards, Saxons, Arabs and Avars; on today's map, his kingdom would encompass France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Austria and parts of Germany, Italy, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Spain [source: Barbero and Cameron].

To the rulers of the Byzantine Empire, Charlemagne's growing kingdom was merely a patchwork of barbaric clans. However, the early Middle Ages king promoted literacy and education among his subjects. Dubbed the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne patronized education and art to an extent unparalleled in medieval Europe. He began with the court schools, where students and scholars could engage in self-directed study [source: Colish]. Along with the secular institutions, the king also revived ecumenical (religious) schools. Architectural projects accompanied the cultural resurgence, with 16 monasteries and more than 230 cathedrals either built or renovated during Charlemagne's reign [source: Stalley].


­Charlemagne also sought to unify the Frankish kingdom under the Christian faith and root out corruption in the clergy. He established Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church, as the official tongue. The Byzantine Empire, in contrast, spoke Greek. Believing in the educational power of the public Christian services, or liturgy, Charlemagne attempted to standardize them across the kingdom [source: Colish].

Relations between the church and Byzantium (whose ruler still held the honorary title of Roman Emperor) began to splinter in 726 when Emperor Leo III launched a campaign against iconoclasm, or religious icons. Wishing to prevent idol worship, Leo's decree outlawed Christian symbols, such as crucifixes. The final straw came toward the end of the eighth century when Emperor Constantine VI's mother, Irene, disowned and blinded her son and claimed the imperial title for herself. Balking at the notion of a female emperor, the church council resolved to coronate Charlemagne and split definitively from the Byzantine Empire.


Charlemagne Becomes Emperor

While tension grew between the Roman Church and Byzantium­, Charlemagne continued the tradition of close associations with the pope that his father had forged. In 795, Pope Leo III was elected and consecrated to the ire of some church officials who accused of him of embezzlement, among other charges [source: Barbero and Cameron]. In 799, a band of armed men likely commissioned by the pope's church adversaries attacked Leo during a public procession to render him unfit for the papacy. Echoing Empress Irene's blinding of her son, the men attempted to gouge out Leo's eyes and rip out his tongue, according to the Byzantine custom for removing someone from office by force [source: Barbero and Cameron].

The pope managed to escape the assault and pled for relief and protection from Charlemagne. The king acquiesced and traveled to Rome in 800 to oversee the trial between Pope Leo and his adversaries and acquit the embattled pope. While in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor of the Roman Empire during a Christmas Day Mass.


Scholars disagree about whether Charlemagne had prior knowledge of the coronation. His contemporary biographer, Einhard, claimed that it surprised and angered Charlemagne. Accepting such a weighty title without first objecting would have violated political etiquette [source: Story]. But Einhard may have omitted those details intentionally to retouch Charlemagne's image for posterity. Either way, that deceitfully simple act of the pope placing a crown on Charlemagne's bowed head resonated throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Many historians recognize that moment as the informal beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. The coronation bound together Church and state in an unprecedented way by asserting the authority of the pope to bestow the imperial title and granting church officials protection under the Frankish empire. For Charlemagne, the event unified the scattered Frankish lands through strict oaths of loyalty to the crown and equalized his political stature with the Byzantine emperor. He also used his greater administrative authority to enact legal system reforms to extend justice for the poor [source: Becher and Bachrach].

Charlemagne's rule marked a cultural climax in the early Middle Ages, and history has revered him as a mighty warrior and kindly sovereign. Though his Frankish empire wouldn't endure his death in 814, Charlemagne's imperial title introduced a new legitimate stronghold in western Europe. That unification heralded the rise of the Holy Roman Empire that would endure more than 1,000 years after his epic coronation.


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  • Anderson, Roberta and Bellenger, Dominic Aidan. "Medieval Worlds: A Sourcebook." Routledge. 2003. (Feb. 19, 2009)
  • Barbero, Alessandro and Cameron, Allan. "Charlemagne: Father of a Continent." University of California Press. 2004. (Feb. 19, 2009)
  • Colish, Marcia L. "Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400 - 1400." Yale University Press. 1999. (Feb. 19, 2009)
  • "Donation of Constantine." Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University. 1996. (Feb. 19, 2009)
  • Mann, Horace. "Pope St. Leo III." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. Robert Appleton Company, 1910. (Feb. 19, 2009)
  • McGill, Sarah Ann. "Charlemagne." Great Neck Publishing. 2009.
  • McKay, John P. et al. "A History of Western Society." Macmillan. 2007. (Feb. 19, 2009)
  • Stalley, Roger. "Early Medieval Architecture." Oxford University Press. 1999. (Feb. 19, 2009)
  • Story, Joanna. "Charlemagne." Manchester University Press. 2005. (Feb. 19, 2009)