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Book IX
Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book IX
Chapter 7

Book IX (continued)

Chapter VI

Charles and Irene

Sources: —

The Frankish Annals and Theophanes.

Guides: —

Schlosser, Geschichte der Bilderstürmenden Kaiser, and Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire.

The coronation of Charles the Frank as Emperor of the Romans would perhaps have formed the most fitting conclusion, as it would certainly have been the most dramatic close to this history. It seems, however, more satisfactory to continue the narrative till the death of the new Emperor, as we shall thus have an opportunity of tracing the effect of the revolution of 800 on the statesmen and courtiers of Eastern Europe.

Charles's employments during the last fourteen years of his life. To Charles personally the first fourteen years of the ninth century were a time of comparative rest from the toils of war, of legislative activity for the welfare of his Empire, but also of heavy family affliction through the loss of those upon whom he had reckoned to carry on his glorious work into the next generation.

His missi dominici. He spent the year 802 at Aachen, chiefly occupied in revising the national codes and reinvigorating the internal administration of his Empire. We hear now  p207 for the first time of his great institution of missi dominici, men who were, so to speak, the staff-officers of his administration, sent into every province of his Empire to control the actions of the local courts in the interests of peace and righteousness, pre‑eminently to maintain the cause of the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, and also to see that the ecclesiastical government was conducted in accordance with the canons, and that the old anarchy and licentiousness did not creep back into the Frankish Church. For the office of missi Charles chose chiefly, but not exclusively, archbishops, abbots, and other high dignitaries of the Church, men whose character he had tested during their residence at his court, and whom he felt that he could trust to uphold his standard of right against a grasping count or turbulent mark-grave.

Oath of fidelity to the Emperor. One of the chief duties imposed upon these new officers in the great capitulary of Aachen (March, 802) was the administration to his subjects of a new oath of fidelity, not now to the Frankish King, but to the most serene and most Christian Emperor. 'I order,' he says, 'that every man in my whole kingdom, whether ecclesiastic or layman, each one according to his prayer and his purpose,​1 who may have before promised fidelity to me in the king's name, shall now repeat that promise to me in my name as Caesar. And those who may not yet have made that promise shall now all do so, from twelve years old and upwards. And let this be done in public, so that all may understand how many and how great things are contained in that oath, not merely, as many have hitherto supposed, that they shall not conspire against the Emperor's  p208 life, nor let his enemies into the realm, nor be privy to any treachery against him. Far greater duties than these are involved in this oath.' The capitulary then enforces the obligation of each man to abide in the service of God and to dedicate to Him all his bodily and intellectual powers; to abstain from perjury and fraud of all kinds; not to filch the lands of the Emperor nor conceal his fugitive slaves; neither by force nor fraud to do any injury to the holy churches of God, to orphans, widows or strangers, 'forasmuch as our Lord the Emperor, under God and His saints, has been appointed protector and defender of all such'; not to lay waste the land which a man holds in fief​2 from the king in order to enrich his own adjoining property; always to follow the king's banner to war; not to hinder the execution of his writ, nor to strive to pervert the course of justice in the provincial assembly.​3 All these duties are implicitly contained in the new sacramentum which is to be administered to the subjects of the Emperor.

End of the Saxon War, 804. Two years after the issue of this capitulary, in 804, came the final close of the long, dreary, and desolating war for the subjugation of the Saxons. It was accompanied by the transportation of ten thousand Saxons with their wives and children, from those districts which had ever been foremost in rebellion, to distant and widely separated provinces of Germany and Gaul. At last the spirit of that proud people was broken. The bishops of Bremen, Münster, and Paderborn could enjoy their princely revenues and rule their wide provinces in peace. Christianity was triumphant, and the 'ban' of the Most Serene Emperor  p209 commanded unquestioning obedience from the Rhine to the Elbe.

Visit of Pope Leo III, Nov. 804. In November of this same year the Emperor heard the tidings of an intended visit of Pope Leo III to his court. The occasion of this visit was a remarkable one. Charles had heard in the previous summer a startling rumour that some of the actual blood of the Saviour had been discovered — presumably by a miracle — in the city of Mantua. He asked the Pope for a report on this wonderful discovery; and Leo, probably not sorry to have an excuse for leaving Rome where he had many enemies, visited Mantua to obey his patron's behest, and then for the second time crossed the Alps. He was met by the young king Charles at St. Maurice and escorted with much reverence to Rheims, near to which city he met the Emperor. Soissons and Quierzy were the chief stages in their joint journey to Aachen, at which place they kept their Christmas together. Unfortunately no record is preserved to us of the conversations which Emperor and Pope held with one another, whether about the Mantuan prodigy or the many important affairs of Church and State which were doubtless discussed between them. Soon after Epiphany (January 6, 805) Leo III took his departure for Rome, and Charles saw his face no more.

