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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center

Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Chapter V: Empire And Policy Of Charles.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901


Page Six

Part II.

Whether, supposing Leo to have been less precipitate, a cession of the
crown, or an acknowledgment of the right of the Romans to confer it, could
ever have been obtained by Charles is perhaps more than doubtful. But it is
clear that he judged rightly in rating its importance high, for the want of it
was the great blemish in his own and his successors' dignity. To shew how
this was so, reference must be made to the events of A.D. 476. Both the
extinction of the Western Empire in that year and its revival in A.D. 800 have
been very generally misunderstood in modern times, and although the mistake is
not, in a certain sense, of practical importance, yet it tends to confuse
history and to blind us to the ideas of the people who acted on both
occasions. When Odoacer compelled the abdication of Romulus Augustulus, he
did not abolish the Western Empire as a separate power, but caused it to be
reunited with or sink into the Eastern, so that from that time there was, as
there had been before Diocletian, a single undivided Roman Empire. In A.D.
800 the very memory of the separate Western Empire, as it had stood from the
death of Theodosius till Odoacer, had, so far as appears, been long since
lost, and neither Leo nor Charles nor any one among their advisers dreamt of
reviving it. They too, like their predecessors, held the Roman Empire to be
one and indivisible, and proposed by the coronation of the Frankish king not
to proclaim a severance of the East and West, but to reverse that act of
Constantine, and make Old Rome again the civil as well as the ecclesiastical
capital of the Empire that bore her name. Their deed was in its essence
illegal, but they sought to give it every semblance of legality: they
professed and partly believed that they were not revolting against a reigning
sovereign, but legitimately filling up the place of the deposed Constantine
the Sixth; the people of the imperial city exercising their ancient right of
choice, their bishop his right of consecration.

Their purpose was but half accomplished. They could create, but they
could not destroy: they set up an Emperor of their own, whose representatives
thenceforward ruled the West, but Constantinople retained her sovereigns as of
yore; and Christendom saw henceforth two imperial lines, not as in the time
before A.D. 476, the conjoint heads of a single realm, but rivals and enemies,
each denouncing the other as an impostor, each professing to be the only true
and lawful head of the Christian Church and people. Although therefore we
must in practice speak during the next seven centuries (down till A.D. 1453,
when Constantinople fell before the Mohammedan) of an Eastern and a Western
Empire, the phrase is in strictness incorrect, and was one which either court
ought to have repudiated. The Byzantines always did repudiate it ^1; the
Latins usually; although, yielding to facts, they sometimes condescended to
employ it themselves. But their theory was always the same. Charles was held
to be the legitimate successor, not of Romulus Augustulus, but of Leo IV,
Heraclius, Justinian, Arcadius, and the whole Eastern line; and hence it is
that in all the annals of the time and of many succeeding centuries, the name
of Constantine VI, the sixty-seventh in order from Augustus, is followed
without a break by that of Charles, the sixty-eighth.

[Footnote 1: Although they occassionally conceded the title of Emperor to the
Teutonic sovereign: as in the instances cited in note(j) p. 61, and note(t) p.

The maintenance of an imperial line among the Easterns was a continuing
protest against the validity of Charles's title. But from their enmity he had
little to fear, and in the eyes of the world he seemed to step into their
place, adding the traditional dignity which had been theirs to the power that
he already enjoyed. North Italy and Rome ceased for ever to own the supremacy
of Byzantium; and while the Eastern princes paid a shameful tribute to the
Mussulman, the Frankish Emperor - as the recognized head of Christendom -
received from the patriach of Jerusalem the keys of the Holy Sepulchre and the
banner of Calvary; the gift of the Sepulchre itself, says Eginhard, from Aaron
king of the Persians ^1. Out of this peaceful intercourse with the great
Khalif the romancers created a crusade. Within his own dominions his sway
assumed a more sacred character. Already had his unwearied and comprehensive
activity made him throughout his reign an ecclesiastical no less than a civil
ruler, summoning and sitting in councils, examining and appointing bishops,
settling by capitularies the smallest points of church discipline and polity.
A synod held at Frankfort in A.D. 794 condemned the decrees of the second
council of Nicaea, which had been approved by Pope Hadrian, censured in
violent terms the conduct of the Byzantine rulers in suggesting them, and
without excluding images from churches, altogether forbade them to be
worshipped or even venerated. Not only did Charles preside in and direct the
deliberations of this synod, although legates from the Pope were present - he
also caused a treatise to be drawn up stating and urging its conclusions; he
pressed Hadrian to declare Constantine VI a heretic for enouncing doctrines to
which Hadrian had himself consented. There are letters of his extant in which
he lectures Pope Leo in a tone of easy superiority, admonishes him to obey the
holy canons, and bids him pray earnestly for the success of the efforts which
it is the monarch's duty to make for the subjugation of pagans and the
establishment of sound doctrine throughout the Church. Nay, subsequent Popes
themselves ^2 admitted and applauded the despotic superintendence of matters
spiritual which he was wont to exercise, and which led some one to give him
playfully a title that had once been applied to the Pope himself, 'Episcopus

[Footnote 1: Harun er Rashid; Eginh. Vita Karoli, cap. 16.]

