IMPERIUM ET CREDO: Frankish-Byzantine Rivalry over Leadership of the Roman-Christian Credo-State in the Ninth Century–By Elijah Wallace

The years 869-871 saw the onset of the last major diplomatic dispute between the two great powers of Christendom, the Franks in Western Europe and the Byzantines in the East. Louis II, the great-grandson of Charlemagne and fourth emperor of the West, had rejected a strategic alliance with Constantinople because of their refusal to continue recognition of the Western imperial title. To the imperial establishment of the East, this was just acknowledging reality. They stood as the sole and direct inheritors of Rome and its authority. Louis, encapsulating the history of the previous turbulent centuries in one sentence, rebutted Emperor Basil’s stern critique:

And just as we are the seed of Abraham through the faith of Christ, and the Jews ceased to be the sons of Abraham because of their treachery, so we took up the rule (regimen) of the Roman empire on account of our good belief (opinio) and orthodoxy; while the Greeks ceased to be emperors of the Romans because of their cacodoxy, that is their bad belief. And so they have not only left the city and the seat of empire, but have also entirely lost the Roman people and the language itself, and have migrated in all things to another city, seat, people and language.[1]

In one sentence, he rejected both the last claim to unity with the eastern remnant of Rome and its Emperor’s supposed supremacy over all Christendom. Such a rupture had long been a possibility but had been forestalled by a common hope of amity, cooperation, and perhaps even the resurrection of a united Roman state. Much of Louis II’s life and reign was bound up with that dream. His 871 letter in reply to Basil’s denouncement of the Western imperial title was both a furious defense of that title and an emblem of frustration at the failure to achieve such unity. This matter went beyond a contest for a title that bore immense worldly power. Taken together, Basil’s rejection and Louis’ response letter proved to be a decisive point in determining control of the other long-lasting and potent legacy of Rome: the populus christianus or global community of Christians.

This article’s analysis of Louis II’s 871 letter as a political testament that encapsulates all the themes of the Carolingian dynasty’s self-conception, ideology, and resulting view of Byzantium, focuses upon the three central claims to imperial power that had endured since the days of the later Roman empire: imperium, the legal claim to power via political and military means, credo, the religious claim expressed via the defense of orthodoxy and the expansion of the faith, and apocolysis, the persistent belief that the Christian empire embodied in the person of the Roman emperor was essential to the eventual destiny of the world and the end of time itself. Through the analysis of these three claims to imperial power, this article will show that Louis II used all these means to try to project imperial control and prestige beyond Italy, to his Frankish contemporaries north of the Alps, and even to Constantinople.

First, however, I will work backward from the historical moment represented in the letter, via a chain of primary sources, to Charlemagne’s coronation in the year 800 in order to establish a clearer understanding of the origins of Louis II’s central claims and their verifiable effects upon a world which, until this time, had been a unified, Roman civilization centered upon the will of one person in Constantinople. Deciphering the intellectual lineage of the ideology expressed in the 871 letter, as expressed by the product of the court and monastic thinkers, illustrates the development of this idea in the West. Second, looking forward from 871 will reveal how this traditional Roman argument for the right to wield power, seated in imperial, military power and religious orthodoxy, transformed into apocalyptic eschatology with the dissolution of real Carolingian authority in the latter part of the century.

The Carolingian revival of an empire in the West went beyond domestic politics or an adroit deception on the part of an ambitious pope: it was the Frankish claim to lead all Christians.[2] Political might and the preservation of religion had long been bound together in what can be called the Credo-State, a neologism that I have coined to represent a central aspect of my analysis. While the Nation-States of the last two hundred years have been polities formed around ethnic communities, Credo-States were polities formed around communities of singular, authoritative religious creeds. The mutual sacralization of the state and institutionalization of religion which occurred in the third and fourth centuries A.D. in both Rome and Persia (as well as among smaller powers such as Armenia, Ḥimyar, or Axum) arose as an effort to centralize legitimacy and authority, along with creating a common identity.[3] In the case of Rome, from the time of its expansion into Asia and the Levant in the first century B.C., its empire was culturally divided between a Latin-speaking West in Europe and North Africa, and a Greek-speaking East in the Balkans and the Middle East. The Theodosian reforms in the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D. ultimately recognized this separation constitutionally, and it was only furthered by the collapse of Roman power in the West and centuries of military challenges in the East.

The unifying factor that emerged during late antiquity was the new combination of Roman state power and the Christian Church. To many intellectuals, like the fourth-century Syrian Bishop Eusebius, this had been destined by God as part of his plan for the world. He described the historical process in his panegyric ode to Constantine the Great as one in which, “[t]ogether, as from one starting point, two great powers came forth to civilise and unite the whole world, the monarchy of the Roman Empire and the teaching of Christ”.[4] An imperial decree toward the end of that same century declared that “all peoples subject to Our benign Empire shall live under the same religion that the Divine Peter, the Apostle, gave to the Romans”.[5] By the ninth century, citizenship in both Byzantium and Francia was firmly defined by being Christian; in diplomacy on the frontiers, baptism was always the first step in integrating “barbarian” peoples into their societies.

While a more antique and secular outlook on state-acts allegedly survived among the Franks under the Merovingian kings, the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in the eighth century saw this realm draw ever closer to the forms of religion/state interaction long practiced around the Mediterranean.[6] When outside scholars in the Islamic world analyzed the Christian realms of Europe in this period,

al-Iṣṭakhrī (10th cent.) and Ibn Ḥawqal (d. after 378/988) included the Franks and the Galicians in their description of Byzantine territory (balad al Rūm), claiming that all three peoples formed a united realm (wa-l-mamlaka wāḥid [sic]) and practised the same religion, even though they differed in language.[7]

 Thus, according to people both within and without the former Roman world, a unity in faith, its exercise, and expansion were more reality than propaganda, due in no small part to the efforts of Carolingian kings and their court intellectuals.

The age of Carolingian rule traditionally demarcates the point at which Europe arose from the ashes of the Roman world. It was the end of the turbulent period following the fall of Rome in which, according to the historian Henri Pirenne, “the tradition of antiquity disappeared, while the new elements came to the surface,” thus heralding the start of the Middle Ages.[8] It also has served as a starting point for charting the evolution of the Western conception and practice of empire, of which the court of Charlemagne was a philosophical incubator in the late eighth century.[9] Yet the era’s insignificance has been just as often been argued. Mayke De Jong defined this view as a persistent trend, which argues that “the ensuing Carolingian empire did not even last a century, and it was in a constant state of decay; almost from the very moment of its inception.”[10] In contrast to these views, Michael McCormick and others have argued that this era was a continuation of Late Roman and Byzantine traditions instead of shocking rupture between East and West. When in reflecting upon this period’s place in history, Richard E. Sullivan eloquently stated: “More attention needs to be given to what was sui generis to the age, a task that will remain difficult as long as demonstrating the equation that the birth of Europe equals Carolingian Europe remains the prime order of business of Carolingian historians.”[11] Key to this task is understanding how the Franks perceived and understood their contemporaries in the East, and how these ideas affected their acts upon the world stage.

The 871 letter provides the best window to view this thinking in action. Louis II’s bold, imperial political testament has been overlooked in discussion of the Carolingian political thought and foreign relations. Only two articles have dealt with its contents or meaning at any length.[12] This is almost certainly due to it being produced by a supposedly weaker Carolingian monarch who has yet to be accounted for in a biography, in comparison to the glorified and more well-documented courts of his illustrious ancestors, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, or his contemporaneous uncle, Charles the Bald, in West Francia. Despite this discrepancy, Louis’s letter is the most forthright summary of Frankish perceptions about the world order and claims to Rome’s imperial legacy written in the entire period.

The 871 letter focuses upon six themes which all together make the case for Louis II’s right to be a Roman emperor. First, the view that his imperial title is a novelty, only seven decades old, is firmly rejected because “none doubts that the dignity of our empire (imperium) is ancient, who is aware that we are the successor of ancient emperors . . .”[13] Second, he cites the many nations that use and have used the title of emperor along with the fact that the descent of the title from Charlemagne to him proves its inheritability.[14] He reinforces these points by returning to Roman history itself, saying that “Roman emperors were created from the people (gens) of Hispania, Isauria, and Khazaria,” going on to ask why could they not also come from the Franks.[15] Third, Louis strongly protests Basil’s apparent claim that Louis is only ruler of Italy, instead of the whole of the West as Charlemagne was. Louis’s reply that “we hold whatever they hold with whom we are one flesh and blood, and by this one spirit through the Lord,” was perhaps technical, but he again reaffirms his claim to the imperial title due to God having given Rome and its Church to the Franks to govern and protect.[16] Fourth, the difference between Western, Frankish legitimacy and Eastern, Byzantine illegitimacy is laid out in stark terms. The Carolingians, he declared, had gained the empire by the will of God while others have just done so by the will of men or “by diverse means.”[17] With this last comment, Louis might be backhandedly alluding to Basil’s own recent bloody coup in 867 during which he slew his predecessor. This is set in contrast to the righteous coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope which is described at the beginning of the same paragraph.

