Annie Lee | Feb 3, 2023

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Charles, called Magnus or Charlemagne or Charles I called the Great, from Latin Carolus Magnus, in German Karl der Große, in French Charlemagne (April 2, 742 - Aachen, Jan. 28, 814), was king of the Franks from 768, king of the Lombards from 774 and from 800 the first Emperor of the Romans, crowned by Pope Leo III in the ancient basilica of St. Peter's in the Vatican.

The appellation Magno was given to him by his biographer Eginard, who titled his work Vita et gesta Caroli Magni. The son of Pippin the Short and Bertranda of Laon, Charles became king in 768 upon the death of his father. He initially reigned together with his brother Charlemagne, whose sudden death (under mysterious circumstances in 771) left Charles sole ruler of the Frankish kingdom. Through a series of successful military campaigns (including the conquest of the Lombard kingdom) he expanded the Frankish kingdom to encompass a large part of Western Europe.

On Christmas Day 800 Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Romans (a title at his time called Imperator Augustus), founding the Carolingian Empire, which is considered the first phase in the history of the Holy Roman Empire. With Charlemagne there was thus the overcoming in Western European history of the legal-formal ambiguity of the Romano-Germanic kingdoms in favor of a new model of empire. With his rule he gave impetus to the Carolingian Revival, a period of cultural awakening in the West.

Charlemagne's success in founding his empire can be explained by taking into account certain historical and social processes that had been going on for quite some time: in the decades before Charlemagne's rise, the migrations of the East Germanic peoples and the Slavs had come to an almost complete halt; in the West, the expansionist force of the Arabs had been halted, thanks to the battles fought by Charles Martel; and because of personal rivalries and religious contrasts, Muslim Spain was divided by infighting. The empire endured as long as Charles's son, Ludwig the Pious, was alive: it was then divided among his three heirs, but the scope of his reforms and his sacred significance radically influenced all the life and politics of the European continent in the following centuries, to the point of being called king, father of Europe (Rex Pater Europae).

Charlemagne's success in founding his empire can be explained by taking into account certain historical and social processes that had been ongoing for some time: in the decades before Charlemagne's rise, the Ávars had settled in the Volga Basin and no longer posed a threat; the migrations of the East Germanic peoples and the Slavs had stopped almost completely; in the West, the expansionist force of the Arabs had been exhausted thanks to the battles fought by Charles Martel; and, due to personal rivalries and religious contrasts, Muslim Spain was divided by infighting.

According to a famous thesis (scaled down by more recent studies) by the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne there had been a shift of the center of gravity of the Western world northward after the loss of importance of trade in the Mediterranean caused by the Muslim conquest of North Africa and the Near East and the break-in of the Magyars in Eastern Europe.

In addition, account must be taken of the fundamental work of evangelization in the territories of eastern and southern Germany by Benedictine monks coming from England and led by St. Boniface between about 720 and 750, who had given initial structure and organization to territories dominated by still barbaric and pagan tribes.


The first-born son of Pippin the Short (714-768), first of the Carolingian kings, and Bertrada of Laon, Charles' birth is traditionally fixed at April 2, 742, but at present it is virtually impossible to establish the exact date, as sources propose at least three: 742, 743 and 744. Einhard, his official biographer, in the Vita et gesta Caroli Magni states that Charles died in the seventy-second year of his life, the "Annals Regi" dates his death to the seventy-first year, while the (now lost) inscription above his tomb simply calls him seventy years old.

Another coeval manuscript places Charles' birth on April 2, the date commonly given for his birth. However, Eginard's calculation creates a problem: if Charles died in 814 at age seventy-two, then he was born in 742, that is, before the marriage between Pippin and Bertrada, which sources inform celebrated in 744. Concubinage was tolerated among the Franks, and thus also the birth of children before marriage, but from the point of view of contemporary Christian morality (and that of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography) the fact was embarrassing.

It was only in the last years of last century that medievalists Karl Ferdinand Werner and Matthias Becher found a late copy of an early medieval annalistic work in which the notation "eo ipse anno natus Karolus rex" is found at the year 747. At that time, the computation of time did not follow precise rules; in particular, 8th-century annalistic works inform us that at that time the year began with Easter Day, which, in 748, fell on April 21. Since it is ascertained from various sources that Charles was born on April 2, that day, for contemporaries, was still in 747, while with the present reckoning it falls in 748.

Another clue in favor of 748 is found in a text relating to the translation of the body of St. Germain of Paris to the future abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which took place on July 25, 755; Charles was present at the ceremony and suffered a minor accident being 7 years old, as he himself states. But while conjecture can be made about the date of his birth, the sources, on the other hand, provide no clues to help identify the place of Charles' birth.

Partition and early years of reign

Pippin the Short died on September 24, 768, not before designating both his surviving sons, Charles and Charlemagne, as heirs and successors, with the approval of the nobility that mattered and the bishops. At that time the former was between 20 and 26 years old (depending on which date one accepts for his birth), and until then the literature and official documents report no news of particular note, except that in 761 and 762 he participated with his father and brother in military expeditions to Aquitaine and later began to administer justice in the abbey of Saint-Calais.

Pippin had divided the kingdom between his two sons as in 742 his father Charles Martel had done with him and his brother; he therefore assigned to Charles Austrasia, most of Neustria and the northwestern half of Aquitaine (i.e., a kind of crescent comprising the north and west of France, plus the lower Rhine valley) and all the territories in the meantime conquered in the eastern part as far as Thuringia, and to Charlemagne Burgundy, Provence, Gotia, Alsace, Alamagne, and the southeastern part of Aquitaine (i.e., the inner part of the kingdom comprising south-central France and the upper Rhine valley). Aquitaine therefore, not yet fully subdued, was reserved for common rule.

This subdivision, beyond the fairly comparable geographic, demographic and economic extent, however, imposed on the two sovereigns a totally different political management, to the entire disadvantage of Charlemagne; if Charles in fact had quiet borders that would allow him to devote himself to an expansionist policy toward the Germanic lands, his brother inherited a kingdom that would continuously engage him in a defensive policy: toward the Pyrenees against the Arabs of al-Andalus, and toward the Alps with the Lombards of Italy. This fact probably contributed in no small measure to the rather strained relations between the two brothers. The coronation took place for both on October 9, 768, but in separate and distant places.

One of the first problems to be solved was the issue of Aquitaine, which, however, Charles had to deal with alone, as his brother, perhaps misguided, denied him the necessary help. There is no version of these events from Charlemagne's point of view, so it is not possible to confirm the true reasons for the denial. Through an agreement with the Basque prince Lupo, Charles had Unaldo, son of the Duke of Aquitaine and his wife, who had taken refuge with him, delivered. The Aquitanian resistance thus found itself without a major leader and yielded to Charles, who, however, did not finally include the region in the kingdom until 781.

Charles' mother Bertrada was a staunch advocate of the policy of détente between the Franks and Lombards. In the summer of 770 the queen organized a mission to Italy and succeeded in weaving an understanding between her two sons and the Lombard king Desiderius, who had already given a daughter in marriage to Tassilon, duke of Bavaria. Desiderio's eldest son, Adelchi, became the betrothed of the princess Gisella, while Charles, who had already been married to Imiltrude, married Desiderio's daughter Desiderata (made famous by Manzoni's Adelchi as Ermengarda, although neither name has been handed down with certainty). The political significance of this union, however, which kept out Charlemagne and, above all, the pope, is abundantly clear.

The latter was infuriated by the danger that a Franco-Longobard alliance could pose to Roman interests, and Charlemagne hastened to take his side. Charles was not intimidated by the pontiff's remonstrances; on the contrary, he had to accept a de facto situation and adapt to the new Frankish political line, convinced also by the gift of some cities in central Italy that Bertrada and the Lombard king made to reassure him. The pope, therefore, also changed his political line, reconciling with King Desiderius and momentarily loosening relations with the two Frankish kings.

Soon Charles, for causes that are not well understood (perhaps a precarious state of health that would have prevented his wife from having children), repudiated and sent his consort back to her father, effectively breaking the good relations with the Lombards: it was an act that both on the Lombard and Church sides was seen as a declaration of war. But it was also an act that freed Charles from the burden of a complicated political situation (the Church-Franks-Longobards alliance) that conflicted with the interests of all parties involved.

On Dec. 4, 771, at the age of only 20, Charlemagne died suddenly of an incurable disease that aroused chatter and suspicion; Charles hastened to have himself declared king of all the Franks, thus anticipating possible problems due to succession rights that might be asserted by his brother's sons (and in particular the eldest among them, Pippin) who, together with his mother and some loyal nobles, fled to Italy.

The first phase of Charlemagne's reign was aimed at continuous military campaigns, undertaken to assert his authority first and foremost within the kingdom, among his family members and dissident voices. Once the home front was stabilized, Charles began a series of campaigns outside the kingdom's borders to subjugate neighboring peoples and to aid the Church of Rome, consolidating an even closer relationship with it than the one his father Pippin had woven in his time. From his relationship with the pope and the Church, now understood as the direct heir of the Western Roman Empire, Charles obtained ratification of the power that now transcended the Emperor of Constantinople, who was distant and unable to assert his rights, especially at a time of weakness and dubious legitimacy in the reign of Empress Irene.

Campaign in Italy against the Lombards

Almost simultaneously with Charlemagne, Pope Stephen III also died. Pope Adrian I was elected to the papal throne, invoking Charles' help against the traditional and never-quenched Lombard threat. Desiderius, concerned about the danger of a new alliance between the Franks and the Papacy, sent an embassy to the new pontiff, which failed miserably, however, because Hadrian I publicly accused him of treason for failing to fulfill his covenants to hand over to the Church the territories he had once promised.

Desiderio then went on the offensive, invading the Pentapolis. Charles, who at that time was organizing his campaign against the Saxons, tried to pacify the situation by suggesting to the pope that he donate a substantial amount of gold to Desiderius to regain the disputed territories in exchange, but the negotiation failed and Charles, faced with the insistence of the papacy, found himself obliged to wage war against the Lombards, and in 773 he entered Italy.

The bulk of the army, commanded by the sovereign himself, crossed the Mont Cenis pass and, rejoining the rest of the troops who had followed a different route, put Desire's armies to flight at the Locks of St. Michael, not before attempting a new diplomatic approach. Numerous defections and the hostility of many nobles against their king's policies forced Desiderius to avoid a pitched battle and to enclose himself in his capital city of Pavia, which the Franks reached in September 773 without encountering any resistance, and which they besieged. Charles had no intention of taking the city by force, and in fact allowed it to capitulate through starvation and exhaustion of resources after nine months of siege; a period that the Frankish king occupied to fine-tune the lines of his policy toward the Lombards, the Papacy, and the Byzantines who still permanently occupied southern Italy.

