Episode 13: Otto III – The wonder of the World

Otto III is one of the most contentious subjects in German medieval history. The problem is not so much the facts, though some of it is in dispute. What people disagree most about is the why he did the things he did. Otto III took so many guises as he experimented with the concepts of imperial power that following generations were able to project almost whatever they wanted onto him. So we are now left with an emperor who is more made up than any love island contestant.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 13 – Otto III the Wonder of the World

I hope you all had a nice easter break and are now ready and eager for more German history.

This is going to be a bit of a weird one. Otto III is one of the most contentious subjects in German medieval history. The problem is not so much the facts, though some of it is in dispute. What people disagree most about is the why he did the things he did. Otto III took so many guises as he experimented with the concepts of imperial power that following generations were able to project almost whatever they wanted onto him. So we are now left with an emperor who is more made up than any love island contestant.

I have read several books about him in preparation of this episode, some very recent, some fairly old and I found myself at times very much befuddled. Whereas for Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great and even Otto II the underlying perception and objectives are fairly clear, there is no general consensus not even on the broad outlines of Otto III’s political  views and objectives. Hence what you will hear now is very much my best effort at interpreting his actions, not an unassailable set of facts. Almost everything has been argued over ferociously leaving a field of historical debris to sort through. For a narrative podcast like this one, that means I have to put the pieces together in some form, a form that likely ends up disagreeing with everybody. If you disagree with my conclusions, or find me having got my facts muddled up, let me know. I do not mind at all. The purpose of this podcast is not to give you the be all to end all in German history but to get you interested and engaged. And if that comes at the cost of me being embarrassed, that is a small price to pay and one I am used to paying.

So, end of procrastination,, here is my life of Otto III.

The first thing you need to know about Otto III is that he is very young. He begins his reign aged 14 and though his grandmother remains at hand for another 2 years, he is very much in charge from then on. There is a notion that people in the middle ages had to grow up quickly which is certainly true. But that does however not mean the physiological process of adolescence had been any different. The human brain goes through a fundamental reorganisation process between the ages of 13 to 22. You can see on brain images that the adolescent brain does not engage the pre-frontal cortex the same way an adult does. The Prefrontal Cortex is the bit that constrains emotional reaction by emphasising rational decision making. That does not mean that adolescents lack the ability to take rational decisions, but it means that in emotionally laden situations, e.g., under peer pressure or on the promise of a reward the balance will swing towards taking risky or extreme decisions[1]. This is the case in many other mammals as well, suggesting it has an evolutionary purpose, allowing the young to experiment with extreme positions. If you want to hear more listen to Dina Temple-Raston podcast “What were you thinking”. That really opened my eyes to how different the adolescent brain operates and why adults stand aghast before some of the decisions or opinions teenagers come up with.

The second thing that is important is that he had a very unusual upbringing not just by medieval standards. He spent a lot of time with his mother, who after the experience with Henry the Quarrelsome did not let him get out of her sight except for when she travelled down to Rome in 990. Not only that but his mother herself was extremely unusual as you know. She will have told her son about the splendour of Constantinople and its powerful emperors to her son. Constantinople at the time had half a million inhabitants 20 times the size of the largest German city, it had functioning aqueducts, fountains, vast squares, a hippodrome holding 100,000 people and an imperial palace covering 200,000 square feet. The emperor is all powerful, largely in control of his nobles thanks to his tax income and the leader of the church, the Patriarch is appointed by the emperor and usually acts in synch with the ruler. Otto learns Latin and Greek from her and from her sophisticated entourage. Her court included many Byzantine nobles and priests like Johannes Philogathos who could give him even more detail about the sophistication and learning of the ancient Roman civilisation. In the process Otto III became one of the best educated political leaders of the Middle Ages, and if he had lived long enough might be seen on par with Alfonse the Wise of Castile of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.

After his mother’s death his education is taken over by his grandmother Adelheid who adds a deep understanding of his grandfather Otto the Great’s reign. He spends a lot of time in Charlemagne’s Pfalz in Aachen. Check out the 3D reconstructions of the complex and you realise that this was not a medieval castle at all. It was built more like a Roman villa of antiquity with internal courtyards and colonnades. Its beautiful chapel was built with Roman columns brought over from Ravenna, it is covered in golden mosaics appearing in most aspects like an imperial Byzantine church, not like the Romanesque churches built during his own period.

