On folio 241r of a manuscript known as the Liber Floridus, now in the care of the University of Gent Library, is a brightly coloured map of Europe. To modern eyes it might seem unremarkable, once one has understood that Italy is at the top and Spain at the bottom. But in closer inspection this map, drawn around 1115 by a Flemish canon named Lambert, is one of the most interesting things in a manuscript full of marvels. For this is not just a map of Europe: it is to my knowledge the first map of Europe.
Of course, maps had been drawn before that showed Europe, sometimes in greater detail than this. But in these maps Europe was always part of a wider context, part of the entire world (take for instance the famous Cotton Tiberius map drawn around a century earlier). In Lambert’s map, Europe is all there is to see, and that makes it rather peculiar.
Not only is Lambert’s map the first map of Europe, it is also often described as the first map to show political boundaries. As the rubric helpfully explains, ‘The kingdoms which are drawn around with red belong to the empire of the Romans and the Franks’. And sure enough, you can easily make out a red line that includes what we would now call France, Germany and Italy.
Drawing a line around an empire on a map might again seem unsurprising. Yet there does not seem to have been a precedent. After all, the ancient Roman empire had been strongly associated with universal rule and jurisdiction. It was written about as if it encompassed the whole earth. In Vergil’s Aeneid, the god Jupiter’s promise to the Romans is ‘For these, I set no limits in space and time; I give them empire without end’. The Roman empire had boundaries in practice, but not in theory.
Lambert’s map presents us with a very different concept of empire, one that is visually clearly bounded. It includes Italy, Aquitaine, Bavaria, Swabia and Saxony, which are all marked on the map; but not Spain, nor Scandinavia, eastern Europe or the Balkans – still less Britain, which is marked as inconsequentially floating in the Ocean. The empire is thus presented as merely a part of Europe’s territory, albeit a major one.
This perspective is echoed in the list of peoples that Lambert provides underneath the map. Lambert’s list seems to be based on one written (probably) in the seventh century, in a text known as Aethicus’ Cosmographia (I will check this once the libraries re-open). In the Cosmographia’s list of peoples, the Romans enjoyed special treatment: they alone are described not just as a people, but as ‘senatum populumque Romanum gentemque togatam’ – the SPQR of imperial grandeur, with togas to match. But Lambert stripped the Romans of this distinction. In his list, the Romani (and the Franci)are just one of the many peoples who inhabited an ethnically fragmented Europe.
Why did Lambert draw this peculiar map which broke so many cartographical conventions? The historian Albert Derolez, who has worked extensively on the Liber Floridus manuscript, thought that Lambert had designed this map to accompany extracts from the Annals of St Bertin which Lambert had copied earlier in the manuscript, extracts which described the divisions of the Frankish empire in 839 and 870. This hypothesis has lots to recommend it: it might help explain why Lambert’s map includes all of the kingdom of France in the Empire, which was not exactly the reality of his own day.
Yet Lambert’s rubric is written in the present tense: he says these kingdoms ‘belong’ (pertinent) to the empire. And he also hints at present-day reality by colouring the Rhine in red, as if to distinguish the lands ruled by the French king from those ruled by the Salian emperor. And Derolez could not explain why, if Lambert intended his map to illustrate the historical extracts, he changed his mind and put it somewhere else instead. So perhaps the map might represent how this Flemish canon pictured the world of his own day, not how he imagined the ninth century.
Whatever Lambert’s motives, to limit the empire spatially, circumscribing it with a red pen and distinguishing it from the rest of Europe, was a remarkable step to take. In the early twelfth-century world of this Flemish canon, empire was a phenomenon that was meaningful, and one that transcended contemporary political borders – but it was not the overall frame of reference. This was empire conceptually and cartographically cut down to size.
Further reading. Lots has been written about the Liber Floridus, and quite a lot about this map. Here’s a selection:
You can see the whole Liber Floridus manuscript online
As the Carolingian empire grew in size, so its ‘stakeholders’ grew richer – kings, churches, and the highest-ranked Frankish aristocrats above all.
Few if any Carolingian aristocrats were higher-ranking than the couple who issued this will around 863, presented below in draft English translation for the first time (primarily to help students). Count Eberhard came from a well-established noble kinship group labelled by modern historians as the ‘Unruochings’, because many men associated with it were named Unruoch. Eberhard’s wife Gisela was the daughter of Emperor Louis the Pious and Empress Judith, no less. This was a family at the very top of the tree.