Among other things, Charles wanted to take advantage of the period of forced inactivity due to the siege to travel to Rome to celebrate Easter and meet with Hadrian I. Arriving in the city on Holy Saturday 774, he was welcomed by the clergy and city authorities with full honors and, according to the papal biographer, personally by the pope on the parvis of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, who greeted him with familiarity and friendship and with the honors due to the patrician of the Romans. In front of Peter's tomb they sealed their personal (but above all political) "friendship" with a solemn oath, and the pontiff obtained, on the other hand, the reconfirmation of the donation, made at the time by Pippin the Short to Stephen III, of the Lombard territories previously attributed to the Church.

But these were territories yet to be conquered, and for some of them (Venice, Istria and the duchies of Benevento and Spoleto) later the "restitution" to the Church was never even seriously considered: the agreement, in fact, was never really honored and indeed Charles, after conquering the Lombard kingdom, avoided for several years to meet personally with the pope, who certainly did not like this attitude and had several times to complain about the Frankish king's indifference to his requests. Given the many similarities with Charles' donation document, historians believe that the compilation of the document known as the "Donation of Constantine," the historical forgery, believed to be authentic for centuries, on the basis of which the Church founded its alleged temporal rights, could be placed in this period.

Charles returned to the encampment of Pavia, which capitulated in June 774. Already several cities had been conquered by the Franks and handed over to the pope, and together with the capital thus collapsed the entire Lombard kingdom, moreover already weakened by internal quarrels among the nobility and frequent changes in the ruling dynasty. King Desiderius surrendered without further resistance, and the Lombards themselves submitted to the Franks and their ruler, who assumed the title of Gratia Dei Rex Francorum et Langobardorum et Patricius Romanorum in Pavia on July 10, 774, encircling the Iron Crown. Desiderius was imprisoned in a monastery, while his son Adelchi repaired to the court of the Byzantine emperor Constantine V.

Except for a few mainly administrative interventions, Charles maintained the Lombard institutions and laws in Italy and confirmed the possessions and rights to the dukes who had served the previous king; the Duchy of Benevento remained independent but tributary to the Frankish king, and only in the Duchy of Friuli, in early 776, did Charles have to intervene to quell a dangerous uprising led by Duke Rotgaudo, who had attempted to involve the remaining dukes of Treviso and Vicenza; he confronted them in battle and recaptured the rebellious cities, pacifying northern Italy. But in the rest of the Peninsula, the strengthening of his power over the ancient Lombard kingdom took place relatively quietly.

Campaigns against the Saxons

The next major campaign that Charles undertook was directed against the Saxons, a population of Germanic origin settled in the area northeast of Austrasia, beyond the Rhine, in the lower Weser and Elbe basins. A population with deep-rooted pagan traditions and politically disunited and fragmented into various warring tribes. Already the Roman emperors themselves had unsuccessfully tried to subjugate it as a "federate." Pippin the Short had managed to contain its encroachments for plunder and to impose an annual tribute of several hundred horses on the Saxons, but in 772 they refused payment and this enabled Charles to justify the invasion of Saxony.

Thought perhaps initially as a punitive expedition against the threats that the various Saxon tribes had long constituted to the borders of the Frankish kingdom, and to bring true faith and order to a pagan country, the intervention turned instead into a long and difficult conflict, which continued with flare-ups of rebellion long after the Saxon peoples had been imposed new tributes and forcibly converted to Christianity. In fact, operations were conducted at various times and with increasing difficulty against an enemy fractionated into numerous small autonomous entities that exploited guerrilla techniques: in 774, at the end of the Italian campaign, then in 776 and especially in 780, after the Spanish disaster, with the defeat of Vitichindo, who was the real soul of the resistance, having succeeded in reunifying the various tribes. The entire region was dismembered into counties and duchies.

From 782 the conquest proceeded in increasingly repressive ways, methodically ravaging Saxon lands and starving rebellious tribes. Charles himself promulgated the "Capitulare de partibus Saxoniae," which imposed capital punishment for anyone who offended Christianity and its priests, a measure for the forced conversion of the Saxons. About 4500 Saxons were executed in the Verden Massacre, and Vitichindus himself was baptized in 785. The Saxons maintained peace until 793, when a new insurrection erupted in northern Germany. Charles nipped it in the bud, implementing the deportation of thousands of Saxons and repopulating the region with Frankish and Slavic settlers. Again it was necessary to intervene in 794 and 796, with new massive deportations to Austrasia and replacement of populations, replaced with Frankish subjects. The last measure taken by Charles was a new deportation, in 804, of the Saxons stationed beyond the Elbe, but by then Saxony was well integrated into Frankish rule and Saxons began to be regularly recruited into the imperial army.

The war against the Saxons was interpreted by the Franks as a kind of "holy war," with the continuing revolts conceived (and it was partly true) as a rejection of Christianity. The new creed after all had been imposed by force from the beginning, without there being, at least in the early days, on the Frankish side, any missionary-type intervention that, beyond the forced baptism of as many barbarians as possible, had attempted to make them understand the Gospel Message and the meaning of the religion to which they were forced to submit. Saxon territory itself, moreover, was subdivided and entrusted to the care of bishops, priests and abbots, and churches, abbeys and monasteries proliferated, which, however, were forced to live in a constant state of alarm. The nationalist pride of the Saxon tribes was finally bent for good only in 804, with the last mass deportation (the biographer Einhard reports no less than 10,000 Saxons in total deported in the various campaigns).

Attempt to expand to the south

In the Islamic world the Abbasid dynasty had recently taken over from the Umayyad dynasty. In the Iberian Peninsula an exponent of the latter had succeeded in founding an emirate in Córdoba, but tensions between the Muslim lords of the easternmost brands and the ambitions of the Walī of Zaragoza led the Muslim ruler to request the help of the king of the Franks. Charles agreed, probably in order to put himself forward as "defender of Christianity" and appropriate goods, wealth and territories, the possibility of blocking any attempts at Islamic expansion beyond the Pyrenees and, not least, the optimism stemming from military successes in Aquitaine, Saxony and Italy, persuaded Charles to undertake an expedition to Spain, with a somewhat superficial assessment towards the ally, the risks of the proposal and the strong disagreements between Christians and Muslims.

In the spring of 778 Charles therefore crossed the Pyrenees and in Zaragoza was reunited with a second military contingent composed of allied peoples. Charles' intervention in the Iberian Peninsula was far from triumphant, and not without painful moments and serious reverses. Already the siege and conquest of Zaragoza proved to be a failure, mainly because of the lack of support from the subjugated Christian populations, who probably appreciated far more the relative freedom granted by the Muslims rather than the coarse Carolingian friendship. Upon hearing of yet another Saxon insurrection, Charles began to retreat. During the retreat he destroyed and razed Pamplona, the Basque city that had attempted to resist him.

Famous during the retreat is the episode of the Battle of Roncesvalles (traditionally placed at August 15, 778), in which the Frankish rearguard was ambushed by Basque tribes, long since very superficially Christianized or remaining tied to paganism, jealous of their autonomy. Several nobles and high officials died in the disastrous ambush, including "Hruodlandus" (Orlando), prefect of the limes of Brittany. The episode certainly had more literary than historical-military significance, inspiring one of the best-known passages in the later Chanson de Roland (the composition of which can be dated to around 1100), one of the fundamental epic texts of medieval European literature. But the psychological and political backlash of the defeat at Roncesvalles was of enormous magnitude, both because the Franks never managed to avenge the blow they suffered, and because of the clear impression of defeat gained by the foreign troops following the Frankish army (who counted on a rich booty at the end of the expedition), as well as the military prestige of Charles, which came out greatly weakened and thus led contemporary historiography not to dwell too much on the details of the battle, providing vague and sketchy information.

The defeat at Roncesvalles did not diminish Charles's efforts to expand the territories of the Pyrenean area under his control and to defend the Iberian border, which was of paramount importance in preventing Arab armies from sweeping into Europe. Therefore, to pacify Aquitaine he transformed it in 781 into an autonomous kingdom, whose political-administrative structures he reorganized, and at the head of which he placed his son Ludovic (later called "the Pious"), barely three years old but flanked by trusted advisers who answered directly to Charles. The Iberian problem continued to drag on for years, however, with various interventions entrusted directly to Ludovico (or his guardians), who succeeded in extending Frankish rule until, in 810, it reached the Ebro River. The Marca Hispanica, recognizable in today's Catalonia, was then created: a buffer-state, endowed with relative autonomy, placed to defend the southern borders of the Frankish kingdom from possible Muslim attacks.

After 7 years during which relations between Charles and Pope Hadrian I had been on a precarious balance, in 781, after several interventions against the Saxons and the ill-fated Spanish expedition, Charles returned to Rome. During that period, not only had the pope failed to obtain the territories he had been promised, but rather Frankish policy had either grabbed allies on whom Hadrian counted, such as Duke Ildebrando of Spoleto, or had done nothing to defend the alleged rights of the Church, as in the case of Archbishop Leo of Ravenna, who considered himself the successor of the Byzantine exarch and thus neither submitted to the pontiff nor recognized the rights of the Roman Church over the nearby Pentapolis; then there was Duke Arechi II of Benevento, prince of what remained of the Lombard kingdom and ally of the Byzantine empire, as well as Duke Stephen of Naples, and again the governor of Sicily.

However, on Easter Eve of that year the pope baptized Charlemagne (whose name was changed to Pippin) and Ludwig, the third and fourth sons of Charles, simultaneously consecrating the former king of Italy (in fact king of the Lombards under the sovereignty of the king of the Franks) and the latter king of Aquitaine. The relevant circumstance of such an initiative is that the two took away the right of primogeniture from their elder brother Pippin (whose name Charlemagne was even named after) who, son of Imiltrude whom later sources presented as Charles' concubine, came to assume, for that reason, a role of son of inferior rank. In fact, the marriage to Imiltrude was perfectly regular, and the jealousy of Hildegard, Charles' current wife, toward her son from a previous marriage does not seem sufficient reason for an act of such political and dynastic significance. A more plausible cause seems likely to be the physical deformity of Pippin, already referred to as "the Hunchback," which by undermining the young man's health and physical integrity could later have raised questions about his eligibility for the succession of the kingdom. The second-born Charles the Younger, on the other hand, had already been associated with the kingdom with his father, without being invested, for the time being, with any title, and in that capacity followed Charles on his various expeditions against the Saxons.

In Italy and Aquitaine, in effect, two new kingdoms were not created independent of that of the Franks, but only entities managed by an intermediate power at whose summit was always Charles, who had instituted a kind of co-partnership in government. It should not be forgotten, however, that the very young age of the two new kings (Pippin was four years old) could not allow them an autonomous regency, which was entrusted, administratively and militarily, to proven local nobles and prelates. The baptism and consecration of Charles' two sons nevertheless strengthened relations between them and the pope, who politically felt more secure by also being able to count on the kingdoms of Italy and Aquitaine as strong allies.