At this point, as quoted at the beginning of this paper, the transfer of the right to rule the empire from Constantinople to the Franks, while implied throughout the letter, is now explicitly stated. In both spiritual and material terms, the Byzantines, Louis argues, have ceased to hold the empire, ceased to be Roman, and this power and prestige has passed to the Franks by Providence. Finally, the issue of the right to the imperial title by marriage, a carrot occasionally used by Byzantium to secure alliances and allegiance from the Franks, is addressed. Louis strenuously replies that there is no need for this offer, since as he explained in the preceding sections, the title is his by inheritance and divine right: “we wish to take neither from a son, nor through any other man, or from men.”[18] Louis affirms the union of ecclesiastical and imperial power while denying the Byzantine ruler any right to it, as per God’s judgement against the sins of the East.

Robert Folz and Pierre Riche, noted French medieval historians, claim that this letter illuminates a change in Carolingian perceptions towards the source of their own power, triggered by the limitation of the emperor’s actual territorial control of Italy. Folz called it a movement to “papalize the notion of empire,” with the Pope choosing, appointing, and blessing whomever he willed to be emperor (or rather whomever could best protect the interest of the Church) in his role as God’s representative on Earth: “Having been appointed by the pope, [the emperor] must accomplish the tasks that the pope assigned to him.”[19] Riche adds to this description of Louis’ limitations by pointing out that Hincmar of Reims, among others north of the Alps, dismissively called Louis “emperor of Italy”, and that Louis had to be crowned emperor again in 872 after having been held prisoner and ejected from southern Italy by his own supposed vassal.[20] The papal decision, despite contrary efforts by Louis II himself, to invite Charles the Bald to be crowned emperor instead of his brother, Louis the German, after the death of Louis’ death in 875 further supports this idea of a shift toward deep papal involvement in imperial politics and ideology.[21]

Some of the language and analogies of Louis’ letter, especially the comparison of the Pope’s position to that of prophet Samuel choosing and anointing David over Saul as king of Israel, seems to lean toward an early version of papal supremacy, yet the emperor certainly did not live by such humble words. Twice during his long reign first as king of Italy, and then as emperor, Louis and his men ravaged the lands of the Pope and the Roman nobility to punish them for going against his orders. He had no problem sending armed men into churches to enforce his will, and he, as much as any of his predecessors, had final approval of papal elections and used the Church as a vehicle to extend his power to other parts of Francia.[22] Even the seeming weakness of being re-crowned could be seen as an adroit move by Louis to silence any criticism for breaking his oath to his vassal so that he could return to the south to enforce his rule.

Other historians have seen in the letter a change not in political but cultural views. Janet Nelson characterizes its bombastic rhetoric as of decades of Frankish political and military achievements generating a new and generalized sense of separateness from the Byzantines.[23] This new feeling of superiority took the place of Romanitas, the previous prevailing ethos in which the peoples of the former Roman lands were bound together as one by a common Christian and Roman identity and its traditions. Chris Wickham, following up on the fact that Anastasius Bibliotecarius, the papal librarian and imperial envoy, helped to write the letter, proposes that the directly anti-Byzantine sections in the letter reflect the competition between Rome and Constantinople for spiritual supremacy within the Church and political control over newly converted peoples in the Balkans and central Europe.[24] While his colleague, Philip Grierson, compares the language of the letter to the rhetoric of the Cold War between the US and USSR, Wickham instead sees it as more like the modern relationship between Britain and France: “allies, that is to say, which simply do not like one another, including each other’s culture (though they borrow it), but persist for the most part in dealing with the other as a privileged partner.”[25] All of these interpretations, however, miss the main motivation behind the intensified rhetoric of the Carolingians.

The Germanic peoples of the West had once stood in awe of Rome. Even as they took over the lands and governance of the Western empire in the fifth and sixth centuries, they continued to cultivate and adapt Roman political and cultural traditions. The acme of this process was the coronation, at last, of a German ‘Roman’ emperor in 800. At that same time, they could turn to the East and only see Rome in the throes of one crisis after another. This cognitive dissonance invited the question of a natural Frankish superiority, and, for the Franks, answered it as well. This sense of virtue, as the true inheritors of God’s last earthly empire, Rome, would persist long after the last descendant of Charlemagne took off his crown, and is well illustrated by the development of the dynasty’s claims to imperium, credo, and apocolysis over the course of the ninth century.

Imperium – “The Essence of a Name”

            Many of the arguments brought forth in the 871 letter had been present in some form even before Charlemagne was crowned in 800. The decades from Irene’s coup against her own son, Constantine VI, in 793, to Basil’s bloody coup against Michael III ‘the Drunkard’ in 867 saw Byzantium racked by political and religious controversies that tarnished its image as the leader of Christians. This limited its effectiveness on the world stage. As a result, from the beginning, Charlemagne was clear in his determination to revive the strength of Roman Christendom by any means possible. The new emperor proclaimed on his imperial seal the commencement of the Renovatio Romani Imperii from the degradations it had suffered under the Eastern emperors.[26] Louis II echoed this ideal in noting that his great-grandfather received his imperium “through the highest pontiff, such was his piety, and was called emperor and made the anointed of the Lord.”[27] Louis pointedly juxtaposed this sacred grant with previous emperors who had only received their power to rule from the Senate and the people or, worse yet, had been “promoted to the sceptre of the Roman empire by women, and others by diverse means.”[28] While the definition of imperium remained similar to its classical usage, another layer of meaning had been added since the advent of the Christian age.

In the seventh century, in the wake of the collapse of Roman authority in the West, Isidore of Seville in his Etymologies  could still lay out a Roman definition of imperial terminology. He correctly stated that commanding generals were granted imperium by the Senate, the same body which later granted Augustus that title “only, and he would be distinguished by this title from other ‘kings’ of nations. To this day the successive Caesars have employed this title.”[29] At this point, even from the perspective of a bishop, there was no direct association of the title with Christianity; it was only a traditional Roman title that denoted supreme, legally approved command. This definition changed, however, within a short period to a Christianized legitimatization of rule, perhaps due to new necessities for political unity beyond martial might. Donald Bullough cites the English chronicler Bede in the succeeding century as indicative of this change. “Bede generally uses regnum when the emphasis is territorial (the English ‘realm’), imperium when the emphasis is on ‘authority’, but particularly ‘lawful (Christian) authority’, in contrast with tyrannis, rather than a distinctive ‘superior authority, overlordship’.”[30] This might be mistaken as solely an insular development, except that at the same time in Byzantium Leo the Isaurian and his heirs were enforcing an imperial policy against the use of icons for the purification and preservation of the realm. The direct intellectual influence of Bede on the Frankish definition of imperium came via Alcuin of York, who was to become one of Charlemagne’s top educators and advisors.[31] Johannes Fried, in his latest work on the emperor, has even alluded to Alcuin’s teachings as influential in the decision to seek the imperial title. In starting a dialectic exercise with Charlemagne’s son, Pepin the Hunchback, Alcuin notes that, “The essence of a name resides in the fact that it denotes substance, quality, and quantity.” Fried says that in the case of the claim to the imperial title, “it was the substance of real power, the quality of dominion over kings, and the quantity of all the imperial seats of power in the West,” which mattered as opposed to the simple Eastern claim to continuity with Rome.[32]

Charlemagne’s first move in this imperial gambit was to prop up the Pope. In 799, Pope Leo III found himself at odds with the aristocracy of Rome, to the point of being attacked by brigands in their pay. Leo III fled to the Frankish kingdom to seek Charlemagne’s aid and protection. Under the advice of Alcuin of York, the king finally traveled to Rome in November of 800. On December 23, Leo publicly abjured himself of all the charges the Romans had accused him of before. Then, at Christmas Day Mass, two days later, when Charlemagne knelt at the altar to pray, the Pope crowned him Imperator Romanorum to the acclamation of all those assembled in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The long period of deliberation between the Pope’s flight and the crowning in Rome, along with the major issues considered were well-summarized in a letter Alcuin wrote Charlemagne during the period:

Up to now three persons have been at the summit of this world. First, there is the holder of the sublime Apostolic Dignity, who is supposed to guide the see of Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, as his vicar; and Your Kindness has informed me of what has happened to him… Second, there is the hold of the Imperial Dignity, who exercised secular power in the Second Rome; and rumor spreads everywhere of hos impiously the governor of that empire has been deposed by his own circle and citizens, rather than by foreigners. Third, there is the Royal Dignity, in which the dispensation of our Lord Jesus Christ has established you as ruler of the Christian people; in power a ruler more excellent than the aforementioned one, in wisdom more radiant, and in grandeur more sublime. Behold, now in you alone lies the salvation of the churches of Christ. You are the avengers of crimes, the guide of those who err, the consoler of the afflicted, the uplifter of the righteous.[33]

Alcuin made clear that Charlemagne remained the only lawful ruler in the entire world who could protect Christians. This role had always been embodied by the Roman emperor or, failing that, the Pope, but both these positions stood diminished at the end of the century. The papacy was at the mercy of the Roman mob and in Constantinople the Empress Irene had blinded her own son and taken power. Charlemagne, almost by default, would have to support one and replace the other in order to preserve to the two institutions which defined and defended Christendom. The only remaining issue was how to transfer the imperial dignity in the most legitimate manner to the great king of the Franks.

