Nature of the empire
The precise term Sacrum Romanum Imperium dates only from 1254, though the term Holy Empire reaches back to 1157, and the term Roman Empire was used from 1034 to denote the lands under Conrad II’s rule. The term Roman emperor is older, dating from Otto II (died 983). This title, however, was not used by Otto II’s predecessors, from Charlemagne(or Charles I) to Otto I, who simply employed the phrase imperator augustus (“august emperor”) without any territorial adjunct. The first title that Charlemagne is known to have used, immediately after his coronation in 800, is “Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.” This clumsy formula, however, was soon discarded.
These questions about terms reveal some of the problems involved in the nature and early history of the empire. It can be regarded as a political institution, or approached from the point of view of political theory, or treated in the context of the history of Christendom as the secular counterpart of a world religion. The history of the empire is also not to be confused or identified with the history of its constituent kingdoms, Germany and Italy, though clearly they are interrelated. The constituent territories retained their identity; the emperors, in addition to the imperial crown, also wore the crowns of their kingdoms. Finally, whereas none of the earlier emperors from Otto I had assumed the imperial title until actually crowned by the pope in Rome, after Charles V none was emperor in this sense, though all laid claim to the imperial dignity as if they had been duly crowned as well as elected. Despite these anomalies and others, the empire, at least in the Middle Ages, was by common assent, along with the papacy, the most important institution of western Europe.
Theologians, lawyers, popes, ecclesiastics, rulers, rebels like Arnold of Brescia and Cola di Rienzo, literary figures like Dante and Petrarch, and the practical men, members of the high nobility, on whom the emperors relied for support, all saw the empire in a different light and had their own ideas of its origin, function, and justification. Among these heterogeneous and often incompatible views, three may be said to predominate: (1) the papal theory, according to which the empire was the secular arm of the church, set up by the papacy for its own purposes and therefore answerable to the pope and, in the last resort, to be disposed of by him; (2) the imperial, or Frankish, theory, which placed greater emphasis on conquest and hegemony as the source of the emperor’s power and authority and according to which he was responsible directly to God; and (3) the popular, or Roman, theory (the “people” at this stage being synonymous with the nobility and in this instance with the Roman nobility), according to which the empire, following the tradition of Roman law, was a delegation of powers by the Roman people. Of the three theories the last was the least important; it was evidently directed against the pope, whose constitutive role it implicitly denied, but it was also a specifically Italian reaction against the predominance in practice of Frankish and German elements.
It is also important to distinguish between the universalist and localist conceptions of the empire, which have been the source of considerable controversy among historians. According to the former, the empire was a universal monarchy, a “commonwealth of the whole world, whose sublime unity transcended every minor distinction”; and the emperor “was entitled to the obedience of Christendom.” According to the latter, the emperor had no ambition for universal dominion; his policy was limited in the same way as that of every other ruler, and when he made more far-reaching claims his object was normally to ward off the attacks either of the pope or of the Byzantine emperor. According to this view, also, the origin of the empire is to be explained by specific local circumstances rather than by far-flung theories.
Origins of the empire and sources of imperial ideas
There was no inherent reason why, after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 and the establishment there of Germanic kingdoms, there should ever again have been an empire, still less a Roman empire, in western Europe. The reason this took place is to be sought (1) in certain local events in Rome in the years and months immediately preceding Charlemagne’s coronation in 800, and (2) in certain long-standing tendencies that made this particular solution of a difficult situation thinkable. These long-standing tendencies are to be regarded as preconditions rather than causes of the coronation; they do not account for it, but without them it is difficult to imagine how it could have taken place.
The first is the persistence, despite the fact that it was no longer a political reality west of Italy, of the idea of the universal and eternal Roman Empire. The importance of this tradition may easily be exaggerated. After the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms, kings such as Clovis in Gaul and Theodoric the Great in Italy were glad to accept Roman titles from the Byzantine emperor, who sought to maintain the formal unity of the Roman Empire by treating them as his vicars and lieutenants; but this was a short-lived expedient. By the 8th century any sense of belonging to the empire, by then confined to eastern Europe, had disappeared in the West.
