Black smoke, white smoke – revolution

Usurper, interloper, anti-pope: these are some of the epithets used to describe Constantine II, who held the papal seat for just over a year. Getting him into the papal shoes involved a march on Rome with a mass of peasants to force the issue, and a threatened beat down of a bishop. Overturning his election resulted in one of the bloodiest purges in papal history. Let’s dig in.

The death of Paul I on 26 June 767 marked the culmination of decades of ‘career popes.’ These were men who had joined the ranks of the religious orders at a young age, climbed the ladder of Lateran1.The Lateran Palace was the home of popes for a thousand years, and the base of papal power during that time. positions their entire lives, before their peers elected them to the supreme office. These popes followed a more or less common policy regarding theological questions and relations between the Papal States and foreign entities. They distrusted the Lombards, sought Frankish assistance in return for the bestowal of kingship, and sought to separate themselves from the authority of the Byzantine empire to the east. For the sake of convenience, and to align with current scholarly verbiage, let’s call them the ‘clerical party.’

But these clerics were not the only power in Rome and surrounding areas. Earthly power and authority, as was true throughout Europe, was held by a nobility such as dukes and counts. We’ll call them the ‘aristocratic party.’ “During the first seven decades of the eighth century, in Rome, the clerical and military orders had usually worked together harmoniously, not only because their domestic interests converged, but also because they faced common external threats.” But the papacy was the jewel in the crown. “The clerical bureaucracy, with the pope at its head, was larger, wealthier, and more sophisticated than anything that the military aristocracy could, or in fact did, erect to confront it.”2.Noble, The Republic of St Peter, p.113.

Paul’s reign carried (sadly) unspecified seeds of conflict between the aristocratic and clerical parties. This conflict finally boiled over at his demise, and ended with mobs in the street, torture and death.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The Lateran Palace was the home of popes for a thousand years, and the base of papal power during that time.
2. Noble, The Republic of St Peter, p.113.

Brothers, kings – and enemies

In December of 771 a Frankish king died, Carloman, second son of King Pepin. He was not yet twenty-one. His brother Charles, who would become known to us a Charlemagne, probably did not grieve. The two brothers had been in conflict and contention for years, and tensions had been so high that they had almost come to war just a year or two earlier. Their mother Bertrada, widow of the late king, at some point decided that her older son was the greater man, and threw her considerable diplomatic talents behind Charles. While no one has ever suggested foul play in the death of Carloman, his demise was a great convenience for Charles and his mother. Let’s see if we can untangle this twisted family tale.

At some point in the mid-740’s Pepin and his consort Bertrada had a son, whom they named Charles, after his grandfather Charles Martel. The date of this birth is a subject of some dispute, but we’ll settle on the year 747 for the purposes of this post. While to modern eyes this uncertain state of marriage between the parents would automatically render Charles illegitimate, Germanic concepts of marriage were more fluid in early medieval times. Charles was just as legitimate as Pepin and the nobles of the land wanted him to be. At any rate Pepin and Bertrada tied the knot in a formal public ceremony a few years after his birth. Then in 751 they had a second son, Carloman, named after his uncle, Pepin’s brother. Perhaps the choice of name was unfortunate, for the elder Carloman had led a troubled life, and died in somewhat mysterious circumstances.

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Gregory II: the schism begins

The pontificate of pope Gregory II marked the beginning of the end of the old “Byzantine papacy,” and the start of a new, western-facing papacy. Gregory opposed the Byzantine emperor on new taxes, inaugurated a muscular regional policy to oppose Lombard expansionism, and implacably fought the eastern empire’s policy of Iconoclasm. The popes that succeeded Gregory continued his policies, eventually culminating the coronation of Pepin the Short and the establishment of the ‘Papal States’ that continued until the 20th century. Let’s take a look.

Gregory II (his original name is not known) was born to a noble Roman family in 669. After holding a number of ecclesiastical posts he was elected pope on 19 May 715, and held the papacy until his death on 11 February 731. He is first notable to history for his work with Boniface, the English monk who proselytized among the Germans. During this period the papacy became increasingly concerned with converting German lands.1.Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32. Boniface, then named Wynfrith, first worked among the Frisians, then traveled to Rome in 717. Wynfrith impressed Gregory, who renamed him Boniface and sent him to Germany.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32.

The king’s daughter and the emperor’s son

Charlemagne’s relationship with his daughters has raised eyebrows for twelve centuries. In Einhard’s famous phrasing, “[H]e kept them close beside him at home until his death, saying that he could not stand to be parted from their company.”1.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.19, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, ed. Paul Dutton, p.29. Einhard has other highly interesting things to say about Charlemagne’s daughters and their relationship with their father, and we will explore that in another post. But at least once he considered letting a daughter go, when the mighty Byzantine Empire proposed joining families. That would be enough to make the most protective father think twice about keeping his daughter at home.

