Episode 14 – Otto III The End of a Dream

Let’s pick up our teenage hero where we left him last week. He had come down to Rome for a second time to bring his cousin, pope Gregory V back into the holy city from where he had been expelled by the prefect of Rome Crescentius II. Otto III had besieged and captured Crescentius had him beheaded, thrown from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo and finally strung up by his feet at the gallows of Monte Mario. He then embarked on his most ambitious policy, the Restoration of the Empire of the Romans, which was actually more an attempt at copying the Byzantine Empire.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 14 – Otto III The Collapse of a Dream

Thanks again for sticking around. We are now on episode 14 and if you have listened to all the episodes until now and the three prologues, you have endured a touch over 8 hours of me droning on about long forgotten German rulers – you definitely ooze stamina.

I also need to make a correction. Last episode I said that during Otto III’s first expedition to Rome, Crescentius had appointed a priest as Pope John XVI who we know literally nothing about, no name, no background, nothing. Well, on further review I realised that the reason he is so obscure is because he did not exist. Note 1166c of the Regesta Imperii, where I got this nugget from is -to use a technical term – bollocks. The author struggled with counting pope Johns beyond number XV, so he invented one to make his failed maths add up, and I fell for it…GRRRR. And that also means Johannes Philagathos, the anti-pope Otto III had mutilated and deposed was John XVI, not John XVII – not that he much cared about that additional indignity. Apologies and I will now be super-vigilant to avoid such mistakes in the future, but no promises.

Let’s pick up our teenage hero where we left him last week. He had come down to Rome for a second time to bring his cousin, pope Gregory V back into the holy city from where he had been expelled by the prefect of Rome Crescentius II. Otto III had besieged and captured Crescentius had him beheaded, thrown from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo and finally strung up by his feet at the gallows of Monte Mario.

He then embarked on his most ambitious policy, the Restoration of the Empire of the Romans, which was actually more an attempt at copying the Byzantine Empire. He organised his court and administration along Byzantine lines awarding fancy Greek titles like Logothete and Strategus to his German senior aristocrats and prelates. He even had a Prefectus Navalis, a Lord Admiral, who sadly had no fleet. He also began to style himself as a Byzantine emperor. He dined alone at an elevated semi-circular table. If you take a look at the most famous image of Otto III, the one that I use for the artwork for this series, you see him clean shaven with a Byzantine style crown on his head, much larger than the figures surrounding him, sitting on a throne looking into the middle distance. Now compare that to the picture we have of Otto the Great, his mighty grandfather. Otto the great is shown as an imposing man but similar in height to the people surrounding him, including the figure kneeling in front of him. He has flowing locks, a beard and if you look closely, you can see his chest hair “like the mane of a lion” that he was so proud of. Clearly times have changed, and the emperor had distanced himself a long way from his Germanic roots. There was not a shred of the Primus inter Pares in this ruler.

At the same time as he presents himself as the all-powerful emperor, ruler of the whole world, his life as an extremely devout Christian begins. He makes pilgrimages to shrines where he humiliates himself by walking barefoot in rags up mountains or into cities.

The first of these pilgrimages leads him 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. Clearly a good guy to be on the right side of. Otto III climbs the mountain on his bare feet wearing a hare shirt regularly declaring himself unworthy and a sinner.

Only a few weeks after his return from Gargano he takes his friend, the bishop of Worms, and locks himself up in a holy cave near Rome to fast and pray. That is followed shortly afterwards by another pilgrimage to a nearby shrine.

This religious fervour will become a constant feature of his live from now on. He maintains a punishing fasting regime where he sometimes would not eat except for Thursdays and is likely to have worn a hair shirt all throughout the rest of his life.  Just for those of you who do not know what a hairshirt is. It is a garment woven from tough animal hair, usually goat, that is really, really uncomfortable. Some extreme penitents would weave in pieces of metal or glass to make the process even more painful.