According to the contemporary version of the Annals of Lorsch (AL), the transfer was confirmed in August 800 in an assembly that involved the Frankish clergy, nobility, and the Pope. They judged that “the ‘name of the emperor’ (nomen imperatoris) was currently lacking amongst the Greeks, who were now subject to ‘female imperial rule’ under Irene”.[34] Thus, Charlemagne was nominated and humbly agreed to take the title.[35] The Royal Frankish Annals (RFA), composed at the court of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, also affirmed traditional, collective nomination was part of Charlemagne’s accession to the imperial title. The difference presented by the RFA account is that the nomination was done in Rome and by the Romans instead of in Francia.

The divergence of the two annals’ narratives is not a difference in intent or a discrepancy in accounts, but a difference in appeal to the audiences who would have seen the events and read the accounts. The AL, written shortly after the coronation and to be read in Francia, made a constitutional argument for assuming the title approved in an assembly with the notables of the Frankish kingdom. The RFA, in contrast, were edited eight years after the coronation. By this time, Charlemagne looked forward to passing the title to one of his sons after the failure to gain recognition from Byzantium. The Royal Frankish Annals made note of previous disputes with Constantinople along with the steps that lead to the restoration of the Pope. The acme of this account was the entry describing the coronation of Charlemagne in traditional Roman terms without mention of a foregoing assembly on the matter.

The object of both writers was to illustrate the legitimacy of Charlemagne’s coronation: one uses legalities, such as female rule of Byzantium along with Frankish control of the imperial capitals and the vote of the Franks as evidence; the other, instead, uses the Roman traditionalism and Charlemagne’s protection of the Pope directly juxtaposed to the disorder in. Thus, from the inception of the Carolingian empire, its rulers carefully crafted their political acts for separate domestic audiences on either side of the Alps, as well as for that of the East, via the traditional mode of the acts and titles involved. They successfully combined, “the horizontal, secular, and geographical notion of imperium” with a “second, vertical, spiritual, and ecclesiastical level of understanding, which defined a religious concept of ‘empire’ that both included and transcended the Carolingian realms.”[36] Charlemagne, more than any of his successors, drove to make the two visions of empire match in reality. To gain this legitimacy, he intentionally used any means of recognition from Constantinople, alternating between military force, deception, and diplomacy, depending upon Byzantine responses.[37]

The first bid for recognition, and a potential reunification between East and West, was to be marital. While the seriousness of Charlemagne’s offer of marriage to Irene has often been doubted, it fulfilled both Irene’s need of an heir, after having disposed of her own son, and her need of military support to intimidate her internal enemies in Constantinople. Theophanes, one of the great chroniclers of the early Middle Ages and a partisan of Irene, fills in the gaps from the Byzantine point of view:

The legates sent to the most pious Irene by Charles and Pope Leo arrived, asking her to join Charles in marriage and unite East and West. Had Aetios [the imperial chamberlain] not put a stop to this by his frequent speeches, she would have done so; he, as co-ruler, was accumulating power for his brother.[38]

The RFA confirm this same embassy in its 802 entry but, unlike the previous description of Rotrude’s betrothal to Constantine VI in the 780’s, only says they came to make peace.[39] Irene was willing to accede to Charlemagne’s marital offer and, even after Aetius’ intervention, was still negotiating with the Franks until she was finally deposed by a coup which saw her replaced by her finance minister, Nicephorus, on 31 October 802. He attempted to preempt Frankish aggression by sending a peace embassy to Aachen in 803 but completely refused to recognize the Western imperial title or any territorial claims in Italy or Dalmatia attached to it. Charlemagne’s previous preparations now proved to have been prudent as the Franks and Byzantines descended into a low-level war fought in Venetia and the Adriatic (806-810).[40] The emperor’s biographer, Einhard, summarized this turbulent era which followed in one paragraph, leaving out the gory details, but pointing out the result from the Western view:

The emperors of Constantinople, Nicephorus, Michael, and Leo, were seeking even more than friendship and an alliance and sent numerous legations to him. For they strongly suspected that since he himself had received the imperial dignity, he might wish to seize the empire from them. Nevertheless, he concluded a very strong treaty with them so that no cause of offense would remain on either side. The Romans and Greeks had always had suspicions about Frankish power, whence the Greek proverb: ‘If you have a Frank for a friend, he is surely not your neighbor.’[41]

This settlement enabled Charlemagne to finally put the finishing touches on his new order. Therefore, the emperor continued to use his royal seal that bore the inscription “Christ, protect Charles, king of the Franks” up until 813. Then, feeling secure, he crowned his remaining son Louis co-emperor: only then did he begin to produce new coinage with himself dressed in the manner of previous Roman emperors and bearing the inscription KAROLVS IMP AVG (Karolus Imperator Augustus).[42] Having failed to reunite East and West, the emperor was ready to settle with a compromise if he could have prestige and legitimacy equal to that of his contemporaries in Constantinople. Theophanes’ last mention of Charlemagne is in this context, with a laconic sentence concerning an embassy sent to Aachen “concerning peace and reconciliation” by the new eastern emperor, Michael I, in April 812.[43]

The following decades would test whether Charlemagne’s successors would be willing to stay within such limits or return to the more universalist claims inherent in their title and their geopolitical position as masters of Europe. His surviving son and heir, Louis the Pious, moved quickly to solidify his hold on power, ousting his sisters and illegitimate brothers from court to monasteries and minting new coins with himself depicted in the Roman style like his father. He followed up with a quick reaffirmation of the 812 treaty in 815 with the iconoclastic usurper Leo V, now codifying the importance of eastern recognition of the western title. Only then did he bother to confirm his legitimacy via a second coronation performed by Pope Stephen IV and finally removed the titles of “King of the Franks and Lombards” from use, replacing them with his higher title, Imperator Augustus.[44] The following year, he crowned his eldest son Lothar with the title of Augustus (the late Roman title for a junior co-emperor) and made his two other sons kings – of Aquitaine and Bavaria respectively – who were on a much shorter leash than was traditional in such arrangements by Frankish rulers.[45] These internal strides towards strengthening the legitimacy and structure of Louis’ Imperium Franci, however, never did equal the approval that his father had gained from Constantinople. Louis’s imperial diplomacy reached an impasse when Michael II ‘the Amorian’ wrote to him in 824, referring to him merely as king of the Franks and Lombards,  and as “their so-called Emperor”, and urging him to align with the Byzantine position on icons versus the pope.[46] Louis the Pious responded with a Synod at Paris the following year, which rejected both positions on icons in favor of a Frankish middle path and a new imperial coin, symbolically equal to that of the East and presenting Louis and Lothar as righteous emperors and protectors of the Christian religion.[47]

The courtier-poet Ermoldus Nigellus, during this same period of diplomatic and religious dispute, expressed similar views throughout his classically styled panegyric, In honor of Louis. When crowning Louis the Pious, the poet imagined Charlemagne saying that he “was first among the Franks to take the name of Caesar, and [he] gave this ‘Romulean’ name to the Franks”.[48] Ermoldus later describes a mural of the history of the world at the imperial palace at Ingelheim on which

the amazing deeds of the Franks are joined to those of the caesars of the great seat of Rome: How Constantine departed, dismissed Rome from his affections, and built Constantinople for himself. Happy Theodosius is depicted there with his own deeds added to their distinguished accomplishments…[49]

The scenes culminated with the acts of Charles Martel, Pippin the Short, and Charlemagne. After a dramatic account of the baptism of the Danish King Harald, Ermoldus heaps further praise on Louis, by direct contrast with Byzantium

Kingdoms that your father’s arms were unable to take by any contest offer themselves to you willingly. You, father, take in hand everything that neither Roman power nor Frankish law had held… And even an organ, which Francia had never built, whence the Greek kingdom boasted so much, and which was the only reason, Caesar, Constantinople thought itself superior to you, is now found in the palace at Aachen. Perhaps it will be a sign that they are bending their neck to the Franks, that their particular glory has been taken away.[50]

What had been territorial competition previously had now become a rivalry fought only in terms of cultural prestige. The pipe organ now stood as material evidence of the Franks’ ascent to Imperial nationhood, replacing the haughty, backslidden Greeks. These years of tension, foreshadowing the issues at stake in the dispute of 869-871, were ended by Michael II’s need to secure his western flank while at war with the Arabs and their heretical clients in Asia Minor: an embassy arrived in September 827 to reaffirm the treaty of 812. Relations and the grudging recognition of the western title by Byzantine rulers remained consistent without further dispute for the next twenty-six years.[51] Louis II, by the time of the 871 letter, considered this equilibrium a product of divine will:

But God has not granted this church to be steered (gubernari) either by me or you alone, but so that we should be bound to each other with such love that we cannot be divided, but should seem to exist as one.[52]

If the modus vivendi of peace, if not cooperation, for the sake of the Christian world proved fruitful, the prospect of unity seemed assured.