Wars with Denmark, 808‑810. Wars with Denmark, fitful but not unimportant, occupied the years from 808 to 810. Göttrik (or Godefrid), king of Denmark, an obstinate heathen, seemed likely at one time to hold the same place as chief foe of the Franks and their Christianity which had once been occupied by Widukind the Saxon. But towards the end of the year 810 came tidings  p210 that Göttrik had been murdered by one of his own body-guard, and Hemming his nephew gladly concluded a peace, which was unbroken during the remainder of the life of Charles.

This year, 810, is one of great importance in the negotiations between Charles and the Eastern Caesar, and to the earlier stages of these we now turn, after this slight sketch of the events which were occurring in Western Europe.

Relations with Constantinople. A general view of the question may be obtained by extracting a few sentences from the chief authorities on either side.

Einhard's account. Einhard, the trusted minister of Charles's old age, writes (as we have already seen):4

'He bore with great patience the odium that attached to him on account of his new title through the indignation of the Roman Emperors. And he vanquished their stubbornness by his own far‑surpassing magnanimity, sending to them frequent embassies, and in his letters addressing them as brothers.'

In an earlier chapter​5 the same author writes:

'The Emperors of Constantinople' [observe that they are not here spoken of as Roman Emperors], 'Nicephorus, Michael, and Leo, of their own accord seeking his friendship and alliance, sent to him many ambassadors. With whom — notwithstanding the strong suspicion caused by his assumption of the Imperial title, as if he were desirous to wrest the Empire from them — he succeeded in establishing a very durable treaty, so that no occasion for offence remained between the two parties. For to the Romans and Greeks the power of the Franks had always been an object of suspicion;  p211 wherefore also this proverb is current among the Greeks, "Have the Frank for a friend, do not have him for a neighbour." '​6

Account given by Theophanes. We now turn to Theophanes, the Byzantine nobleman and monk, the enthusiastic champion of 'the most pious Irene,' on account of her zeal for the images of the saints. He says:

'In this year​7 (800‑801), on the 25th of December, Carulus, king of the Franks, was crowned by Pope Leo; and having planned to cross over to Sicily with a fleet, he changed his mind and chose rather to be married to Irene, sending ambassadors for this purpose, who arrived in the following year.'

'Next year (801‑802) the legates​8 who were sent by Carulus and by Leo the Pope arrived in presence of Irene, praying to her to be yoked in marriage with Carulus and so to bring together in one the Eastern and the Western lands. To which proposal she would have agreed had not the Patrician Aetius hindered her, he being at that time the all‑powerful minister, and intriguing to obtain the diadem for his own brother.'

This passage of the Byzantine historian gives us some important information.

Charles's alleged plan for the conquest of Sicily. I. As to Charles's alleged designs on Sicily. As has been already said, we are told​9 that in the year 799 an ambassador named Daniel came from Michael, prefect of Sicily, to Charles's court at Paderborn; that he was there at the same time as the fugitive Pope Leo, and 'was dismissed with great honour' by  p212 the king. We have no mention of any commands with which this Sicilian ambassador was entrusted by the Empress. Have we here a cry for help and an offer of transferred allegiance on the part of a prefect of Sicily who is revolting from the rule of Byzantium? Again, in the year 801 or 802 we find a certain Leo, a captain of the guard,​10 a Sicilian by nation, fleeing from Sicily and taking refuge at Charles's court; but as he is also spoken of as an ambassador sent by Irene 'to confirm the peace between the Franks and Greeks,' it is possible that we are here only dealing with the case of one of Irene's creatures involved in her downfall (shortly to be described), and fearing to face the anger of her enemies. Still these slight hints, combined with the words of Theophanes, incline us to the belief that the new Emperor may have cherished the very natural ambition to add Sicily to his Italian dominions. The project may have fallen through on account of the insufficiency of his fleet, or may have been laid aside in order not to further to embitter his relations with Constantinople. Sicily never formed part of the Frankish Empire, and only a few years after Charles's death began its long servitude to Saracen conquerors.