His next great expedition is to pray at the grave of his old friend Adalbert in Gniezno in Poland. You may remember that Otto’s friend and spiritual mentor Adalbert had been killed by the Pruzzi, the ancestors of the Prussians. After his death Adalbert had almost immediately become revered as a martyr by people in Poland, Hungary, Bohemia and Germany. Maybe with some nudging on by Otto III, a synod in Rome formally canonised him in 999.

Otto III arrives in Poland in the spring of the year 1000 and is welcomed by Boleslav the Brave, duke of Poland. Boleslav pushes the boat out big time for his important visitor. He has his soldiers and nobles arranged in long columns in a field like an enormous choir. His subjects were told to put on all the bling they could find, cloth embroidered with precious metal, fur and shiny armour. This event is basically the Polish equivalent of the field of cloth of gold.

But it is much more than that. According to Polish chronicles Otto III found what he saw far exceeds the rumours he had heard of Boleslav’s wealth and power. And then, upon consultation with his great men, Otto III declared that such an eminent man should not be called merely a count or duke but should be elevated to the royal throne. Then, taking the imperial diadem from his head, Otto placed it on Boleslav’s head in a bond of friendship. And then he gives Boleslav a replica of the Holy Lance with a small shard of the nail of the cross in it.

The German chronicles are not completely in line with this. They do record a splendid reception by Boleslav, a bond of friendship and an elevation of Boleslav to become a “friend and ally of the Roman people”. But crucially they do not record an elevation to kingship.

I am not going to unpick all this here because if I did, the narrative would simply collapse. But do not worry, we will get to it.

After the great gathering Otto and Boleslav proceed to Gniezno, the place where Saint Adalbert is buried.  When he sees the city from afar, Otto gets off his horse, takes off his shoes and his imperial clothes and humbly walks into the town barefoot. At the church he is received by the bishop of Poznan who guides him in, the emperor kneels down in front of the sarcophagus of his friend and mentor, weeps profusely and prays for god’s grace through the intercession of the martyr.

Upon rising Otto declared the elevation of the church of Gniezno to an archbishopric. You may remember that in episode 11 Boleslav’s father, duke Miesco had essentially given the whole of Poland to the Pope as a donation. That had already weakened the link between the archbishopric of Magdeburg which was technically still in charge of Polish bishops. By creating the archbishopric of Gniezno, Otto III removed Poland from the control of the archbishopric of Magdeburg for good. The brother of Adalbert who had been ransomed by Boleslav is made the first archbishop of Gniezno and thereby the first primate of the Polish church. It also means that Poland is now separate from the Empire in terms of ecclesiastical organisation, which makes it easier to become independent in its secular relationships. You see the difference when you look at Bohemia or Czechia, where the bishop of Prague remains subordinated to Magdeburg for longer allowing the empire to integrate the Czechs.

Upon leaving Poland, Boleslav showers Otto III with gifts, including all the gold and silver vessels, goblets, drinking horns, bowls, platters and dishes, the carpets, bedding, towels, napkins, and anything else that had been used in the last three days. But Otto declines them as too valuable. What he does accept though were the 300 armed knights Boleslav threw in as well as an arm of St. Adalbert.

The two men now travel to Germany together, first to Quedlinburg where Otto holds a royal diet and then on to Aachen. In Aachen, the venerable capital of Charlemagne, things are getting ghoulish. Otto III ordered the grave of Charlemagne to be found and opened. When workmen lifted the floor of the imperial chapel in Aachen, they find great emperors last resting place. Let me now quote you the eyewitness report of count Lommo who was there with the emperor:

“He (Charlemagne that is) did not lie, as the dead otherwise do, but sat as if he was living. He was crowned with a golden crown and held in his gloved hand a sceptre. The fingernails had protruded through the gloves and stuck out. Above him was a canopy of limestone and marble. As we entered, we broke through this. At our entrance, a strong smell struck us. We immediately gave Emperor Charles our kneeling homage, and Emperor Otto robed him on the spot with white garments, cut his nails, and put in order the damage that had been done. Emperor Charles had not lost one of his members to decay, except only for the tip of his nose. Emperor Otto replaced this with gold, took a tooth from Charles’s mouth, walled up the entrance to the chamber, and withdrew again.”[1]

 Ok, I told you he would be a bit of a weird one. Again, I will not unpick this right now. Let’s follow the story to the end, take a breath – preferably of fresh air, and look at it then.

