Franks and Byzantines, but not Charlemagne

After last week’s overview of the Byzantine empire, let’s now look at what the Byzantines meant to the Franks and the rest of western Europe. Strictly for the sake of convenience, we’ll take it up to 768, when Charlemagne ascended to the Frankish throne.

First, the obvious: this is the Dark Ages, and there’s not a lot of primary evidence. This is best exemplified by a scholar of the Carolingian economy: “Our information on goods imported through Venice or other Italian ports from the eastern Mediterranean into western Europe in the Carolingian period is nearly non-existent.”1.Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, p.107. Nice. But we do have some records to review.

Italy was the nexus between east and west, as it had been in the heyday of the Roman empire. Most of what we know is through the context of theology and relations between Rome and Constantinople. During the “Twenty Years of Anarchy” through which the eastern empire suffered in the first decade of the eighth century there was little of note going on between Greece and Italy. Once the empire stabilized, the papacy was alarmed to the see emerge the first dictates of the Iconoclast Controversy. Along with Charlemagne and the Battle of Poitiers, this is a subject about which even non-specialists may have heard.

In a nutshell, the question revolved around images, painted or sculpted, of holy beings from Christian history. For centuries there had been a rich artistic and religious tradition that created hundreds if not thousands of images of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and the saints, and in the process laid the foundations for western art. “In the history of European art it is difficult to name any one fact more momentous than the admission of the graven image by the Christian Church.”2.Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images, as quoted by Thomas Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, p.1.

All was well until Emperor Leo III decided that some of his battlefield reversals were due to a lack of favor from God. This is not unheard of; Charlemagne felt something similar after setbacks in 768, and embarked on an effort to strengthen the spiritual foundations of his kingdom as a result. Leo, however, thought that the reason was that his people were disobeying the Fourth Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”3.Exodus, 20:4. Leo, as an iconoclast, began an effort that would last for more than a century to cleanse the church of images. An iconoclast is one who is opposed to icons, while an iconodule (or an iconophile) is in favor of them.

Throughout late antiquity and the early medieval period the Roman church was nominally under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, and the pope was merely the bishop of Rome (as he is today), while the Patriarch in Constantinople was head of the church. Traditionally a new pope would send a letter to Constantinople to announce his appointment, present his orthodox bona fides, and request the approval of the Patriarch. In 710 the future pope Gregory II accompanied the then-pope Constantine to Constantinople, where the emperor Justinian II examined him on the findings from the church council at Trullo in 692. “[H]is excellent reply solved every disputed point.”4.Liber Pontificalis, Gregory II, 91, ch.1, p.3.

Despite this long relationship between the churches Leo’s new edicts began to disturb this harmonious comity. Gregory III, who occupied the Holy See from 731 – 741, pushed back hard against the iconoclasts, and and “sent written warnings, with the authority of the apostolic see’s teachings, for them to change their minds and quit their error.” He even insisted on the excommunication of anyone who denied images.5.Liber Pontificalis, Gregory III, 92, ch.2-3, p.19-20.

Earthly events did not halt while such theological disputes raged. The Lombards were pushing hard themselves against papal and Byzantine holdings in the Italian north. The pope, being the man on the spot, naturally acted more quickly and aggressively than did the emperor. Even back then the pope was as much secular prince as spiritual guide, and Gregory III did not rely solely on the shield of faith as the Byzantine empire in the west crumbled. In 739 he reached north across the Alps in the hope of securing a temporal alliance.

At this time the blessed Pope Gregory twice sent an embassy from the seat of the holy apostle Peter at Rome to Prince Charles, with the keys of the tomb of the saint, a link from his chains and many rich presents. Such things had never been seen or heard of before. The pope proposed a bargain whereby he should desert the imperial cause and, with the approval of the Roman people, join that of the said Prince Charles.6.Fredegar, ch.22, p.96.

While Charles Martel did not agree to this proposal, succeeding popes did not waver. When Zacharias took the office in 741 he was the last to send the announcement letter to the emperor. Relations between Rome and Greece warmed slightly in mid-century, as both had to deal with the continuing Lombard expansionism. The popes tempered their defense of icons, and the emperor returned some Italian territories to the fledgling papal state.

Despite the schism between the churches the formalities were followed. A summary of a Roman synod in 745 opened with the formal “In the reign of the merciful and august lord, the emperor Constantine, in the twenty-sixth year of his reign.”7.Letters of Boniface, XLVII [59], p.76.

We should not think that the flow of news and events was entirely one-way. Martel’s defeat of the Muslims at Tours/Poitiers in 732-ish was noted by the Greek chronicler Theophanes. “[H]e fought the Arabs who had crossed from Africa to Spain and dared range themselves against the Franks… By the Eridanos river Pepin met them with his army and killed their commander Abd ar Rahman and a host not easy to count.”8.Chronicle of Theophanes, Annus Mundi 6216, p.94. As the translator notes, “For Arab affairs, Theophanes’ chronology is quite accurate. This is not the case in regard to western events.” His geography as well, as Eridanos is a river mentioned by Virgil in Hades. As the Byzantines were in near-constant conflict with the newly-emergent Islamic empire, this was welcome news.

Politically the Franks recognized the need for good relations with Byzantium, even if their heart was not in it. “In the meantime, for the sake of good relations and since it was in the national interest, King Pippin sent a mission to the Emperor Constantine at Constantinople. The Emperor Constantine likewise sent an embassy with many gifts to the king; and through their representatives each swore friendship and fidelity to the other.” I like how Fredegar makes no bones about a spiritual connection, or mutual admiration. This exchange was strictly “for the sake of good relations.” In any case, the chronicler adds, “this mutual amity that they embarked upon was not predestined to success.”9.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.40, p.109.

Next time we’ll look at another, more significant attempt to bind the kingdoms together.


Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, p.107.
2. Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images, as quoted by Thomas Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, p.1.
3. Exodus, 20:4.
4. Liber Pontificalis, Gregory II, 91, ch.1, p.3.
5. Liber Pontificalis, Gregory III, 92, ch.2-3, p.19-20.
6. Fredegar, ch.22, p.96.
7. Letters of Boniface, XLVII [59], p.76.
8. Chronicle of Theophanes, Annus Mundi 6216, p.94. As the translator notes, “For Arab affairs, Theophanes’ chronology is quite accurate. This is not the case in regard to western events.” His geography as well, as Eridanos is a river mentioned by Virgil in Hades.
9. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.40, p.109.

Leave a Comment

1,028 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments