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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe: Vol I The Struggle for Universal Empire
- The Empire of Charles the Great
by David Jayne Hill, LL.D.


Although, as emperor, Charles the Great claimed dominion over all the imperial lands, the realm which he effectively ruled from his capital at Aachen extended over an area about twice as great as that which he had received from his father as King of the Franks, and included three kinds of territory: (1) that which he ruled directly through inheritance or conquest; (2) that which he held tributary and suffered to be governed by its own native chiefs; and (3) the Patrimony of St. Peter, forming a protectorate ruled by the Pope as a temporal authority.1 In its narrowest sense, this realm included the whole of Europe from the Baltic to the Pyrenees, and from the Atlantic to the Elbe and the head of the Adriatic. In its widest sense it comprised the vast spaces east of Germany occupied by the Slavs as far as the Vistula, and by the Avars as far as the Theiss; while to the south it included, in addition to Northern and Central Italy, the great duchies of Spoleto and Benevento in Southern Italy, and in Spain extended nearly to the Ebro.

As compared with the old Roman Empire in Europe, while the realm of Charles did not include Great Britain or the whole of the Spanish peninsula, it added the enormous territory which Rome had never invaded to the north, - the original home of the Germanic races who had submerged the Western Empire, - and carried the frontiers of Christendom far into that "terra incognita"of the Romans out of whose mysterious depths had come forth her barbarian conquerors.

With remarkable administrative genius, Charles the Great devoted his best energies to the organization of this vast realm. Including, as it did, a variety of races and a wide diversity of national impulses, the forces of decentri1ization were difficult to overcome. The great dukes were regarded by Charles as the chief danger to the unity of the Empire, and as far as possible the duchies were on that account divided into countships. Only upon the most exposed frontiers, where strong defences were necessary, was more than one countship placed under the government of one man; the so-called "marches" (Marks) of Brittany, Spain, Friuli, Pannonia, and Nordalbingia being governed by "margraves" (Markgrafen). The counts, who usually held office for life, were the principal instruments of the imperial administration, being carefully chosen and intrusted with large local powers, but subjected to a strict discipline.

But the most effective agency of his administration was the use made of the missi dominici, or king's messengers. Following a custom of the Frankish mayors of the palace, to which he gave greater method and precision, the Emperor selected from his most trusted officers these missi, who were annually sent in pairs - one being a layman and the other an ecclesiastic - to every part of the Empire, in order to observe and report upon the conduct of the counts and bishops. The duties of the missi were manifold but strictly defined. They were charged to see that the "commandments of God were nowhere violated, that justice was everywhere respected, that no wrong was done to the poor or the helpless, and that the counts and bishops lived and ruled in peace and harmony.

When the missi had reported the results of their investigations and the court had considered them, the conclusions arrived at were formulated in "capitularies" or chapters of imperial legislation, sent out for the future government of the Empire.2 Thus, a kind of moral unity was imparted to the entire realm, wrong-doers were held in restraint, the injured were provided with means of redress, and the whole population was made to feel the force and beneficence of the Emperor's rule.

The envoys of Charles the Great sent to negotiate the marriage with Irene - accompanied by a legate of Pope Leo III, who had favored this plan of uniting the Empire - were still present in Constantinople when the Empress was overthrown by the palace revolution which, in August, 803, brought Nicephorus to the throne. Their mission having ended with such a thrilling tragedy, the envoys were sent; back by Nicephorus without further negotiation; but as the new emperor did not wish to embarrass his reign with an unnecessary conflict, his own envoys were at the same time despatched in company with them to bear proposals of peace and friendship to Charles the Great. The situation was a difficult one to meet, for a frank recognition of the legitimacy of the imperial title of Charles by Nicephorus would have been equivalent; to his own abdication; while without it; negotiation was hardly possible. So far as we can learn from the meagre records of the time, Nicephorus confined his communications to a declaration that he wished to be a "faithful friend," regretted that he and Charles were not "nearer neighbors," and was disposed, if opportunity offered, to "treat him as a son" and "enrich his poverty."

We do not know the contents of the reply to this clumsy overture, but it was no doubt duly resented; for Charles was not in a mood to accept the patronage of his rival, and Nicephorus was so displeased with his response that no reply was sent and all intercourse was broken off. For a period of nine years a deep estrangement existed between the two emperors. Charles, although desiring peace and disposed to divide with Nicephorus the possession of the Empire, demanded the recognition of his right to be regarded at least as an equal and a brother, while Nicephorus, clinging to the traditional exclusiveness of Byzantium, was determined to treat his rival as a mere barbarian king.