Origins of the empire and sources of imperial ideas » Religious origins
Far more effective in the minds of the barbarian peoples of the West was the idea of the Imperium Christianum or “Christian Empire,” which took shape after the conversion of Constantine the Great and the reconciliation between Christianity and the Roman Empire. Not only did the Christian Church become a state church, including in its liturgy prayers for the empire and the emperor, but it also brought the Roman Empire into the framework of Christian eschatology, as the last of the world monarchies whose end would mark the inception of the kingdom of God. Through Christian iconography and through the liturgy the church’s view of the empire as a vehicle of God’s will, for the Christianization of the world, became prevalent. It was expressed with peculiar force in the letters of Charlemagne’s adviser Alcuin.
Apart from the persistence of the idea of a Christian Roman Empire, a third precondition for the establishment of an empire in the West was the existence of a candidate of sufficient power and standing in the person of the Frankish king. The Frankish kingdom expanded until it comprised most of western Europe, and it acquired the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy in 774. The importance of the ties forged by Charlemagne’s immediate predecessors with the papacy are obvious. Though it is scarcely true that Charlemagne’s accession to the empire was simply a consequence of this expansion, his outstanding position was evidently a precondition of his elevation to the imperial throne.
Origins of the empire and sources of imperial ideas » Political origins
When one turns from the preconditions to the causes of the events of 800 and from the realm of ideas to that of political facts, one enters another world. It is the world of the Byzantine (or Eastern) Empire, of which the pope was a subject, confirmed in his bishopric like other bishops by the Byzantine emperor. By the 8th century, however, the imperial position in Italy, centred in the Exarchate of Ravenna, was crumbling. Confronted by the power of Islām, the empire concentrated on the problems of the East and was unable to defend its Italian lands from the Lombards, who had entered Italy in 568. Furthermore, the Byzantine emperors of the Isaurian dynasty, of whom the first was Leo III (717–741), were estranged from the papacy by the Iconoclastic Controversy. Hitherto fear of the Lombards had kept the popes faithful to the Byzantine emperor and to the exarch in Ravenna, but the situation changed. When the Lombards renewed their advance southward, taking Ravenna in 751 and driving out the exarch, the pope appealed in vain to the Byzantine emperor. He then, in an epoch-making turn to the West, sought assistance from the Frankish king Pippin III the Short, who invaded Italy and reduced the Lombard king Aistulf to submission (754). Returning in 756, Pippin bestowed on the papacy the territories belonging to the exarchate. Thus was born both the temporal power of the papacy and the close alliance between the papacy and the Frankish monarchy.
Particularly significant of the anomalous position that had arisen in Italy was the action of the pope in conferring on the Frankish king the title of patrician, which could legally be conferred only by the emperor; in the form the pope gave it (patricius Romanorum), the title was meant to authorize its possessor to defend and support the Holy See against its foes. Even so, the papacy was reluctant to break its constitutional links with the imperial system, and this was particularly so under Pope Adrian I (772–795), after Charlemagne had in 774 defeated the last independent Lombard king, Desiderius, and taken his kingdom. As king of Lombardy the defender might become as dangerous to the pope as those against whom he had provided defense.
The events briefly related show, first, the growing estrangement between East and West; second, the difficult position of the pope between the Byzantine emperor and the Frankish king; third, the tenuousness of the imperial hold over Rome and central Italy. After the expulsion of the exarch in 751, the pope himself, in de facto possession, probably hoped to become the emperor’s successor in the West. Whether the document itself belongs to the 750s or not, this was the sense of the forged Donation of Constantine, in which the emperor Constantine I is represented as having conferred on Pope Sylvester I the imperial palace of the Lateran, the imperial insignia, and “all the provinces, places and cities of Italy and the western regions.” Such ambitions, however, proved illusory when Charlemagne became king of the Lombards. When it was even rumoured that Charles intended to depose Adrian and set up a Frankish pope in his place, it would have been folly for the pope to think of formal severance from the existing empire. Nevertheless, the empire’s shadowy titles were unlikely to be respected long in Italy unless the Byzantine emperor took action. From 781 papal documents were no longer being dated by the emperor’s regnal year, and the pope was minting his own coins.
