Europe and the Church, Part 8: Otto the Great, Founder of the First Reich

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Europe and the Church, Part 8

Otto the Great, Founder of the First Reich

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The 18th century French philosopher and intellectual Voltaire wrote in an essay in 1756 that "this agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire."

But it lasted a thousand years and was an inspiration for Hitler's Third Reich, which was similarly intended to last a millennium. It also inspires today's European Union, which continues to strive toward "an ever closer union."

"It is fatally easy to see the whole history of the Holy Roman Empire, down to 1806, unfolding itself in Charles the Great's coronation in Rome in the year 800. In reality the story of the Empire, later of the Holy Roman Empire, is a story of discontinuity. It meant different things to different men at the same time, and different things to men at different times; indeed, it was different things at different times" (Geoffrey Barraclough, "The Medieval Emperors Were Realists," "Problems in European Civilization," 1966).

The Holy Roman Empire ended with Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, when the empires of Russia and Austria were defeated. The Austrian Emperor Francis was forced to renounce the title of Holy Roman Emperor, thereby formally ending an empire that had lasted a thousand years.

The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was the First Reich (reich is the German word for "empire") and traced its origins back to the time of Charlemagne, crowned by the pope on Dec. 25, 800. The coronation of Charlemagne was a deliberate act on the part of Pope Leo III. In crowning Charlemagne "Augustus" (emperor), the pope was effectively declaring the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire, which had collapsed in the fifth century.

The only Roman emperor in the year 800 was the ruler of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, who ruled from Constantinople . To the Byzantines there could be only one Imperator Romanorum (Roman emperor). An earlier attempt to revive the Western Empire had been led by an eastern emperor, Justinian, in the sixth century. To those in the east, Pope Leo's crowning of Charlemagne was an illegal act and a deliberately provocative one.

Charlemagne's elevation to "Augustus" was the result of his having defended the pope against the rebellious people of Rome. This started the idea of the empire being the protector of the church.

Charlemagne's empire did not endure. "The attempt to revive the ancient glories of the Empire of the Caesars was sadly premature and under the feeble successors of Charles both Empire and Papacy sank into weakness and contempt. A strong line of German Emperors at length brought relief to both institutions and saved Europe from barbarism" (L. Elliott Binns, The Decline and Fall of the Medieval Papacy, p. 21).

The nadir of the papacy

Upon Charlemagne's death in 814, his only surviving adult son, Louis the Pious, crowned himself emperor and ruled the empire until his death. As emperor, Louis made provisions to divide the empire among his three sons with the Partition of Aachen, as Charlemagne had intended to do until his two other sons, Pippin and Charles, died prematurely. Louis's attempt, however, was marred by civil war, disloyalty and conflicts caused, in part, by the birth of his fourth son, which damaged the validity of the partition agreement.

Charlemagne's grandsons finally settled their differences by the 843 Treaty of Verdun , dividing his empire, foreshadowing Europe 's current political divisions. France and Germany owe their origins to this treaty. One of Charlemagne's great-grandsons, Berengar I, was crowned emperor by the pope in 915, continuing the close relationship between church and state. But after his death in 924, an imperial vacancy lasted for almost four decades.

During this time, it wasn't only the state that was in disarray. The church, too, was going through one of its most difficult periods in history. The period from 904-964 is often referred to as the "pornocracy," or "government of filth."

The term "pornocracy" was first used by a Catholic historian. German theologians later referred to the period as the "rule of the harlots." Historian Will Durant refers to the period from 867-1049 as the "nadir of the papacy" (The Story of Civilization, Part IV: The Age of Faith, 1950, p. 537).

In the light of Revelation chapter 17, it is interesting to note the use of the term "rule of the harlots." The chapter describes the secular, political church as "the great harlot who sits on many waters" (verse 1). In the 10th century, popes openly lived with their mistresses and fathered children, one of whom became pope himself.

Meanwhile, Germany had become the dominant region of Europe; and although at this time there was no emperor, there were still kings. In 918 the dukes of Germany chose Henry the Fowler as their king. (He was called "Fowler" because he was laying bird snares when informed of his election.) His rule was the first of the Saxon kings, who continued in power until 1024. Henry strengthened the German army and fought wars defending Europe from invaders.

Following his death in 936, his 24-year-old son Otto was elected king by the German dukes. At his coronation the people raised their right hands to show approval and shouted: "Seig und Heil"—victory and salvation.