The grave situation of the Eastern Emperor rendered impossible aggression on his part, for he was wholly preoccupied in defending his frontiers, and even his capital, which was often exposed to capture. Surrounded by enemies in alliance with Charles, -- Haroun-al-Raschid, the Bulgarians, and the Avars, - the Byzantine territories were repeatedly desolated with fire and sword, while Aachen became the centre of international influence. Hither, numerous embassies were sent from Spain, Arabia, England, Denmark, and other lands, to court the alliance and seek the counsel of the Emperor, while Constantinople lost prestige and maintained a desperate struggle to preserve ita existence. In the East, Charles the Great was honored with the tutelage of the Holy Places, which had previously been under the care of Byzantium. In the year of his coronation, the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent to him by a special embassy the keys of the Holy Sepulchre, together with the keys and standard of the city, inviting the patronage of the new emperor, as Gregory III had once besought the protection of Charles Martel. In return, Charles sent an embassy to assure himself of the security of the Eastern Christians and received in response as a gift from Haroun-al-Raschid the cession of the Holy Places, which that generous ally formally undertook to protect in the name of his friend. In Egypt, Carthage, and other parts of Africa, he entered into friendly relations with the Mussulman princes, and received marks of honor and deference from Alonzo II of Galicia and Asturia and the Scottish kings. By his justice, moderation, and magnanimity, Charles the Great not only transferred to himself the former prestige of the Byzantine emperors, but left Nicephorus in a state of political isolation.

As in the days of the old Roman Empire a division into an eastern and a western portion had become a political necessity, on account of its magnitude and physical conformation; so now, although the essential unity of the Empire was still maintained in theory, it was practically divided into two realms, the Frankish and the Byzantine. The Adriatic, separating in great part the territories of these two dominions, furnished to the East a strong bulwark, on account of its superior naval power. On land, the vast area of Pannonia and Dacia, still occupied by barbarian tribes, formed a practically impassable barrier to the advance of either of the two contestants. Thus, with the exception of the cities of Italy still held by the Byzantines, there were few points of contact between the lands of the East and those of the West where military operations could be advantageously undertaken.

It was in Italy, therefore, that the conflict between the rival emperors was most to be expected. There, the little Republic of Venice, Italian by its origin and racial affinities, Byzantine by its political relations and commercial interests, from a geographical point of view might properly be claimed as a natural appanage of the Frankish dominion, while in reality it was a half-independent possession of the East. The equivocal character of the Republic was emphasized by the existence of two factions within its borders, one adhering to the Franks, the other to the Byzantines, while the dominant note of its policy was an indisposition to surrender itself entirely to either. Thus, by the practice of a dexterous diplomacy, for which it afterward became celebrated, this little state, protected by its insular situation, was in the course of time to acquire complete independence through the simple expedient of adhering to a master too weak, or too apprehensive of revolt, to repress its liberties.

Considering the military prowess of Charles the Great, it may appear at first sight surprising that he did not make a more vigorous effort to expel from Italy the last traces of Byzantine influence by the capture of all the cities still adhering to the East. The preoccupations of Charles in his wars with the Saxons, the Slavs, the Danes, and other enemies, and the internal reorganization of his realm, in part, perhaps, explain this moderation; but it cannot be fully understood without reference to the settled policy of Charles in relation to the Eastern Emperor. This policy was, by patient persistence in maintaining his imperial standing and by a just and equitable treatment of Nicephorus, to obtain from him, if possible, that recognition of equality which had been denied, and to establish with him relations of fraternity in the government of the two realms.

It was not in a spirit of conquest, therefore, but to suppress the domestic quarrels of the Venetians, that Charles first intervened in their affairs. In 803, Fortunatus, Archbishop of Grado, an astute and ambitious prelate, having been driven from his see by the dukes of Venice, took refuge with Charles, beseeching intervention in his own behalf. Apparently indisposed to interfere in this dispute, the Emperor obtained from Leo III another episcopate for the refugee, but made no attempt to enforce bis will upon the Venetians. When, however, after his rupture with Nicephorus, the Venetian tribune Obellerius and his brother Beatus sought refuge with him, Charles received them on Christmas day, 806, with other Venetian leaders, and invested them with the duchy of Venice. The revolution having been accomplished with the aid of the Frankish soldiers, Nicephorus sent a fleet to reclaim his lost possessions, but the expedition proved a failure and Venice became a dependency of Charles the Great.