Of course, the long-standing territorial issue that Pope Hadrian I claimed to the Church remained, but Charles made a soothing gesture by donating Rieti and Sabina to the pope, almost as a down payment on what had been previously agreed, but with the exclusion of the Abbey of Farfa, to which the king of the Franks had already granted a special autonomous status since 775; these were soon joined by the diocese of Tivoli, Tuscia and the duchy of Perugia, plus some cities in lower Tuscany. A few years later the Duchy of Spoleto, already in the papal orbit, also became directly part of the Church's possessions. Of all these territories Charles renounced financial revenues in favor of the pope, who presumably, in turn, was induced to renounce further territorial claims. The assignment to Rome of the Exarchate of Italy, with Ravenna, Bologna, Ancona, and other intermediate cities, was also confirmed, but in this area, as also in Sabina, the pope's control encountered great difficulty in asserting itself.

It was perhaps in an attempt to solve these problems that in late 786 Charles descended again into Italy, with a not particularly large army, and was again welcomed with great honors by Pope Hadrian I. Duke Arechi II of Benevento, son-in-law of the deposed Lombard king Desiderius, well aware of the papal aims for his territory, immediately sounded the alarm and sent his eldest son to Rome with rich gifts to persuade the Frankish king not to take military action against his country. But the pope's greater influence (and the insistence of the retinue, which already saw an easy victory and rich spoils) prevailed, and Charles pushed on as far as Capua. Arechi again tried to negotiate, and this time with success; far from Hadrian's insistence, Charles realized that the territory of Benevento was too far from the Frankish center of power (and therefore difficult to control), that it was in the pope's sights (to whom he would have to cede the conquered territories), and that his army was inadequate for a military expedition that had all the uncertain characteristics of that of 778 in Spain. He therefore accepted the payment of an annual tribute and the submission of Arechi, who swore allegiance to him along with all the Benevento people, and turned back. To the pope he granted Capua and other neighboring cities, which, however, remained de facto under the control of the duchy of Benevento.

After Arechi's death on August 26, 787, the situation in the Benevento duchy only degenerated, due to the conflicting interests of the pope, who denounced nonexistent plots to push Charles to decisive military intervention, of the duchess regent, the widow Adelperga, who wanted from Charles the return of her son Grimoaldo, the legitimate heir held hostage by the Frankish king, and the Byzantines of Naples and Sicily led by Adelchi, son of King Desiderius and therefore Adelperga's brother, who were attempting to regain positions in central Italy. In 788 Charles decided to act and freed Grimoaldo, on the condition that he publicly submit to the Frankish kingdom; in this way he avoided a clash with Constantinople (leaving Benevento with the eventual responsibility and burden of moving in that direction) and silenced papal demands for intervention and the restitution of cities and territories in that area. For a while the Benevento duchy remained in the Frankish area of influence and served as an obstacle to Byzantine aims, but over time it regained more and more of its autonomy and made a concrete rapprochement with Constantinople, resulting in a decisive military reaction from Pippin of Italy.

In 786, before descending back to Italy, Charles had faced a revolt of Thuringian nobles, led by Count Hardrad, which had important political implications. On the basis of the very scarce information, it is difficult to reconstruct precisely both the causes and the actual scope of the conspiracy, which probably aimed at widespread insubordination against the king, and perhaps even at his suppression. As for the causes, it seems to have to be sought in at least a couple of main motives: the discontent of the Thuringians (and of the Eastern Franks in general) at having to bear the bulk of the burden of the military expeditions against Saxony, and the rule that each population had to preserve and observe its own laws; for this second case, in particular, it seems that Hardrad refused to give one of his daughters in marriage to a Frankish nobleman, to whom he had probably committed himself according to Frankish laws. At the king's intimation to hand over the young girl Hardrad allegedly gathered a number of his fellow nobles to oppose Charles's orders, who, in response, devastated their lands.

The rioters took refuge in Fulda Abbey whose abbot Baugulf mediated a meeting between the king and the conspirators. Only one source from a few years later mentions that they would even admit to making an attempt on the king's life on the grounds that they had not sworn an oath of allegiance to him. Charles realized that his legal position as sovereign, arising from a status as head of a society of freemen, lacked a normative recognition that would personally commit his subjects to an act of allegiance, and therefore the oath of allegiance to the king by all freemen was instituted by statute, binding each subject individually to the sovereign and giving the king the right to apply the penalties provided for as a result if broken.

This did not take away from the nobles and the powerful their rights, which came from their own lineage and not from the sovereign (and which in some cases could even conflict with those of the king), but it added a duty. Conspirators were also forced to take an oath, which meant, with a retroactivity inconceivable to the modern mindset, that they could be charged with perjury and tried. Only three were sentenced to death, but others, although acquitted and freed, were captured, blinded and imprisoned or sent into exile, resulting in the confiscation of property in favor of the court.

Perhaps somewhat related to that of Hardrad, in that it too was hatched by some nobles from the eastern regions, was the rebellion of Pippin the Hunchback in 792. He was well aware of the marginalization to which he had already been condemned for many years, but he could not resign himself to a future as an underdog in the shadow of his younger brothers. The insurrection he led, perhaps in an attempt to gain lordship over the duchy of Bavaria, which in the meantime had been annexed to the Frankish kingdom, failed; the conspirators were arrested and almost all sentenced to death. Charles commuted his son's sentence to life imprisonment in the monastery of Prüm (founded by Charles's grandfather and great-grandmother), where Pippin died in 811.

Einhard attributed the causes of the two conspiracies to Queen Fastrada's influence, as he pandered to his consort's cruelty, abandoning the path of benignity customary to him.

Subjugation of Bavaria

From 748 was Duke of Bavaria, one of the most civilized regions of Europe, Tassilon III, a cousin of Charles for being the son of Hiltrude, sister of Pippin the Short his father. In the same year 778 of the ill-fated Frankish expedition to Spain, Tassilon was joined by his son Theodon III of Bavaria with the same title of duke.

Charles, momentarily busy, pretended nothing had happened, but in 781, on his return from Rome, he demanded that his cousin go to Worms to renew the oath of allegiance already taken by Tassilon himself in 757 before his uncle Pippin and his sons. This oath was historically quite controversial, since already since the middle of the previous century the duchy of Bavaria, although formally subject to the Merovingian dynasty, had nevertheless obtained a kind of autonomous status; moreover, Tassilon had married Liutperga, a daughter of the Lombard king Desiderius, and had had his children baptized directly by the pope: circumstances that, in practice, together with their common origin and kinship, thus legally elevated him to the same royal level as Charles, albeit with a different title. It should be added that Tassilon could boast, with regard to the Church, the same merits as Charles with regard to relations with the clergy and the building of abbeys, monasteries and churches.

But Charles could no longer tolerate his cousin's autonomy, even as a function of his aims to concentrate power, and yet he could neither solve the problem with military intervention nor invoke alleged forcing on dynastic rights since Pippin the Short himself had assigned the succession of the duchy to his nephew; a legal or historical pretext was needed.

Also from a geopolitical point of view, Bavaria was a dangerous "thorn in Charles's side" in that, by preventing him from accessing the eastern part of the border of Italy, at the same time it allowed Tassilone possible contact with Lombard opposition (still strong in that part of Italy), which could be an element of instability for the Frankish king's rule.

Seeing himself increasingly pressed by Charles' interference, the Duke of Bavaria in 787 sent ambassadors to Pope Adrian I to ask for his mediation, taking advantage of the fact that Charles was in Rome at the time. The pope not only refused an agreement, but reiterated the king's claims and dismissed Tassilon's envoys in a bad way (even threatening him with excommunication), who in the same year was forced to make an act of submission to the Frankish king, becoming his vassal. Literary sources do not fully agree on the manner of the Duke of Bavaria's surrender following Charles's precise request that arose from the assembly of the nobles of the kingdom held in the early summer of that year in Worms.

Murbach's 'Annals' report that Charles moved with an army to the borders of the duchy, where Tassilon went to meet him, offering him his country and his person; according to Lorsch's 'Minor Annals' it was the duke himself who went to the king to offer him himself and his duchy; the 'Annales regni francorum' report instead that, following Tassilon's refusal to submit and present himself to Charles, the king himself moved with an army and threatened Bavaria from the east, west and south: the duke, unable to defend himself on three different fronts, accepted surrender and vassalage to the Frankish king: thus, Tassilon was now a man of the king, and Bavaria became a benefit that the king granted to the duke; from full power over his country to the usufruct of his land that Charles granted him: it was the necessary prerequisite for that legal pretext that Charles needed for the final annexation of Bavaria. Moreover, Charles demanded the surrender not of mere hostages, but of Theodon, Tassilon's eldest son and co-regent, effectively taking the power of the country into his hands.

But Tassilon and his wife Liutperga could not stand idly by and watch what they considered a usurpation, and they sought systems to escape the situation that had arisen (breaking, in effect, the pact of loyalty and vassalage). Charles, who had been waiting for nothing else, learned of this by discovering, among other things, an alliance made between his cousin and the Lombard prince Adelchi, who had meanwhile repaired to Constantinople; during the assembly of the kingdom's great ones convened in 788 in Ingelheim, he had him arrested while his envoys arrested his wife and children who had remained in Bavaria. Tassilon and the male sons were tonsured and imprisoned in monasteries, Liutperga was exiled, and the two female daughters were also imprisoned in separate abbeys. The Agilolfingian dynasty was thus extinguished, and Bavaria was permanently annexed to the Carolingian kingdom.

Campaign against the Àvari.

After the liquidation of Tassilon, the Frankish kingdom found itself bordered, to the southeast, by a warlike population of Turanian origin, the Àvars. Belonging to the large family of Turkic-Mongolian peoples, such as the Huns, they had organized themselves around a military leader, the Khan (or Khagan), and had settled in the Pannonian plain, roughly modern-day Hungary. They, together with members of a related ethnic group, the Bulgars, subjugated the various Slavic peoples who settled in the territory. Although they converted to farming and pastoralism, they did not give up repeated raids on the borders of the Carolingian kingdom and the Byzantine Empire. Although, after the fall of Tassilon with whom they had allied themselves, they had trespassed into Friuli and Bavaria, their threat was now rather reduced, but their state treasury was filled with wealth accumulated from the subsidies that the Byzantine emperors poured into their coffers, and therefore Charles (who needed a great military victory in which to involve the Frankish nobility as well so that it would be strengthened around him) began to study an invasion of the region.

The first urgent move, of course, was to drive the Avars back out of Friuli and Bavaria, an operation that succeeded fully, with little military intervention, thanks in part to Lombard allies on the one hand and Bavarians on the other. But the threat was not yet eradicated, and before intervening safely and definitively, Charles took steps to stabilize the situation in Bavaria: he made alliances with the local nobles who had meanwhile abandoned the cause of Tassilon, removed and confiscated the property of those still tied to the old regime, and secured the support of the clergy with rich donations and the creation of new abbeys and monasteries: within a couple of years Bavaria was now fully integrated into the Frankish kingdom.

