Aspects of Empire: Roman, Holy and German

Symbols, parallels and patterns of the past assist the consolidation of power, and if religion can be harnessed in the pursuit of empire, so much the better. When a man can present himself as a god, or at least as divinity’s chosen servant, and his supporters promote his fantasy, he can wield authority like no other.

When Otto I was crowned king of the Saxons and the Franks in 936, the stage was set for another attempt to revive aspects of the Roman Empire in the West. As we might expect from other examples in this series on would-be messiahs, the trappings of earlier times are soon called into service to bolster the reconstruction effort. Otto’s revival was no different: it relied heavily on imperial precedent.

Within a generation of the death of the Frankish king and “august emperor” Charlemagne in 814, his Roman revival fell prey to his squabbling heirs. The Franks divided into two independent peoples. The eastern branch inhabited what is now central Germany, and their western brothers the northern half of modern-day France. At the heart of Charlemagne’s vast empire, stretching from the North Sea to the Adriatic, a third, disputed “Middle Kingdom” emerged. It comprised Italy, Provence, Burgundy, Lorraine and Frisia (which roughly corresponds to the Netherlands today). The power politics of the region made it a battleground for decades, dictating key aspects of Otto’s foreign policy agenda.

The region we know today as Germany was home to five main tribes: the Franks, the Saxons, the Swabians, the Bavarians and the Thuringians. The tribes looked to dukes to defend them in military emergencies. In 911, when the ruling east Frankish Carolingian line became extinct, the dukes bound themselves together in a confederation of sorts and elected one from among them to be supreme leader, or king. Subservient in war, the dukes maintained a high level of independence in times of peace. This pattern of government has persisted in the region and finds parallels in contemporary federal Germany and the European Union.

The King Who Would Be Emperor

Though Otto had been named by his father, King Henry I, to succeed him when he died, it was nevertheless up to the powerful representatives of the Germanic tribes to sanction the designated successor.

Behold, I bring you here King Otto, chosen by God, designated by the mighty lord Henry, and elevated to the throne by all the princes. If you are satisfied with this choice show it by raising your right hands to heaven!” 

From Widukind of Corvey’s account of the Coronation, cited by Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany 

The new king was confirmed in two separate ceremonies, lay and ecclesiastical. Seated on a throne in the cathedral courtyard in Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen, Otto first received the loyalty oaths of the lay princes. The ecclesiastical portion of his election came inside the cathedral. There, in response to the archbishop of Mainz’s request, Otto was acclaimed in Roman style by the raised right hands of the common people, confirming their submission with the traditional shout of “Sieg und Heil” (“victory and salvation”). Standing behind the altar, he received the royal insignia: the sword to keep at bay the enemies of Christ and maintain peace among the Franks; the cloak and bracelets, signaling the need for zealous faith and endurance in preserving peace; and the staff and scepter of monarchial might and authority. The archbishops of Mainz and Cologne then anointed and crowned the new leader. According to historian Martin Kitchen, the ceremony “implied that Otto would follow in Charles the Great’s footsteps and be crowned emperor in Rome” (The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany, 1996).

From the start, Otto relied on the historical pull of Charlemagne’s reputation and success to strengthen his rule, reaching back to Roman roots for additional legitimacy. One of his biographers, the monk Widukind of Corvey, describes his view of Otto’s unique attributes in language drawn from Roman pagan antiquity: divinus animus, caelestis virtus, fortuna, constantia and virtus. The continuing thread of the Roman ruler-cult is one of the themes in this series about men who would be god. Not surprisingly, Otto’s coronation was accompanied by reminders of that ancient cult. Austrian historian Friedrich Heer notes the conclusion of Otto’s crowning, with its “two deeply archaic ruler-cult rituals” (The Holy Roman Empire, 1968). One was his enthronement on the previous august emperor Charlemagne’s seat in the cathedral, from which he heard mass, seen by all and seeing all. The other ancient ritual was a banquet at which Otto was attended personally by four tribal dukes—the powerful peers who had raised him high above themselves.

Power From on High?

