Episode 7 – A New Caesar

The battle of the Lechfeld in 955 AD was Otto’s greatest achievement and the reason why history calls him Otto the Great, the only Holy Roman Emperor apart from Charlemagne to receive this accolade. He did beat the pagan Hungarians so comprehensively that they would never again threaten Western Europe again. Historical comparisons are always hard, but this success is on par with Scipio Africanus’ defeat of the Carthaginians, Aetius victory over the Huns in 451, Charles Martel’s repulsion of the Muslims at Poitiers and King John Sobieski’s relief of Vienna from the Ottoman siege in 1683. Had the Hungarians destroyed Otto’s army and created a permanent base in Augsburg, German and overall Western European history would likely have taken a very different turn.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 7 – A New Caesar

The battle of the Lechfeld in 955 AD was Otto’s greatest achievement and the reason why history calls him Otto the Great, the only Holy Roman Emperor apart from Charlemagne to receive this accolade. He did beat the pagan Hungarians so comprehensively that they would never again threaten Western Europe again. Historical comparisons are always hard, but this success is on par with Scipio Africanus’ defeat of the Carthaginians, Aetius victory over the Huns in 451, Charles Martel’s repulsion of the Muslims at Poitiers and King John Sobieski’s relief of Vienna from the Ottoman siege in 1683. Had the Hungarians destroyed Otto’s army and created a permanent base in Augsburg, German and overall Western European history would likely have taken a very different turn.

The significance of events is often not clear to contemporaries, but in case of the Lechfeld it clearly was. Even if his soldiers have not hailed him Caesar on the battlefield as Widukind claimed, there was no doubt that from then on he was the reference point for all of the old empire of Charlemagne. On his return to Saxony Otto held a great assembly where emissaries from all over Europe, from the pope, the Byzantine emperor and the Caliph of Cordoba came to offer gifts of glass and ivory vessels, rugs, balsam, every kind of dye and they brought animals including lions, camels, apes and ostriches, never seen before so far north.

As always with Otto, success in battle was further augmented by a heavy dose of luck. We talked about the close shave he had with the Abodrites last week, the consequence of which was a period of at least superficial calm on the North Eastern frontier. On the eastern frontier the murder and subjugation of Slavic people continued unabated, and was made a lot easier when Otto and Gero made Miesco, leader of the Poles a friend and ally. That squeezed the smaller Slavic tribes between two, or if we count in the Bohemians, three enemies on all sides.

In the North, the kingdom of Denmark was embarking on its inexorable rise when king Harald Bluetooth unified the tribes. Harald should be known to our British audience as father of Sweyn Forkbeard and grandfather of King Canute who ruled Denmark, Norway and England. In the 950s/960s Harald is understood to have converted to Christianity either as the result of a lost war or because of a miracle performed by a certain Poppo who carried a red hot iron bar over a distance without suffering any harm. I leave the choice to you, but to me probability of battle success seems higher than safe manhandling of scalding metal. In any event, Harald held the peace for the next 5 years or so and the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen received ecclesiastical authority over the church in Scandinavia.

What Margrave Gero was to Otto in the East was his brother Brun in the West. You may vaguely remember that Otto managed to have his little brother Brun elevated to be archbishop of Cologne at the beginning of the war against Liudolf. And just before the end when Konrad the Red had bent the knee and lost his duchy of Lothringia, Brun also became duke of Lothringia, making him the first archduke in history. Brun was in all and every aspect the opposite of his brother Henry. Brun used his enormous resources and extraordinary I

ntellectual capabilities to grow and strengthen the kingdom rather than just himself. During Liudolf’s rebellion Brun had tried multiple times to reconcile father and son. And now that the civil war was over, he spent most of his time and effort on keeping the western front calm. Lothringia was a notoriously hard to manage duchy. Its counts and bishops were acutely aware that they could count on French support in case of a rebellion. Konrad the red never managed to bring the Lothringian nobles in line. His biggest opponents were the Reginars, the family of the old duke Gilbert. The Reginars rose up against Brun when he took over, but made the one fatal mistake of irritating the king of France at the same time.  They had no chance against the combined force of both Brun and the King of France, so scuttled back onto the caste they had come from. After that nobody challenged Brun and he created two new sub-duchies, Upper and Lower Lothringia and gave them to senior members of Lothringian families loyal to the Ottonians. And then luck struck double when both king Louis IV and his most important magnate Hugh Capet called Magnus died. Their respective sons were both 15 and their mothers were both sisters of Brun and Otto. That made Brun the de facto controller of the Kingdom of France.