Otto was to become one of the most important monarchs in history. His period of rule revived the Western Empire. His relationship with the church can aptly be described as one of "fornication" (Revelation 17:2), an uneasy relationship where church and state each sought their own advantage.

He was crowned king by the archbishops of Mainz and Cologne. During the ceremony the archbishops handed him the imperial sword with which to fight the enemies of Christ. Following his coronation, he quickly suppressed rebellions throughout his kingdom and then went on to fight against foreign foes, defeating the then pagan Magyars (Hungarians) who had been attacking German settlements. Earlier, he had marched into Italy in support of a widowed queen, Adelaide. Marrying her, he became the ruler of northern Italy.

Otto was increasingly seen as the protector of Europe, another Charles Martel or Charlemagne, two men who were his ancestors.

Crowned Holy Roman emperor

Earlier in the same century, Pope Sergius III "reached the pontifical throne by violent means" (Claudio Rendina, The Popes: Histories and Secrets, 2002, p. 215). "Sergius III had a relationship with the noblewoman, Marozia...from their union was born a son who was to be the future pope [from 931 to 935], John XI" (ibid., p. 216). A later successor, John XII (955-964) was to be important in the reign of Otto.

As pope, John XII "continued to gratify his unbridled pleasures, and the Lateran Palace became a real bordello, with the pope surrounded by beautiful women and handsome boys in a depraved lifestyle completely at variance with his ecclesiastical duties" (ibid., p. 226).

Italy by this time was in chaos and the pope appealed to Otto to restore order, which he did. On Feb. 2, 962, the pope crowned Otto Holy Roman emperor. This was the most historically significant date of the Middle Ages since the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800.

Once more, Western Europe had an emperor, Otto I. Once again, church and state were allies. Supported by the church, Otto reigned supreme over the German Reich. Later historians referred to this period as the beginning of the Sacrum Romanum Imperium Nationis Germanicae—the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," a term that was not to be officially used for another five centuries.

German kings would from then on be crowned by the pope and rule over the Holy Roman Empire at the very heart of Europe. The empire was to last until 1806. The Second and Third Reichs were to follow in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The octagonal imperial crown made especially for Otto's coronation was to become the symbol of European unity through the centuries. The significance of his coronation and subsequent reign are felt down to this day. In 2008, Emperor Otto I was selected as the main motif for a high-value commemorative coin, the 100-euro Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire coin. One side shows the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire. The reverse shows Emperor Otto I with old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome in the background, where his coronation took place.

A few days after his coronation, a pact was agreed to between church and state, the Privilegium Ottoniamum. "In it Emperor Otto confirmed to John XII and his successors all of the rights and properties that the Church had acquired on the basis of preceding treaties. The pope, on his side, took an oath of loyalty to the emperor, promising that he would never betray the emperor" (ibid., p. 227).

The close relationship between Otto and the pope did not last long. The pope soon rebelled against the emperor. On Nov. 2 of the same year Otto took control of the city of Rome and convened a council at St. Peter's that put the pope on trial.

"A summons containing the charges was sent to the pope among which the following were underlined: ‘Know therefore that not a few but all laymen and clerics have accused you of murder, of perjury, of sacrilege, of incest with your relatives and with two of your sisters...that you have made a toast to the devil and, while throwing the dice, you called upon Zeus, Venus and other demons...'

"Undefended, John XII was found guilty of high treason and was deposed from the pontificate because of his behavior, judged unworthy of a pope" (ibid., p. 228).

These events are a classic example of how the unstable relationship between church and state down through the centuries has been one of "fornication," prophesied in Revelation 17:1-2. "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication." The true followers of God are commanded to "come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins and lest you receive of her plagues" (Revelation 18:4).

The Saxon line continued after the death of Otto I in 973. His successors were Otto II (973-983) and Otto III, who secured the election of the first German pope, Gregory V, in 996. (Gregory died just three years later at the age of 27.) On May 21, 996, Gregory crowned Otto III as Holy Roman emperor.

Otto made Rome the administrative center of his empire and set on his seal the inscription Renovatio imperii Romanorum—"Restoration of the Empire of the Romans." This ideal of the Roman Empire was to continue on into the second millennium, the Holy Roman Empire itself lasting a thousand years from the time of Charlemagne to Napoleon. WNP