Credo – “Our Good Belief and Orthodoxy”

Running parallel to these political developments was the rise of Frankish worldviews that would also prove decisive in their effects upon the future cultural outlook of the West. While the political effectiveness of the push towards a unitary empire seemed to evaporate within Louis the Pious’s own lifetime, its cultural effect upon the Carolingians and the Franks as a people, in general, lasted far longer. In particular, the medieval version of translatio imperii – the conception in which world history was a linear succession of transfers of worldly imperium going from Nimrod’s Babel down to Rome and then the Franks – came into existence at the court of Louis the Pious.[53] Charlemagne saw himself as an equal, a ‘brother’ as he said in his letters, with the Eastern emperor working to restore the empire to its former glories. Yet by the 820s, the rise of the Franks to world power was imbued with chauvinism despite the continuance of peaceful relations with Byzantium.[54] As stated forcefully in the 871 letter by Louis II, decades later, it became a common belief that the Byzantines, both in spiritual and material terms, had ceased to hold the empire and ceased to be Roman, and that these material blessings had passed to the Franks by “account of [their] good belief (opinio) and orthodoxy; while the Greeks ceased to be emperors of the Romans because of their cacodoxy, that is their bad belief”.[55] As impressive as the material achievements and worldly power of the Franks was, they believed their righteousness, as opposed to that of the East, was even more so.

The foremost apparatus of state-building in this period was religion; it was a necessity for the newly established Carolingian dynasty to unite its ethnically and culturally diverse dominions with a rigorous and pious program which could override such internal divisions. As Ullmann observed,

For the first time, at least as far as Western Europe is concerned, we are here confronted by the conscious effort to shape the character of a society in consonance with the axioms of a particular doctrine, here the Christian norms.[56]

Yet, this motive to form a stronger, exclusive Credo-State for the benefit of the Franks was in tension with, as De Jong notes, “the lingering memory of an ecclesia that had once transcended such boundaries.”[57] In the time of Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, this tension between a national and global vision of the Church had resulted in a mixed international religious stance which sometimes agreed with the iconoclastic Isaurian dynasty in Constantinople and sometimes agreed with the pope. With his conquest of Italy, Charlemagne felt ready to go further, since he had the political power to make his will known to both Rome and Constantinople.

When Irene convened a council to reverse the iconoclastic policies of her predecessors, Charlemagne was angered that the Frankish bishops had not been consulted.[58] Likely due to previous Frankish prejudice against icons, along with the difficulties of travel on their part, Irene was pleased to have the long contentious issue decided with speed by only the eastern bishops. The RFA sharply summarized the Frankish version of events: “The Greeks held a spurious council, which they falsely called the Seventh, concerning the worship of images. It was rejected by the popes”.[59] This statement, however, was a lie: the pope welcomed the end of iconoclasm. His easy acceptance could not be the last word: Charlemagne instead spent a decade in Church councils around the realm inquiring and debating until he could justly say, like Constantine the Great or Theodosius, that he was correcting and preserving the Church. 

This former imperative of the Roman emperor had been, in the Franks’ opinion, abandoned by them and thus was now the duty of the Western leader of Christendom. As van Espelo discusses in her analysis of this era,

This focus on orthodoxy is, as elsewhere, reflected in the Admonitio generalis and the acts of the Frankfurt Council, in which canon after canon reveal the king’s concern for the correct practice of the religio Christiana, proper clerical behaviour, and the correct church service.[60]

Such detailed dissection of religious practice enabled the Franks to be sure of their own righteousness, as well as sit in judgement of the East. Louis II had certainly been brought up with such an idea of rigorous enforcement of doctrine and piety at the court of his grandfather, which he expressed in the 871 letter without hesitation. After a century of heresy and lack of support from Constantinople, he concluded that

it was with merit that they [the papacy] abandoned the apostates – for what communication is there between Christ and Belial? – and they cleaved to the people (gens) which cleaves to God, and which brings forth the fruits of His kingdom.[61]

The Carolingian reforms were a continuous process in which the monarch acted as the purifier of the Church and its flock. In return, the monarch was the chief benefactor of the Church’s power and the peace and piety of an always-expanding – whether by conversion or sword – realm. This relationship reached new heights in the reign of Louis the Pious, who extended this imperial dominion into Rome itself, claiming for the Western emperor the caesaropapal roles and rights that once had been the prerogative solely of Roman emperors.[62]

Louis the Pious trod a middle path on icons, which he was able to enforce in Francia easily; however, he was not able to gain either the papacy’s or Constantinople’s agreement to it to end the controversy. Michael II’s son, Theophilus (r. 829-842), maintained these friendly relations along with a continued adherence to iconoclasm. As Byzantium’s ability to combat Muslim forces in the Mediterranean – especially in Sicily and southern Italy – worsened, Theophilus then began to press for Frankish military assistance. He sent an official embassy to ask Louis to dispatch a force, perhaps to attack Syria or Africa, to distract the army of the Caliph.[63] Having just recovered from a third civil war with his sons over their inheritance, the Western emperor, unlike in the 820s, was in no condition to help. Another such embassy in 842, shortly before Theophilius’ death, received a similar reception.[64] Finally, in 846, a Muslim pirate raid reached Rome and succeeded in even sacking St. Peter’s Basilica, forcing Lothar to focus on the Italian half of his domain. In addition to preventing further Muslim attacks, Lothar also intended his son, the younger Louis, to reestablish imperial authority over both the Lombards, who had introduced Muslim mercenaries into Italy to fight in their civil wars, and the papacy. While his uncles fought vigorously against Norse and Slav raiders, and on occasion each other, Louis II would spend his career engaged in a holy war in defense of the Church and its people in southern Italy.

Various Byzantine rulers attempted to restore the religious prestige of the East in this period of apparent Frankish supremacy. As regent, the late Theophilus’ wife, Theodora, ended the second era of iconoclasm in 843. This rapprochement was temporarily derailed by the papacy of Nicholas I. He was the first pope who actively sought to seize the imperial duty of expanding Christianity in Eastern Europe, and reignited religious controversy with Constantinople by claiming Rome’s supremacy, even against the judgements of an emperor. In 865, Theophilus’ son and reigning emperor, Michael III, wrote to assure him that all his efforts at interference in the Eastern Church were in vain, that the Latin tongue was “barbarian” and unworthy of sacred use, and that if his will was refused, he would march on Rome.[65] In secret, however, as the 871 letter implies, there were negotiations with Constantinople according to which Louis II would support the excommunication and ouster of the pope. In return, Michael and his co-emperor Basil promised to cooperate in clearing southern Italy and to finally truly recognize the Western emperor as an equal colleague. After Basil’s coup in 867, the idea of moving against the pope was abandoned, but all the other propositions remained, as assured by the 869 embassy of Anastasius Bibliotecarius to Constantinople. Ironically, the pious acts of Basil, in overturning that previous council’s decisions (among them the excommunication of Nicholas), also voided the recognition of Louis as emperor by the East. Despite Louis’ invective about heresy in the 871 letter, Basil would go far to prove him and his domestic opponents wrong. The construction of new churches, the supposed conversion of all Jews in the empire, and several victories over Muslims and heretics alike were all laurels the usurper could claim for himself already by 873.[66] Under Basil and his heirs, Byzantium’s spiritual as well as material stature would once more be on the rise. The Carolingians might have been able to compete, but as their actual realms dissolved into chaos, the legend of their might and piety would apotheosize them into millenarian myth.

Apocalypsis – “The Last and Greatest of Kings”

To understand the collapse of the Carolingian Credo-State and the transformation of Carolingian imperium, one has only to look at the career of one of the most ill-documented persons in the dynasty: Louis II. In the period following the division of the empire in 843, biographical authors disappeared and royal court and monastic annals took their place as the main primary sources. The most famous of these unfortunately only deal with events outside Francia proper (north of the Alps) when it somehow affects their patron-rulers.[67] Despite the lack of more first-hand sources from Louis’s realm itself, these annals, along with Byzantine accounts and documents such as the 871 letter get close to painting a clearer picture of this pivotal period.