The chronicles motivate the Frankish attack on the Avars because of undefined wrongs and misdeeds that they had committed against the Church, the Franks and Christians in general: it was therefore officially a kind of crusade that could only be led directly by the king, but the wealth of the Avars certainly constituted a very strong motive. Military commands were established on the frontier, such as the Eastern March (constituting the future Austria), to better coordinate the army's maneuvers, and in 791 Frankish troops proceeded with the invasion, crossing the Danube on both sides. The army to the north was led by Count Theoderic and accompanied by a fleet of barges and barges charged with transporting supplies and allowing rapid communication between the two banks. At the same time another army was moving on the south side of the river, commanded personally by Charles, accompanied by his son Ludwig, King of Aquitaine.

The first clash, victorious, was supported by the other son of Charles Pippin, king of Italy, who attacked the Avar from the Friulian border, but thereafter the enemy withdrew, conceding few clashes and leaving the Franks a few hundred prisoners and some fortifications, which were systematically destroyed. Until the autumn the Franks penetrated into Avar territory, but had to halt operations because of the advanced season, which caused problems of connection between the units, making communications difficult. Although they did not have to engage in major clashes, Charles' reputation as the "chastiser" of the pagans grew greatly: he had eradicated the people who had long held the Byzantine emperors in check by demanding tribute.

It was in 793, while Charles was looking for countermeasures to possible reactions of the Avars, that the grandiose project of a waterway joining the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea was undertaken, through the construction of a navigable canal that was to connect the Regnitz, a tributary of the Main, itself a tributary of the Rhine, with the Altmühl, a tributary of the Danube: the commercial and military advantage that the connection between Central and Southeastern Europe could have represented is obvious. The king himself attended the works, but the venture was in vain, both because of the marshy terrain and the constant autumn rains that made the ground itself soft, and the venture was abandoned, not to be completed until modern times, in 1846.

The devastation however caused discontent among the various àvari chiefs who began a policy independent of their Khan's authority. The situation led to a civil war, during which the Khan himself died, and which generated power divisions and a general political and military weakening. The new leader of the country, Tudun, realizing that he could no longer cope with the Franks, personally went with an embassy to Charles in 795 to his capital of Aachen, where, declaring himself also willing to convert to Christianity, he was baptized by the king himself, except that as soon as he returned to his homeland where strong opposition to his choices awaited him, he repudiated the new religion and the alliance with the Franks.

The wars against the Saxons, internal revolts and the maintenance of such a large country had significantly restricted the Frankish finances, and thus the àvara surrender, the serious internal tensions agitating that country, now at civil war, and the consequent prospect of being able to seize its immense treasure, hinted at the possibility of solving all economic problems. This was taken advantage of (perhaps instructed by Charles) in 796 by the Duke of Friuli, who with a not so large contingent invaded the country and easily took a good part of the treasure; the remainder was taken the following year, in a similar easy raid, by the King of Italy Pippin, to whom again, and without a fight, the Khan àvaro Tudun made an act of submission. Immediately followed the work of evangelization of the àvare populations remaining in the territory. The àvaro kingdom had fallen like a house of cards

Charles, despite repeated protracted revolts, never personally returned to the area, delegating military operations to the local authorities, who took a few years to crush the revolt, following a full-scale war of extermination. By the end of the 8th century, therefore, the Franks controlled a kingdom that included present-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria, all of Germany as far as Elba, north-central Italy including Istria, Bohemia, Slovenia and Hungary as far as the Danube, and finally Pyrenean Spain as far as the Ebro: Charles thus ruled over almost all Latin-rite Christians.

Generally, Frankish kings presented themselves as natural defenders of the Catholic Church, having "returned" to the pontiff in Pepin's time those territories of the Exarchate of Ravenna and the Pentapolis that by common conception were believed to belong to the Patrimony of St. Peter. Charles was well aware that the pope cared above all about carving out a secure territory of his own in central Italy, free from other temporal powers, including the Byzantine one.

The relationship between the emperor and Pope Hadrian I has been reconstructed from the literature of the epistolary missives the two exchanged for more than two decades. Many times Hadrian sought Charles's support regarding the frequent territorial quarrels that undermined his supposed temporal power: a letter dated 790, for example, contains the pontiff's complaints about the Ravenna archbishop Leo, who was guilty of taking away some of the dioceses of the Exarchate.

Charles also positioned himself as a champion of the spread of Christianity and a stalwart defender of Orthodox Christianity. Evidence of this are the very numerous institutions of abbeys and monasteries and their rich donations, the wars (especially against the Saxons and the Avars) waged in a missionary spirit for the conversion of those pagan peoples, and the concessions, even regulatory ones, in favor of the clergy and Christian institutions. Charles was certainly not particularly knowledgeable about theological issues, but he was certainly passionate about religious disputes and problems, so much so that he always surrounded himself, or at any rate had frequent dealings, with the leading contemporary theologians, who from within his court disseminated some of their works; he was in the forefront against heresies and deviations from orthodoxy, such as the adoptionist theory or the long-standing problem of iconoclasm and image worship, an issue with which he came into bitter conflict with the court in Constantinople where that problem had originated. He then called synods and councils to discuss the most pressing issues of faith.

Of particular interest, more for its political implications than its religious ones, was the synod that Charles personally convened and attended in Frankfurt for June 1, 794. Officially, this was to publicly reaffirm Bishop Felix of Urgell's renunciation of his Adoptionist heresy (to which, moreover, he had already abjured two years earlier), but the real purpose was to reaffirm his own role as the principal defender of the faith. In 787, in fact, Empress Irene of the East had convened and presided over a council in Nicaea, at the invitation of the pope, to discuss the problem of image worship.

The Frankish clergy, considered submissive to the pope, had not even been invited, and Hadrian had accepted the council resolutions. Charles, on the other hand, could not accept the definition of an "ecumenical council" for an assembly that had excluded the greatest Western power and the voice of its theologians, and he therefore decided to counterattack with the same weapons, facing the same arguments at Frankfurt as at Nicaea and demonstrating to the East that the Frankish kingdom was not to be considered inferior to the Eastern empire, even on theological issues. The pope did not agree with the positions of the Frankfurt council as he had done with the Byzantine one, but very diplomatically "took note," truncating the issue and indeed reaffirming his territorial claims in Italy: the Frankish kingdom was the Church's closest ally, and the alliance was also based on shared doctrinal principles.

The question of Pope Leo III

When the pontiff died in 795, devoutly and sincerely mourned by Charles, Pope Leo III, a pope of modest origin and lacking support among the great Roman families, assumed the tiara. The new pope immediately maintained respectful and friendly relations with Charles, giving an unquestionable sign of continuity with the line of his predecessor; the role of the king of the Franks as defender of the pope and of Rome was reaffirmed, and indeed the papal legates sent by the pope to announce his election (an act of homage due, until then, only to the emperor of the East), in confirming his title of "patricius Romanorum," invited the king to send to Rome his representatives before whom the Roman people would have to swear allegiance and submission.

Charles, who was aware of the rumors about the dubious morality and righteousness of the new pope, sent the highly trusted Angilbert, abbot of Saint-Riquier, with a letter defining what he thought should be the mutual roles between the pontiff and the king, and with the recommendation to verify the real situation and possibly cautiously suggest to the pope the necessary prudence so as not to fuel the rumors about him. In 798 Charles made a move that further accentuated his role also in the church and the weakness of the pontiff: he sent an embassy to Rome charged with presenting to the pope the plan for the ecclesiastical reorganization of Bavaria, with the elevation of the diocese of Salzburg to an archiepiscopal see and the appointment of the trusted Arno as titular of that see.

The pope took note, did not even attempt to reappropriate what was supposed to be his prerogative, and acquiesced in Charles' plan, simply implementing it. In 799, the Frankish king won another battle of faith, convening and presiding over a council in Aachen (a kind of duplicate of the one in Frankfurt in 794) in which the learned theologian Alcuin refuted, using the technique of disputation, the theses of Bishop Felix of Urgell, the promoter of the adoptionist heresy that was again spreading; Alcuin came out on top; Felix admitted defeat, abjured his theses and made an act of faith, with a letter he also addressed to his faithful. Immediately a commission was sent to southern France, the land of widespread adoptionism, with the task of restoring obedience to the Church of Rome. In all this, the pope, who would have been personally responsible for convening the council and setting the agenda, was little more than a spectator.

Another theological issue that saw Charles prevail at the expense of the pontiff (albeit a few years later) was the so-called "filioque." In the formulation of the traditional text of the "Creed," the formula was used that the Holy Spirit descends from the Father through the Son and not, equally, from the Father and the Son (in Latin, precisely, "filioque") as was used in the West. The pope himself, in deference to the deliberations of the councils that had so ruled, considered the version of Greek Orthodoxy (which, among other things, did not provide for the recitation of the Creed during Mass) to be valid, but he nevertheless wanted to submit the matter to the opinion of Charles, who, in 809, convened a council of the Frankish Church in Aachen that reaffirmed the correctness of the formula containing the "filioque," which was also recited during the celebration of Mass. Leo III refused to take notice, and for about two centuries the Roman Church used a different formulation from that of the other Western Latin Churches, until, around the year 1000, the version established by the Frankish emperor was finally deemed correct and accepted.

In 799 an insurrection broke out in Rome against Pope Leo III, led by the nephews and supporters of the late pontiff Hadrian I. The primicerius Paschal and the sacellarius Campolus, who had already contested his election and accused him of being totally unfit for the papal tiara as a "dissolute man," in an assassination attempt succeeded in capturing Leo and locking him up in a monastery, from where he broke out in a roaring escape to take refuge in St. Peter's, from where he was then transferred to the safety of the Duke of Spoleto. From here, it is not known whether on his own initiative or at the invitation of Charles, he had himself taken to the king, who was in Paderborn, his summer residence in Westphalia. The solemn reception given to the pope was already a sign of the position Charles intended to take in the Roman question, although the two main conspirators, Pascale and Campolo, had been men very close to the late Pope Hadrian I. The pontiff's opponents, meanwhile, enjoined him to take an oath in which he rejected charges of lust and perjury; otherwise he would have to leave the papal seat and shut himself away in a monastery. The pope had no intention of accepting either hypothesis, and for the time being the matter remained unresolved, not least because Charles arranged to send a commission of inquiry to Rome composed of prominent figures and high prelates. In any case, when, on November 29, 799, Leo returned to Rome, he was welcomed triumphantly by the clergy and the populace.