What made Brun really significant for German history was his administrative reform. He created a ducal chapel attached to himself where young and promising clerics prepared important documents and deeds. It was the first Chancery. These young clerics once trained up and of proven loyalty to Brun would be positioned into the bishoprics of the archdiocese as a pillar of both the temporal and the spiritual control of the duchy. That system would later be taken on by Otto for the whole of the realm and we will talk about it in a lot more detail in a separate episode. For now just remember – Brun – smart guy who invented the chancellor.

With all and everything now consolidated in the East, North and West, Otto can now realise his true ambition – go to Rome to be crowned emperor. Let’s get everybody up to speed with what happened in Italy after Otto and Adelheid had to leave the beautiful South in 952 to deal with the renegade Liudolf.

You may remember that Berengar the previous king of Italy and tormentor of Adelheid had submitted to Otto at the end of 952. Otto accepted his oath of fealty and allowed him to remain as a client king. Who knows whether Otto thought that oath was worth anything, but given the humiliating circumstances under which it was given, there was a good chance Berengar did not feel bound by it at all. To no-one’s surprise, when between 952 and 955 Otto was busy with family issues, Hungarians and Slavs, Berengar went back to the capital of Italy in Pavia, took control of the kingdom, including the provinces of Verona and Aquileia that had gone to Henry of Bavaria, and began filling key positions like the bishopric of Milan with his appointees.

Otto did not appreciate that and sent an army down to Italy as soon as he had some breathing space. Guess who was leading this army? Yes, it is obvious. The best person to hand an army to, only two years after his rebellion, is his beloved son Liudolf. The 10th century never fails to surprise!

Liudolf managed to enter Pavia and put Berengar back in his box. That box was one of Berengar’s impenetrable castles around the northern Italian lakes.  But on his way back, Liudolf died, probably of Malaria. He was buried in the monastery of St. Albans in Mainz, not in the imperial mausoleum his father was building in Magdeburg and where his mother was buried. His gravestone said, “For me, Luidolf, the world was not enough, but now my dust has to content with this small pit” It seems dad had not completely forgiven him. After Liudolf’s death Otto’s two-year old son, also called Otto, becomes the new heir apparent.

Liudolf’s invasion of Italy had not solved the situation in the South. Berengar had re-entered Pavia as soon as the last of Liudolf’s soldiers had turned the corner towards the alpine passes. After that failed expedition Otto let things slip in Italy. That might have had something to do with a severe illness he suffered around that time and/or he may have tried to completely take control of the Slavic areas in conjunction with the Poles. Berengar on his part believed that Otto would not come back and felt even strong enough to attack the pope and occupy Ravenna in 961.

In 961 Papal power was in a sad state. The papacy had become hostage to two Roman aristocratic clans, the Crescenti and the Theophylacts. These guys were in the habit of putting popes on thrones and toppling them right afterwards at vast rate of knots. In the early 900s they managed to go through no less than 6 popes in seven years, very few of whom died in their beds.

By 911 Mariucca, the daughter of the count of Tusculum had become the head of the Theophylacts clan. As common with powerful women of the time, she was described as “a shameless strumpet who was the sole monarch of Rome and ruled it like a man.” There might however be some truth in that slur as she managed to be the mistress of Pope Sergius III, murderess of Pope John X, mother of Pope John the XI, grandmother of Pope John the XII and ancestor to a further 4 popes. In between she got married three times, the last time to Hugh of Provence and Italy who you may remember from one of the last episodes. Their marriage was the only marriage ceremony in history conducted by a pope, who also happened to be her son. However, her reign did not last forever.

Her son Albaric, half-brother of that self same pope John XI instigated a rebellion that pushed Hugh of Provence out and his mother Mariucca disappeared into a jail never to be heard of again.

Pope John the XI became Albaric’s personal footstool. Albaric reigned Rome for the next 20 years appointing and dismissing popes at will. When he died in 954, he made the leading Romans swear on the bones of the apostles that they would make his son named Octavian pope upon the death of the current incumbent. Surprisingly, that is what they did. The fact that young Octavian was just 18 years old and utterly unsuited to be vicar of Christ seems to have been neither here nor there. To quote from Gibbon:

“we read with some surprise that the worthy grandson of Mariucca lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution; and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St. Peter” As some sort of mini Heliogabalus he gambled away the fortune of the curia and enjoyed, even promoted chaos wherever he could.