The Annals of St-Bertin (AB), along with one Byzantine source, reveal that Louis’ first interaction with the East was a marriage proposal either by the beleaguered emperor Theophilus in 842 or his wife, the emperor-regent Theodora, at a later unknown date.[68] By 853, the annals report that the Byzantines were angered that Louis had never fulfilled this betrothal. He had instead married Engelberga, the daughter of the Duke of Spoleto, in 851, to better secure his relations with the nobility of northern Italy. This seeming betrayal paid off domestically. For the rest of his reign, Louis, despite rebellions in central and southern Italy, never had to worry about his base of support in the North. This strength enabled him, eventually, to look to the South. At the entreaty of Pope Nicholas and the wealthy monasteries of Monte Cassino and San Vincenzo al Volturno, beset by Muslim raiders, Louis II marched south in 866 and commenced his second siege of Bari, to which Basil sent a fleet of 400 ships, according to the Annals of St. Bertin.[69] This same fleet was supposed to carry Louis’ daughter, Ermengard, back with it to the Eastern capital but, in the exact words of the annals, “something happened, and Louis decided not to give his daughter to the patricius, who therefore left for Corinth very angry.”[70] What should have been the coda of a successful campaign to drive Muslims out of the peninsula turned into a new diplomatic disaster.

Why did Louis II, at least in the mind of the writer of the Annals, betray his Byzantine allies? The reason why Louis II refused to fulfill this betrothal is still unknown. Ermengard never married during her father’s lifetime, but she was as savvy a political operative as her mother, who often acted as a diplomat on behalf of her husband.[71] While some might have hoped that the marriage would at last lay the foundation for the political reunion of East and West, perhaps this was an eventuality Louis feared. Basil’s son, Constantine, could take the opportunity of his father-in-law’s death to revive the Exarchate of Italy instead of using Byzantine power to strengthen the House of Lothar against the other Carolingian branches north of the Alps. Furthermore, there had never been a Frankish queen or empress who ruled in her own right or even as regent, and the recent Byzantine examples of the practice, Irene and the regent Theodora, were not promising. There were rumors that Louis’ courtiers plotted to put Engelberga away (for her high handedness and political acts as much as her lack of bearing a son), but another recent precedent, Lothar II’s failure to gain his divorce, nullified this possibility.[72] Aside from a dislike of the Byzantine disrespect for the Western imperial title, perhaps it was the fear of an actual return of Eastern rule to Italy that made the emperor and his Franco-Lombard courtiers balk at the prospect of unification. The vociferous nature of Louis II’s rebuttal to Basil’s claims of Eastern imperial dominance support this idea.

The Western emperor, in the end, secured the capture of Bari on his own (February 871) and thus proclaimed even more ambitious objectives for the coming years:

Once Calabria has been cleansed thanks to God, we have decided to restore Sicily to its former liberty according to the common will (commune placitum). Both of these will be easier, once they have been increasingly and more quickly weakened, if their boats and their thieves are captured by the divine right hand.[73]

Louis, despite his dismissal of Basil’s claims, still sought the aid of Byzantium’s naval power, a concession he thought he might gain by pleading the common good of Christians currently subject to Muslim rule. Yet, the practical effect of his political testament was that of redirecting Byzantine favor to other Carolingian courts. The next year, in January 872, a Byzantine ambassador arrived at the court of Louis the German at Regensburg to offer a treaty of alliance.[74] Basil knew well that if his son could not marry into the Carolingian dynasty to assure matters in Italy, he would have to deal with the likely successor to the heirless Louis. At the same time (873), the recalcitrant Lombard lords of the South now chose to return to Byzantine overlordship, preferring it to Louis’ direct interference in their affairs. Though Louis would launch a second southern expedition in 872, after being blessed and re-crowned by the Pope, the advances of Byzantium on these fronts had wrecked his formerly powerful position in Italy. The letter that in total showed the fully developed ideology of the Carolingian imperium and its strength also played a decisive role in its downfall.[75]

At this instance of simultaneous imperial acme and decline, there was a second interpretation of the purpose and destiny of Carolingian imperial rule arising. In his brief moment of triumph in the 871 letter, Louis hints at this higher calling for the empire: 

Indeed none doubts that the dignity of our empire (imperium) is ancient, who is aware that we are the successor of ancient emperors, and who knows the wealth of divine piety. For what is there surprising if at the end of time He shows openly what in previous times He predestined in secret counsel?[76]

Thus, the victory over the Muslims at Bari was now put in perspective as a divine proof of Louis as the true Roman emperor, a revelation in the same sentence associated with the end of the world. This connection between imperial rule and the Apocalypse went just as far back as the other issues brought to the fore in the letter.

The inception of the Western imperial title in 800 was at the center of many people’s millenarian fears and hopes, including the great Charles himself. Calculations of the age of the world and the synchronization with imperial reigns, based upon the previous works of Isidore and Bede, became an obsession of Carolingian courtiers and monks alike.[77]  In the closing section of the Kölner Notiz, written for the Archbishop of that city, it is claimed that Greek envoys had come to offer Charlemagne imperium in 798, “the 31st year of the king’s reign, which equaled – according to the text – the 5,998th year of the world.”[78]   Unsubstantiated claim of a Byzantine offer of imperium aside, this points to the contemporary macro-historical importance placed upon the year 800. Fried quotes Theodulf the Visigoth, another of Charlemagne’s court intellectuals, in his rejection of the Greek position on icons, also referring to a soon-and-coming end time. Theodulf read lines from Psalm 30, interpreting the night recalled in that verse as “our era, in which the End of Days and the Last Judgment may fall.”[79]  Alcuin also urged the king “in these last days of the world [his novissimis mundi] to make good all things that have been corrupted… to lead those souls that have been blinded by dark ignorance into the light of the true faith.”[80] The year 809 saw the production of the Adbreviatio chronicae at Aachen. It not only lists the Roman emperors and the Carolingians in an unbroken line as world rulers during the sixth world age, but also suggests that just as the time “from Octavian August up to Christ were forty-two years,” their current great emperor was in his forty-second year of rule.[81] This was a tradition like that had been present in the East for centuries, especially in the shocking wake of the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.  In the Carolingian adoption of the Byzantine political and religious model, they had also assumed the mantle of imperial destiny associated with the last days and the return of Christ.

The adoption of the Byzantine imperial vision of the end times was further embellished by the work of an unknown Greek-speaking Sicilian, shortly after Louis II’s capture of Bari. This author, as relayed by Liudprand of Cremona a century later, was the third-century theologian Hippolytus, who had composed an imperial prophecy in the Vision of Daniel style, as composed in the East since late antiquity. Paul Alexander argues the significance of this work is that “unlike all earlier and most later Visions of Daniel, Pseudo-Hippolytus’ prophecies assign the primary role in defeating the Arabs and the surrender of imperial power at Jerusalem to a Western rather than to a Byzantine emperor.”[82] While the original work itself is not extant, the references made to it in the mid-tenth century by the monk Adso and Bishop Liudprand give the major details of the original text:

Indeed, certain of our learned men tell us that one of the kings of the Franks, who will come very soon, will possess the Roman Empire in its entirety. And he will be the greatest and last of all kings. He, after governing his kingdom prosperously, will ultimately come to Jerusalem and lay down his sceptre and crown on Mount Olivet. This will be the end and the consummation of the Empire of the Romans and the Christians.[83]

But a certain Hippolytus, a Sicilian bishop, wrote the very same thing about both our bishop and our people… For he says that scripture shall now be fulfilled which says, “The lion and the cub together shall exterminate the wild donkey.” … The same Hippolytus writes that not the Greeks, but the Franks shall crush the Saracens.[84]

Both authors believed the prophecy to be relevant to their own time, the mid-tenth century. Liudprand interpreted the prophecy as referring to his patron, Otto I, and his son. Adso likewise thought it referred to Louis d’Outremer and the surviving West Frankish line of Carolingian dynasts. Instead, the Sicilian origin of the author and the presumptive date of his work pinpoint the inspirational figure being Louis II or, at least, a figure based upon his exploits. Alexander further speculates the “same polemical to assert the Roman basis of Louis II’s power over the traditional claims of Byzantium” in both the 871 letter and the words of Pseudo-Hippolytus is so close in time and tenor the author might have “composed his tract in the entourage of Louis II or of Anastasius Bibliothecarius.”[85]  Certainly a Sicilian, embittered by decades of neglect of his homeland by Constantinople – whether associated with the imperial/papal courts or not – would have seen a savior in the Western emperor. By contrast, the only rumors about the emperor of the New Rome would, at this time, be about how he murdered his way to his imperial title.

 Twelve years later, during the reign of Charles the Fat (r. 881-888), the last emperor of the reunited Frankish dominions, Notker the Stammerer, the Monk of St. Gall, produced a work dedicated to that emperor similar in tone to the preceding ones. He opened his book of anecdotes about Charlemagne by saying that God “raised up another, no less admirable image among the Franks through the illustrious Charles…” in place of the Romans, again referencing Daniel and his vision of a statue representing the succession of world empires.[86] The blame for Rome’s fall and the Franks independence from her is assigned to Julian the Apostate: “When in the Persian War heaven struck down Julian, who was hateful to God, not only did provinces across the sea fall away from the kingdom of the Romans but also neighboring ones such as Pannonia, Noricum, Rhaetia, or Germania, and also the Franks and Gauls.”[87] Notker’s stories then run full of praise of the simplicity and martial virtue of Charlemagne and his Franks, while the Greeks are all now caricatures, full of envy, laziness, greed, gaudiness, and unmanliness.[88] While the historicity of the information Notker relayed has often been questioned, the chauvinism of his work outdoes even the arguments of the 871 letter: it is the end result of decades of the formation and inculcation of this idea throughout the Frankish empire.