The attack suffered by the pontiff, which was in any case a sign of a climate of disquiet in Rome, could not, however, be left unpunished (Charles was still invested with the title of "Patricius Romanorum"), and at the annual meeting held in August 800 in Mainz with the great ones of the kingdom he communicated his intention to descend to Italy. And since in addition to the Roman problem he also had to bring back to order an autonomist attempt by the duchy of Benevento, he went down in arms, accompanied by his son Pippin, who took charge of the rebellious duchy, while Charles aimed at Rome.

The Frankish king entered the city on Nov. 24, 800, welcomed with pomp and ceremony and great honors by the authorities and the people. Officially, his coming to Rome was intended to unravel the issue between Pope Leo and the heirs of Pope Adrian I. The accusations (and the evidence that was hastily destroyed) soon proved difficult to refute, and Charles found himself in extreme embarrassment, but he could hardly allow himself to be defamed and questioned by the head of Christendom.

On Dec. 1, the Frankish king, invoking his role as protector of the Church of Rome, constituted an assembly composed of nobles and bishops of Italy and Gaul (a cross between a tribunal and a council) and opened the proceedings of the assembly that was to rule on the accusations made against the pope. Based on principles (erroneously) attributed to Pope Symmachus (early 6th century), the council ruled that the pope was the highest authority on Christian morals, as well as faith, and that no one could judge him but God. Leo declared himself willing to swear his innocence to the Gospel, a solution to which the assembly, well aware of Charles's position that he had long sided with the pontiff, was careful not to oppose. Lorsch's "Annals" report that therefore the pope was "begged" by the king to take the oath to which he had committed himself. It took three weeks to finalize the text of the oath, which Leo solemnly took on December 23 in St. Peter's Basilica before an assembly of nobles and high prelates, thus being confirmed as the legitimate representative of the papal throne. Pascale and Campolo, who had already been previously arrested by Charles's messengers a year earlier, were unable to prove the charges against the pope, and were sentenced to death, along with several of their followers (a punishment later commuted to exile).

The coronation as emperor

In 797 the throne of the Byzantine Empire, in fact the sole and legitimate descendant of the Roman Empire, was usurped by Irene of Athens, who proclaimed herself basilissa of the Romei (empress of the Romans). The fact that the "Roman" throne was occupied by a woman prompted the pope to consider the "Roman" throne vacant. At the Christmas Mass on December 25, 800, in St. Peter's Basilica, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III, a title never used again in the West after the deposition of Romulus Augustus in 476. During the ceremony, Pope Leo III anointed Charles' head, recalling the tradition of biblical kings. The birth of a new Western Empire was not well received by the Eastern Empire, which, however, did not have the means to intervene. Empress Irene had to watch helplessly what was happening in Rome; she always refused to accept the title of emperor to Charlemagne, considering Charlemagne's coronation by the pope an act of usurpation of power.

The "Vita Karoli" of Einhard states that Charles was very unhappy with the coronation and did not intend to assume the title of Emperor of the Romans so as not to come into conflict with the Byzantine Empire, whose sovereign held the legitimate title of Emperor of the Romans, and therefore on no account would the Byzantines have recognized a Frankish sovereign with the title of Emperor. On the issue authoritative scholars, (first and foremost Frederick Chabod), have reconstructed the affair, showing how Einhard's version responded to precise political exigencies, well after the event, and how it was artfully constructed for the needs that had come to be established. The work of Charles' biographer was in fact compiled between 814 and 830, considerably later than the disputed manner of the coronation. Initially, contemporary chronicles agreed that Charles was far from surprised and opposed to the ceremony. Both the "Annales regni Francorum" and the "Liber Pontificalis" report the ceremony, speaking openly of festivity, maximum popular consent and obvious cordiality between Charles and Leo III, with rich gifts brought by the Frankish ruler to the Roman Church.

Only later, around 811, in an attempt to mitigate Byzantine irritation at the imperial title granted (which Constantinople deemed an unacceptable usurpation), did Frankish texts (the "Annales Maximiani") introduce that element of "revisiting the past" that made mention of Charles's surprise and irritation at a coronation ceremony to which he had given no prior authorization to the pope, who had indirectly forced him to do so. The popular acclamation (an element not found in all sources and perhaps spurious) nonetheless emphasized the ancient formal right of the Roman people to elect the emperor. It irritated the Frankish nobility in no small measure, who saw the "popolus Romanus" prevaricate their prerogatives by acclaiming Charles as "Charles Augustus, great and peaceful Emperor of the Romans." It is then not to be ruled out that Charles' reported irritation was due to the fact that he would have preferred to self-crown himself, because coronation by the pope symbolically represented the subordination of imperial power to spiritual power.

In any case, there is no indication from the sources of any kind of prior agreement between the pope and the Frankish king, and on the other hand, however, it is impossible that Charles could have been caught off-guard by such a papal initiative and that the ceremonial and acclamations of the Roman people were improvised on the spot. The sources themselves make no mention of Charles' previous intentions to have himself crowned emperor (other than those drafted "a posteriori," which therefore cannot be reliable from this point of view), but moreover, they do not explain why Charles had appeared at the ceremony in imperial robes. Therefore, the version provided by the "Liber Pontificalis," according to which the pope improvised his initiative, the people were inspired by God in unanimous and choral acclamation, and Charles was surprised at what was happening, seems decidedly improbable and fanciful. Nor is the version provided, in substantial agreement with that of the "Liber Pontificalis," by Einhard, who reports of the king being displeased by the pontiff's sudden gesture, very credible.

To this day the authorship of the initiative is unclear (and the problem does not appear to be solvable), the details of which, however, could probably have been defined during the confidential talks in Paderborn and perhaps also at Alcuin's suggestion: the coronation could in fact have been the price the pope had to pay to Charles for his acquittal from the charges against him. According to another interpretation (P. Brezzi), the authorship of the proposal would be attributed to an assembly of Roman authorities, which was nevertheless accepted (in which case the pontiff would have been the executor of the will of the Roman people of which he was the bishop. It should be pointed out in this regard, however, that the only historical sources on the events of those days are of Frankish and ecclesiastical extraction, and for obvious reasons both tend to limit or distort the interference of the Roman people in the event.

It is certain, however, that with the act of coronation the Church of Rome presented itself as the only authority capable of legitimizing civil power by attributing to it a sacred function, but it is equally true that, as a result, the emperor's position became one of leadership in the internal affairs of the Church as well, with a strengthening of the theocratic role of its government. And yet it must be acknowledged that by that single gesture alone Leo, otherwise not a particularly lofty figure, inextricably bound the Franks to Rome, broke the link with the Byzantine Empire, which was no longer the sole heir to the Roman Empire, perhaps fulfilled the aspirations of the Roman people, and established the historical precedent of the absolute supremacy of the pope over earthly powers.

Relations with Constantinople

Relations with the Byzantine empire were sporadic. Although the latter was going through a period of crisis, it was still the oldest political institution in Europe, and it is important to note how Charles presented himself to the emperor as his equal, with whom he now had to deal in the partitioning of the world. As king of Italy Charles was in fact bordering Byzantine possessions in the south, and the concession to Pope Hadrian I of the territories of central Italy enabled him to interpose, between his own and the Byzantine, a kind of buffer state that could prevent too close relations.

Empress Irene nevertheless went so far as to propose a marriage between her son, the future emperor Constantine VI, and Rotrude, daughter of Charles. The project displeased no one: Empress Irene, who needed a powerful ally in the West to counter some serious problems in Sicily, where her authority had been challenged by a rebellion; Charles, who would gain recognition as king of Italy as successor to the Lombard kingdom (and the pope, who could see in this alliance an end to tensions with the Byzantines, not only political and territorial, but also regarding the long-standing theological dispute over images. But nothing came of the project, not least because relations deteriorated as a result of the turn Irene gave to the iconoclastic controversy, which was defined by the Council of Nicaea II with the reintroduction of image worship.Charles greeted this decision with discontent, especially because a theological issue of such importance was resolved without informing the Frankish bishops (who in fact had not been invited to the council). In opposition to the pope, Charles rejected the conclusions of the Council of Nicaea and had the "Libri Carolini" drawn up, with which he meddled in the theological dispute over images, and which were supposed to lead to a revision of the problem in a way that differed from the views of Constantinople or Rome: destroying icons was wrong, but so was imposing their veneration.

The coronation of Charles as emperor, however, was an act that angered Constantinople, which greeted the news with derision and contempt; the greater concern was the unknown constituted by the rise of a new power that placed itself on the same level as the Eastern empire. After the coronation, in fact, Empress Irene hastened to send an embassy to assay the intentions of Charles, who in turn very soon returned the visit of his representatives to Constantinople. Charles tried in every way to mitigate the Byzantine wrath by sending successive ambassadorships as early as 802, but they did not have particularly favorable outcomes, because of the coldness with which the Byzantine notables received them and also because of the deposition in the same year of Empress Irene following a palace conspiracy, which placed Nicephorus on the throne, who was rather cautious about entering into too close relations with the Frankish West but determined to continue along the lines of the deposed empress. A long series of vain skirmishes began, one of which, quite serious, involved Venice and the Dalmatian littoral.

Due to strong tensions between the two cities, Venice had launched an attack on Grado in 803, resulting in the death of Patriarch John. His successor, Fortunatus, was appointed metropolitan by Pope Leo III, thus assuming control over the Istrian bishoprics, an authority, however, not recognized by Constantinople. Aware of the fragility of his position, Fortunatus sought the protection of Charles, who did not hesitate to provide support, partly because of Grado's strategic position between the Byzantine Empire and its ally Venice. Within a couple of years Venice's political situation changed radically, siding with the Western emperor and intervening militarily on the Dalmatian islands, which were already under Byzantine control: the city and Dalmatia thus came, de facto, under the control of the Frankish empire (which was strengthened in the years immediately following), before Constantinople could in any way intervene.

When Emperor Nicephorus reacted in 806 by sending a fleet to retake Dalmatia and blockade Venice, the latter's government, which had strong trading interests with the East, turned around again and sided again with Constantinople. Aware of the Byzantine superiority at sea, and the lack of a real fleet, it was Pippin who had to sign an armistice with the commander of the Constantinople fleet, but in 810 the king of Italy launched a new attack and conquered Venice, allowing Patriarch Fortunatus, who had meanwhile fled to Pola, to retake the see of Grado. The situation was normalized with a first treaty in 811 (Pippin having just died) and then in 812 (Nicephorus also having died), with an agreement under which Constantinople recognized the imperial authority of Charles, who, for his part, renounced possession of the Venetian littoral, Istria and Dalmatia.

Relations with Islam

In his capacity as emperor, Charles maintained equal relations with all European and Eastern rulers. Despite his expansionist aims in the Spanish mark, and consequent support for governors turned against the yoke of the Cordoba emirate of al-Andalus, he weaved a series of important relations with the Muslim world. He even corresponded with the distant Caliph of Baghdad Hārūn al-Rashīd: diplomatic missions on either side were facilitated by a Jewish intermediary, Isaac, who, as a translator on behalf of the two envoys, Landfried and Sigismund, as well as because of his "thirdness," was well suited to the purpose.