[Footnote 2: So Pope John VIII in a document quoted by Waitz, Deutsche
Verfassungsgeschichte, iii.]

Acting and speaking thus when merely king, it may be thought that Charles
needed no further title to justify his power. The inference is in truth
rather the converse of this. Upon what he had done already the imperial title
must necessarily follow: the attitude of protection and control which he held
towards the Church and the Holy See belonged, according to the ideas of the
time, especially and only to an Emperor. Therefore his coronation was the
fitting completion and legitimation of his authority, sanctifying rather than
increasing it. We have, however, one remarkable witness to the importance
that was attached to the imperial name, and the enhancement which he conceived
his office to have received from it. In a great assembly held at Aachen, A.D.
802, the lately-crowned Emperor revised the laws of all the races that obeyed
him, endeavouring to harmonize and correct them, and issued a capitulary
singular in subject and tone ^1. All persons within his dominions, as well
ecclesiastical as civil, who have already sworn allegiance to him as king, are
thereby commanded to swear to him afresh as Caesar; and all who have never yet
sworn, down to the age of twelve, shall now take the same oath. 'At the same
time it shall be publicly explained to all what is the force and meaning of
this oath, and how much more it includes than a mere promise of fidelity to
the monarch's person. Firstly, it binds those who swear it to live, each and
every one of them, according to his strength and knowledge, in the holy
service of God; since the lord Emperor cannot extend over all his care and
discipline. Secondly, it binds them neither by force nor fraud to seize or
molest any of the goods or servants of his crown. Thirdly, to do no violence
nor treason towards the holy Church, or to widows, or orphans, or strangers,
seeing that the lord Emperor has been appointed, after the Lord and his
saints, the protector and defender of all such.' Then in similar fashion
purity of life is prescribed to the monks; homicide, the neglect of
hospitality, and other offences are denounced, the notions of sin and crime
being intermingled and almost identified in a way to which no parallel can be
found, unless it be in the Mosaic code. There God, the invisible object of
worship, is also, though almost incidentally, the judge and political ruler of
Israel; here the whole cycle of social and moral duty is deduced from the
obligation of obedience to the visible autocratic head of the Christian state.

[Footnote 1: Pertz, M. G. H. iii. (legg. I.)]

In most of Charles's words and deeds, nor less distinctly in the writings
of his adviser Alcuin, may be discerned the working of the same theocratic
ideas. Among his intimate friends he chose to be called by the name of David,
exercising in reality all the powers of the Jewish king; presiding over this
kingdom of God upon earth rather as a second Constantine or Theodosius than in
the spirit and traditions of the Julii or the Flavii. Among his measures there
are two which in particular recall the first Christian Emperor. As
Constantine founds so Charles erects on a firmer basis the connection of
Church and State. Bishops and abbots are as essential a part of rising
feudalism as counts and dukes. Their benefices are held under the same
conditions of fealty and the service in war of their vassal tenants, not of
the spiritual person himself: they have similar rights of jurisdiction, and
are subject alike to the imperial missi. The monarch tries often to restrict
the clergy, as persons, to spiritual duties; quells the insubordination of the
monasteries; endeavours to bring the seculars into a monastic life by
instituting and regulating chapters. But after granting wealth and power, the
attempt was vain; his strong hand withdrawn, they laughed at control. Again,
it was by him first that the payment of tithes, for which the priesthood had
long been pleading, was made compulsory in Western Europe, and the support of
the ministers of religion entrusted to the laws of the state.