Coronation of Charlemagne as emperor
By comparison with Adrian, Pope Leo III (795–816) was a man of inferior calibre. Where Adrian had tried to maintain independence by balancing the Byzantine emperor against the Frankish king, Leo from the first showed subservience to the latter. Both in Constantinople and in Rome the situation was unstable. In Constantinople, after troubles reaching back to 790, the empress Irene had her son Constantine VI blinded and deposed in 797 and took his place, the first woman to rule the empire in her own right. Her constitutional position was thus doubtful; Alcuin in the West, in 799, regarded the imperial throne as empty. Meanwhile, in Rome the hostile nobility exploited the opportunity to attack Leo, who in 799 fled across the Alps to his protector, Charlemagne, at Paderborn. Though unfavourably impressed by the Pope, Charlemagne was persuaded by Alcuin to send him back to Rome with a commission, which adjudged the complaints against him false and arrested and deported his accusers. The situation, however, was still uncertain. In view of the plight of both pope and Byzantine emperor, “the whole salvation of the church of Christ” rested (so Alcuin wrote) in Charlemagne’s hands, and in the autumn of 800 he set out for Rome “to restore the state of the church which was greatly disturbed.” On December 23 Leo solemnly purged himself of the charges against him. Two days later, on December 25, a large gathering assembled in St. Peter’s, where the Pope was to consecrate Charlemagne’s son as king. Suddenly, as Charlemagne rose from prayer, Leo placed a crown on his head and, while the assembled Romans acclaimed him as “Augustus and emperor,” the Pope abased himself before Charlemagne, “adoring” him “after the manner of the emperors of old.”
It seems clear that this coronation was the work of the papacy, not of the Frankish king, who is said to have been surprised and angry at it. The immediate beneficiary of the coronation was the pope, whose position henceforth was secure. Charlemagne was left to face its momentous consequences and, particularly, to secure that recognition from Constantinople without which his title was legally invalid. This, according to the chronicler Theophanes, he sought to do by offering marriage to the empress Irene, hoping thus “to reunite east and west.” If so, a revolution in Constantinople and the deposition of Irene in 802 brought the plan to nothing. In any case, the coronation of Charlemagne was an extralegal, indeed an illegal and revolutionary, proceeding. The pope had no right to make him emperor. Nor did the coronation create a new western by the side of the existing eastern empire. A usurper in the eyes of the Byzantines, Charlemagne had not the least prospect of succeeding to the throne of the Caesars. The only imperial territories on which he laid hands were the duchy of Rome and the former exarchate. Otherwise he remained, as before, king of the Franks and of the Lombards. In view of the fact that in 806 he made arrangements to divide his territories among his three sons, one may doubt whether Charlemagne’s empire would have survived had not the two elder sons died before him, leaving the undivided inheritance in 814 to the third son, Louis I the Pious.
Although the immediate context of the imperial coronation of 800 was limited, it had wider connotations. In the first place, the separation between East and West had become an accomplished fact in the political sphere; for, though the intention in 800 was not to divide the empire, this was the practical outcome. In 812, after unsuccessful war and wearisome negotiation, the Byzantine emperor Michael I recognized Charlemagne’s imperial title. It was still a personal title, and Charlemagne was recognized merely as emperor, not as emperor of the Romans; in other words, the emperor in Constantinople maintained his claim to be the only true successor to the Roman Caesars. Furthermore, the recognition was grudgingly given, and later, when Byzantium was stronger and the Carolingians weaker, Michael’s successors refused to extend it automatically to Charlemagne’s successors. Thus the second consequence of the act of 800 was a rivalry with Constantinople, which remained an important factor in imperial history at least until 1204. In the third place, Charlemagne’s coronation involved him and his successors ever more deeply in the ecumenical pretensions of the papacy.