After these two rather unusual events, the rest of the trip through Germany is rather uneventful. The only significant matter that preoccupies Otto III in Germany is the re-establishment of the bishopric of Merseburg. You remember that the Slavic uprising in 983, when the Empire lost all its possessions east of the Elbe, was blamed on the blasphemous suppression of the bishopric of Merseburg. The background of that suppression had been that Otto II wanted to make his close friend and advisor, Giselher archbishopric of Magdeburg. But Giselher was already a bishop, the bishop of Merseburg and therefore wedded to his church in an unbreakable bond. Otto II suppressed Merseburg, making his friend free to become archbishop. That apparently upset god quite a bit so that he helped the pagan Slavs to throw off the German yoke.  Anyway, Otto III is now trying to reverse his father’s error. That however requires the bishop Giselher, who is still alive, to admit to the severe allegation of episcopal polygamy, i.e., being bishop of two diocese. Giselher the old weasel had been avoiding a public review of his status with endless excuses but had to accept a general council review in Rome. I will not bore you too much with this, but it matters in so far as Giselher was in no position to object to the creation of the archbishopric of Gniezno and subsequently the sovereignty of Poland.

And it matters because that was pretty much the only thing Otto III did in Germany. Despite almost 2 years of absence there seem to have been little for him to decide or do up north. This may be due to the fact that actually nothing much is happening, and everybody is happy …or the opposite.

And so, Otto returns to Italy is where we find him again in the summer of the year 1000. 

The situation in Italy has not improved during his absence. Do you remember king Berengar of Italy, the tormentor of Adelheid and general pain in the neck of Otto the Great? Well, he had a grand nephew, Arduin who for some reason was allowed to inherit their family fief, the March of Ivrea, after Berengar and his son had been locked up or exiled. That Arduin had now become the focal point of the anti-Ottonian party. These anti-Ottonians were not so much against the Ottonian rulers per se, they were more interested in church land. The Ottonians had, in a similar way to their policy in Germany, based their rule in Italy on the church, specifically the bishops and archbishops. By transferring land and privileges to the bishops the Ottonians could create the powerbase they otherwise lacked. However, the nobles of Italy and, interestingly, the growing urban population of Italy were pushing back. So, every time the Ottonian rulers left Italy to look after their possessions north of the Alps, the Italians start to take back the land from the abbots and bishops. Every time the emperor returns, he forces the nobles give the land back. Under Otto III these judgements to return land had become extremely harsh. At some point he was having a count hanged for stealing church land – quite an unusual and deeply humiliating punishment.

In the year 997 Arduin had upped the ante. Not content with taking the bishop of Vercelli’s land, he took his head as well. In return, by 1000 Arduin had all his own lands confiscated and passed on to the respective bishoprics. But he himself was still at large. When Otto III travelled through in 1000, Arduin’s son had been imprisoned in Pavia. But on Otto’s arrival the boy was allowed to escape suggesting the support for Arduin ran quite deep even in the Ottonian capital of Italy. Otto makes efforts to stabilise the situation and appoints a new margrave of Ivrea, but ultimately the situation remains fragile.

In an attempt to tip the balance in Otto’s favour he is creating close links to Venice. He had already stood as godparent to the doge’s son and had on multiple occasions granted positive judgements to Venice in its disputes with its neighbours. Venice constitutional position was a bit unclear. In principle it was part of the kingdom of Italy, but since Charlemagne had tried and failed to take the city, the Venetians pretty much did as they pleased. Venice is also beginning to build its Adriatic empire capturing cities along the Dalmatian cost. What makes the Venetians an incredibly valuable ally to Otto is their fleet. The empire has no ships at all, which is why it cannot capture the Byzantine cities in Southern Italy and there would be no way they could conquer the Muslim emirate of Sicily.