In civil affairs also Charles acquired, with the imperial title, a new
position. Later jurists labour to distinguish his power as Roman Emperor from
that which he held already as king of the Franks and their subject allies:
they insist that his coronation gave him the capital only, that it is absurd
to talk of a Roman Empire in regions whither the eagles had never flown ^1.
In such expressions there seems to lurk either confusion or misconception. It
was not the actual government of the city that Charles obtained in A.D. 800;
that his father had already held as Patrician and he had constantly exercised
in the same capacity: it was far more than the titular sovereignty of Rome
which had hitherto been supposed to be vested in the Byzantine princes: it was
nothing less than the headship of the world, believed to appertain of right to
the lawful Roman Emperor, whether he reigned on the Bosphorus, the Tiber, or
the Rhine. As that headship, although never denied, had been in abeyance in
the West for several centuries, its bestowal on the king of so vast a realm
was a change of the first moment, for it made the coronation not merely a
transference of the seat of Empire, but a renewal of the Empire itself, a
bringing back of it from faith to sight, from the world of belief and theory
to the world of fact and reality. And since the powers it gave were
autocratic and unlimited, it must swallow up all minor claims and dignities:
the rights of Charles the Frankish king were merged in those of Charles the
successor of Augustus, the lord of the world. That his imperial authority was
theoretically irrespective of place is clear from his own words and acts, and
from all the monuments of that time. He would not, indeed, have dreamed of
treating the free Franks as Justinian had treated his half-Oriental subjects,
nor would the warriors who followed his standard have brooked such an attempt.
Yet even to German eyes his position must have been altered by the halo of
vague splendour which now surrounded him; for all, even the Saxon and the
Slave, had heard of Rome's glories, and revered the name of Caesar. And in
his effort to weld discordant elements into one body, to introduce regular
gradations of authority, to control the Teutonic tendency to localization by
his missi - officials commissioned to traverse each some part of his
dominions, reporting on and redressing the evils they found - and by his own
oft-repeated personal progresses, Charles was guided by the traditions of the
old Empire. His sway is the revival of order and culture, fusing the West
into a compact whole, whose parts are never thence-forward to lose the marks
of their connection and their half-Roman character, gathering up all that is
left in Europe of spirit and wealth and knowledge, and hurling it with the new
force of Christianity on the infidel of the South and the masses of untamed
barbarism to the North and East. Ruling the world by the gift of God, and the
transmitted rights of the Romans and their Caesar whom God had chosen to
conquer it, he renews the original aggressive movement of the Empire: the
civilized world has subdued her invader ^2, and now arms him against savagery
and heathendom. Hence the wars, not more of the sword than of the cross,
against Saxons, Avars, Slaves, Danes, Spanish Arabs, where monasteries are
fortresses and baptism the badge of submission. The overthrow of the Irminsul
^3, in the first Saxon campaign ^4, sums up the changes of seven centuries.
The Romanized Teuton destroys the monument of his country's freedom, for it is
also the emblem of paganism and barbarism. The work of Arminius is undone by
his successor.

[Footnote 1: Putter, Historical Development of the German Constitution; so too
Conring, and esp. David Blondel, Adv. Chiffletium.]

[Footnote 2: 'Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit,' is repeated in this
conquest of the Teuton by the Roman.]

[Footnote 3: The notion that once prevailed that the Irminsul was the 'pillar
of Hermann,' set up on the spot of the defeat of Varus, is, however, now
generally discredited. Some German antiquaries take the pillar to be a rude
figure of the native god or hero Irmin, who, as Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie, i.
325) thinks, may be an eponym of the Herminones, and was probably worshipped
by the Saxons as a warlike representation of Wodan. The omission of their
ancestors to commemorate the victory that saved them from Rome has been at
last supplied by the modern Germans, who in 1875 set up a colossal statue of
Arminius or Hermann in the Teutoburger Wald, not far from the reputed scene of
the battle. He has in fact become the earliest national hero. A rude ditty,
apparently referring to the destruction of the pillar by Charles, still
livesin the memory of the Westphalians round Paderborn, and runs thus: -

'Hermen sla dermen
Sla pipen, sla trummen
De Kaiser wil kummen
Met hammer un stangen
Wil Hermen uphangen.'

Mommsen (Die Oertlichkeit der Varus-schlacht) places the scene of the battle
eight or ten miles N. of Osnabruck, near a spot called Barenau. (Note to
edition of 1887.)]

[Footnote 4: Eginhard, Ann.]