That position is evident from the document itself, in which Eberhard and Gisela distributed their possessions amongst their sons and daughters. A large part of the will reads like a treasure list: immense quantities of golden, silver and ivory objects, from swords to drinking vessels. Some of these were probably of recent manufacture, others may have been antiques already. The will is also famous for its dozens of books, which are individually divided up amongst the children too. Eberhard and Gisela had evidently built up a very considerable library.
Nevertheless, the bulk of their wealth was in land. The will does not give a precise value or acreage, but it is apparent that Eberhard and Gisela were seriously wealthy, with property in what is now Germany, Italy, Belgium and France. They were certainly part of the Carolingian 1%, busy with Piketty and Scheidel’s ‘capital accumulation’, and keen to pass it on to their heirs.
But the more you have, the more you have to lose, and Eberhard and Gisela clearly worried about that. Their will accounts for the possibility that a future king of the Franks, Lombards or Alemans will seize property from one of their heirs ‘by violence or without cause’. The Carolingian world of the 860s was one of kingdoms ruled by rival kings, which posed problems for those aristocrats whose property stretched over the old empire as a whole.
Indeed the will can be read as indicating that the couple were beginning to create separate ‘kernels’ of land, with, for instance, all their Italian estates passing as a bloc to their eldest son, Unroch. While kings were still aiming for the ultimate prize – to reconstitute the empire of Charlemagne – were their aristocrats already quietly but surely accommodating themselves to a new, more fragmented reality?
In the spring of the year 1000, excavations took place in the great church of Aachen, built by Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks, who had died nearly two centuries previously. The excavations had been commissioned by one of Charlemagne’s imperial successors, Emperor Otto III, with the aim of discovering Charlemagne’s final resting place.
According to three separate accounts of what happened (on which see below), this early medieval Time Team dig was brilliantly successful, and the living emperor gazed upon the dead. But what none of the accounts quite spells out, and what therefore remains an open question, is exactly what Otto III was hoping to achieve through his archaeological enquiries. Was it just idle curiosity about his distant predecessor – or was there some deeper motivation at work?
Emperor Otto III has long had a special reputation. The son of the Byzantine princess Theophanu, this half-Greek Holy Roman emperor took his role very seriously, despite or perhaps because of his youth. Contemporaries alleged that he preferred Italy, and especially the city of Rome, to his ancestral lands across the Alps.
For some modern historians, Otto was a dreamer, carried away by his impossible vision of reviving the Roman Empire in a very post-Roman world, and increasingly out of touch with fundamental political realities.
More recently, Otto III has been brought back to earth, as historians have asked whether he really was quite as ideologically driven (and unrealistic) as all that. Maybe the ‘programme’ of Roman renovation that historians such as P.E. Schramm have attributed to him was not quite as coherent as they supposed.
Yet that doesn’t explain what Otto thought he was doing in Aachen in the year 1000. One explanation is that the excavations were part of an attempt to canonise Charlemagne, in other words to have the old emperor recognised as a saint. But there is another intriguing possibility: that Otto was motivated by the legend of the Last Emperor.
The roots of this legend were older even than Charlemagne himself – they lie in the horrified reaction of Syrian Christians to the rise of Islam, and the dramatic near-collapse of the Byzantine Empire, in the seventh century. These events were so bewildering that they only made sense in an eschatological framework – as a step towards the inevitable ending of the world. So, around 692, an author claiming to be a fourth-century bishop named Methodius wrote a ‘prediction’ that the sons of Ishmael would take over the world, and impose unbearable tax demands. But ‘Methodius’ added a note of reassurance: the king of the Romans would return in the end, driving out the intruders and bringing peace and justice – until the Antichrist appeared, at which point the Apocalypse would unfold according to God’s plan.
And after these things the king of the Romans will come down and he will dwell in Jerusalem for a week and a half of years, which is ten and a half years, and when ten and a half years are completed, the son of perdition will appear.
This text, known as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, helped overturn centuries of suspicion about the Empire’s role in world history. It influenced many other texts, such as the Tiburtine Sibyl – another work of pseudo-prophecy which survives only in an eleventh-century version. Early Christians had been reluctant to attribute any positive eschatological role to Roman emperors, understandably enough given the history of persecutions. Now, emperors and empire could play a full, active and positive role in world history: imperial time could be folded into Christian time.