Papal interest in uniting Charles and Irene. II. We note that, according to the narrative of Theophanes, the ambassadors of Charles were accompanied by legates from the Pope.​11 We can well understand that Leo, if he had not originally suggested the matrimonial scheme, would earnestly desire its success. However plainly we can now see that the  p213 current of events was setting towards the separation of the Eastern and Western Churches as its inevitable end, no Pope, who believed in the prerogatives which he claimed, can have accepted such a conclusion without a pang. The iconoclastic schism was at an end. Irene was nearer to the Pope on the question of image-worship than Charles. Why not unite the chiefs of the Eastern and Western world by the bonds of holy matrimony, and through them rule supreme over an undivided Christendom?

Charles's ambassadors, Bishop Jesse and Count Helmgaud. III. The cunningly-devised scheme, however, came to an untimely end. Charles's ambassadors were Jesse bishop of Amiens and Helmgaud,​12 apparently one of the counts of the palace. Perhaps one of the messengers was not very happily chosen, for Bishop Jesse, though Alcuin praises 'the deep bull-like bellow of his voice, so fitting in one who has to read the scriptures to the people,'​13 was considered by Pope Leo (to whom he was sent on an embassy six years later, with Helmgaud again for his companion) to be an unfit person to be employed as the Emperor's representative and an unsafe depositary of state secrets.​14 Opposition of Aetius. But success in the mission was not possible whoever had been the  p214 messenger. Irene, after she had by a ghastly crime got rid of her son's rivalry, became a puppet-ruler in the hands of the eunuchs of her palace. The two chiefs, Stauracius and Aetius, fought hard for the mastery, but the duel was ended by the sickness and death of Stauracius in the summer of the year 800. Aetius, hereby left in a position like that of Grand Vizier in Irene's cabinet, began to plot for the elevation of his brother Leo to the Imperial throne,​15 and he was not disposed to allow his plans to be thwarted by this wild scheme of the marriage of his mistress to a Western barbarian.

Irene deposed, Oct. 31, 802. Soon there supervened another and more powerful reason for the failure of the negotiations. While Jesse and Helmgaud were still lingering at Constantinople they witnessed a revolution by which Irene herself was hurled from the throne. Possibly the rumour of the marriage negotiations had alarmed the national pride of the Greeks; more probably the arrogance and ambition of the eunuch Aetius had roused the opposition of some powerful Byzantine nobles. Taking advantage of the Empress's sickness and her consequent absence at the suburban palace of Eleutherium,​16 the grand treasurer​17 Nicephorus, accompanied by Nicetas, chief captain of the guard (whom Aetius supposed to be his friend), and by many other great officers of state, presented himself at the fourth hour of the night before the doors of the  p215 Brazen Palace,​18 the innermost sanctuary of Imperial grandeur, and obtained admission from the palace guards, who believed, or pretended to believe, that the intruders came by command of Irene, wearied of the ascendancy of Aetius, to proclaim Nicephorus as her colleague. The palace gained, all the rest was easy. Nicephorus Emperor. Soldiers were sent at dawn to arrest Irene at the Eleutherium, and Nicephorus with his adherents went in procession to the 'Great Church' of St. Sophia, where he was crowned by the patriarch Tarasius, once Irene's own supple minister. Theophanes, who abhors Nicephorus and cannot forgive the wrong done to the 'most pious Irene, the lover of God,' declares that the common people cursed both the crowner and the crowned, but that the nobles of Irene's party, who had received so many benefits at her hands, either turned traitors or were stricken with a sort of numb despair, and felt as if they were dreaming when they saw 'that wise and noble lady, who had striven so gloriously for the faith, pushed off her throne by a swine-herd like Nicephorus.'​19 Even the heavens, he suggests, shared the sullen indignation of the citizens. The face of the sky was dark, and the cold, unusual for an autumn day at Constantinople, foreboded the chill suspiciousness of the new Emperor and the griping penury to which he would reduce his people.