This, however, is not the only side from which Charles's policy and
character may be regarded. If the unity of the Church and the shadow of
imperial prerogative was one pillar of his power, the other was the Frankish
nation. The empire was still military, though in a sense strangely different
from that of Julius or Severus. The warlike Franks had permeated Western
Europe; their primacy was admitted by the kindred tribes of Lombards,
Bavarians, Thuringians, Alemannians, and Burgundians; the Slavic peoples on
the borders trembled and paid tribute; Alfonso of Asturias found in the
Emperor a protector against the infidel foe. His influence, if not his
exerted power, crossed the ocean: the kings of the Scots sent gifts and called
him lord ^1: the restoration of Eardulf to Northumbria, still more of Egbert
to Wessex, might furnish a better ground for the claim of suzerainty than many
to which his successors had afterwards recourse. As it was by Frankish arms
that this predominance in Europe which the imperial title adorned and
legalized had been won, so was the government of Charles Roman in semblance
rather than in fact. It was not by restoring the effete mechanism of the old
Empire, but by his own vigorous personal action and that of his great
officers, that he strove to administer and reform. With every effort for a
strong central government, there is no despotism; each nation retains its
laws, its hereditary chiefs, its free popular assemblies. The conditions
granted to the Saxons after such cruel warfare, conditions so favourable that
in the next century their dukes hold the foremost place in Germany, shew how
little he desired to make the Franks a dominant caste.

[Footnote 1: Most probably the Scots of Ireland. - Eginhard, Vita Karoli, cap.

He repeats the attempt of Theodoric to breathe a Teutonic spirit into
Roman forms. The conception was magnificent; great results followed its
partial execution. Two causes forbade success. The one was the
ecclesiastical, especially the Papal power, apparently subject to the
temporal, but with a strong and undefined prerogative which only waited the
occasion to trample on what it had helped to raise. The Pope might take away
the crown he had bestowed, and turn against the Emperor the Church which now
obeyed him. The other was to be found in the discordance of the component
parts of the Empire. The nations were not ripe for settled life or extensive
schemes of polity; the differences of race, language, manners, over vast and
thinly-peopled lands baffled every attempt to maintain their connection: and
when once the spell of the great mind was withdrawn, the mutually repellent
forces began to work, and the mass dissolved into that chaos out of which it
had been formed. Nevertheless, the parts separated not as they met, but
having all of them undergone influences which continued to act when political
connection had ceased. For the work of Charles - a genius pre-eminently
creative - was not lost in the anarchy that followed: rather are we to regard
his reign as the beginning of a new era, or as laying the foundations whereon
men continued for many generations to build.

It is no longer necessary to shew how little the modern French, the sons
of the Latinized Kelt, have to do with the Teutonic Charles. At Rome he might
assume the chlamys and the sandals, but at the head of his Frankish host he
strictly adhered to the customs of his country, and was beloved by his people
as the very ideal of their own character and habits ^1. Of strength and
stature almost superhuman, in swimming and hunting unsurpassed, steadfast and
terrible in fight, to his friends gentle and condescending, he was a Roman,
much less a Gaul, in nothing but his culture and his schemes of government,
otherwise a Teuton. The centre of his realm was the Rhine; his capitals
Aachen ^2 and Engilenheim ^3; his army Frankish; his sympathies - as they are
shewn in the gathering of the old hero-lays ^4, the composition of a German
grammar, the ordinance against confining prayer to the three languages,
Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, - were all for the race from which he sprang, and
whose advance, represented by the victory of Austrasia, the true Frankish
fatherland, over Neustria and Aquitaine, spread a second Germanic wave over
the conquered countries.

[Footnote 1: Eginhard, Vita Karoli, cap. 23.]

[Footnote 2: Aix-la-Chapelle (called by English writers of the seventeenth
century, Aken). See the lines given in Pertz's edition of Eginhard,
beginning, -

'Urbs Aquensis, urbs regalis,
Sedes regni principalis,
Prima regum curia.']

[Footnote 3: Engilenheim, or Ingelheim, lies near the left shore of the Rhine
between Mentz and Bingen.]

[Footnote 4: Eginhard, Vita Karoli, cap. 29.]

There were in his Empire, as in his own mind, two elements; those two
from the union and mutual action and reaction of which modern civilization has
arisen. These vast domains, reaching from the Ebro to the Carpathian
mountains, from the Eyder to the Liris, were all the conquests of the Frankish
sword, and were still governed almost exclusively by viceroys and officers of
Frankish blood. But the conception of the Empire, that which made it a State
and not a mere mass of subject tribes like those great Eastern dominions which
rise and perish in a lifetime, the realms of Sesostris, or Attila, or Timur,
was inherited from an older and a grander system, was not Teutonic but Roman -
Roman in its ordered rule, in its uniformity and precision, in its endeavour
to subject the individual to the system - Roman in its effort to realize a
certain limited and human perfection, whose very completeness shall exclude
the hope of further progress. And the bond, too, by which the Empire was held
together was Roman in its origin, although Roman in a sense which would have
surprised Trajan or Severus, could it have been foretold them. The
ecclesiastical body was already organized and centralized, and it was in his
rule over the ecclesiastical body that the secret of Charles's power lay.
Every Christian - Frank, Gaul, or Italian - owed loyalty to the head and
defender of his religion: the unity of the Empire was a reflection of the
unity of the Church.