The extent to which the year 1000 represented a high point of apocalyptic tension – a thousand years after Christ’s birth – has been debated for years, as has the extent to which Otto would have been personally affected by such concerns. But several contemporary sources – for instance Otto’s own imperial diplomas, as well as hagiographical accounts – do imply that he had eschatological thoughts in his mind in that year, as Levi Roach has recently argued. Did Otto III think Charlemagne was the Last Emperor? Did he think *he* was the last emperor?
Here are the three eleventh-century texts describing Otto’s Indiana Jones-style search for the lost emperor in Aachen, so you can make up your own mind about what Otto was doing (all the translations are mine). They were written by authors from different parts of early medieval Europe, namely a Saxon bishop and two monks – one from northern Italy, and another from southern France.
Book III, Chapter 32. After many years had passed, Emperor Otto III came to the region where the remains of Charlemagne rested in his tomb. Otto travelled to the site of the tomb itself, with two bishops and Count Otto of Lomello. The emperor himself was the fourth person. The count used to tell what happened, saying ‘We entered to see Charlemagne. He was not lying down, as is normal for the corpses of the deceased, but was sitting on a kind of throne as if alive, crowned with a golden crown, carrying a sceptre in his gloved hands, through which his fingernails had broken. There was above him a small building (tugurium), carefully built from limestone and marble. When we came to this, we knocked a hole through it. And when we had passed through the hole, we smelled a very strong odour. We at once venerated him on our knees, and Otto immediately dressed him in white garments, cut his fingernails, and made good all that was lacking around him. Nothing had decayed from his limbs, but there was a little missing from the tip of his nose. Otto at once replaced it with gold. He took one tooth from Charlemagne’s mouth, rebuilt the building, and left.’
The French monk: Ademar of Chabannes’ Chronicle.
Book III ch. 31
At this time, Emperor Otto was warned in a dream to raise up the body of the Emperor Charlemagne. He was buried at Aachen, but because of the oblivion of passing time, no one knew exactly the spot he was buried. After fasting for three days, they found him at the precise spot the emperor had seen in his vision, sat on a golden throne in a vaulted crypt underneath the church of St Mary, crowned with a crown of gold and precious jewels, holding a sceptre and a sword of pure gold; as for the body itself, it was found to be uncorrupted. He was raised up and shown to the people. Then, one of the canons of that place, Adalbert, who was very big and tall, put on the crown of Charlemagne, as if to try it for size. It was apparent that his skull was narrower than the emperor’s, and that the dimension of the crown exceeded that of his head. He measured his leg against the emperor, finding himself to be smaller – and at once by the effect of divine power his leg was broken. He survived for forty years, but always remained crippled. The body of Charlemagne was placed in the right transept of the church, behind the altar of John the baptist. A great gilded vault was built there, and the remains began to shine out with signs and miracles. But they are not the object of any liturgical cult (sollemnitas), apart from that of the anniversary of the dead, as is the normal custom. Emperor Otto sent Charlemagne’s golden throne to King Boleslav in exchange for relics of Saint Adalbert.
The Saxon bishop Thietmar of Merseburg’s Chronicle.
Book IV, chapter 47
The emperor [Otto III] wanted to renew in his time the ancient customs of the Romans, then for the most part destroyed, and so he did many things, about which different people had different opinions. He sat alone at a table made into a semicircle, at a higher place than the others. As Emperor Otto III was unsure about the location of the bones of Emperor Charles, he secretly had the pavement ripped up where he thought they were and ordered excavations, until they were discovered on the royal throne (solium). He took the gold cross which hung around the emperor’s neck and part of his clothing, which remained uncorrupted, and he replaced the rest with great veneration.
* This blog was written primarily for undergraduate teaching purposes, and hence only refers to English-language material.
 See the recent biography by G. Althoff, Otto III (University Park, Penn., 2004).
 D. Warner, ‘Ideals and action in the reign of Otto III’, Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999), 1-18.
 For a wider discussion, see M. Gabriele, ‘Otto III, Charlemagne, and Pentecost A.D. 1000: A Reconsideration Using Diplomatic Evidence’, in The Year 1000: Religious and Social Response to the Turning of the First Millennium, ed. Michael Frassetto (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 111–32.
 Convincingly argued by C. Bonura, ‘When Did the Legend of the Last Emperor Originate? A New Look at the Textual Relationship between the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Tiburtine Sibyl’, Viator 47, 3 (2016), 47-100.