The two rulers thus exchanged numerous gifts, the most famous and celebrated of which was the elephant, named Abul-Abbas, given to him (perhaps at his own request. Charles regarded him as an extraordinary guest, to be treated with every consideration: he had him kept clean, fed him personally, and talked to him. Probably the cold climate of Aachen in which the pachyderm was forced to live made him wasted away until he died of congestion. The emperor mourned, ordering three days of mourning throughout the kingdom. The annalists report another "marvelous" gift a few years later: a brass clock whose technology, perfect for the time (and certainly far more advanced than that of the West), aroused the greatest admiration among contemporaries.

However, good relations with Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd also aimed at obtaining a kind of protectorate over Jerusalem and the "holy places," and were in any case necessary for the Christians of the Holy Land who lived under Muslim rule and had frequent disagreements with the Bedouin tribes. Indeed, Charles' biographer Eginardus reports that Hārūn al-Rashīd, who saw in him a possible antagonist to his Umayyad enemies of al-Andalus and Constantinople, granted the emperor's wishes and symbolically gave Charles the land on which the Holy Sepulchre stood in Jerusalem, recognizing him as protector of the Holy Land and subjecting those places to his power, but it seems unlikely that this was anything more than symbolic gestures. For Charles it was enough: his role as protector of the Holy Sepulcher enhanced his reputation as a defender of Christendom at the expense of the Eastern Emperor Nicephorus, the caliph's enemy.

Clashes with the Normans

In 808 Charles the Younger was entrusted with an expedition against King Gottfried of Denmark, who had attempted to trespass into Saxony and also achieved some good results. The expedition ended in failure, both because of the heavy losses suffered by the Franks and because Goffredo had meanwhile retreated, fortifying the border. After two years there was a full-scale invasion by Normans, who occupied the coast of Friesland with 200 ships.

Charles immediately gave orders to build a fleet and raise an army that he wanted to lead personally, but before he could intervene the invaders, who probably realized that they could not permanently subdue that region, retreated to Jutland. Goffredo's subsequent violent elimination following a palace conspiracy, however, put a temporary end to Norman raids in that area, until a peace agreement was reached with the new Danish king Hemming in 811.

Charles had unified almost all that remained of the civilized world alongside the great Arab and Byzantine empires and the possessions of the Church, with the exclusion of the British Isles, southern Italy, and a few other territories. His power was legitimized both by divine will, through consecration with holy oil, and by the consent of the Franks, expressed by the assembly of the kingdom's great ones without which, at least formally, he could not have introduced new laws.

After securing his borders, he proceeded to reorganize the empire, extending to the territories he annexed the system of government already in use in the Frankish kingdom, in an attempt to build a homogeneous political entity. In fact, from the earliest days of his reign Charles had set himself the goal of transforming a semi-barbaric society such as that of the Franks into a community governed by law and the rules of faith, modeled not only on the Jewish kings of the Old Testament but rather on that of the Christian Roman emperors (Constantine in the lead) and that of Augustine, but the project did not materialize as Charles would have wished.

The management of power

At the central level, the fundamental institution of the Carolingian state was the emperor himself, for Charles was supreme administrator and legislator who, ruling the Christian people on behalf of God, had the right of life and death over all subjects subject to his inappellable will, including notables of high rank such as counts, bishops, abbots and vassals. In fact, subjects were not properly considered as such, since all of them (we are of course talking about freemen, the only population that had its own precise ''status'') were required to take an oath to the emperor that obligated them to a precise relationship of obedience and loyalty, different from subservience: a kind of recognition of citizenship. Such an oath therefore justified the right of life and death on the part of the ruler.

In reality, Charles' absolute power had no despotic character, but was rather the result of a mediation between heaven and earth, in which the ruler used personal and exclusive interlocution with God (he considered himself "anointed of the Lord," and indeed the pope, at his imperial coronation, had anointed him with holy oil) to admonish and guide his people. However, this was a power that was accountable not only to God but also to men, and it needed both legitimations; this justified the annual general assemblies of freemen, which were held regularly every spring (or sometimes in summer). There Charles obtained approval of the arrangements that, on "divine inspiration," he had matured and prepared during the months of winter idleness: they were thus validated by collective approval. In time, of course, the conviction came to take shape that since the emperor was directly inspired by God, the approval of men was less and less necessary, and therefore the assembly tended more and more to be emptied of its contents to become a body that merely applauded Charles's decisions and words, almost without any intervention.

The central government consisted of the palatium. Under this designation it designated not a residence, but the complex of collaborators in its employ, who followed the king in all movements: a purely advisory body, it consisted of lay and ecclesiastical representatives, trusted men in daily contact with the ruler, who helped him in the central administration.

The subdivision of the state

At its height, the empire was divided into about 200 provinces, and a significantly smaller number of dioceses, each of which could comprise several provinces, entrusted, for control of the territory, to bishops and abbots, who were settled everywhere and more culturally qualified than lay officials. Each province was governed by a count, a real civil servant delegated by the emperor, while in the dioceses it was the bishops and abbots who exercised power. The frontier areas of the Frankish kingdom on the borders of the Empire, which could include within them several provinces, were designated by the name of "marche," which the more learned authors called by the classical name of limes.

Hierarchically immediately below the counts were the vassals (or ''vassi dominici''), notables and officials assigned to various offices, generally recruited from among the king's loyalists who served in the palace. In a capitular of 802, the duties and roles of the royal ''missi'' were better defined: these were vassals (initially of low rank), who were sent to the various provinces and dioceses as an ''executive body'' of the central power, or for special inspection and control missions (including to the counts). The corruptibility of these officials had long ago suggested replacing them with high-ranking figures (nobles, abbots, and bishops) who theoretically should have been less exposed to corruption risks (but facts often belied theory and intentions). The 802 norm established the ''missatica,'' constituencies assigned to ''missi'' that constituted an intermediate power between the central and local powers.

In an empire of such considerable size, this kind of subdivision and fragmentation of power in a hierarchical sense was the only system for being able to maintain some control over the state. The central power, which was expressed in the person of the emperor, consisted essentially of a leadership role for the people, whose defense and protection of justice he had to ensure through his officials. While the counts constituted a kind of partially autonomous governors in the territories under their jurisdiction (which, generally, were the territories already under the influence of their families of origin to some extent), the real role of intermediaries between the central government and the periphery was played, preferably, by the ecclesiastical authorities of archiepiscopal rank and by the abbots of the most important abbeys who were, as a rule, appointed directly by the emperor.

Counts, archbishops and abbots were thus the real backbone of the empire's government, and they had to provide not only for administrative and judicial activities, but also for those connected with recruitment in the event of military mobilization and the sustenance of the regions under their jurisdiction and of the court, to which they were required to send gifts and tax revenues annually. The weak point of this structure was the personal relationships that these plenipotentiaries had with the emperor, and especially the intertwining of personal interests (dynastic and landed) with those of the state-a fragile balance that would not long survive the death of Charles.

Legislative activity

In the last years of his reign, free by then from military campaigns, Charles devoted himself to intense legislative and domestic policy activity, issuing a large number of "capitulars" (35 in four years) devoted to legal, administrative and army reorganization and military recruitment regulations (always a thorny problem because of the strong resistance he encountered), but also ethical-moral and ecclesiastical. All of these regulations denounce a kind of crumbling of the empire and the emperor's courage to expose, expose and combat abuses and abuses that perhaps, in times of military campaigns, would not have been appropriate to highlight. Of particular interest are some provisions concerning the building of ships and the creation of a fleet, precisely at the time when from Scandinavia the Norman people were beginning to make the empire's northern coasts unsafe. Also, according to legend, Charlemagne established the Principality of Andorra in 805 as a buffer state between the Moorish dominions in Spain and France.


Continuing the reforms already begun by his father, Charles liquidated the monetary system based on the gold solid of the Romans. Between 781 and 794 he extended throughout the kingdom a system based on silver monometallism, which was based on the minting of silver money with a fixed rate. During this period the pound (worth 20 solids) and the solid were units of account and ponderal at the same time, while only "money" was real, minted coinage.

Charles applied the new system in most of continental Europe, and the standard was voluntarily adopted in most of England as well. The attempt to centralize the minting of money, which Charles would have liked to have reserved exclusively for the court, did not, however, achieve the desired results, both because of the extent of the empire, the lack of a proper central mint, and the too many interests involved in the minting of the coin. For more than a hundred years, however, money maintained its weight and alloy unchanged.

The administration of justice

The reform of justice was implemented through the overcoming of the principle of the personality of law: every man had the right to be judged according to the custom of his people, and whole blocks of the pre-existing national laws were supplemented or replaced, in some cases, by the promulgation of capitulars, norms with the force of law that had validity for the whole empire, and which Charles wanted all free men to sign during the collective oath of 806. From a legal point of view his program was indeed aimed, as biographer Eginard reports, at "adding what was lacking, fixing what contradicted itself and correcting what was false or confused," but his efforts were not always adequately rewarded. The "Italian capitulary," dated at Pavia in 801, marks the beginning of the legislative reforming process, which was followed by various provisions and norms that produced a strong change in the previous "national" legal basis, without ever losing sight of the intent to provide a spiritual foundation for imperial power.

A capitulary of the following year states, among other things, that "judges must judge fairly according to the written law and not according to their own arbitrariness," a phrase that on the one hand establishes the transition between the ancient oral legal tradition and the new conception of law, and on another is an indication of the strong push for literacy that Charles wished to impart, at least in the upper classes, the clergy and the bodies of greater weight within the state, assisted by the reform of writing and a return to the correctness of Latin, the official language of state administration, historiography and the clergy. Reform was established in the composition of juries, which were to consist of professionals, the scabini (legal experts), who replaced the popular judges. In addition, no other persons were to participate in the trial but the judge (the count), assisted by vassals, lawyers, notaries, scabini, and the defendants directly interested in the case. Judicial procedures were standardized, modified and simplified. The reforming frenzy, however, produced a series of documents that, while providing a general legal framework, contain heterogeneous rules on various topics addressed without a logical order, between sacred and profane, between domestic and foreign policy, with issues sometimes left unresolved, between provisions of a decidedly paternalistic-moralistic tone mixed with others of a more decidedly political or judicial nature.


Charles did not disregard the Frankish tradition of dividing his father's inheritance among all his sons and therefore, as his father Pippin had already done, he established the division of the kingdom among his three sons Charles, Pippin and Ludwig. On February 6, 806, while staying at the winter residence of Diedenhofen in which he had gathered both his sons and the great of the empire, a political testament, the "Divisio regnorum," was issued by which the partitioning of the empire after Charles' death was defined. This was an extremely important legislative document, marked by criteria of maximum equity in the bequest to the heirs and in the definition of a precise order of succession: the single power was divided into three distinct powers of equal dignity, according to the rules of Frankish hereditary law that assigned each legitimate male child the same share of the inheritance.

