9) The Eastern Franks, the Imperial Title and the Papacy, c.800–983

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The Many Meanings of the Imperial Title

The title of 'Roman emperor' was revived in 799/800 when Charlemagne helped out Pope Leo III and restored him to his papal throne. Leo III was restored to the papacy in December 800 and Charlemagne had his imperial coronation on Christmas Day. Exactly what the imperial title meant to Charlemagne is not clear, but he did believe in universal authority under God where the emperor was the universal ruler who was entitled to the obedience of every person and every other ruler on Earth. There was no change in the style of his government after receiving the title, however.

Louis the Pious mixed the title up with theatrics. What the title meant to Louis is much clearer. He believed that God's bestowal of the title onto him meant he must ensure the kingdom's survival after his death, and it must continue as a single entity under his son, Lothar I. His younger sons would rule as sub-kings to rule on the periphery. The kingdom would operate according to Christian values, including that of brotherly love. Louis expelled his sisters and their illegitimate sons from the palace at Aachen after his father's death and made it so that women in the palace must not be seen so they wouldn't tempt good men. Although his wife seems to have been unfaithful and so this policy led to backlash agaist him as he didn't get rid of his wife.

Lothar I did hold the title, but only ruled the middle kingdom, so the empire was beginning to split up. The value of the title to Otto I seems to have lain chiefly in its value of legitimising his rule over these territories once comprising this middle kingdom (Lotharingia, Burgundy, Provence and Italy).

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The Papacy in the Tenth Century

The Italian kingdom was in a period of civil war following the death of its king, Lothar IV, so Otto took advantage of this and intervened, wanting the pope to crown him emperor. So, a series of Italian expeditions took place intervening in the civil war on the side of the king's widow, Adelheid. He soon married her and claimed the royal title for himself reducing her rival to the status of margrave. But, Pope Agapetus II refused to grant him the imperial title.

The late 9th and 10th centuries are generally regarded as a dark period in the history of the papacy. Papal elections were dominated by and fiercely contested among the aristicracy of Rome and its region, Latium. In the 160 years between 882 and 1043, there were 45 popes, many ruling for less than a year. Some were murdered and many were driven into exile or imprisoned.

The city wasn't worth much, but the popes were the owners of a mass of rights and lands spanning central Italy. Many of these rights had been granted or confirmed by Charlemagne and his successors. But after the Carolingian empire's collapse, and amid the many troubles of the Italian kingdom, it had come to resemble an individual principality or state.

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Otto I’s Revival of the Imperial Title

Otto I was crowned emperor after embarking on his second Italian expedition folllowing the election of the new 18 year old Pope, John XII, under the pretext of rescuing John XII from his enemies. About a month after becoming emperor, Otto confirmed the privileges of the Roman Church by issuing a special charter known as the Ottonianum.

He was also becoming worried about Berengar II, so he set out to depose him. But, once this threat to his papacy was removed, John XII began a plot against Otto.

Otto returned to Rome and expelled John XII and Adalbert who had joined with the pope. Otto put a new man who was more loyal to him on the papal throne, that of Leo VIII. He also forced the nobles of the city to promise under oath not to elect a successor without his consent, but within a year the oath was broken. They elected Benedict V after John XII died in exile. The Ottonians had few natural allies in Italy, so they eventually had to maintain their presence there, and Otto set up a new pope of his choice which was Leo VIII again. The Roman aristocracy continued to resist Otto's attempts to subordinate the papacy and Otto was becoming evermore tangled in the tricky politics of the Italian peninsula.

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Ideological Conflict with Byzantium

In the 10th century, the Byzantine empire underwent a considerable revival under the Macedonian dynasty. But, unfortunately for Otto, the Byzantines refused to recognise Otto's resumption of the imperial title in the way they did for Charlemagne. They took Otto's coronation as an affront to their claims of universal authority under God. So, Otto's third Italian expedition of 966 was an attempt to force the Byzantines to give ground on this issue by harrying their provinces at the foot of the Italian peninsula. In 969, he elicited a partial restoration of friendly relations with the accession of a new emperor (or usurper) in Constantinople, John Tzimiskes.

Otto also wanted a new marriage alliance. In 971, Tzimiskes sent one of his relatives, Theophanu, to the West to marry Otto. But he wanted a porphyrogenita, 'a princess born to the purple', which was a princess born when her father was the emperor. To Otto, this meant the marriage wouldn't imply full recognition of the imperial pretensions of the Ottonians.

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Conclusions

The pursuit of the imperial title drew the Ottonians away from the affairs of Eastern Frankia and into those of the Italian peninsula. Otto I spent almost 10 of his last 12 years of his reign there. He couldn't return in case the Italian aristocracy re-asserted its former independence while he was gone. The Ottonians still had a great deal of accumulated prestige so the magnates of the northern kingdom would tolerate this loss of immediate access to royal authority. But, they were beginning to test the depths of these reserves of respect and good will.

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