 L. Roach, ‘Emperor Otto III and the End of Time’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Ser. 6, 23 (2013), 75-102.
Latin text. This is my own translation; cf. however a complete English translation, new edition and extensive commentary of the chronicle by Elizabeth Clark in her 2017 PhD thesis (pdf).
 Latin edition: P. Bourgain with R. Landes and G. Pon, ed., Ademari Cabannensis Chronicon (Turnhout, 1999). French translation: Y. Chauvin and G. Pon, trans., Chronique: Adémar de Chabannes (Turnhout, 2003). There is no complete English translation of the text.
 Latin edition: R. Holtzmann, ed., Die Chronik des Bischofs Thietmar von Merseburg und ihre Korveier Überarbeitung. Thietmari Merseburgensis episcopi chronicon (Berlin, 1935). Full English translation: D. Warner, tr., Ottonian Germany: the chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg (Manchester, 2001).
How did the Carolingian Empire, established by Charlemagne through his coronation in Rome in the year 800, differ from the Byzantine Empire centred around Constantinople (modern Istanbul)?
The ideological and cultural aspects of this enormous question have been abundantly studied for these two heirs of the ancient Roman Empire, but the issue is perhaps less clearly understood when it comes to the practical exercise of power. Historians have plenty of sources at their disposal for both these political units, but these sources are culturally embedded in such a way as to make direct comparison difficult, especially when it comes to thinking about how power worked at an everyday level, and how rulers controlled their territories.
There is however one source that not just allows but encourages us to think comparatively about how these two empires actually worked, and that is the Rižana Dispute (sometimes also known as the Plea of Rižana). You can read a full English translation, but here is a brief summary:
Around 804, Charlemagne sent three legates to Istria, a peninsula to the north-east of Italy, to resolve a dispute that had broken out there.
Istria was a region that had previously been under Byzantine control, but Charlemagne had conquered it in 788, and annexed it to the kingdom of Italy (which he had also conquered a few years earlier, in 774). This conquest had brought with it some changes in how Istria was governed: and it was to these changes that people in Istria were objecting in 804.
The source is a record of the meeting that Charlemagne’s legates arranged to sort things out at Rižana, an area now just outside the modern Slovenian town of Koper, a couple of kilometres from the Italian border. The legates summoned 172 leaders from cities and fortified settlements in the Istrian region to hear what the issue was: and these people did not hold their punches.
First of all, the Istrian witnesses complained that since the Frankish conquest, the church had started to throw its weight around much more. They began by accusing the Patriarch of Grado, the most senior churchman of the area, of evading his financial responsibilities. Then they moved onto the other bishops, who they said had been dodging their obligations, evicting people from church lands wrongfully, and generally bullying the local free population.
But their real anger was reserved for Duke John, the main secular agent appointed by the Franks. John, they said, had appropriated the revenues meant for the imperial court for his own purposes, and had also taken over a great deal of property. And that was just the start of it! He’d abolished the traditional hierarchy of offices held by regional leaders, along with the cherished privileges that went with them; he’d demanded extra humiliating services, such as feeding his dogs and onerous long-distance transport duties; and he’d raised tax demands considerably. Getting direct access to the centre of power was much harder than it had been, the Istrian leaders claimed, under the Greeks.
What does this account tell us about the Carolingian and Byzantine empires? Both were obviously agrarian empires, getting their revenues from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Rights over grazing livestock were particularly important in this region. So in focusing their demands for revenue on these resources, to some extent the new rulers of Istria simply stepped into the shoes of the old.
But the differences are striking, too. Power in Carolingian Istria was organised and exercised in new ways. The Carolingian regime had apparently empowered bishops at the expense of what seems like the relics of a Roman-style city-based administration maintained by the Byzantines. The Carolingian administrative apparatus was also far less elaborate: instead of a series of grand titles and offices, each with their own administrative privileges, rituals and customs, there was just the duke and his all-purposes “sheriffs” (centenarii), together with his own extended family. And, as already mentioned, the new emperor was harder to reach than the old one. To get to the court, and thus to reach Charlemagne’s attention, the Istrians had to go through mediators whom they didn’t altogether trust, whether it was a duke or a church patriarch.