Regino of Prüm, in his chronicle written in 906, covered the career of Louis II unlike his fellow predecessors north of the Alps had.  He attributed the sedition of the Lombard Duke Adalgis from its beginning to the “persuasion of the Greeks.” After a siege of Capua to throw out the Greek garrison, Louis “benevolently forgave their errors and aberrations.”[89]  Thus, the campaign of the southern expeditions, which were in fact against the Muslims and their Christian abettors, were now transformed into war with the heretical Byzantines. The capture of Louis by the duke was covered in full detail, along with Louis’ return to Rome and the approval of the pope to return south. In the entry for 874, he eulogized the emperor (a year early, as Louis died in 875) in a manner equal to the odes to Charlemagne and Louis the Pious:

In truth he was a pious and merciful ruler, devoted to justice, pure in his simplicity, a defender of the churches of God, a father to orphans and urchins, and a liberal giver of lavish alms who submitted himself humbly to God’s servants, so that his justice may live on forever and his horn is exalted in glory.[90]

  McCormick thinks that such views came from the scars left by the interaction between East and West during the eighth and ninth centuries. The crises that arose from issues such as iconoclasm, claims to papal primacy, the filioque form of the Nicaean creed, for example, “were so many ticking time-bombs, awaiting future moments of tension.”[91] Wickham sees such views as having their origin in a “provincial tradition” of the East Frankish realm, “set against the more ‘metropolitan’ culture of the court circle around Charles the Bald.”[92] In his analysis “contemporary Byzantines, here, were only known as rivals in the missions to the Slavs, there was perhaps no need for writers to find out what they thought or did.”[93] Yet, there is a broader background to this view of Byzantium that goes beyond the effects of those tensions or the rise of a provincial point of view. 


The Germanic peoples of the West had once stood in awe of the might and tradition of Rome. They then spent centuries cultivating and adopting those traditions, a process which achieved its summit in the coronation of a Germanic ‘Roman’ emperor. Yet, in that moment of triumph, they cast their eyes eastward to see their once golden example tottering from its pedestal. Constantinople was now plagued by regular military reverses, palace intrigue and coups, religious controversies while the Frankish realm expanded with few checks, maintained a strong imperial government until 840, sought constantly to maintain a rigorous purity in religious practice and doctrine. This cognitive dissonance of “barbarians” acceding to the role in the world that had, up to this time, solely been Roman could only be resolved by an idea such as the translatio imperii claimed by Charlemagne and his heirs. This sense of virtue, as the true inheritors of God’s earthly empire of Rome, would persist long after the last descendant of Charlemagne took off his crown. The German historian Oswald Spengler, perhaps in reaction to the pre-World War I glorification of the Carolingians as the fathers of Europe, took a dim view of the period:

It must not be overlooked that the period of Charles the Great is an episode of the surface, ending, as accidentals do end, without issue… in 800 it was the sun of the Arabian Civilization passing on from the world-cities of the East to the countryside of the West. Even as the sunshine of Hellenism had spread to the distant Indus.[94]

To him, the achievements of the age were only imitations of the vibrant East by a West in its infancy. The era of the Crusades would see it truly come into its own, but the Carolingian age was an incident without issue.

            While the influence of Byzantium and, for that matter, the Muslim world upon the West under the Carolingians is undoubted, it cannot be said that the Carolingian age’s effects were as ephemeral as its political order. The attempt at creating an imperial ideology that would give the Western imperium the durability of the Eastern one began with Charlemagne and ended with Otto III’s body being carried out of Rome. Still, that would not be the absolute end. The dream of a Christian Credo-State in the West would not die until the destruction wrought by the Thirty Years War and the articles of the Treaty of Westphalia made it an impossibility. The struggle of Church and State, which did not exist for the Carolingians, became the central battle between popes and emperors throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Only the secular constitutions of the new nation-states that arose during the Age of Revolutions brought end to that conflict by driving the Church out of the State. The political institutions of the Carolingians dissolved, for the most part, in the same century in which they were created, but the ideas that they gave birth to had a long life in the history of the West.

Elijah Wallace, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs 

Elijah T. Wallace is currently completing his Masters at University of Colorado Colorado Springs. His work, covering Late Antiquity and early Middle Ages, intersects history, cultural developments, and political science to examine high-level events in full context. In particular, he is interested in how the Roman Empire interacted with the peoples on its frontiers and what consequences from those interactions carried on into the early Medieval period. His work has previously appeared in UC Denver’s Historical Studies Journal.


[1] The Letter of Emperor Louis II of Italy To Emperor Basil I of Byzantium, 871 (Translation by Charles West, May 2016). 2016. Web. 25 Jan. 2017., 5, Section 16. 

[2] Two scholars have notably proposed and defended such theses: H. Mayr-Harting, “Charlemagne, the Saxons, and the Imperial Coronation of 800,” The English Historical Review CXI, no. 444 (1996): 1113-1133, makes the case for domestic politics and integration of the Saxons and Robert Folz, The Concept of Empire in Western Europe: from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century (Westport, CT: Greenwood Pr., 1980) for papal deception and supremacy.

[3] Ben Golder, in his review of Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population, summarizes that philosopher’s idea on the development of pastoral power, which accords with the development of the credo-state in late antiquity. “Foucault surmises that the historical foundations of present practices of statebased governmentality (the idea of the “government of men” as opposed to the Machiavellian retention of territorial sovereignty) are partly to be found in the pre-Christian East, and then later in the Christian East, in the model and organization of a pastoral type of power. Pastoral power was, Foucault tells us, characterized in the following way: first, it was exercised over a flock of people on the move rather than over a static territory; secondly, it was a fundamentally beneficent power according to which the duty of the pastor (to the point of self-sacrifice) was the salvation of the flock; and finally, it was an individualizing power, in that the pastor must care for each and every member of the flock singly (see pp. 125–30).

… As Foucault indicates here, this paradoxical sacrificial logic of the pastoral form of power ultimately reaches its fullest elaboration with the institutionalization of the pastoral modality of power in the (Western) Christian pastorate: “Given this, in the Western world I think the real history of the pastorate as the source of a specific type of power over men, as a model and matrix of procedures for the government of men, really only begins with Christianity” (pp. 147–48).”  BenGolder. “Foucault and the genealogy of pastoral power,” Radical Philosophy Review, Vol. 10, no. 2 (2007): p. 165. This pastoral role, however, went beyond the clergy discussed here and became increasingly synonymous with Christian rulership, foremostly with the title of Roman emperor.

[4] D.M. Nicol, “Byzantine Political Thought,” The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought: c. 350 – c. 1450 (Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 54-55.

[5] Samuel P. Scott et al., The Civil Law: Including the Twelve Tables, the Institutes of Gaius, the Rules of Ulpian, the Opinions of Paulus, the Enactments of Justinian, and the Constitutions., Vol. XII (Cincinnati: Central Trust Company, 1932), p. 9.

[6] Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (Mineola, NY: Dover Publication, 2001), 268-269. “He [the Carolingian king] had now a religious ideal, and there were limits to his power-the limits imposed by Christian morality. We see that the kings no longer indulge in the arbitrary assassinations and the excesses of personal power which were everyday thing in the Merovingian epoch.”

[7] Daniel G. König. Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 190.

[8] Pirenne, p. 284.

[9] Robert Folz, The coronation of Charlemagne: 25 December 800 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 118-127; Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and empire,” The Cambridge history of medieval political thought: c. 350 – c. 1450 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 230-4. See also Grierson, Sullivan, and Ganshof.

[10] Mayke De Jong, “The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888),” Medieval Worlds, Vol. 2015.2 (2015): 7.

[11] Richard E. Sullivan, “The Carolingian Age: Reflections on Its Place in the History of the Middle Ages,” Speculum 64, no. 2 (1989): 305.

[12] Philip Grierson, “The Carolingian empire in the eyes of Byzantium,” Settimane 27 (1981): 885-916 and Steven Fanning, “Imperial Diplomacy between Francia and Byzantium: the Letter of Louis II to Basil I in 871.” Cithara 34, no. 1 (1994): 3-17.

[13] Louis II to Basil I, Section 10.

[14] Louis II to Basil I, Sections 5-7, 10-11.

[15] Louis II to Basil I, Section 11.

[16] Louis II to Basil I, Section 12.

[17] Louis II to Basil I, Section 13.

[18] Louis II to Basil I, Section 18.

[19] Folz, p. 199.

[20] Pierre Riché, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), p. 183.