To strengthen the relationship with Venice he embarks on a cloak and dagger mission. One evening he claims to be ill and retires to his bedchamber in Ravenna. He slips out in the night and boards a Venetian ship that takes him down to the doge’s palace. There he and the doge meet in secrecy and discuss ways of closer cooperation. After three days, Otto III returns by the same way back to his bedroom in Ravenna. The next morning, he tells his friends and followers of the successful mission. What they have thought about that is not recorded and if it was, it would probably not be suitable for a family show. To put that in context, it would be not dissimilar to Donald Trump leaving the White House in the middle of the night, getting on a Russian plane and sitting down for a tete a tete with Vladimir Putin and then, against all the odds, being returned safe and sound after three days. So, not the weirdest thing he had done, but close.

Leaving the situation in Northern Italy as it is, Otto III travels to Rome. His cousin, pope Gregory V had died very suddenly in 999, just 27 years old. The rumour in Rome was that the curse the hermit Nilus had thrown at him for mutilating Johannes Philagathos had killed him. Not sure about that, my money is on malaria or some other disease that was rife in Rome.

Subsequently Otto III had appointed none other than his old friend and mentor Gerbert of Aurillac to be the new pope. Gerbert took the title of Sylvester II. That name is quite programmatic. The first pope of this name ruled during the times of emperor Constantine. He was the pope who laid the foundation of the relationship between the pope and emperor. Gerbert’s choice of name suggests he wants to create a new model for the relationship between pope and emperor.

Some key planks of the new relationship are becoming clearer. Otto declares the Constantine Donation the fake, that it undoubtably is. He then hands over the same lands to the pope but on his own free will. This makes the pope his vassal as far as the secular rule is concerned.

Otto further changes his title to “Servant of the Apostles and by the grace of god, the saviour, august emperor of the Romans.” The first part of the title is almost a copy of the papal title, who is the “servant of the servants of the lord,” whilst the second part is the title of the Roman emperors of old and the Byzantine emperors. In other words, Otto III sees himself as the secular ruler as well as the spiritual ruler at least equal or even above the Pope.

Sylvester II then embarked on church reform. He specifically tries to eradicate Simony, the buying and selling of church positions, and enforce celibacy. Like many other churchmen in Otto III’s circle he is influenced by the growing reform movement that is driven amongst others by the monastery of Cluny.

Otto III whilst eating his meals alone on his high table surveying his subjects must feel that things are very much in track. He has brought the imperial capital back to Rome, the church is being reformed in a joint effort of a pope and an emperor joined at the hip. He is creating a Byzantine Imperial bureaucracy with specific responsibilities for different offices. And at the same time, he looks after his soul and the souls of his people by praying and meditating. A Byzantine bride is on her way to Rome so that he can get working on prolonging the dynasty. 

But that was not last.

In January 1001 the citizens of Tivoli a town just 30 km east of Rome rebelled and killed the officer Otto had put in charge there. Otto takes his soldiers to Tivoli and the citizens quickly yield, handing over the murderers to the mother of the victim who forgives them. Otto III is merciful this time.

Not that it helped. A week later the people of Rome rebel. The rebellion includes even members of Otto’s court like the Prefectus Navalis, his chief admiral of the non-existing fleet. The papal administration may equally be involved given the papal reforms.

Things are getting not just tense but threatening. Otto III is surrounded by an armed mob in his newly built imperial palace, whilst his personal bodyguard is spread out across the city in different defensive structures. The larger armies of Henry of Bavaria and Hugh of Tuscany are even further away, camping outside the city walls.

After three days Otto and his men make a desperate attempt to break out. The bishop of Hildesheim took their confession and says a final mass. By nightfall Otto and his small band of friends take up their weapons. The desperate band of maybe 20 men crashes into the mob, following the Holy Lance glinting terribly in the hands of bishop Bernward. And they make it. Whether it was the sight of the holy relic, the sharp swords of the armoured men or the insanity of the whole action, the mob disperses and lets the emperor pass.