Symbols of political and religious power become very significant in such circumstances. Otto inherited another such emblem of authority from his father. It was a celebrated lance, known variously today as the Lance of Longinus, the Lance of St. Maurice, the Holy Lance or the Spear of Destiny, and it seems to have embodied both political and religious authority of extraordinary significance. Its tip, embellished by small brass crosses, was said to contain a nail or nails from the crucified Christ's hands and feet. In 926, Rudolf II of Burgundy had relinquished the spear to Henry in exchange for the city of Basel—the seemingly uneven exchange an indication of the extraordinary value Henry put on the iron relic. Though recent scientific analysis has dated the spear to the seventh century, at the time of Otto it was said to have belonged to fourth-century emperor Constantine the Great. The legend had grown over time, as some began to suggest that it had actually been brought from the Holy Land by that consummate collector of holy relics, Constantine's mother Helena.

Less important than the actual age or history of the lance, however, is the significance attached to it by those who owned it and its resulting effect on the events of history. According to the late historian Geoffrey Barraclough, for example, by parting with this symbol of Constantine's inheritance, Rudolf surrendered Burgundian rights to Italy (The Origins of Modern Germany, 1984). Though Henry was unable to undertake his planned march into Italy to stake his claim—he died from a stroke in 936—his son would inherit his rights to empire.

Heer writes that for Otto the Holy Lance was “symbol and proof of his claim to Italy and to the imperial office.” It was to become revered as one of the holiest of all imperial insignia for a thousand years. What better sign of the transfer of both Roman authority and Roman devotion to Christianity could Otto possess than an imperial instrument that, according to legend, incorporated the Messiah’s crucifixion nails?

As for the newly fashioned Ottonian crown, what better symbol of the continuing lineage of the priests, kings and apostles of biblical times than the coronation diadem, with its portraits of four powerful biblical savior figures—David, Solomon, Isaiah and the pre-existent Christ—and its two 12-stoned panels, one imitative of the breastplate of the Hebrew high priest and the other reflecting the 12 apostles? Surely the new king was destined for greatness.

Still, the burden of ruling over and protecting Christendom that had been Constantine’s, Justinian’s and Charlemagne’s was not to descend fully on Otto’s shoulders for most of his reign. He faced internal struggles with family and other tribal dukes from 936 to 955. Though he overcame his domestic adversaries and succeeded in military campaigns in Burgundy, against the Slavs, in Denmark, in Bohemia, and in Italy, where he became king of the Lombards in 951, it was not until two decades after his accession that the defining moment for Otto (and German history) presented itself.

Reaching Toward the East

The Magyars had long troubled eastern Europe. Otto’s father had negotiated a nine-year truce with them, buying precious time to rebuild his army. But Magyar incursions into German territory resumed during Otto’s reign, coming to a head in the 950s. According to Heer, in the final and decisive battle with the Magyars at Lechfeld near Augsburg in 955—said by some to be the greatest battle of medieval times—Otto carried the Holy Lance. Tenth-century historian Liudprand of Cremona, a bishop given to colorful storytelling and the first writer known to mention the lance, wrote that it was regarded as a miracle-working spear because of the sacred relic it was reputed to contain. Heer writes that by carrying the spear, Otto was “linking himself directly with the saving energy which flowed from Christ the conqueror.”

In Otto, Udalrich had at his side a king in whom magical ‘pagan’ and christian elements intertwined, as in Romanesque sculptural ornament or in the initials worked by the great book-illuminators of the Ottonian century.”

Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire 

Despite these overtones of Christian inspiration, Widukind remarks that Otto’s postbattle victory celebration followed the error-laden practices of his pagan forefathers. It seems that neither the king nor the clergy was averse to combining Christian and pagan elements whenever it made sense. In fact, Heer notes that the popularity of the king and his loyal supporter and bishop, Udalrich of Augsburg, arose from “the fusion in their own persons of the archaic with the new, the pre-christian with the christian.” Avoiding the inclination to present the king as a religious purist, Heer adds that Otto’s pagan-Christian syncretism explains “the true magic, the compelling power, the monumental appeal of Ottonian culture.”

Otto’s resounding victory at Lechfeld had several consequences. He was now recognized as the champion of Christendom and according to Widukind was declared emperor by his men at the battle’s conclusion. His imperial role was assured, as was the establishing of the German imperial church as a political force. The Hungarian kingdom came into being and the Bavarian kingdom of Austria was refounded and Germanized.