A feature of the time having a far more important bearing upon the destiny of the Empire than its foreign relations, was the strong tendency toward feudality. A grant of lands, - and afterward of offices and other public privileges, - known by the name of "benefice," "fee," or "fief," was common in early Frankish history, and was much extended under Charles the Great. The donor was sometimes the King, sometimes the Church, and sometimes the nobles. At first, the "benefice" was only for life, but tended to become hereditary. The beneficiary entered into a personal contract with the donor for services in return, and thus grew up a mass of private obligations on which were based groups within the state bound together by interests that were not of a public character.

Charles the Great employed the "benefice" for the strengthening of imperial unity; but the system, accompanied by "commendation" and "vassalage," became a cause of ruin to the Empire. The "vassal" in "commending" himself to his "lord" by a symbolic act of servitude created a private relation more sacred than his relation to the state. While vassalage served to bind to the Emperor the powerful personalities of his time, the great barbarian princes upon his borders, - Slavs, Britons, Danes, and Avars, - as well as his own chief officers, it opened the way to those imperia in imperio which were destined at last to destroy the central authority. It furnished an instrument in the hands of wealth and power everywhere for breaking down and defying all general control. When to all this was added the privilege of "immunity," accorded to those persons specially favored by the royal power, or claimed as inherent in the donation of royal lands, by which the beneficiary was exempted not only from taxes but also from the visits of public officers to enforce justice, the system became almost equivalent to the abdication of sovereignty.

It is singular that Charles the Great, who did so much to maintain the unity of the Empire during his life, was so careless of its continuance after his death. Following the custom of the old Frankish kings, in 806 he provided for a division of his realm between his three sons, Charles, Pippin, and Lewis. The partition was not based upon any principle of racial affinity and rested on a merely arbitrary geographical grouping. The demarcation of boundaries was defined with great particularity, and a somewhat complicated plan of succession was arranged, to take effect in case of the death of any of the brothers; but it is sufficient for our purpose to note that, in general, Northern Gaul and Germany north of the Danube were to constitute the portion of Charles; Italy and the Germanic lands south of the Danube that of Pippin; while Southern Gaul, the Spanish March, and the western and southern parts of Burgundy were to form the kingdom of Lewis. In order to prevent conflict between them, each of these kings, although intended to be strictly autonomous within his own domains, was forbidden to receive the rebel vassals of another, and royal benefices could not be held in more than one kingdom. That Charles had in 806 no intention to perpetuate the imperial title, is evident from the fact that it was not even mentioned in his elaborate testament. When his wishes were submitted to his counsellors, only one, Theodulf of Orléans, is known to have expressed a preference for a single successor who should maintain the imperial unity.

It is probable that Charles fully realized the true nature of the vast realm that had been brought together under his rule; which, in truth, possessed no solidarity except that imparted by the community of religious faith and the exceptional personality of the Emperor himself. He seems to have considered it more desirable for the three kingdoms, all and equally devoted to the cause of the Catholic faith and guided by its spirit, to dwell together in essential harmony than for one of his sons to maintain the primacy implied by the imperial office. Over against the theoretical reasons for formal unity, Charles the Great had, to support his view, the solid argument of successful experience; for, during the previous twenty years, his sons bad conducted the local government; Charles having ruled over Neustria, Pippin over Lombardy, and Lewis over Aquitaine.

The confraternity which Charles the Great had thus proposed to substitute for the unity of the Empire reveals the German quality of his mind in contradistinction to the Roman mode of thinking. The local rather than the general authority seems to have been regarded by him as possessing the first importance, and in this he discloses the high character of his statesmanship.

The deed of partition, having been sent to Pope Leo III for his approval, received his endorsement; but the death of Pippin in July, 810, and of Charles in December, 811, left Lewis, the youngest of the sons, the sole survivor. To him, therefore, Charles the Great left the imperial title and the entire realm, except that Bernard, the natural son of Pippin, was assigned the kingship of Italy under the imperial supervision. In disposing of the crown bestowed by the hands of Leo III, the Emperor acted without consultation with the Pope. Having submitted his intentions to a general assembly and several provincial synods, his will was ratified; and in September, 813, the imperial crown was placed upon the head of Lewis as co-regent and successor in the Empire.