[21] Louis the German’s candidacy was supported by the late emperor, the royal court, and many of the nobility. The Annals of Fulda (77-78) reflect the surprise of the East Franks, claiming that Charles had won the crown by a bribe only equal to that of Jugurtha to purchase the Roman senate.

[22] For reference to Louis’ harrying of papal domains see Peter Partner, The lands of St. Peter: the papal state in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1993), 63. For the church incident, Janet L. Nelson, The Annals of St-Bertin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), 116. For the use of the Church to extend Louis’ authority, Janet L. Nelson, The Frankish world: 750-900 (London: Hambledon, 1996), p. 134.

[23] Nelson, p. 233.

[24] Rome and Constantinople were, in the wake of the Muslim conquests of the seventh century, the only two major episcopal jurisdictions of the former Roman empire left in Christian hands. The realms in dispute were those of the Moravians and the Bulgars. They successfully played the two ecclesiastical authorities against each other for decades, much to their political advantage.

[25] Wickham, p. 254.

[26]  Meaning “Renewal of the Roman Empire,” Riché, p. 122.

[27] Louis II to Basil I, Section 13.

[28] Louis II to Basil I, Section 13.

[29] Isidore of Seville, in Stephen A. Barney, and Muriel Hall, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), IX.iii.14, p. 200.

[30] Donald Bullough, “Empire and Emperordom from Late Antiquity to 799,” Early Medieval Europe 12, no. 4 (2004): 382.

[31] Alcuin of York was educated by Archbishop Ecgbert of York, a disciple of Bede.

[32] Johannes Fried, Charlemagne (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 423.

[33] Alcuin to Charlemagne, June 799 as quoted in Riché, p. 120.

[34] Joanna Story, Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 66.

[35] Story, p. 66. Story quotes John Julius Norwich in relation to this Western claim: “The female sex was known to be incapable of governing, and by the old Salic tradition was debarred from doing so. As far as Western Europe was concerned, the Throne of the Emperors was vacant: Irene’s claim to it was merely an additional proof, if any were needed, of the degradation into which the so-called Roman Empire had fallen.”

[36] Laury Sarti, “Frankish Romanness and Charlemagne’s Empire.” Speculum 91, no. 4 (2016): 1056.

[37] The entry for 801 just before this ends by describing another weapon in Charlemagne’s arsenal; he received a white elephant from the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid (of Arabian Nights fame) as part of their negotiations to form an alliance. It is usually supposed that they aimed to join forces against the Umayyad ruler in Spain, but the Caliph’s usefulness against the Byzantines was far more feasible logistically, and shortly resulted in war against the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus.

[38] Harry Turtledove, The Chronicle of Theophanes: Anni Mundi, 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813) (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), p. 158.

[39] RFA as in Scholz and Rogers Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, 82. Rotrude was the eldest daughter of Charlemagne, betrothed to Irene’s son until the latter broke off the long engagement in favor of a local marriage to the daughter of a court aristocrat.

[40] RFA, pp. 85-92. The Venetians switched their allegiance Charlemagne’s son, Pepin, then ruling in Italy. Nicephorus responded with a naval expedition which ravaged the Dalmatian coast, also now occupied by the Franks (another embassy from the Caliph escaped to return home through this blockade). At this same time, Nicephorus decided to end Irene’s tribute payment to the Abbasids which, along with the agreement with the Franks, prompted Harun al-Rashid to also make war on Byzantium. The Eastern emperor only found defeat in this war against superior numbers and ended up paying a new heavy tribute to the Caliph. The Venetians again switched sides in 810, leading to an unsuccessful siege of the marshy city by Pepin, who died soon thereafter.

[41] Einhard’s Life of Charles the Emperor in Thomas F. X. Noble, ed. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: The Lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009), p. 36.

[42] In Latin, it is rendered “Christe, protege Carolum regem Francorum” from Ildar H. Garipzanov, The Symbolic Language of Authority in the Carolingian World (c.751-877) (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p. 177. Both Charles’ older sons, Pepin and Charles the Younger, had died in the preceding years, 810 and 811 respectively.

[43] Turtledove, The Chronicle of Theophanes, p. 174. The unsaid result of this mission was to recognize the revived Western imperial title since the Byzantines no longer had the military strength to dispute it following their disastrous defeats. Charlemagne’s concession in return was not minor; Venice, Istria, Dalmatia, and Southern Italy were conceded to Byzantium along with the ‘of the Romans’ part of the imperial title. The 871 letter briefly made clear the same compromise which Charlemagne and Michael I came to in 812; two emperors could rule together in the Christian world, as they had in the era from Constantine to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, but only one could claim to bear the title of ‘Emperor of the Romans’ and thus authority over the Roman people, which is who the Byzantines always considered themselves to be.

[44] The coronation (816) was performed at Rheims in Francia instead of Rome, and included the crowning of his wife, never done before by Frankish rulers.

[45] Difference in the spelling of Lothar’s name come from variance in translation: Lotharius (Latin), Lothar (German), Lothaire (French), and Lotario (Italian).

[46] Karl F. Morrison, “The Gold Medallions of Louis the Pious and Lothaire I and the Synod of Paris (825),” Speculum 36, no. 4 (1961): 597.

[47] Ibid., p. 599. “Literary and iconographical evidence, therefore, indicates that the gold coins (or medallions) of Louis and Lothaire were minted in 825 in partial answer to a diplomatic affront offered by the Eastern emperors. Lacking a regular gold coin age corresponding to Byzantine issues, but then engaged in monetary reform, the Frankish rulers struck an extraordinary mintage related to the Byzantine solidus in weight, but to the more venerable coins of the early Christian Empire in type. Further, to make their imperial claims even more explicit and to pro claim their orthodoxy in the face of Eastern “error,” Louis and Lothaire approved reverse types declaring their title as rightful rulers,  “divino munere imperatores augusti, sanctae Deiecclesiae devotissimi et humillimi filii.” Within four years, however, the harmony and vigor represented by these issues disappeared amidst the civil wars with which the full decline of the Carolingian Empire began. The gold medallions themselves – the last gold mintage of the Western Empire before the augustales of Frederick II – are monuments of this last united effort of the Carolingian house toward imperial splendor.”

[48] Ermoldus’ In Honor of Louis in Thomas F. X. Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p. 144.

[49] Ermoldus’ In Honor of Louis in Thomas F. X. Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p. 176.

[50] Ibid., p. 185.

[51] The sole Carolingian-Abbasid military cooperation seems to have been between Charlemagne and Harun-al-Rashid. This was also the last Abbasid embassy to the Franks before both realms collapsed into internal succession disputes except for a treaty of friendship made with the Caliph al-Mamoun in 831 which coincided with a new war between Constantinople and Baghdad, Annals of St. Bertin, 23. No military action came of this on the Frankish end, unlike the earlier entente, again due to Frankish internal issues over the succession.

[52] Louis II to Basil I, Section 8.

[53] Isidore, The Etymologies, IX. III.3 199-200, and Otto of Freising et al., The two Cities: A Chronicle of Universal History to the Year 1146 A.D (New York: Octagon Books, 1966).

[54] Folz, Coronation, p. 242 and Nelson, The Frankish World, 750-900, p. 233.

[55] Louis II to Basil I, Section 16.

[56] John Moreland and Robert Van De Noort, “Integration and Social Reproduction in the Carolingian Empire,” World Archaeology 23, no. 3 (1992): 327.

[57] Mayke De Jong, “The State of the Church: Ecclesia and Early Medieval State Formation.” Vol. 386. Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (2009): 247.

[58] The same year Irene (or Charlemagne) broke off the engagement of Rotrude and Constantine VI.

[59] RFA, 73.

[60] Dorine Van Espelo, “A Testimony of Carolingian Rule? The Codex epistolaris carolinus, its historical context, and the meaning of imperium,” Early Medieval Europe 21, no. 3 (2013): 266. 

[61] Louis II to Basil I, Section 14.

[62] RFA, 117. In the year 824, “Lothair went to Rome, according to the instruction of his father, and was honorably received by Pope Eugenius. After informing the pope of his mandate and gaining his consent, Lothair ordered the affairs of the Roman people, which for a long time had been confused due to the wickedness of several popes.”

[63] John Bagnell Bury, A History of the Eastern Roman Empire, from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I, AD 802-867. (Macmillan, 1912), 273.

[64] The eleventh century Byzantine historian John Skylites sums up the situation in A Synopsis of Byzantine History (80), “[Following a catastrophic defeat by the Arabs at Amorion, the Emperor Theophilos] sought for an occasion and manner of revenging himself on his enemy. Thus, he sent the patrician Theodosios, a member of the Baoutizikoi family, to the king of the Franks [Lothair I] to ask for some aid to be sent to him; also for a fighting force to be dispatched to ravage certain parts of Africa belonging to the amermoumnes. But this embassy achieved nothing, for Theodosios died on the journey.”

[65] Bury, pp. 199-201.

[66] Warren T. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 457.