The battle at the River Lech also opened up the eastern borderlands of Germany to zealous missionary activity from the Baltic to the Adriatic, initiating the German inclination for Ostpolitik or Drang nach Osten (looking eastward for influence and expansion) that lasted well into the 20th century. Together with his imperial bishops, the king could now embark on an enlarged pursuit of Germany’s Christian destiny. Fortuitously for Otto, in 961 the pope called on him to defend Rome against Berengar of Ivrea (40 kilometers north of Turin), whom Otto had left to govern Italy. The king’s success was such that the pope helped Otto achieve his father’s dream. Though Otto had failed to gain the imperial title following his earlier Italian campaign, in February 962 in time-honored tradition, he received the acclamations of the clergy and people of Rome, and Pope John XII crowned him emperor.

Within 10 days of the coronation, Otto secured the pope’s agreement to make Magdeburg a new archbishopric. His first wife, Edgitha (sister of England’s West Saxon king Athelstan and granddaughter of Alfred the Great), had been given the city as a wedding gift in 929. Now it was to become the center of missionary efforts in the east, in particular in Hungary and Poland. Fashioned by the emperor as a German Rome, Magdeburg’s only rival was Byzantine Constantinople, center of the Orthodox faith. One result of Otto’s actions, apparent still today, was that culturally and religiously Hungary and Poland became part of western Europe, while Russia took on Orthodox belief.

A Nuanced Legacy

Otto died in 973 and was buried in the newly built cathedral at Magdeburg, next to Edgitha. His 37-year rule had mobilized the church-state alliance that was to characterize the Holy Roman Empire for centuries to come. Though emperors and popes would contend over the limits of each others’ powers, the alliance of Roman Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire would endure for centuries.

Otto centered his relations with the papacy on his belief that, as sovereign, he superseded the church in authority. At times, even his archbishops in Cologne and Mainz were reckoned superior to the pontiff in Rome. Together, the emperor-king and his imperial bishops would rule the church. Otto would decide the Christian boundaries of his empire in the east. Signaling his supreme authority over the papacy, within two years of his imperial coronation he ejected Pope John XII for conspiring with the Hungarians to overthrow him.

Assessing Otto’s reign and its significance for almost 900 years of German history, it is important to acknowledge that while he styled himself on Charlemagne, he did not attempt to fully replicate his empire. Many historians have supposed that Otto’s design was to fully revive the ancient empire in the West. But history reveals a more nuanced picture. For example, Otto did not unite the Italian peninsula by driving out the Byzantines. In fact, at the end of a campaign that began there in 966, he concluded peace with them and negotiated his son’s marriage in St. Peter’s Basilica to the Byzantine princess Theophano. As a result, the German empire was recognized at last by the Byzantine emperor in 972.

Another example of why a more nuanced view of Otto’s achievements is necessary revolves around the fact that his territory never approximated that of Charlemagne. The Middle Kingdom was his focus. Indeed, exact replications of the Western Roman Empire cannot be found. With respect to Germany, subsequent emperors responded in different ways to the challenges of their own times. As Barraclough sensibly observed, “the significance of the empire and the imperial title changed from generation to generation and from emperor to emperor, reflecting the varying characters of the different rulers and the different Zeitgeist of succeeding ages. It was not an unvarying conception, a constant factor, meaning the same thing to all men at all times or even to all men at one time” (Origins of Modern Germany).

What, then, was Otto’s achievement? In what sense was he “the Great”? The answer must lie in what he set in motion. During his reign, as Charlemagne had done, he used only the title “august emperor” without any reference to territory. Conrad II (1027–39), introduced the word “Roman” into the name of his empire. The term “Holy Empire” was employed in 1157 under Frederick I, whereas “Holy Roman Empire” (sacrum Romanum imperium) dates from 1254. Finally, “of the German Nation” was added in the 16th century. Ruled by several dynasties in succession (Ottonian, Salian, Hohenstaufen and Habsburg), the German empire endured until 1806, when Francis II of Austria resigned his imperial title. Otto’s achievement was that he set the course of the German monarchy for almost nine centuries, during which western Europe’s relationship to the ancient Roman Empire was represented by papal approval of German emperors, while the papacy relied on German emperors for the defense of the Roman Church.

One such defender was the last holy Roman emperor to be crowned by a pope, Charles V (1519–56). It is with his story that we begin next time in Part 5 of Messiahs!