On Christmas Day, 800, Charlemagne became the first emperor to rule in western Europe for over three centuries. Charlemagne had shown up for Christmas Mass dressed in Roman clothing. It was almost as if he was expecting something unusual to happen. And Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s in 800 did indeed take an unusual turn.
Christmas in Rome
It was Christmas Day 800. Charles, as he was then called, was spending Christmas in Rome. It was still the largest and greatest of all the cities in Christian Europe.
Rome’s reputation rested on much more than its size. Its reputation rested, above all else, on its many old churches. Charlemagne attended Christmas Mass in one of those churches: the basilica of Saint Peter.
Presiding over Christmas Mass was Pope Leo III. His five years as pope had taken a toll on him. In 799, just one year earlier, assailants had mutilated Pope Leo’s tongue and eyes as part of an effort to depose him. Leo had fled to Charlemagne for support, Charlemagne had helped Leo retain the papacy, and now, just a year later, both men were together again, in Rome.
During the Mass, Pope Leo III placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head. Inhabitants of Rome attending mass acclaimed Charlemagne as emperor: “To the august Charles, crowned by God, the great and peaceful emperor of the Romans, life and victory!”
That they shouted these acclamations in unison suggests rehearsal and preparation. The pope then performed a gesture of submission to Charlemagne—most likely, the pope prostrated himself before the new emperor.
The newly crowned emperor, in turn, expressed his continuing veneration for St. Peter’s basilica and for other Roman churches by giving them gifts: valuable liturgical items, such as crucifixes and chalices, made from silver and gold and adorned with jewels.
This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Multiple Kings and Kingdoms
When Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor in 800, there had been no emperor in western Europe since 476. Between 476 and 800, there had been plenty of kings and kingdoms.
Italy had been home to one of those kingdoms, the Kingdom of the Eastern Goths, or Ostrogoths. The surviving eastern half of the Roman Empire, which historians call the Byzantine Empire, toppled the Ostrogothic Kingdom in the mid-6th century and reimposed imperial rule. But even before the end of the 6th century, a new and independent kingdom emerged in northern and central Italy–the Kingdom of the Lombards.
The Iberian peninsula had been home to several kingdoms, chief among them the Kingdom of the Western Goths, the Visigoths. It had succumbed to Muslim conquerors two generations before Charlemagne’s birth.
In what had once been Roman Gaul, there had been various Frankish-ruled kingdoms, centered on regions such as Burgundy, Aquitaine, Neustria, and Austrasia.
In what had once been Roman Britain, there were even more kingdoms, usually seven in number, modestly sized and ruled by Anglo-Saxons.
Hope for a Single Empire
Europe had not always been a continent of disunited kingdoms. Under the Roman Empire, a single Roman emperor had ruled all of these lands. Empire and the office of emperor stood, above all else, for unity and unified rule.
Charlemagne’s imperial coronation raised the possibility that Europe would no longer consist of a multiplicity of kingdoms. Perhaps Europe’s future would be that of a single empire, like the Byzantine Empire, about which Charlemagne knew a great deal, and with which he had substantial dealings throughout his life.
The Byzantine Empire was Greek-ruled, and its capital was at Constantinople. That city housed perhaps as many as two hundred thousand residents, which would have made it ten to twenty times larger than any town or city over which Charlemagne ever ruled.
Charlemagne’s imperial revival was audacious, and it caused political and conceptual problems.
Problems with Charlemagne’s Imperial Revival
By reviving the imperial title, Charlemagne had raised awkward questions about the principle of imperial unity.
The entity that we call the Byzantine Empire still called itself the Roman Empire, and its emperor still called himself the Roman Emperor. The Byzantine Empire was a direct continuation of the Roman Empire; when the last western emperor had been deposed in 476, the eastern emperor had remained in office.
As a result of Charlemagne’s imperial coronation, now there were two emperors claiming to rule over the Romans. The phenomenon of co-emperors had a long history within the Roman world; in such cases, the pretense of imperial unity could be preserved, provided that all the emperors were Romans. Charlemagne’s Frankishness left little or no room for such a pretense.
Moreover, Emperor Charlemagne did not rule over all the places that had once been part of the western half of the Roman Empire. He never ruled over the entire Iberian peninsula, or any part of the British Isles. Still, the empire over which he did rule was larger, by far, than any European kingdom that had existed since the deposing of the last western Roman emperor in 476.
During his reign as king and then emperor, Charlemagne doubled the size of the territories over which he ruled. Charlemagne’s Empire was clearly in the ascendant, which was more than could be said for its chief rivals.
The Byzantine Empire had lost most of its territory to the Islamic conquests of the seventh and early eighth centuries; it was still early the process of an uncertain recovery.
By contrast, Charlemagne’s Frankish-ruled empire seemed well-positioned to continue expanding, bringing about an even broader political and cultural unification of Europe.
Common Questions about Charlemagne’s Coronation
Charlemagne attended Christmas Mass at the basilica of Saint Peter in 800. During the Mass, Pope Leo III placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head, and those attending the Mass acclaimed Charlemagne as emperor.
Between 476 and 800, there had been plenty of kings and kingdoms in western Europe, but there had been no emperor. Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in 800 raised the possibility that Europe would no longer consist of a multiplicity of kingdoms.
During his reign as king and then emperor, Charlemagne doubled the size of the territories over which he ruled. His Frankish-ruled empire seemed well-positioned to continue expanding, bringing about political and cultural unification of Europe.