 This worthy follower of Saint Peter who took the name John XII for ecclesiastical purposes lost control of the holy city after a failed expedition against the Lombard dukes south of Rome. Berengar saw his weakness and pounced. In fear of his life Pope John sent envoys to Otto asking for help against Berengar’s incursions into his lands. In exchange he offered the only thing he had to offer, the imperial crown.

Everything was now in place. Otto not only had his back covered in Germany, he was in all but name emperor in the same way as Charlemagne had been emperor. This gap between image and reality had to be closed. Berengar’s constant returns to power have become an embarrassment and the pope was inviting him. And then there was his wife Adelheid, formerly queen of Italy and formerly prisoner of Berengar asking for revenge. Time to get going.

Conquering Italy and particularly Rome was a hazardous undertaking. Apart from the risks of battle, the much bigger danger was disease. Malaria had been present in Italy since at least the 3rd century and remained endemic until 1949. In 1882 when they did the first health survey for Italy they estimated that about 2 million out of 30 million Italians had malaria and 15-20,000 died of it every year. AT a mortality rate of 710 per million it was higher than the UK COVID mortality today. In the 10th century it must have been a lot worse given nobody knew about Quinine, hygiene or had any  other medical expertise . The worst affected area was the coast of the Tyrrhenian sea between Florence and Naples with Rome the by far most dangerous city amongst the large Italian centres. In the 1880s the province of Rome accounted for 1/6th of malaria deaths in the country. The cause of malaria was that water that came down from the Apennines could not drain into the Mediterranean. It created stagnant pools all over the Maremma in Tuscany and the Pontine Marches south of Rome where Mosquitos could breed. Malaria had a devastating effect on these areas where nearly 2 million hectares of land remained uncultivated until they were drained in the 1930s. Malaria tends to be a predominantly rural but Rome in the 10th century had large, flooded areas which were an ideal breeding ground for the carriers

What all this means is that going down to Rome in the 10th century meant you took a big gamble with malaria, in particular when you got stuck there over the summer. It is not a coincidence that Charlemagne get crowned at Christmas. The combination of malaria risk and alpine snowfall meant that the traditional progress of the Holy Roman emperors to Rome had a set seasonality. They crossed the alps in the summer and then waited in the North of the country until it was safe to go down to Rome, which was typically no earlier than October/November. Once in Rome, the coronation was done quite quickly and the emperor made sure they were either home or at least in one of the more mountainous areas by March.  And Ottos trip, which established the tradition was following that self-same pattern.

In May 961 he held a royal assembly in Worms and organised the reign for his absence. His now 6-year-old son was not only elected, but a week later also crowned king as Otto II in Aachen by all three main archbishops with all the pomp and circumstance that befits his new rank. Crowning a king whilst there was still a king alive was common in Byzantium but it was a real novelty in the Carolingian realm. This again has to be seen in light of the risks of a trip to Rome. in case Otto would have died, little Otto II would have a better chance of survival if he was anointed with the holy chrism. Being anointed had elevated the kid into the realm of a ruler by the grace of God. Taking him down was a sin against God. On the other hand, had he just been elected but not crowned, deposing him was just disregard of the wishes of an old and now dead man.

Anointed little Ott II might have been, but that does not mean he could run a kingdom. He was left behind under the tutelage of his uncle, archbishop William of Mainz, who became regent.

In August 961 Otto mustered his troops and marched across the Brenner and down to Pavia. As before Berengar disappeared down to Ivrea as soon as he saw the first German soldier come over the passes. The Italian magnates, some of whom may indeed have hated Berengar’s increasingly autocratic government opened the doors to their strongholds, as they had done 10 years earlier.

Italy was now wide open but by Christmas Otto is still in Pavia. Negotiations with the Pope seem to have been dragging on. Only After the Pope has been reassured of Otto’s and his successor’s support against Berengar can Otto enter the holy city on January 31st 962. Then or two days later the 23-year old pope crowned Otto and Adelheid in St. Peter.

After 26 years of incessant fighting against obstinate relatives, boasting French, duplicitous Italians, resourceful Slavs and nimble Hungarian horsemen, king Otto I becomes emperor Otto I, successor to Charlemagne. 

This being first and foremost a business deal, the pope and emperor then issued a document called the Ottonianum. In this document the emperor acknowledges all the territorial claims of the church based on the forgery that was the Constantine donation, the donation of Pippin and some claims based on who knows what over large chunks of Southern Italy and Sicily. In exchange the pope confirmed the “Constitutio Romana” of 824 which stipulates that the selection of the pope is subject to imperial approval. That is clear as mud, since on the one hand it says the pope owns pretty much most of central and Southern Italy, whilst at the same time he has to be loyal to the emperor as his sort of overlord. It also does not help that the document claims to confirm existing arrangements, some of which were just fakes.