The eldest son Charles, who had already gained some experience both militarily and in government, was destined to inherit the regnum francorum, comprising Neustria, Austrasia, Friesland, Saxony, Thuringia, and some northern parts of Burgundy and Alemannia: this was the most important part of the empire, and in fact Charles often entrusted his eldest son with military expeditions of some importance and joined him in other campaigns, although he never assigned him the government of a region, as he had done for his other sons. Pippin was assigned the Kingdom of Italy, Rhaetia, Bavaria and southern Alemannia: the most politically sensitive area, in close contact with the Church and the Byzantine states of southern Italy. Ludwig was assigned Aquitaine, Gascony, Septimony, Provence, the March of Spain between the Pyrenees and the Ebro, and southern Burgundy: this was the most militarily sensitive frontier area, in contact with the Islamic governments of Spain, but Ludwig was not always up to the task. No mention was made in the partitioning for Istria and Dalmatia, regions critical for relations with Constantinople and still disputed.

Since, according to the "Divisio regnorum," one of the main tasks of the three brothers was the defense of the Church, Charles and Ludwig were allowed, if necessary, to enter Italy from their kingdoms. The document included a prohibition against further subdivision of the kingdoms, so as to avoid future fragmentation; in the event of the premature death or lack of heirs of one of the brothers, further partitioning would take place among the surviving ones. However, no consideration was given at all to the problem of the succession of the imperial title, and Charles, moreover, had no intention of appointing a corrector to stand beside him. For this reason, too, he probably reserved the right to improve and supplement, in the future, that political testament which, subscribed and sworn to by those concerned and by the great ones of the empire, was sent to Rome to obtain the approval of Pope Leo III, who did not hesitate to countersign it, in effect binding Charles's three sons to an alliance with the Church.

A chapter of the "Divisio regnorum" also dealt with the fate of Charles' daughters, who, we read, could have chosen the brother under whose guardianship they would place themselves, or they could have retired to a monastery. They could also, however, have married, if the betrothed was "worthy" and to their liking; this concession leaves one somewhat surprised, since, for reasons that have never been made clear, while Charles was alive he never wanted to give his daughters as brides to anyone.

The provisions of the "Divisio regnorum" were never adopted. On July 8, 810, as soon as the danger of the Norman invasion of Friesland had ceased, Pippin died suddenly at only 33 years of age, leaving behind a son, Bernard, and five daughters, whom the emperor immediately took with him, along with his many daughters. The following year Charles made the necessary changes to the "Divisio regnorum," but problems over succession continued for a few more years.

Pippin's disappearance removed Charles's main point of reference in Italy, the administration of which was temporarily placed in the hands of Abbot Adelard of Corbie, as imperial ''missus,'' who maintained very close contact with the court. In the spring of 812, as soon as he had reached the age of majority, Charles appointed Bernard king of Italy, flanking him as adviser the trusted Count Wala. Wala's military experience was particularly useful to the inexperienced Bernard because at that very time, taking advantage of the problems that kept the Franks and Byzantines occupied in Venice and Dalmatia, the Moors and Saracens of Spain and Africa had increased their incursions into the islands of the western Mediterranean (incursions that, moreover, had been going on for years). If the pope had managed to some extent to protect his coasts, the Byzantines had not been able to do so from Ponza on down.

Concerned about the political balance, in 813 Charles proposed to the Byzantine regent in Sicily to make a common front against the threat, but the latter did not feel like taking such an initiative without imperial approval, and he asked for the mediation of the pope who, for his part, did not want to meddle in the matter. Of the common front, nothing came of it, the Byzantines lost ground in southern Italy, abandoning Sicily for good to the benefit of the Franks, and the Saracens advanced, occupying the island, as well as the coasts of Provence and Septimony, for over a century. In 811, Pippin the Hunchback, his unrecognized eldest son, died in his exile at Prüm Abbey.

On December 4, 811, Charles the Younger also died, whose actions had always been carried out either in his father's shadow or at his behest (and the scant biographical information does not help to shed any better light): the provisions of the "Divisio regnorum" thus lost all meaning, all the more so after the appointment, a few months later, of Bernard as Pippin's successor: the kingdom of Italy thus retained its autonomy. Indeed, the "Divisio regnorum" stipulated that the empire should be redistributed among the surviving sons, and in this sense Ludwig the Pious would have expected to inherit it in its entirety, but the assignment of Italy to Bernard constituted an unexpected forcing of the rules laid down by Charles, and for a few months the situation remained in stalemate until, in September 813, a general assembly of the empire's great ones was convened in Aachen in which Charles, after consultation with the most eminent figures, placed Ludwig side by side in government, naming him sole heir to the imperial throne. The holding of the ceremony was also an important political signal both toward Constantinople, to whom the message of a continuity of the Western empire was reaching, and toward Rome, with the uncoupling of imperial power from the authority of the pope, whose active part in the coronation of the new emperor was no longer deemed necessary.

By "Carolingian Revival" is meant the "Cultural Revival" as well as the flowering that occurred during Charlemagne's reign in the political, cultural, and especially educational spheres. The situation in the intellectual and religious spheres at the time of the rise of Pippin the Short was disastrous: schooling had almost disappeared in the Merovingian kingdom and intellectual life was almost nonexistent. The need for action was already clear to Pippin, and the Frankish king pursued a wide-ranging project of reform in all fields, especially in the ecclesiastical one, but when Charles was thinking about the restructuring and government of his kingdom, he turned particular attention to that Roman Empire of which he made himself the prosecutor in both name and policy.

Charles spurred real cultural reform in multiple disciplines: in architecture, the philosophical arts, literature, and poetry. Personally, he was unlettered, and he never had a proper school education, although he knew Latin and had some familiarity with reading, but he thoroughly understood the importance of culture in the governance of the empire. The Carolingian Revival was essentially religious in nature, but the reforms promoted by Charlemagne took on a cultural scope. Church reform, in particular, aimed to raise the moral level and cultural preparedness of church personnel working in the kingdom.

Charles was obsessed with the idea that wrong teaching of sacred texts, not only theologically but also from a "grammatical" point of view, would lead to the perdition of the soul, for if a grammatical error was included in the work of copying or transcribing a sacred text, one would be praying in an improper way, thus displeasing God. With the cooperation of the coterie of intellectuals from all parts of the empire, called the Palatine Academy, Charles claimed to fix the sacred texts (Alcuin of York, in particular, undertook the work of emendation and correction of the Bible) and standardize the liturgy, imposing Roman liturgical usages, as well as to pursue a style of writing that would recapture the lexical and grammatical fluency and exactness of classical Latin. In the Epistle de litteris colendis priests and monks were prescribed to devote themselves to the study of Latin, while with the Admonitio Generalis of 789 priests were ordered to instruct boys of both free and servile birth, and schools sprang up in every corner of the kingdom (and later the Empire) near churches and abbeys.

Under the direction of Alcuin of York, an intellectual of the Palatine Academy, texts were drafted, curricula prepared and lessons given for all clerics. Spelling was not spared either, and was unified, the caroline minuscule, derived from the cursive and semicursive scripts, came into current use, and a system of punctuation marks was invented to indicate pauses (and link the written text to its reading aloud). The development and introduction in the various monastic and episcopal centers of the new writing system was also due to Alcuin's influence. From those characters derived those used by Renaissance printers, which form the basis of today's characters.

The last years of Charles's life have been seen as a period of decline, due to the worsening physical condition of the sovereign, who had by then lost the vigor of his youth and, tired in body and spirit, had devoted himself more than ever to religious practices and the issuance of capitulars devoted to doctrinal issues of particular importance-a turnabout that then seemed to mark the ruling experience of his son Ludwig, known as "the Pious." Charles perceived the dissemination of correct Christian doctrine as his precise duty and high responsibility, aimed at controlling the moral rectitude not only of clergymen but of the entire Frankish people.

At the beginning of 811, the old emperor dictated his detailed will, which, however, referred only to the division of his movable property (an immense estate nonetheless), a significant part of which, further divided into 21 parts, was to be donated in alms to specific archiepiscopal sees. It was a document that traced the characteristics of the "Divisio regnorum," the political will drawn up in 806 in which Charles, while laying down precise provisions, nevertheless left some room for possible later modifications and additions. The will provided bequests not only for his children (legitimate or not), but also for his grandchildren, a rather uncommon case in the Frankish legal system. The document concludes by listing the names of as many as thirty witnesses counted among the emperor's closest friends and advisers, who were to ensure that those imperial wishes were respected and properly executed.

Almost contemporaneous with the drafting of the will, during the annual general assembly of the great at Aachen, is the issuance of a number of capitulars (followed by others, on similar topics, issued towards the end of the year), from the contents of which emerges an awareness of a generalized crisis in the empire: a religious, moral, civil and social crisis. In a rather unusual form (a collection of remarks provided by high-ranking figures in the various fields addressed) Charles seems to want to expend his last energies to put back on the right track a state that seemed to be creaking from within, despite the institutions and laws that governed it and should have properly directed it: from rampant corruption among nobles, clergymen and those who were supposed to administer justice to tax evasion, from the real motives of those who chose the ecclesiastical state to desertion and renunciation of conscription (at a time, moreover, dangerously threatened by the Normans). This was a kind of inquiry that Charles wanted to promote into the major problems of the Empire, but it hardly led to concrete positive results.

While it seemed that the empire was failing due to central weakness and the arrogance of the Frankish aristocracy, Charles died on January 28, 814, in his palace in Aachen, in the atrium of whose cathedral he was immediately interred. According to biographer Eginard, in the Latin inscription on Charles' tomb he was referred to as "magnus," an adjective that later became part of his name.

Charles had five "official" wives and at least 18 children.

Numerous were then the concubines, among whom-thanks to Einhard, who mentions them-are known:

From an unknown concubine he also had Rotaide (784?-after 814).

Even roughly calculating the number of the Emperor's children (the preceding list of which is not exhaustive) will not yield an extremely precise number. It is known that from his five official wives Charles had about 10 boys and 10 girls, plus the offspring he had from concubines. Unable to rise to positions of power in the imperial family, Charles gave them in usufruct of the benefits taken from those lands organized under taxation. The eldest son, known as Pippin the Hunchback, had a more unfortunate life: born of the possibly premarital relationship between the emperor and Imiltrude, he was eliminated from the right to succession not so much because he was born out of wedlock (a circumstance that is moreover highly doubtful), but rather because his deformity, undermining his health and physical integrity, could later raise questions about his suitability to become king. Moreover, in 792 a conspiracy he had hatched was discovered, as a result of which he was given the death penalty, later permuted into an enforced retreat in the monastery of Prüm with the obligation to be tonsured and to observe silence.