All this is a long way from the upbringing of most of his nobles who were steeped in Germanic tribal traditions focused on individual bravery in warfare and elected leadership.

Otto gradually takes over effective rule in 994 having been declared of age at a royal assembly. This is not an abrupt break but more of a transition where the regency council remained closely involved for at least the first 2 years.

Otto III has the advantage that he can skip the traditional conflict over who rules the kingdom that all his three predecessors had to go through. That process had already been concluded when he was a small child and thanks to careful management by the regency, everything stayed calm during the transition. Henry the Quarrelsome died in 995 and he urged his son, also called Henry to remain loyal to his king. We will get to know this Henry a lot better in the future but for now it is enough to know that he is loyal to Otto III and for that is rewarded with the duchy of Bavaria.

 In these first two years he continues his mother’s and grandmother’s policies, which means regularly raiding the Slavic lands east of the Elbe –as before  in close coordination with the Poles.

Just a word on France, which was an important part of his mother’s reign. As we mentioned last episode, the new French dynasty of Hugh Capet is -at least for now- more interested in consolidating their position in France than in reconquering Lothringia. Part of that consolidation process was an attempt to take control of the important archdiocese of Rheims. King Hugh and his successor Robert II wanted to replace the current archbishop with Gerbert of Aurillac – you remember that genius polymath of the 10th century. That plan runs into all sorts of issues with canon law. The imperial government is trying to resolve the issue by organising a synod of German and French bishops under the leadership of a papal legate. That synod was ultimately boycotted by the French side, allegedly because Otto III had planned to capture and murder the French king(s) on their journey to the synod. Teenager, ay or maybe not true at all. What is important is that the dispute over Rheims did not escalate militarily.

That means the home front is stable and Otto III can look down to Italy. You may remember Pope John XV. That is the one who reigned a record breaking 11 years by operating a precarious balancing act between the local rulers of Rome, the Crescenti, and the imperial forces North and South of the holy city. Well, in 995 he seems to have fallen off his tightrope, had to flee Rome and asked Otto III for help.

As per standard process, Otto III musters an army in Regensburg in 996. Hurrah, Adventure awaits!

From Regensburg Otto takes his troops down to Italy where he arrives in April. In the meantime, Pope John XV had died. The Crescenti make a short-lived attempt to elect one of their own as pope John XVI.  It seems the population of Rome was not that keen on a siege by imperial troops and make this pope disappear so quickly, we do not even know who this John XVI actually was, no name, nothing.

The Senate of Rome then sends a delegation to Otto III and asks for advice about who should be elected pope. Otto III does not bother much with the advice bit and appoints his cousin Brun, the son of the duke of Carinthia to become pope. Brun was a chaplain in the royal chancellery, i.e., a close political advisor to the king. He was also just 24 years of age, making him one of the 4 youngest popes in history.

He took the name Gregory V, presumably because pope Bruno would not really work. He travels ahead to Rome, gets consecrated, moves into the Lateran palace all on the strength of the imperial spears. A few days later Otto III comes to St. Peter where Gregory crowns him emperor. 

Christendom is now in the hands of two young cousins, one 16 years of age and the other 24. It is the dawn of a new age. Pope and Emperor joined at the hip – just as they do it in Constantinople.

To demonstrate that new unity of temporal and spiritual rule, Otto and Gregory hold a great synod of bishops from across Europe to discuss all open ecclesiastical matters of the old Carolingian realm. To demonstrate how joined up this new system is, Otto and Gregory jointly chair the synod and Otto even signs papal Charters as the Advocate of the Church of St. Peter.

At the synod Otto meets two men for the first time who will play an important role in his life from here on. The first we already know, Gerbert of Aurillac and the other is Saint Adalbert of Prague.

Gerbert had come to Rome to gain approval for taking over the archbishopric of Rheims as per the French king’s demand. Whilst his efforts ended up being fruitless, he did make a speech that impressed the synod and Otto III enormously. Otto III must also have known about the role Gerbert played in rescuing his reign and life in 984 and so may have felt an obligation towards him. He invites Gerbert to become his teacher and political advisor to, in his words, help him overcome his Saxon rusticity and acquire Greek sophistication. There are no reports about whether these words were said in public, but I can only imagine how that must have gone down with Otto’s army who were sitting in a sweltering city full of disease whilst their newly crowned emperor kid just dissed them as country bumpkins.

The other person Otto is excited about is Adalbert, bishop of Prague. He is the diametrical opposite of Gerbert. Gerbert is a sophisticated political operator and a proto scientist with wide ranging interest in the natural world. Adalbert is a deeply religious man who leads an ascetic life of prayer. He had to leave his seat as bishop of Prague because the locals did not take kindly to his excessive piety, or more precisely his idea that the wealth of the church should serve the poor. It also did not help that Adalbert’s powerful family was opposing duke Boleslav of Bohemia. Things had come to a head when Adalbert tried to stop the mob from lynching a woman accused of adultery by sheltering her in his church. Adalbert fled to Rome and did what he really wanted to do, which is commit himself to prayer and extreme forms of ascetic exercises as a monk. But that was not to be. He was dragged in front of the Synod because as a bishop he was not allowed to abandon his flock for the delights of regular prayer, fasting and self-flagellation. Under canon law the link between a bishop and his diocese was an eternal bond like marriage that could not be broken. And that went both ways, i.e., as long as Adalbert was alive no new bishop of Prague could be appointed. That is why Adalbert’s superior, Archbishop Giselher of Magdeburg insisted on Adalbert going back to Prague. Giselher did not care much that Adalbert would almost certainly be killed upon arrival in Prague, like all the other members of his family who had been massacred by the duke.  Quite frankly that was all for the better, because Giselher could then appoint a new, more reliable bishop. Gregory V sided with Giselher and Adalbert was ordered to go back.

Otto was mightily impressed with the bishop’s piety and from then on spent a lot of time with Adalbert discussing religion and praying – I mean a lot of praying.

Otto leaves Rome at the end of May and goes to Ravenna as he said for health reasons.

Gregor V had to stay behind. Most historians believe that at this point the unity between the emperor and the pope already cracked. The two men began falling out over the Ottonianum and the Constantine donation, the documents that conferred the temporal rule over central Italy to the popes and specifically the rule over the Emilia Romagna and Ravenna. You may remember that way back in part 2 of the Prologue I mentioned that Pippin the Short, king of the Franks and father of Charlemagne had donated the Emilia Romagna to the pope, even though he did not own it. Otto the Great had reconfirmed the rights of the pope in a document called the Ottonianum That I mentioned in Episode 7. Beyond the land grant the Ottonianum also declared the pope being somehow subordinated to the emperor.  Basically the Ottonianum had made things even more convoluted than they already were, making it easy for pope and emperor to fall out. Even though Gregory was entirely dependent upon Otto’s support, It may have made sense for him to establish a more independent profile by taking a stance on the possessions of the church. That is not the same as a breakdown of the unity. My take is that Gregory and Otto are still largely in synch despite the occasional tiff.

Otto III had returned to Germany in the autumn with Adalbert and Gerbert in tow. In Germany Otto resumes the peripatetic lifestyle of a Ottonian ruler, moving from one royal palace to the next. At Christmas 996 we find them in Cologne celebrating a momentous event. King Waik of Hungary is getting baptised as Stephen, or later known as Saint Stephen of Hungary. The baptism is performed by Adalbert of Prague and Otto III stands as godparent over the Hungarian king who is five years older. To tighten the link Stephen marries Gisela, daughter of Henry the Quarrelsome and sister of Henry Duke of Bavaria. Furthermore, he is offered a contingent of Bavarian knights that help him to crush his domestic pagan rivals, making the shift to Christianity permanent. With that the Magyars who were feared raiders just 40 years earlier enter the political systems of Western Europe.