The next morning the situation improved a bit. The Emperor’s successful breakout encourages his supporters to come out of hiding. The people of Rome congregate at the tower where Otto is now holding out. From the top of the tower, he makes his most famous address:

“Are you not my Romans? For your sake I left my homeland and my kinsmen, for the love of you I have rejected my Saxons and all Germans, my own blood. I have led you to the most remote part of our empire, where your fathers, when they subjected the World, never set foot. Thus, I wanted to spread your name and fame to the end of the earth. I have adopted you as sons. I have preferred you to all others. For your sake I have made myself loathed and hated by all, because I have preferred you to all others. And in return you have cast off your father and have cruelly murdered my friends. You have closed me out, although in truth you cannot exclude me, for I will never permit that you, whom I love with a fatherly love, should be exiled from my heart. I know the ringleaders of this uprising and can see them with my eyes. However, they are not afraid although everyone sees and knows them.”  On that the mob grabs the ringleaders, beat them half to death and throw them at the emperor’s feet.

Otto returns to his palace on the Palatine, but it would never be the same. His military leaders, Henry of Bavaria and Hugh of Tuscany urge him to leave Rome and after two weeks he relents. The Imperator Augustus sneaks out of the holy city in the middle of the night. They initially camp outside the city hoping to subdue the inhabitants, but the army is too small and the summer heat pregnant with disease is on his way. Otto and Pope Sylvester retreat to Ravenna.

Otto requests more troops from his vassals in Germany which arrive slowly over time. He makes an initial attempt in May/June to take Rome again, but it takes too long, and he has to go back into the mountains to avoid the disease.

Over the autumn things in Germany are getting unstable. The bishops of Hildesheim and Magdeburg have entered into an epic fight over the extremely wealthy abbey of Gandersheim. The quarrel is involving more and more of the German nobles and bishops and at times escalates into military confrontation. As a consequence, sending soldiers down to support Otto’s manic fight over Rome is not high on the priority list of his vassals. There is even talk of insurrection, though the plotters fail to get support from Henry of Bavaria and whatever it was, peters out.

In December 1001 Hugh of Tuscany the main pillar of the Ottonian regime in Italy dies without an heir. His lands are quickly split up between his relatives, none of whom is as powerful and as loyal as Hugh had been.

In the meantime, some of Otto’s closest friends like Bernward of Hildesheim and his brother Thankmar have already returned to Germany.

Despite being somewhat underpowered Otto III marches on Rome. He gets ambushed by Roman troops and retreats into the fortress of Paterno, 60 km north of Rome. Otto begins to feel ill on January 11th, 1002. It is likely Malaria, an illness he may have caught as early as the summer of 999.[2] Despite his weakening state he insists on maintaining his fasting regime.

On January 24th Otto III dies surrounded by valuable but clearly not very effective relics and by some of his companions, including the pope, Sylvester II, his chancellor, Heribert of Cologne and his cousin Henry, duke of Bavaria.

The friends of the dead emperor try to keep his death secret. Heribert of Cologne sends some of the imperial regalia, in particular the Holy Lance ahead, whilst Henry of Bavaria takes command of the transport. He draws in troops from outlying fortresses as they move ahead. However, the news is spreading fast. Arduin of Ivrea breaks cover and his soldiers begin to attack the funeral cortege. Otto’s friends led by Henry of Bavaria fight their way north for 14 days until they finally reach the safety of Verona on February 7th. Behind them Otto III’s political system collapses. Arduin of Ivrea is elected as King of Italy and is crowned in the church of St. Michael in Pavia. Pope Sylvester is allowed to return to Rome, but his reforms are stopped, and he dies shortly afterwards.

And thus ends the dream of the Restoration of the Empire of the Romans.

But what was this Restoration of the Empire of the Romans? Was it real or just a hare-brained scheme of a very, very underfed adolescent?

If you ask two historians, you get three answers to this question. I could try to give you a run-down of the main theories, but that would take me at least an hour. Therefore, I will give you my take:

Otto III saw himself from his earliest days more as a Roman than a German. Roman in this context means Roman in the same way the Byzantines considered themselves Romans – i.e., the heirs of ancient Rome. This goes very deep, all the way back to the time of his abduction by Henry the Quarrelsome where his mother could only secure the guardianship by claiming that she and her offspring were under Roman, not German law.