If Charles the Great had, under the influence of Leo III, entertained serious illusions regarding Byzantium, they appear to have been dissipated by the rude disenchantment which followed the tragic overthrow of Irene and the failure of his first diplomatic mission to Nicephorus. From that time forward, the idea of wasting energy upon the pursuit of a chimera was sagaciously abandoned, and the policy of maintaining his coequal rights in the Empire and finally obtaining the recognition of them at Byzantium seems to have been the measure of his ambition.

When, in 810, Venice bad faithlessly decided to abandon its Frankish alliance and resume its relations with the Greeks, Charles the Great directed his son Pippin to assault the Republic, with the purpose of compelling its allegiance; but, although he took possession of several islands, be could not capture the Rialto, which thenceforth became the stronghold and capital of Venice. The Frankish fleet attempted also to assert authority over the coasts of Dalmatia, but was driven away by the superior naval power of the Greeks.

By the treaty of peace which followed this conflict, the coasts of Istria and Dalmatia were surrendered to Byzantium, while the Franks retained the interior of the country and placed a duke over the Croats and Dalmatians. Venice was permitted to adhere to Byzantium, but required to pay an annual tribute to the King of Italy, an obligation which was recognized till the tenth century.

But the important part of the treaty of peace was the complete surrender of the Eastern Emperor to the imperial pretensions of Charles the Great. The principal aim of his negotiations with Byzantium had been to secure this recognition as a colleague and brother, and to establish a fraternity in the conduct of the affairs of the two realms based on the principle of the unity of Christendom and the defence of the Christian faith. He had waited long and patiently for this result, as we learn from his letter to Nicephorus written in 811, in which he says: "We have long remained in suspense and a prey to expectation, asking ourselves when we should obtain, either by an embassy or by letters, a friendly reply from Your Fraternity." With undisguised joy, Charles assures Nicephorus of the pleasure he receives from the prospects of a peaceful settlement of the differences between them.

But Nicephorus was never to receive this remarkable epistle. Before the arrival of the envoys who bore it, together with the text of a treaty of peace, which, unfortunately, has not come down to us, the Greek emperor had fallen in battle amid the disastrous defeat of his army by the Bulgarians. The head of the fallen monarch had been sent to Krum, the Bulgarian Khan, who, having mounted the skull with silver, converted it into a drinking-cup.

Having finally been saluted as "Basileus," or Emperor, by the ambassadors of Nicephorus at Aachen, Charles, in 813, wrote to Michael I, who had ascended the throne at Byzantium, to the end that "peace should be established and the two empires federated and united in the love of Christ." In this letter he employed the expression "the Empire of the East and the Empire of the West," which gave offence to the Greeks, who were still reluctant to admit the claims of Charles and to accord the proud and exclusive title, "Basileus." The exchange of copies was on this account delayed, and when the embassy brought back to Aachen the Greek ratifications the great emperor had passed away.

On January 28, 814, Charles the Great was laid to rest under the dome of the cathedral he had built at Aachen; but he long continued to live in the legends and romances which the popular imagination wove about him. The greatest warrior and statesman which Europe had produced in nearly a thousand years, all Christendom continued to regard him as the embodiment of its ideals and aspirations; and when, ten centuries later, Napoleon I wished to invest his coronation with the emblems of imperial majesty, it was to the tomb of the great Charles that he made bis reverential pilgrimage, sending to Paris the Sword and insignia of the mediaeval monarch as the proudest trophies of his new empire. The French claim him as their great hero under the name of "Charlemagne," and the Germans under the name of "Karl der Grosse"; but he properly belongs to no particular nation, for he was one of the makers of Europe in its largest sense.




1. The authority of the Pope in the papal territory was not, however, absolute. This territory had always been and continued to be a part of the Empire. Charles the Great therefore, possessed over it the ancient imperial rights, but the treaties and grants made by Pippin and himself qualified these rights and conferred certain sovereign privileges upon the Pope. "Hätte Karl jene römische Staatsallmacht, die einst auch über die ganze Province Italien geboten hatte, in seinem Imperium erneuert, von den Grenzen des päpstlichen Territoriums hätte sie gleichwohl Halt machen müssen, denn hier schlossen eine solche Gewalt die vor dem Kaiserthum übernommenen Verplictungen aus." W. Sickel, Die Verträge der Päpste mit den Karolingern, p. 26.

2. See the Capitulary of 802 in Henderson, Select Documents, pp. 189, 201.

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