The peace with Hungary has the knock-on effect that the hitherto largely uninhabited buffer zone between Hungary and the empire can be repopulated. We now know this former desert as Austria. Technically an Eastern March was founded in 976 but it is from around the 990s on that an initially small and impoverished county begins its’ inexorable rise to become a world power where the sun never sets. In 996 Otto III issues the first ever document that mentions Ostarrichi or Austria.[2]

Adalbert is still under orders from the pope to go to Prague when Otto finds a compromise. The pope will allow him to give up his post as bishop of Prague if he would go as a missionary to Poland. Adalbert sets off for Poland, where a new duke, Boleslav the Brave has succeeded his father. Boleslav welcomes Adalbert with open arms and suggests a mission to the Pruzzi, a pagan tribe living on the Baltic, northeast of Poland. There Adalbert goes, does a bit of self-flagellation and preaching of the gospel, and is promptly taken for a Polish spy and killed. And that is how the Pruzzi or Prussians make their first appearance in the history books – around the same time and in connection with the same saint as the Austrians.

Boleslav the Brave of Poland is terribly embarrassed and promptly ransoms the body of Adalbert as well as his surviving brother from the Pruzzi. He brings the body of Adalbert to Gniezno (Gnesen in German) where he is buried in the main church. When Otto hears about the death of his friend and spiritual guide, he is clearly shaken, having encouraged his friend to go to Poland in the first place. Otto instantly began creating shrines and altars for the memory of Adalbert.

Meanwhile in Rome, the pope Gregory despite standing up for the rights of the church does not find any support inside the holy city. Once Otto’s mighty army had turned towards the Brenner pass, the actual ruler of Rome, Crescentius II returned and threw Gregory out. Gregory tried to regain the city with the help of the key Ottonian allies, Hugh of Tuscany and Konrad of Spoleto, but it fails. Gregory spends the next few months wondering about the place with no fixed abode.  

Meanwhile in Rome, Crescentius II declares the “election” of Gregory V null and void and the Romans elect Johannes Philagathos to become pope. We have met him before. He was one of Theophanu’s closest advisors and Otto III’s teacher. What made him change sides is a bit unclear, but he had been side lined by Adelheid and even after Otto had taken over seem to have struggled to get back into the imperial favour.

We now have two popes at the same time. This begins another tradition in the relationship between pope and emperor during the Middle Ages, the regular Schisms. We may look at these things as just power battles, which to a degree they were. However, for the people of the Middle Ages, they were terrifying. If your priest had been ordained by a bishop whose own ordination was invalid because it had been undertaken by the wrong pope, was your confession valid. If you had not confessed properly, could you still go to heaven? And we are approaching the year 1000, the time when the apocalypse is supposed to begin. Just on the year 1000, the perception to the degree it existed was not that on the 24th of December 1000 on the dot the world would end. That makes little sense since that is the day of Jesus birth. It was more likely the apocalypse begins a 1000 years after Jesus crucifixion which may mean April 1033, but again that could also be out by a couple of years. So “the year !000” was actually a moving feast sometime broadly between 1000 and 1050. That means for the contemporaries by 997 we are entering the danger zone whilst the church is divided by the schism.

For now, Otto cannot do much about this apart from sending angry letters to Rome. He does have an army, but that army has been convened to fight the Slavs in the east not the Romans. The campaign in 997 did not really go very well as rival commanders including nasty Archbishop Giselher squabbled and got beaten by the Slavs. That meant the whole thing dragged on much longer than expected. Only towards the end did Otto himself take command of the final raid that which at least looked like a success. 

The Slavs sorted Otto can finally gather troops to return to Italy. He crosses the alps in the middle of winter 997, which means he must be in a real hurry. He rapidly descends via Verona, Pavia, Cremona and Ravenna down to Rome, where he arrives in February.

The inhabitants of Rome panic and open the gates. Johannes Philagathos or pope John XVII as he calls himself decides it is time to split from the Crescenti and looks for ways to get clemency from the emperor.[3] No luck on that front. Once the imperial soldiers find the unlucky Greek, they blind him and then cut off his nose, tongue and ears. The terribly mutilated man is then brought before a synod that deposes him. He is ceremoniously stripped of his vestments, his pallium is broken and he is driven through the streets of Rome sitting backwards on a donkey holding the tail of the beast as its reins[4]. Contemporary sources are shocked by this treatment of a man who was godparent to both the emperor and the pope and if not legally the pope, he was still the consecrated archbishop of Piacenza. Otto III is getting publicly rebuked for this by a hermit called Nilus, who curses him, saying that unless he forgives those he holds in his power, neither will the holy father forgive him for his sins. Not great PR.