It is difficult to understand Charles' attitude toward his daughters, which was very much out of line with the moral dictates of the Church whose protector he proclaimed himself to be. Indeed, none of them contracted a regular marriage: Rotruda became the mistress of a courtier, such Duke Rorgone, by whom she also had a son, while the favored Berta ended up as the mistress of the minstrel Angilbert and this couple also had a son kept secret. Such a paternal attitude may have been an attempt to control the number of potential alliances, but it should also be remembered that his paternal affection was so possessive that he never parted with his daughters, taking them with him even on his many travels. Perhaps precisely because of his stubbornness in not giving them in marriage, Charles was very benevolent and tolerant toward the morally "free" conduct of his daughters, and on the other hand he himself, who after the death of his last wife Liutgarda in the 1800s had surrounded himself with concubines, certainly did not provide a good example of morality (and both contemporaries and later historiography preferred to pretend otherwise).

He was, however, very careful not to provide any hint of disapproval of his daughters' conduct, and this enabled him to keep them away from possible scandal, inside and outside the court. After his death the surviving daughters, to whom the five orphans of Pippin of Italy had been added in 811, were removed from the court by Ludwig the Pious and entered, or were forced to enter, a monastery.

The appearance of Charles is known to us thanks to a good description by Einhard (who is very much influenced by and in some passages follows verbatim the Swetonian biography of the emperor Tiberius), who knew him personally and was the author, after his death, of the biography entitled Vita et gesta Caroli Magni. This is how he describes Charles in his twenty-second chapter:

The physical portrait provided by Eginardus is confirmed to us by coeval depictions of the emperor, such as his coins and a bronze equestrian statuette, about 20 cm tall, preserved in the Louvre Museum, as well as by the 1861 survey of his coffin. According to anthropometric measurements, scientists estimated that the Emperor would have been 192 cm tall, practically a colossus by the standards of the time. Some coins and portraits then depict him with relatively short hair and a mustache that, depending on the case, was more or less thick and long.

Eginard also reports a certain stubbornness on Charles' part in not wanting to follow the advice of court physicians for a more balanced diet, partly because of the gout that plagued him in the last years of his life. Indeed, Charles was always jealous of his "dietary freedom," and always refused to change his diet, a fact that, given his state of health, probably hastened his death.

The emperor's character, which shines through in official biographies, must be evaluated with caution, because notations about his character are often stereotyped and modeled on pre-established patterns, to which reality was adapted. Einard, for example, author of the most famous biography of the Emperor, drew on Suetonius's Vitae (which, however, did not dwell much more on the character of the Caesars) to offer an ideal portrait of the ruler and his virtues, based on those of the Roman emperors, to which he added those of a "true" Christian emperor, with particular attention to the concepts of "magnitudo animi" and "magnanimitas."

Among the many statements, however, there are some that, not framed in a celebratory context, could perhaps really constitute reliable evidence of Charles's character and habits: a great drinker (but always very controlled) and eater, it is said that he did not shy away from adultery and had numerous concubines, in a polygamous regime that was quite usual among the Franks, although they were formally Christianized. But he was also sociable, trustworthy, very attached to his family and, unexpectedly, also endowed with a good dose of humor, as transpires from several sources, which present him as indulging in biting wit and joking, even aimed at him.

Like all nobles of the time he was particularly fond of hunting. Einard also mentions that his hair was already white in his youth but still very thick. It is also mentioned that Charlemagne suffered from sudden fits of anger.


On January 8, 1166, Charlemagne was canonized in Aachen by Antipope Paschal III at the behest of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. There was embarrassment over this canonization in Christian circles because of the emperor's less than impeccable private life. The Lateran Council III, in March 1179, declared null and void all acts done by the antipope Paschal III, thus including the canonization of Charlemagne. Nevertheless, Pope Gregory IX reconfirmed it. Worship was held in the diocese of Aachen only, and its celebration was tolerated in the Grisons.

Charlemagne in the epic of chivalry

The figure of Charlemagne was immediately idealized in medieval culture, which included him among the Nine Worthies. From him also drew its name what is known in literature as the Carolingian cycle, mostly centered on the struggles against the Saracens and consisting among other things of various French songs of deeds, among the most important vernacular sources in the Middle Ages; the oldest epic-chivalric poem, the Chanson de Roland .

The Carolingian cycle, also known as the Matter of France, would later be taken up with great fortune in Italy until the Renaissance; the most important texts, in chronological order, are:

However, in all the works of the cycle, both French and Italian, the main focus is on the paladins, the most trusted knights of the Frankish ruler's court.

Charles "Father" of the future Europe

Europe's greatest unifiers-from Frederick Barbarossa to Louis XIV, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Jean Monnet-but also modern statesmen such as Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder have all mentioned Charlemagne pointing to him as the father of Europe. Already in a celebratory document by an anonymous poet drawn up during meetings in Paderborn between the Emperor and Pope Leo III Charles is referred to as Rex Pater Europae the father of Europe, and in subsequent centuries there has been much discussion about the Frankish king's awareness that he was the promoter of a political and economic space that can be traced back to the current concept of a unified European continent.

Toward the end of the 19th century, and throughout the first half of the 20th, the problem was posed in purely nationalist terms: in particular, French and German historians disputed the primogeniture of the future Holy Roman Empire. It was later found that revisitations of a nationalistic nature had no basis, especially since Charlemagne could not be considered either French or German since the two peoples had not yet formed. It is true that the Frankish king ruled over a kingdom where the ethnic divide between Germans and Latins had left a strong geographic imprint on the area, but at the time, when one referred to membership in a certain ethnic group, one did not take into consideration the language of each people as a fundamental aspect of demarcation. The Franks, for example, especially in Neustria and Aquitaine, constituted a very small minority compared to the residents of Gaulish origin, and therefore, although they were a people of Germanic origin, they spoke the Romance language of the inhabitants of the area. Beyond the Seine, especially in Neustria, they continued instead to pass on the language of their fathers, which could be assimilated to other Teutonic languages spoken by Saxons and Thuringians.

If anything, therefore, these peoples had a commonality and referred back to a distinct ethnicity from the memory of invasions; these peoples, even at the time of Charlemagne, were well aware of the distinction between "Roman" and "Germanic." Toward the end of the 1930s, analysis was directed to other methods, mainly due to the work of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who analyzed historical events from another perspective. The Empire ruled by the King of the Franks was to be studied according to its political-economic-administrative position in relation to that Roman Empire whose legacy it carried forward, if not the legacy, at least the name.

The theory of continuity with ancient times is in turn divided into two other categories: that of "hyper-Romanists" or fiscalists, and that of social and productive system analysts. The former claim that an administrative embryo, dominant in the ancient-European economy, had by no means disintegrated after the barbarian invasions, and in support of the hypothesis, historians who follow this orientation argue that provisions can be found in the Carolingian documentation that in some ways hark back to the tax policy of the Romans; the land tax, for example, did not disappear altogether, but must have been perceived by the populations as a kind of tax, without a specific use, that went into the royal coffers. Analysts of the social and productive system, on the other hand, argue that the problem should be analyzed from that point of view: the social status of the peasants (colonists, serfs, freedmen or "household" slaves) who worked in the tax funds did not differ too much from the legal position that the slaves of ancient Rome had.

Like the other, this theory was also almost completely dismantled, because from the social point of view workers had actually made few but considerable advances. Indeed, under the reign of Charlemagne, these workers (serfs) remained, yes, "incorporated" into the landed estate they worked precariously, but they could, for example, contract marriage, and their lord was bound to respect their decision. Moreover, they owned their own dwelling in which several peasant families were often housed. Moreover, religion encouraged the liberation of slaves, urging masters to perform this act of mercy, which was recognized at the legal level under the designation of "manipulation." It is thus evident that the Carolingian Empire retained in some respects continuative elements with the late Roman age (moreover, more evident to contemporaries) but it is equally unquestionable that the process of transformation of the European continent had already started precisely from the progressive disintegration of public finance and administration following the descent of the barbarians.


  1. Charlemagne
  2. Carlo Magno
  3. ^ Si trattava della regione dell'Esarcato di Ravenna e della Pentapoli, promesse dal re longobardo Astolfo nel 754 e poi nel 755, dopo la doppia sconfitta subita ad opera di Pipino il Breve.
  4. ^ Nell'occasione Vitichindo fu accolto con tutti gli onori alla corte franca, ma di lui in seguito non si sentirà più parlare (Hägermann, op. cit., pp. 145 e segg.).
  5. ^ Si trattava insomma di realizzare un disegno "imperiale" di antica concezione, già carezzato da suo nonno Carlo Martello dopo la vittoria di Poitiers, e da suo padre Pipino.
  6. ^ Il sinodo di York del 786 aveva stabilito, tra l'altro, che solo i figli legittimi potessero ereditare un trono. L'esclusione di Pipino il Gobbo necessitava pertanto di una copertura giuridica, e lo stesso Carlo lasciò dunque che circolasse ufficialmente la convinzione che Imiltrude era stata solo una sua concubina, avvalorandola così il riconoscimento alla successione dei suoi figli con l'esclusione del primogenito (Hägermann, op. cit., p. 28).
  7. Katharina Bull: Karolingische Reiterstatue. In: Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz, Bernd Schneidmüller (Hrsg.): Die Kaiser und die Säulen ihrer Macht. Von Karl dem Großen bis Friedrich Barbarossa. Darmstadt 2020, S. 98.
  8. In der älteren Forschung wurde als Geburtsjahr oft 742 angenommen, doch tendiert die neuere Forschung mehrheitlich zu 747/48, vgl. Rosamond McKitterick: Charlemagne. Cambridge 2008, S. 72. Siehe auch die Ausführungen im Lebensabschnitt.
  9. Zu den Merowingern siehe als aktuellen Überblick Sebastian Scholz: Die Merowinger. Stuttgart 2015. Es ist allerdings fraglich, ob die später entstandenen pro-karolingischen Quellen die Verhältnisse im späten Merowingerreich adäquat reflektieren.
  10. Rudolf Schieffer: Die Karolinger. 4., überarbeitete und erweiterte Auflage, Stuttgart 2006, S. 11ff.
  11. Zu dieser Entwicklung vgl. Rudolf Schieffer: Die Karolinger. 4., überarbeitete und erweiterte Auflage, Stuttgart 2006, S. 26ff.; Rudolf Schieffer: Die Zeit des karolingischen Großreichs (714–887). Stuttgart 2005, S. 18ff.
  12. Armes imaginaires.
  13. Nelson 2019, σ. 29
  15. Bradbury, Jim (2004). The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. Routledge. σ. 19
  17. Gregory 2005, σσ. 251–252

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