On Christmas day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo iii. The first emperor since Romulus Augustus had been abdicated in 476. Why and under which circumstances he had been crowned is still a matter of debate. In the following section of Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, it is suggested that it came as a complete surprise for Charlemagne, but this is rather questionable, not to say very unlikely. It is more likely that, as the Byzantine Empire was at that time ruled by Empress Irene of Athens, Charlemagne saw a legal opportunity to seize the crown of emperor. Legally the Byzantine Empire was the heir of the Roman Empire, but according to some interpretations a woman could not be sole ruler. Einhard claims that Charlemagne was completely unaware of the coronation under preparation and that he refused repeatedly to be crowned. As it happens he entered the church at Christmas and was taken by surprise and suddenly found himself emperor. I have watched enough detectives to suspect that this so-called surprise was fabricated, as he did not want to upset the Byzantine court too much…
In the summer of 800 Charlemagne went to Rome to protect Pope Leo iii, who was highly unpopular amongst the aristocracy and was charged with adultery and treason. They even went so far – according to Einhard – to blind him and cut his tongue off. Fortunately other legendary sources tell us that the poor man was healed by a miracle.
To overcome the grudge of Empress Irene, Charlemagne made her a marriage proposal. His fourth (or fifth) and last wife Liutgard had died in 800 and he had not married again but lived with his concubine Regina. Irene had sought closer contacts with the Frankish empire before she became empress and even proposed a marriage between her son and a daughter of Charlemagne, so the idea of a marriage was not that absurd. At first she accepted, but due to all kinds of intrigues at the Byzantine court, she was compelled to withdraw. Byzantine history: never a dull moment!
Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni, chapter 28:
Ultimi adventus sui non solum hae fuere causae, verum etiam quod Romani Leonem pontificem multis affectum iniuriis, erutis scilicet oculis linguaque amputata, fidem regis implorare conpulerunt. Idcirco Romam veniens propter reparandum, qui nimis conturbatus erat, ecclesiae statum ibi totum hiemis tempus extraxit. Quo tempore imperatoris et augusti nomen accepit. Quod primo in tantum aversatus est, ut adfirmaret se eo die, quamvis praecipua festivitas esset, ecclesiam non intraturum, si pontificis consilium praescire potuisset. Invidiam tamen suscepti nominis, Romanis imperatoribus super hoc indignantibus, magna tulit patientia. Vicitque eorum contumaciam magnanimitate, qua eis procul dubio longe praestantior erat, mittendo ad eos crebras legationes et in epistolis fratres eos appellando.
hae causae: in the previous chapter it is told that Charlemagne had made a vow to pray at Rome venerated and venerate the churches there. This was his fourth and final visit to Rome.
Romani Leonem…fidem regis implorare conpulerunt: the Romans forced (compello)Leo to ask for the protection of the king
reparandum ecclesiae statum, qui
tempus extraxit: he spent the time
aversor aversatus sum: to refuse repeatedly (frequentative of averto)
eo die: Christmas
praecipuus: most important
Invidiam tamen suscepti nominis…tulit: he bore the hate the accepted title
Romanis imperatoribus super hoc indignantibus: as the byzantine emperors were indigent about that
contumacia: contumacy, grudge
qua eis procul dubio longe praestantior erat: in which he was undoubtedly (procul dubio = sine dubio) for more superior than they
crebras legationes: frequent embassies
Translation by A.J. Grant (1922)
HOW CHARLES BECAME EMPEROR
28. But such were not the only objects of his last
visit ; for the Romans had grievously outraged Pope
Leo, had torn out his eyes and cut off his tongue, and
thus forced him to throw himself upon the protection
of the King. He, therefore came to Rome to restore
the condition of the church, which was terribly dis-
turbed, and spent the whole of the winter there. It
was then that he received the title of Emperor and
Augustus, which he so disliked at first that he
affirmed that he would not have entered the church
on that day — though it was the chief festival of the
church — if he could have foreseen the design of the
Pope. But when he had taken the title he bore very
quietly the hostility that it caused and the indignation
of the Roman emperors. He conquered their ill-
feeling by his magnanimity, in which, doubtless, he
far excelled them, and sent frequent embassies to them,
and called them his brothers.