But the slaughter does not end there. The real instigator of the rebellion was still around, Crescentius II. He had fled to the Castel Sant Angelo, the former mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian that over the previous 800 years has been turned into an impregnable fortress. It had witnessed the famous defence against the Goths in the 6th century and since then had been impossible to capture. Otto had the Castel surrounded but did not really attack it for the next two months whilst he is waiting for special siege engines. As is customary in the period the parties began negotiations during the siege, however they fail to agree. What then happens is unclear. According to Thietmar of Merseburg some super-smart siege engine is deployed that allowed the imperial troops to enter and overpower the defenders. At the other end of the spectrum is the story by Italian chroniclers that Crescentius had come in for negotiations and on his return the Germans broke the truce, attacked and forced themselves through the gate.

Despite my general Germanness, there is something odd about the Vorsprung durch Technik thesis. The Castel Sant Angelo had remained impregnable for the rest of the medieval period and even Renaissance armies 500 years later failed to take it. It is not clear to me what unusual design could have overcome the defences and why the knowledge had not been preserved for when the next emperor comes down to Rome[5].

The way he captured the fortress is not the only thing that would hamper Otto III’s reputation amongst the Romans. Once he has got hold of Crescentius II he has him beheaded and thrown from the battlement of the Castel Sant Angelo for all of Rome to see. His corpse is then dragged to the Monte Mario and strung up from the gallows by its feet. The same treatment is then administered to 12 of Crescentius’ supporters. From then on, the Italians called him Otto the Red and that was not for his red hair.

This gruesome punishment was widely reported across Europe and even unrelated charters in Wessex reference the date of Crescentius beheading. The Castel Sant’ Angelo will for the next 200 years be known as the castle of Crescentius

Why such cruelty? One reason is certainly that Crescentius had already been given clemency by Otto III the last time he had come down to Rome. Awarding it another time would look too much like weakness of the emperor, though it was not unheard of that people were forgiven multiple times.

Another way to look at it was the enormity of the crime. Crescentius had created a schism, not just at any special time, but in the year 997, not long before the year 1000. If a schism is terrifying in and of itself, a schism just when the apocalypse could start any moment is unfathomable [6].

Having taken back control of Rome, it must have been clear to Otto that his previous approach had not worked. In 996 when he first came down to Rome, he handled the situation very much in the tradition of his father and grandfather – go to Rome, get a pope, get crowned, get out. Even in the times of Otto the Great that might not have been sufficient to ensure stability of the empire. The rapid collapse of Gregory V’s regime in Rome told him in no uncertain terms, that the old model did not work anymore.

He needed to replace it with something new. He is 18 years old and has been brought up with stories about the power of the Byzantine emperors and their capital Constantinople. Is it a surprise that he wants to replicate the empire of the Romans here in its birthplace?

Otto III styles himself on his seals as Otto Imperator Augustus with the motto Renovatio Imperii Romanorum. He is represented on this seal as a mighty emperor, seated on a throne holding the orb and the sword, whilst everyone around him is represented as @a supplicant. That is miles away from the Germanic model of an elected leader linked to his nobles through ties of blood, friendship and prayer. Otto organises his court along Byzantine lines giving Byzantine titles to his chancellors and military commanders. He eats alone at an elevated semi-circular table overlooking his courtiers – like the Byzantine emperor. And most significantly he makes Rome his capital by ordering the construction of an imperial palace on the Palatine hill. The Palatine is where the Roman emperors of antiquity created their enormous residence, a residence so enormous and famous that all imperial residences were called the Palatine, which is where we get our word Palace and the medieval Germans the word Pfalz.

An imperial capital is a concept entirely alien to the East Francian kingdom of Henry the Fowler and even Otto the Great. The kings and emperors were expected to constantly travel around their kingdom, dispensing judgements, making donations and award military or political posts to the local nobles. Having access to the king and emperor was a key element of the power of his major vassals, which makes these journeys so important. How would the empire function with an emperor permanently residing in Rome?

