Charlemagne (part 1 of 2): An introduction

A brief overview of Charlemagne and his coronation in 800.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] Between the ancient Roman world and the modern world, between the ancient Roman emperors and Napoleon, there was really only one ruler that controlled most of Western Europe.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] The person you’re referring to is Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, or Carolus Magnus. He’s a legend, really, Charlemagne.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] In fact, historians struggle because there are so few fragments of information. This is so long ago.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] We’re talking about the late 8th and 9th century. This is a really long time ago.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] On Christmas Day, in the year 800 exactly, Charlemagne is crowned emperor by the pope in Rome.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] This is a huge deal.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] The Roman emperors in the ancient world had ruled from Rome until Constantine moved the empire to Constantinople, what is now Istanbul. The center of power had shifted to the East. Now, in 800, 500 years after Constantine, we have now an emperor in the West.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] But there’s still an emperor in the East who has moral authority, and people still look to that emperor in the East in the Byzantine Empire. Let’s think about what happened in Western Europe that allowed for Charlemagne to become the new emperor.

Dr. Zucker: [1:18] Well, the first thing that’s important to understand, the Western Roman Empire basically fell apart.

Dr. Harris: [1:23] What we see beginning, especially in the 5th century, is the dissolution of the institutions of the Roman Empire. The idea of the Roman Empire hangs on, but its ability to govern comes apart.

Dr. Zucker: [1:36] In order to understand what happened in the Roman Empire in the West, you have to recognize the pressure from a series of invasions from people that the Romans thought of as barbarians.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] These were people who migrated into the lands that were part of the Roman Empire. You might know them as the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, and the Huns. One of those peoples were the Franks.

Dr. Zucker: [2:01] Now, this is not Franks as in France. These are people who actually settled in what is now Germany, what is now France. Charlemagne was a Frank. If we go back several centuries, we can see the beginning of the Kingdom of the Franks.

[2:14] In addition to the Franks, there were also the Lombards. This was another Germanic people, another group who the Romans would have considered barbarians who had conquered Northern Italy.

Dr. Harris: [2:25] They were often threatening what was the heart of the old Roman Empire, and that was Rome, the Papal States. When I say Papal States, I mean the areas governed by the pope. We think about the pope as a spiritual leader, but back in the 9th century — and actually, for many centuries — the pope was also a political leader.

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] What’s so interesting is the pope, the papacy, would have traditionally looked to the Byzantine emperor for protection from people like the Lombards. By the time the Lombards were threatening Rome, the Byzantine Empire was not strong enough to defend Rome. Instead, the Papacy looked north to the Kingdom of the Franks.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] Charlemagne, early in his career, had been called on by the pope at the time, Pope Hadrian, to protect him and the papal lands. Charlemagne was successful, and Charlemagne became King of the Lombards. This dependence between the Papacy and the King of the Franks started with Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, who was given the authority to rule by the pope.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] There’s this really interesting reciprocal relationship between the pope in Rome and this Frankish king, Charlemagne, and his father. That is, that the pope is getting military protection and at the same time he’s offering a legitimacy.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] What ends up happening is that you have two very powerful figures in Western Europe. There will be a contest between these two offices, later what will become the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope, for centuries to come. Back to the story.

Dr. Zucker: [4:02] To recap, we have the Byzantine Empire in the East. We have the pope ruling from Rome over the Papal States in central Italy. We have Charlemagne, who’s the King of the Franks, ruling over a very large area encompassing largely what is now France, what is now Germany, and northern Italy.

[4:21] Then, surrounding all of these players, in the east, in North Africa to the south, and even in the majority of Spain, you have Islam, which is advancing quickly. In order to understand how it is that this barbarian, this King of the Franks, Charlemagne, is crowned as the emperor in 800, we have to go back one year earlier, back to 799.

[4:43] In 799, the pope in Rome was Leo III. He was not a particularly strong pope. Part of the problem was that he did not come from one of the traditional, powerful, aristocratic families in Rome.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] Two men, officials in the church, accuse Pope Leo III of very serious charges. They ambushed him and had the intention of hurting him. They were going to gouge out his eyes and cut off his tongue.

Dr. Zucker: [5:08] In fact, according to some accounts, they did and somehow, they were miraculously restored.

Dr. Harris: [5:13] There was a question: how would this issue of the pope being accused of these serious crimes be resolved? The way to do that was to go to Charlemagne.

Dr. Zucker: [5:20] Right. Remember, Charlemagne was the real power in the region. He had ousted the Lombards and he was in control of Northern Italy. In order for them to put another pope on the throne of St. Peter they needed Charlemagne’s agreement.

[5:33] We’re not quite sure how this happens, but it seems likely that some of Charlemagne’s emissaries in Rome made it possible for the pope to be released and to have an audience with Charlemagne in the north.

Dr. Harris: [5:45] Interestingly, Charlemagne, who was a brilliant politician, sent everybody back to Rome for a kind of hearing. Pope Leo III declared his innocence on an oath. The people who accused him were exiled. Leo III was established, legitimately, on the throne of St. Peter’s as pope.

Dr. Zucker: [6:05] When Charlemagne enters into St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day in the year 800 and Pope Leo III puts the crown of the emperor on his head, we know that everybody is getting a good deal. The king of the Franks has become an emperor, and of course Leo is cementing his bond with his protector.

Dr. Harris: [6:25] Obviously, the two men needed each other. In fact, Leo III, when he was first made pope a few years earlier, sent Charlemagne the keys to the relics of St. Peter and the banner of the city of Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [6:38] All of Europe was being realigned. Now, the capital of the Empire was not a Mediterranean city, it was now in the north, it was now in the city of Aachen. We see this important shift as focus moves from the eastern Mediterranean to the north of Europe. We begin to see the outlines of the modern Europe that we know today.

Dr. Harris: [6:57] Charlemagne was not just a brilliant warrior and politician, but also was a very serious reformer and began what some historians call the Carolingian Renaissance. The word Carolingian refers to the reign of Charlemagne and his successors.

[7:14] This is no renaissance on the scale of the renaissance that will happen in the 1400s in Italy and Northern Europe, but it is a small flowering, a renewal, a looking back to the traditions of ancient Rome, particularly looking back to the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.

Dr. Zucker: [7:32] The West now had a Christian emperor who in the West was establishing a Christian empire.

[7:38] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Charlemagne (part 1 of 2): An introduction," in Smarthistory, July 5, 2018, accessed July 18, 2024,