Therefore, he wanted to create a Byzantine system of government with an all-powerful Emperor, a fixed capital and a functioning bureaucracy. Such a system was so far advanced from what they had in the Ottonian realm that it makes all the sense in the world to try to emulate that.

I said last time that it did not work because he had no tax income. Whilst this is not the only reason, others such as geography, German culture and customs, the role of the Pope and the emergence of Italian city states are others, to my mind it is the reason why even if the other ones had not existed, a simple replication of Byzantium would have failed.

What I do not know is whether Otto III realised that as well. It is quite unlikely he did. I find very little mention of tax in contemporary sources. Saint’s miracles outweigh economics 100 to 1 in the 10th century writing.

Whether consciously or not, Otto III tried to make up for the lack of tax income with another source of effective political power – religious devotion. We are at the beginning of what is known as the time of medieval piety, where people go on crusades to get absolution for their sins, when in the true sense of the word, sky-scraping cathedrals are built, and the church gets reformed. I will put a special episode on medieval piety out in the next few weeks.

Otto III’s extreme devotion, association with saints and hermits as well as his title as “Servant of the Apostles” taps into these developments. Positioning the Emperor as the moral and spiritual leader of the empire is not just a metaphysical position. As history tells, the moral authority of the pope has translated into secular power, land and armies. If Otto could have brought the power of the Germanic kings and the ecclesiastical authority of the pope together, he could have achieved something like a Restoration of the Empire of the Romans, even without taxes. A very different Empire of the Romans, but an Empire, nevertheless, ruled by a priest-emperor.

That is not to say that he did his acts of extreme devotion out of cold-hearted political calculation. I am pretty sure he was fasting and walking up mountains barefoot out of a deep desire to be forgiven for his sins not for material gain.

That notion of a priest-emperor is also what drives his policy towards Poland and Hungary. I cannot say whether or not Otto III really crowned Boleslav the Brave as King of Poland. It ultimately does not matter, because by 1025 Boleslav is definitely King of Poland and Poland itself a sovereign state. What matters more is the relationship between Poland and Germany. Even if Otto had crowned Boleslav to be King, he did see him as subordinate. Otto comes to Poland like an Ancient Roman Emperor making a neighbouring country a friend and ally of the Romans. That makes them a client nation, subordinated to the Empire, but not part of it and ruled by its own king, The Ancient Romans did that using their Legions. Otto III does not have those. He has found a different way. He comes as a pilgrim. His devotion and his rank make him out as a religious authority. And then he hands over a copy of the Holy Lance, not the original, as a sign of both friendship and subordination. That was enough for Boleslav to follow Otto to his, Otto’s, royal diet at Quedlinburg and Aachen. Boleslav presence is as good as paying homage to Otto III. That is what Otto III meant when he said to the Romans that he “led them to the most remote part of our empire, where your fathers, when they subjected the World, never set foot.”

A similar policy is employed towards Hungary – which we did not discuss. 

Did it work? Well, if we look at the situation in February 1002, the answer should be – not really. Or more precisely – total catastrophe.

Next week we will see what and also who will rescue what was left after the collapse. And we will see another priest-king, this time one that lasts longer and ends up an actual saint even if he fights the Christian poles in a coalition with the pagan Slavs. But that concept of the emperor being more and more a religious ruler will remain the great legacy of Otto III.

I know this was a really complex story. You may have noticed that I try to simplify things and frequently link the narrative back to previous episodes. Please let me know whether this is either annoying or whether it would help to have more link-backs. I am trying to find the balance between moving the story forward and not leaving anyone behind.

I am also working hard on a new and better website where I can post more background stuff like maps, photos and additional information which may help. Please have patience, it will come.

Until then, I hope you are still enjoying the podcast and I hope to see you next week.

[1] Altoff p. 105

[2] RI II,3n. 1450IVa