Into a general view of the government and policy of Charles it is not
possible here to enter. Yet his legislation, his assemblies, his
administrative system, his magnificent works, recalling the projects of
Alexander and Caesar ^1, the zeal for education and literature which he shewed
in the collection of manuscripts, the founding of schools, the gathering of
eminent men from all quarters around him, cannot be appreciated apart from his
position as restorer of the Roman Empire. Like all the foremost men of our
race, Charles was all great things in one, and was so great just because the
workings of his genius were so harmonious. He was not a mere barbarian
warrior any more than he was an astute diplomatist; there is none of all his
qualities which would not be forced out of its place were we to characterize
him chiefly by it. Comparisons between famous men of different ages are
generally as worthless as they are easy: the circumstances among which Charles
lived do not permit us to institute a minute parallel between his greatness
and that of those two to whom it is the modern fashion to compare him, nor to
say whether he was or could have become as profound a politician as Caesar, as
skilful a commander as Napoleon ^2. But neither to the Roman nor to the
Corsican was he inferior in that one quality by which both he and they chiefly
impress our imaginations - that intense, vivid, unresting energy which swept
him over Europe in campaign after campaign, which sought a field for its
workings in theology, science, literature, no less than in politics and war.
As it was this wondrous activity that made him the conqueror of Europe, so was
it by the variety of his culture that he became her civilizer. From him, in
whose wide deep mind the whole mediaeval theory of the world and human life
mirrored itself, did mediaeval society take the form and impress which it
retained for centuries, and the traces whereof are among us and upon us to
this day.

[Footnote 1: Eginhard, Vita Karoli, cap. 17.]

[Footnote 2: It is not a little curious that of the three whom certain
Bonapartists sought to represent as French national heroes all should have
been foreigners, and two foreign conquerors.]

The great Emperor was buried at Aachen, in that basilica which it had
been the delight of his later years to erect and adorn with the treasures of
ancient art. His tomb under the dome - where now we see an enormous slab,
with the words 'Carolo Magno' - was inscribed, 'Magnus atque Orthodoxus
Imperator ^1.' Poets, fostered by his own zeal, sang of him who had given to
the Franks the sway of Romulus ^2. The gorgeous mists of romance gradually
rose and wreathed themselves round his name, till by canonization as a saint
he received the highest glory the world or the Church could confer ^3. For
the Roman Church claimed then, as she claims still, the privilege which
humanity in one form or another seems scarce able to deny itself, of raising
to honours almost divine its great departed; and as in pagan times temples had
risen to a deified Emperor, so churches were dedicated to St. Charlemagne.
Between Sanctus Carolus and Divus Julius how strange an analogy and how
strange a contrast!

[Footnote 1: This basilica was built upon the model of the church of the Holy
Sepulchre at Jerusalem, and as it was the first church of any size that had
been erected in those regions for centuries past, it excited extraordinary
interest among the Franks and Gauls. In many of its features it greatly
resembles the beautiful church of San Vitale, at Ravenna (also modelled upon
that of the Holy Sepulchre), which was begun by Theodoric, and completed under
Justinian. Probably San Vitale was used as a pattern by Charles's architects:
we know that he caused marble columns to be brought from Ravenna to deck the
church at Aachen. Over the tomb of Charles, below the central dome (to which
the Gothic choir we now see was added some centuries later), there hangs a
huge chandelier, the gift of Frederick Barbarossa.]

[Footnote 2: Romuleum Francis praestitit imperium.' - Elegy of Ermoldus
Nigellus, in Pertz, M. G. H. t. i. So too Florus the Deacon, -

'Huic etenim cessit etiam gens Romula genti,
Regnorumque simul mater Roma inclyta cessit:
Huius ibi princeps regni diademata sumpsit
Munere apostolico, Christi munimine fretus.']

[Footnote 3: A curious illustration of the influence of the name and fame of
Charles, even on remote nations, is supplied by a story in the Heimskringla.
Alfhild, a concubine of St. Olaf, had given birth to a child at night, while
Olaf was asleep; and Sigvat his favourite skald, seeing it to be weak, and
fearing it might die, caused it to be baptized at once, and gave it the name
of Magnus. When the King awoke and heard what had been done, he was angry,
and calling Sigvat asked, 'Why hast thou called the child Magnus, which is not
a name of our race?' The skald answered, 'I called him after King Karl Magnus,
who I knew had been the best man in the world.' The child grew up to be King
Magnus the Good, the most popular and one of the greatest of all the Norwegian
kings; and from him the name became a common one over all the North.]