Charles was a man who enjoyed life’s pleasures, and a woman’s comfort not the least of them. His wives and concubines produced eighteen children (or more), a fact which caused some concern with at least one poet.2.McKitterick notes that Wetti of Richenau includes Charlemagne in his vision of hell, with a beast chewing on his genitals. Charlemagne: Formation of a European Identity, p.91. His first daughter with his second wife Hildegard was named Rotrude, who was born in 775. Being a daughter of a king, her usual duty and fate would have been to serve as a bridge between great families. Her chance came from an unexpected quarter in 781, when her father was in Rome.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.19, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, ed. Paul Dutton, p.29.
2. McKitterick notes that Wetti of Richenau includes Charlemagne in his vision of hell, with a beast chewing on his genitals. Charlemagne: Formation of a European Identity, p.91.

The empire to the east

Over the next few weeks I want to review the Byzantine Empire, the third of the great Mediterranean political entities, along with the Franks and the Arabs. As a prelude let’s outline the basic history, some geography, and a list of emperors. That will make it easier to talk about what was happening in the eighth century. There are plenty of histories of Byzantium available, everything from mighty tomes to Wikipedia. Here’s my version.

The Roman empire spanned an immense geographic area, an area so large and diverse that (for a variety of reasons) cracks and fissures inevitably broke out across the realm. Barbarians spilled in from the east, known as Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks(!), and others. Political and economic power concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and eventually fighting for control of Rome became the all-consuming past time of the elite, while the rest of the empire was left to fend for itself.

By the fourth century the locus of power had shifted to the east, and the emperor Constantine established Constantinople as the capitol of the “Eastern Roman Empire” and made Christianity the official religion of the state. The “Latin West” and the “Greek East” maintained an uneasy alliance. By the fifth century the western empire had largely collapsed under barbarian assaults, while Rome remained as the center of western Latin church.

The sixth century saw the reign of Justinian the Great, a Greek ruler who, during his 38 years on the throne, restored the empire to an extent that rivaled the realm of the Caesars. Things began to slide after that, particularly with the rise of the Islamic caliphs in the seventh century. The Arabs seized two of the richest Byzantine provinces, Syria and Egypt, which put a crimp in Constantinople’s grain supply. Muslim expansion culminated in a four-year siege of Constantinople that began in 674. While that attack was eventually repulsed, the effort required a shift of resources from other areas of the empire. Soon the Balkans were being taken over by the Slavs. As the eighth century dawned the empire was being nibbled away.

It’s worth taking a minute to review the geography of the empire as our epoch opens, just to get our bearings. Wikipedia has most helpfully provided a map. Byzantine empire, 650 ADNote that the bulk of the Byzantine empire lay to the east of Italy. There are a few western outliers, including Carthage in north Africa, and all of the big islands in the central Mediterranean. Don’t forget Ravenna, near Venice, which was part of the Lombard-Frankish-Papal disputes of the mid-eighth century. Travel between east and west required either a difficult overland passage, through some very sketchy neighborhoods, or a long sea voyage, with all of those attendant perils. Nonetheless communications between the Franks and the Eastern emperors did occur, with one very surprising example, which we will come to later.

Before we jump into the details of eighth century Byzantine-Frankish relations, let’s outline the emperors. It’s much easier to talk about events in reference to the rulers.

Emperor Reigned Birth Notes
Tiberios III 698-705 The beginning of the “Twenty Years of Anarchy.” Executed by Justinian II
Justinian II 705-11 668, Constantinople Last emperor of the Heraclian Dynasty. A reign marked by exceptional brutality.
Philippikos Bardanes 711-13 A Crimean rebel who seized the throne. Called “unspeakable” in the Liber Pontificalis.
Anastasios II 713-15 Rebuilt the city walls and filled the granaries in anticipation of another Arab siege.
Theodosius III 715-17 A tax collector before the army acclaimed him emperor. End of the Twenty Years of Anarchy.
Leo III the Isaurian 717-41 685, Germanikeia, Syria First of the Isaurian emperors. Initiated the Iconoclast movement in response to perceived military failures. Beginnings of Rome-Byzantine split. Died in bed, which was unusual for the times.
Constantine V 741-775 718, Constantinople Son of Leo III, who named him as co-emperor in 720. Defeated his brother-in-law Artavasdus in a civil war. Intensified the iconoclast campaign. Continued to fight against the Muslims and the Bulgars.
Leo IV the Khazar 775-80  750 Son of Constantine V, who named him as co-emperor in 751. Softened the Iconoclast policies, under the influence of his wife Irene. Died of fever while campaigning against the Bulgars.
Constantine VI 780-97 771 Son of Leo IV, who named him as co-emperor in 776. His mother Irene ruled as regent until 790. Betrothed in 782 to Rotrude, daughter of Charlemagne, but Irene broke it off. Suppressed a family rebellion in 793. Killed by Irene’s supporters.
Irene of Athens 797-802 752 Last of the Isaurian emperors.