The answer is simple, it would not. The reason the Byzantine empire could have an emperor who was permanently based in Constantinople was tax. The tax income meant that the emperor could award all major military and political positions fairly freely. He even paid the major nobles to live in Constantinople, in the same way as king Louis XIV paid his aristocrats to live in Versailles. Otto III simply did not have the money to pay a standing army or bribe the nobles of the country to live in Rome.

Not being able to raise taxes he needs is another pillar of his reign.

What could that other pillar be? We will find out next week. We will follow him on a trip to the grave of his old friend Adalbert, where he elevates Boleslav the Brave of Poland to, well to what is subject to debate. We will see our old friend Gerbert to be raised even higher as Pope Sylvester II and good old Charlemagne gets literally dug up.

I hope to see you again, and if you enjoyed this episode, please let others know about the podcast be that through podcast reviews on social media or in the good old face to face technique. 

And that comes from being a religious authority.

At the same time as he presents himself as the all-powerful emperor, ruler of the whole world, he also begins pilgrimages to shrines where he humiliates himself by walking barefoot in rags up mountains or into cities. In another shift of titles, he adds servant of the Apostles to his title as Imperator Augustus.

The first of these pilgrimages is to the Monte Gargano in Puglia, Southern Italy. The Monte Gargano is the spur of the Boot of Italy, a mountainous peninsula that sticks out into the Adriatic. In a cave near the top of the mountain the archangel Michael is supposed to have appeared to the local bishop. The archangel Michael is the one who on the day of reckoning will divide humanity into those who go to hell and those who will rise up to heaven. That is the kind of guy you want on your side after having just killed and mutilated your adversaries. Otto III climbs the mountain on his bare feet wearing a hare shirt declaring himself a sinner.

These seemingly opposing behaviours, on the one hand brutal distant ruler who executes and mutilates his opponents and on the other hand self-humiliation as a sinner before God may be explained as an extreme behaviour typical for an adolescent, but it also makes sense as a definition of the emperor. The emperor is at the same time the highest amongst men, whilst the lowest before God. There is some authority that can be gained by extreme deference before a religious authority. You can see that with actual religious figures like the pope and bishops who every Easter ritually wash people’s feet in commemoration of Jesus’ washing of his disciple’s feet. This humiliating gesture o washing the dirty feet of the poor is designed to show the pope as the servant of the poor.  Humiliation does not per se diminish a person’s authority, it is the feeling and display of shame over the humiliation that does it.  The foot washing pope does not have his authority diminished by this humiliating act. People who are very secure in themselves do not feel shame at humiliation and can maintain or even increase their dignity. Take for example Alfred Dreyfuss who maintained and increased his moral authority despite if not because he was publicly degraded on false accusations. The greatest example of that effect is Jesus himself who derives his authority from the humiliation of being crucified. What I am trying to say here is that the image of an emperor climbing a mountain with bleeding feet and wearing a hare shirt gives him as much power as a battalion of soldiers. Soldiers he cannot otherwise pay.

But Otto III’s piety is not just for public display. Even though it may serve a political purpose, it does not mean that it was not real. Otto III was clearly an incredibly spiritual man. Having spent a lot of time during his formative teenage years with a saintly figure like Adalbert of Prague has clearly rubbed off on him. He will fast regularly, sometimes to extremes. In 999 he spends 14 days in prayer with his friend Franco the bishop of Worms in some cave near Rome. A few weeks later he takes a trip to another pilgrim place in Subiaco, again to pray intensively.

And this is where we leave him for now, deep in prayer.

[1] Brain Development During Adolescence Neuroscientific Insights Into This Developmental Period
Kerstin Konrad
, Prof. Dr. rer. nat.,*,1 Christine Firk, Dr. PhD,2 and Peter J Uhlhaas, Dr. PhD3 Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2013 Jun; 110(25): 425–431.

[2]  RI II,3 n. 1212

[3] RI II,3 n. 1259c

[4] To the personal responsibility of Otto III see Althoff, Otto III p.73-75

[5] Althoff, p. 79

[6] Weinfurther: Otto III in Herrrscher des Mittelalters p. 91