Otto stayed just 2 weeks in Rome and then got on with the tiresome business of bringing down Berengar. First, he subjected Hubert of Tuscany, a powerful count based in Lucca and supporter of Berengar. Then he started to smoke out Berengar’s family. They had split up, each defending a different stronghold. Berengar himself defends the castle of Montefeltro in Emilia Romagna. Berengar’s son Adalbert held out in a castle on the shore of Lago Maggiore and his brother Wido on an island in lake Como. His wife Willa chose the most picturesque place to fight for her life, on the island St. Giulio in the middle of the Lago di Orta.

Willa’s stronghold falls after 2 months of siege, though she is allowed to leave and joins her husband in Montefeltro. In May Otto begins the siege of Montefeltro. To say Montefeltro is a tough one is the understatement of the 10th century. You can take a look at it on the History of the Germans podcast page on Facebook and you can see how difficult it must have been.

Whilst Otto and his army are sitting outside Montefeltro he gets wind of some quite unusual goings on in Rome. We will probably never find out what really happened, but let’s start with the report by Liudprand of Cremona. According to him John XII had returned to his favourite pastime – wooing the opposite sex, may it be fine ladies who are thin as reeds from dieting or everyday buxom wrenches. Otto felt he had to share some of his views on loose morals in the hope of bringing the young pope back to the straight and narrow. The pope responded by sending a delegation to Otto saying that thanks to his stern words he had now changed his habits and was a reformed man. And by the way did he know anything about the whereabouts of two disloyal clerics, a bishop Leo and a cardinal deacon John who have gone missing. To which Otto said that, yes he was glad of his change and no he had not seen neither Leo nor John. However, he had been told they were arrested at Capua carrying letters asking the emperor in Constantinople, the Zsar of the Bulgars and the Hungarians for help against himself, his fatherly friend and emperor. That allegation, he said, would have been absolutely preposterous, had it not been for the pope’s seal and signature on all the letters. A few more delegations went back and forth exchanging suggestions of mutual treachery until John came out in the open and admitted Adalbert, son of Berengar to Rome.

Now Liutprand is an extremely amusing but utterly biased witness. He hated Berengar, who he had served before as his advisor and ambassador. Berengar had sent him to Constantinople on a mission to get recognition for the usurpation of the kingdom. However, Berengar had forgotten to give him a present for the Vasilev. Berengar then had to buy a nice set of two eunuchs at his own expense to give to the ruler of the Eastern empire. Liutprand never forgave him for that and he joined Otto’s court. Otto made him bishop of Cremona and his advisors on Italian matters. He was close to events and must have known what really happened, but that does not mean he would tell us.

If we strip Liutprand down to the bones of the story, what happened is that John did turn against Otto and allied himself with Berengar and his family. The political logic for such a move is quite obvious. As long as Otto was just the useful idiot who stopped Berengar from invading the papal lands, all was good. John probably thought that Otto would have to return after a year be it for fear of the disease or because of unrest in Germany. That was what happened in 952. But when Otto settled down to besiege Montefeltro and Adelheid began building a pro-Ottonian party amongst the counts and bishops of Italy, John realised that Otto intended to stay for good. Now that is not what he had bargained for. An emperor of a combined Italo-German Reich meant no more fun and games for little John and his ladies. Whether he did look for additional help from pagan raiders outside Italy is ultimately not relevant, though I guess Berengar himself had been doing that already.

All this took place in the heat of summer so Otto could not go down to Rome and set John strait, plus he still hoped he could wear Berengar down. By October Montefeltro still held out and Otto had to ease the siege, take a part of his army and go to Rome.

The Romans may not have been as loyal to John as he had hoped because they opened the gates as soon as the army arrived. Pope John XII and Adalbert fled to Tivoli in the hills above Rome. Otto called a synod of bishops led by Liudprand of Cremona to judge the bishop of Rome. They subpoena the pope to come to the synod and defend himself against the accusation of murder, false testimony, sacrilegious incest, drinking of devilish love potions and worshipping of pagan gods. For some reason John as disinclined to come down from his hilltop fortress, so the synod deposed him in absentia.