Interview between Nicephorus and Irene. On the next day Nicephorus went alone and unattended, with no Imperial state, to the room in the palace where Irene was imprisoned. He pointed to his sandals, not purple like those of an Emperor, but  p216 black like those of an ordinary subject: he assured her that he had been reluctantly compelled to assume the diadem, and cursed the turbulent ambition of his supporters. Then in gentle tones he tried to soothe her fears, he gave a little homily on the evils of avarice, and conjured her to deal frankly with him and tell him where all the Imperial treasure was deposited. With more dignity than might have been expected from a woman who had loved empire so passionately, Irene said that she had recognised the hand of God in her unexpected elevation to the throne, and now recognised the same hand, chastising her for her sins, in her deposition. She had been often warned, she said, of the ambitious designs of Nicephorus, but had rejected what she believed to be the calumnious aspersions on his loyalty and had preserved his life. Too late she learned that those calumnies were true. However, he was now her Emperor, and she as his subject would pay him reverence. She only asked to be allowed to retire to the palace of Eleutherium which she had herself built, and there spend the rest of her days in privacy. Her request, said Nicephorus, should be granted if she would swear to reveal to him the place of deposit of the Imperial treasure. She swore 'on the honourable and life-giving wood' of the cross that she would show him everything, to the last obol: and straightway fulfilled her promise. Irene banished. He, having obtained what he desired, transported her, not to the palace of Eleutherium, but, first, to a convent on Princes' Island​20 in the Sea of Marmora. Then fearing that the hearts of the people were again turning towards her, he removed her, on a bitterly cold day of  p217 November, to the island of Lemnos, where she was kept under strictest guard. Her death Aug. 9, 803. She died on the 9th of August in the following year (803), and her body was removed to Princes' Island, and buried in the convent which she had founded there.

Charles's attitude of acquiescence in these events. Theophanes relates — surely with a slight touch of malice — that the deportation of Irene took place under the very eyes of the legates of 'Carulus' who were still abiding in the city.​21 There does not seem to have been any rumour of an expedition by the Frankish Emperor to deliver or to avenge the lady of his choice. The days of knight-errantry were not yet, and there was no touch of romance in Charles's offer of marriage. It was only a cold-blooded piece of political calculation, and that calculation had failed, as it was assuredly bound to fail in any event. Had Charles succeeded, had he broken up the happiness of his home by introducing into the gay and brilliant circle of his sons and daughters at the waters of Granius, this grim and sanctimonious Medea of Byzantium, he would have found after all that the Eastern diadem was not to be purchased, even by such a sacrifice. It was in the nature of things impossible that the Rhine could be ruled from the Bosphorus or the Bosphorus from the Rhine. The proposed alliance between Constantine VI and Hrotrud, had it taken place before 800, might have changed the face of Europe; but now, after the challenge had been given to Byzantium by Charles's coronation as Emperor at Rome, no makeshift scheme of marriage could heal the fatal scheme. East and West must remain divided for evermore.

The Author's Notes:

1 'Unusquisque secundum votum et propositum suum (?).'

2 'Beneficium.'

3 'Placitum.'

4 p196.

5 Cap. xvi.

6 ΤΟΝ ΦΡΑΝΚΟΝ ΦΙΛΟΝ ΕΧΙΣ. ΓΙΤΟΝΑ ΟΥΚ ΕΧΙΣ. Εχις probably = ἔχῃς (subjunctive). At any rate the sense requires that the verbs shallº not be taken in the indicative.

7 Anno Mundi 6293.

8 ἀποκρισιάριοι.

9 Annales Laurissenses et Einhardi, s. a. 799 (see p181).

10 'Spatharius.'

11 Theophanes uses for both sets of messengers the word apocrisiarii, which was always used of the Papal legates.

12 Otherwise called Helmengald, or Helmgoth. His connection with the palace is deduced from his epitaph written by Theodulf (Poetae Latini aevi Carolini, I.532). See Simson, II.553.


'Ordo ministrorum sequitur te, Jesse, magistrum,

Vox tibi forte sonat Christi taurina per aulam

Ut decet ex alto populis pia verba legenti.'

Alcuini Carmina, ibid. I.246.

14 'Jesse vero episcopus, serviens vester, aliud servitium vobis facere potest. Nam missaticum per patrias deportare non nobis videtur quod idoneus sit, neque ad secretum consilium provocandus.' Letter of Leo III to Charles in 808 (Jaffé's Monumenta Carolina, p314).

15 διὰ τὸ τὸν πατρίκιον Ἀέτιον βιάζεσθαι Εἰρήνην τὸν ἑαυτοῦ ἀδελφὸν Λέοντα ἀναγορεύσαι βασιλέα. Theoph. A. M. 6295.

16 I presume that this palace was suburban, but I regret that I cannot find any reference to its site in the writers on the topography of Constantinople whom I have consulted.

17 γενικὸς λογοθέτης.

18 Χαλκῆ.

19 ὑπὸ συβώτου ἐκβληθῆναι. The swine-keeping is probably a mere term of abuse.

20 Still called Prinkipo, as in the days of Theophanes.

21 ὄντων ἀκμὴν τῶν ἀποκρισιαρίων Καρούλου ἐν τῇ πόλει καὶ ὁρώντων τὰ πραττόμενα.

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