[67] The Annals of St-Bertin covered the years 830-882 and were likely started in Louis the Pious’ court as a continuation of the Royal Frankish Annals before being moved west to the realm of his youngest son, Charles. These annals are, for the most part, very detailed in its descriptions of events along with including important documents such as the results of synods and letters from the Pope. The Annals of Fulda cover the years 838-901 and were devoted to the acts of their patrons, Louis the German and his descendants in East Francia. Lacking much of the detail St-Bertin provides, these are very much a typical chronicle with some narrative and no real biographic insights.

[68] AB, 78.

[69] Riché, pp. 181-182.

[70] AB, 154. “Now without naval support, Louis II broke off the siege and retreated toward Benevento, only to be attacked by the Muslims in the rear. They captured 2,000 horses from the retreating army and then used these to form two units which raided the church of St. Michael in northern Apulia, robbing the clergy and pilgrims gathered there. This deed threw the emperor, the pope, and the Romans into great confusion.”

[71] She did marry soon after the death of her father, with or without consent of the next emperor Charles the Bald, to the nobleman Boso of Provence (AB, 190). She proved to be as adroit at political maneuvering and agency as her mother, allegedly declaring to Boso (according to AB, 219) that she “as daughter of the emperor of Italy and the one-time fiancée of the emperor of Greece [Constantine was made co-emperor by Basil in 867], she had no wish to go on living unless she could make her husband a king.” This was the genesis of the kingdom of Provence, the smallest but, as will be seen, not the least important of the realms to coming into existence during the dissolution of Carolingian imperium.

[72] AB, 179. Engelberga herself countered these moves by following Louis on his second Southern expedition and sending letters to Charles the Bald assure her support in his bid for the imperial crown.

[73] Louis II to Basil I, Section 30. The Byzantines offered a later account which gave full credit to Basil for the capture of Bari respectively, when, in reality, they only gained the city in 876 in the wake of Louis’ death. Skylites version of events (143): “Knowing that Ooryphas’ fleet was inadequate for such a campaign, he began negotiations with Doloichos [Louis II, 850-75], king of Francia, and with the pope of Rome, requesting reinforcement for his own troops, to take their place beside them in the struggle against the godless ones… When all these had gathered and a great army was assembled, since the Roman admiral was a man of considerable military experience, it was not long before Bari was taken.” Constantine Porphyrogenitus in De Administrando Imperio (129), only six decades after the events maintained a true account. “Then Soldan built a palace there and was for forty years master of all Lombardy as far as Rome. On this account, therefore, the emperor sent to Lewis, king of Francia, and to the pope of Rome, asking their cooperation with the army which he, the emperor, had sent. The king and the pope acceded to the emperor’s request, and both of them came with a large force and joined up with the army sent by the emperor and with the Croat and Serb and Zachlumian chiefs and the Terbouniotes and Kanalites and the men of Ragusa and all the cities of Dalmatia (for all these were present by imperial mandate); and they crossed over into Lombardy, and laid siege to the city of Bari and took it.”

[74] AF, 67 and Eric Joseph Goldberg, Struggle for Empire: Kingship and Conflict under Louis the German, 817-876 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 324. In the AF, “In January around the feast of the Epiphany [January 6] legates with letters and gifts came from Basil, the emperor of the Greeks, with letters and gifts to King Louis [the German] at Regensburg. Amongst other gifts they brought him a crystal of marvelous size decorated with gold and precious stones, and quite a large piece of the salvation-bringing Cross.” This is the first known gifting of a piece of the True Cross to an independent Western ruler (the Doge of Venice had received a piece earlier in the century as a gift form Leo V, his technical overlord) and the relic had been associated with Roman imperial and religious power since its discovery by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the fourth century. Basil himself used it in processions in Constantinople as another tool to show his piety and boost his religious legitimacy. Dummler and Goldberg think that this was meant to acknowledge Louis the German as an equal (unlike his rejection of Louis II in 869) and support he and his son, Carloman’s, claims to Italy in the wake of the breach with Louis II.

[75] I believe a garbled account of these events is related by the mid-tenth century Arabic historian, al-Masudi. König, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West, p. 213: “This statement is preceded by an episode that relates how the ruler of the city of Rome (ṣāḥib Rūmiyya), subject to the Byzantine emperor, successfully challenged Byzantine authority by usurping imperial insignia and adopting the title ‘king’ (malik) in 340/951–52. The ensuing military confrontation with the troops sent by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos was decided in favour of the ruler of Rome who eventually married one of his daughters to the emperor’s son.” König points out that no particular event in tenth century Italy preceding al-Masudi’s writing matches this account, so that “the passage in question could apply to, maybe even draw together various events that took place between Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in 800 and al-Masʿūdī’s completion of the kitāb al-tanbīh in 345/956.” The details such as the question of usurpation of the imperial title, the identification of the westerner as ‘ruler of Rome’ and the supposed resolution of the matter by a marriage of a western daughter to the Byzantine emperor’s son perfectly correlates to the issues at hand in the dispute between Louis and Basil, though distorted over the decades and derived from an eastern point of view. This also makes sense as Louis II was the last Carolingian to have extensive interaction, albeit military, with the Muslim world, thus making him noteworthy to even authors distant from the seat of events (al-Masudi lived in Egypt).

[76] Louis II to Basil I, Section 10.

[77] Ildar H. Garipzanov, “The Carolingian Abbreviation of Bede’s World Chronicle and Carolingian Imperial ‘Genealogy’”, Hortus Artium Medievalium 11 (2005): 292-293.

[78] van Espelo, “A Testimony of Carolingian Rule?”, pp. 278-279.

[79] Fried, Charlemagne, p. 373.

[80] Ibid., p. 374.

[81] Ildar H. Garipzanov, “The Carolingian Abbreviation of Bede’s World Chronicle and Carolingian Imperial ‘Genealogy’,” Hortus Artium Medievalium 11 (2005): 293. They did this by ending the list of Roman emperors with the first reign of Justinian II and then listing Carolingian rulers from 687 onward. This included Pepin II and Charles Martel who were still Mayors of the Palace under the rule of the last Merovingians kings.

[82] Paul Julius Alexander and Dorothy De F. Abrahamse, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 1985), p. 122.

[83] Ludus De Antichristo. English and John Wright, The Play of Antichrist (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1967). Preceding this quote “… the Empire of the Romans began, which was the strongest of all earlier kingdoms and had all earthly kingdoms under its dominion, and all nations of peoples lived under the Romans and paid tribute to them. Therefore, the Apostle Paul says that Antichrist will not come into the world unless the apostasy comes first, that is, unless first all the kingdoms which long ago were subject to the Roman Empire secede from it. This time, however, is not yet come, because, even though we see that the Empire of the Romans is for the most part destroyed, nevertheless, as long as the kings of the Franks, who possess the Roman Empire by right, survive, the dignity of the Roman Empire will not perish altogether, because it will endure in the French kings.” This quote echoes earlier comments by Isidore of Seville (IX.ii.121–iii.2 199-200.) about the primacy of Assyria and Rome among the historical world empires.

[84] Liudprand De Cremona, The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Trans. Paolo Squatriti (Washington D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), pp. 262-265.

[85] Alexander, p. 116.

[86] The full quote from Notker, “The almighty ordainer of affairs, the one who sets in order realms and times, when he had crushed the iron, or even earthenware, feet of that amazing image he had erected among the Romans, raised up another, no less admirable image among the Franks through the illustrious Charles, this one with a golden head.” in Thomas F. X. Noble, ed. The Deeds of the Emperor Charles in Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p. 44.

[87] Ibid., p. 90.

[88] An example of this is the story of an embassy sent to Constantine VI during the Saxony wars, “From the theatre of the Saxon war he sent messengers to the King of Constantinople; who asked them whether the kingdom of ‘his son Charles’ was at peace or was being invaded by neighbouring peoples. Then the leader of the embassy made answer that peace reigned everywhere, except only that a certain race called the Saxons were disturbing the territories of the Franks by frequent raids. Whereupon the sluggish and unwarlike Greek king answered: “Why should my son take so much trouble about a petty enemy that possesses neither fame nor valour? I will give you the Saxon race and all that belong to it.”” Also like Ermoldus before him, he claimed that the schools founded by Charlemagne and Alcuin “flourished to such an extent that today’s Gauls or Franks may be considered equal to the Romans or Athenians” and that even supposed holy clerics of the Church sent from Rome were envious of “the glory of the Franks, as all Greeks and Romans always are…”

[89] Regino of Prüm, Adalbert of Magdeburg, Trans. Simon MacLean, History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prüm and Adalbert of Magdeburg (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 165.

[90] Regino of Prüm, Adalbert of Magdeburg, History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe, p. 170.

[91] Michael McCormick, Eternal Victory: Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium, and the Early Medieval West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 380.

[92] Wickham, p.255 

[93] Ibid. 

[94] Oswald Spengler and Charles Francis Atkinson, The Decline of the West, vol. 2 (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1929), pp. 87-88.