Otto then chose some papal bureaucrat who was not even a priest to be the new pope, Leo VIII. The tame synod elevated him to the papal throne in early December after some high-speed ordination. Leo VIII confirmed under oath that he recognised the emperor’s right to choose the pope.

Nothing shows the utter weakness of the papacy at this point more clearly than Otto simply deposing one pope and randomly choosing another. That is something he would have never dared to do with say archbishop Friedrich of Mainz who was more than a pain in the backside for 20 years but was never deposed.

Good news came hard and fast. Montefeltro fell a few days after Christmas. Berengar and Willa were captured, sent to Germany and put into a monastery where Berengar died 3 years later. Willa became a nun. Berengar’s son Adalbert had fled to Corsica and the pope John XII who had escaped from Tivoli was hiding out somewhere. By the end of the year 963 Otto felt that all what needed to be done had been done and sent most of his army home.

Bad mistake. As soon as the last German soldier had turned the corner onto the alpine passes, pope John XII crept out from under the stone he had been hiding and instigated an uprising in Rome. Pope Leo VIII managed to get away by a hares breath. Other members of the Ottonian party were not so lucky. One of them lost his tongue, nose and two fingers, another lost his right hand. John then set up his own synod that deposed pope Leo VIII and excommunicated all the bishops who had participated in the previous synod.

Otto was obliged to strike back immediately, but for that he needed an army, I mean the army he had just sent home.

He waited 3 months for his vassals in Germany to send new troops. Once they had arrived, he marched on Rome. Halfway there he was told that the 26year old pope had died of a stroke, possibly whilst engaged in unseemly activity with a young lady. That is one way of solving the problem.

Though the Romans still opposed Otto’s choice of pope, Leo VIII, they ultimately conceded, and Otto entered the city.  He stayed a few weeks and once he was confident everything would stay calm from now on, returned home in triumph.

He held a great imperial diet in Cologne where the entire family got together. There were Otto’s siblings, Brun archbishop of Cologne and duke of Lothringia, his sister Gerberga, together with her son, king Lothar of France, King Konrad of Upper Burgundy, brother of Queen Adelheid and Otto’s godson, young Henry of Bavaria, son of Otto’s brother as well as Otto’s own children, King Otto II and last but not least, Otto’s 70 year old mother Mathilda, abbess of Quedlinburg who had lived a life of prayer and philanthropy those last 30 years and was now fully reconciled with her son.

Otto was not just king of East Francia/Germany, but also the patriarch of the whole Frankish empire, the true successor of Charlemagne.  That is what he set out to do when he had taken Charlemagne’s throne in Aachen at his coronation in 936, and 28 years later he had achieved it.

The other thing he achieved is giving the country he ruled its own name. You may remember that Julius Caesar had invented the Germans, but that is not the name by which Germans refer to themselves. We call ourselves Deutsche. And that name was again not one we gave ourselves, but one given to us by the Italians.

Before Otto’s expedition to Rome the Italians referred to the German soldiers who came down from time to time to burn their huts in the name of this or that pretender to the Italian throne by their stem names, i.e., Swabians or Bavarians mainly. When Otto came down with an army consisting of armed men from all different stems, that nomenclature had become too complicated.

That is when they remembered the Teutones, a possibly Germanic people though some historians believe they were celts. The Teutones had entered Northern Italy in 105 BC and inflicted severe defeats on the Roman legions. Only after Gaius Marius was put in charge did the Romans over a period of four years gain the upper hand. To achieve victory Marius changed the legions from a force of free citizens into a paid army loyal only to their commanders. He forced through his re-election as consul five times, creating precedents for Sulla, Caesar and Augustus. The Romans sacrificed their mos mairoum, their ancient and holy safeguards of the Republic because they were so terrified of the Furor Teutonicus, the Teutonic Fury that was their mad, merciless, berserk rage in battle.

After Otto’s army had brought 3 years of devastation across Italy, learned men dug up Their ancient foes and attached the name of the Teutones to these German soldiers. They liked it and Teutones became Teutsch and then Deutsch and Deutschland.

That is an appropriately cheerful note to end this episode. Next week we keep going on with Otto, who comes back to Italy with even more Teutones. That is what happens if one does not clean up properly. Adalbert, son of Berengar was still roaming free, the Romans were still unruly and his son, Otto the II needed an imperial crown and an imperial bride. 

I hope to see you then.

I also want to mention that I have a Facebook page called History of the Germans Podcast where I post occasional pictures, maps and short stories that did not fit in the podcast itself. You can also leave comments and questions for me to ponder. If you like that sort of stuff, check it out.