The new Carolingian regime may seem therefore less sophisticated than the Byzantine administration had been. Yet despite our modern preconceptions, and as Matthew Innes has pointed out, that doesn’t mean that it was less effective at flexing its muscles. In fact, judging from the complaints, it was actually more successful at extracting revenues from the region than the Byzantine rulers had been, even if not all of the proceeds ended up at the imperial centre any more.
And, as Stefan Esders has noted, the new regime was also just as literate. The Rižana record itself demonstrates that, since it was probably the first time that the customs of the region had been written down, in this case under the auspices of the Patriarch of Grado (in some ways as much a representative of Frankish authority in Istria as Duke John).
So, a relatively unelaborated and informal apparatus of government posed no barrier to efficient and effective rule. Carolingian Istria seems to have been just as controlled, and just as exploited, as Byzantine Istria, even though (as Rachel Stone has also argued) the Carolingian Empire was organised very differently.
Can we securely draw sweeping conclusions about how power worked in two empires just on the basis of a single document? Of course not. Matters in Istria were complicated by its recent conquest. This was a frontier zone between two empires, so things may well have been very different elsewhere. But the Rižana Dispute at least gives us a glimpse into how the Carolingian and Byzantine empires were ‘experienced’ differently by the same regional community – and that’s a precious insight of which we should make the most.
For more discussion (in English) of the Rizana (sometimes also spelled Risano or Riziano) dispute, see
J. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge, 2015), esp. pp. 102-4 and 274-277.
M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.
F. Borri, ‘Neighbors and Relatives”: The Plea of Rižana as a Source for Northern Adriatic Elites’, Mediterranean Studies
17 (2008), pp. 1-26
 M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.
 Stefan Esders, ‘Regionale Selbstbehauptung zwischen Byzanz und dem Frankenreich: Die inquisitio der Rechtsgewohnheiten Istriens durch die Sendboten Karls des Großen und Pippins von Italien’, in Eid und Wahrheitssuche. Studien zu rechtlichen Befragungspraktiken in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. S. Esders (Frankfurt, 1999), 49-112.
What’s the best way to become a bishop? Writing around 835, a cleric gave an example of how it should be done. Long ago, there was a rich man from a Lyon senatorial family called Eucherius. He gave away all his money to the poor, and went to live in a remote cave. There he hid alone for many years, fasting and praying, until the bishop of Lyon died. Then divine grace revealed Eucherius to the Lyon clergy as the best replacement, so they retrieved him from his cave and ordained him as their new bishop.
The cleric who tells us this story, Florus of Lyon, isn’t very well-known today outside the circle of specialists. That’s a pity, because he’s a fascinating figure. Steeped in patristic learning, he cultivated a range of interests, including UFOs (yes, really – see ‘Florus de Lyon et les extra-terrestres’ on Pierre Chambert-Protat’s highly recommended blog). Florus could be acerbic, and he could also be radical: and his account of how Eucherius became bishop of Lyon is a case in point.
That’s because Florus didn’t tell the story to suggest that all prospective future bishops should give away their money and live hidden in remote caves waiting for their moment (a rather risky career strategy). Rather, what he wanted to emphasise was that no king had been involved in Eucherius’s appointment. And that kings had no role to play in episcopal appointments was the point of the short treatise in which Florus included this story, On the appointment of bishops, and which you can read here in a draft English translation (to my knowledge, the first time it’s been translated).
In this treatise, Florus used the example of Eucherius (who really did become bishop of Lyon, in the fifth century) to suggest that worldly rulers never really had played a role in appointing bishops. Certainly the Christian Roman emperors hadn’t, because they were too busy ruling the entire world to bother with every single appointment. Florus described this situation as one of church freedom, ecclesiastica libertas. Afterwards, princes in ‘some kingdoms’ began to be consulted on appointments, but nothing more. Florus observed that even in his own day, not only was the pope of Rome appointed without royal interference, the pope himself ordained bishops without royal involvement.
Florus suggested that this tradition was only right and proper, because worldly rulers did not have the capacity to appoint new bishops: ordination was a gift of the Holy Spirit, not of humans. In some ways, Florus was stating the obvious here, since medieval kings never claimed that they could themselves ordain bishops. But in other ways, this was a very radical argument, since in practice kings in Florus’s day exercised a lot of influence in the appointment procedure, up to the point of choosing the successful candidate.
Indeed, lots about Florus’s Book on the election of bishops has strong resonances with later currents of what we now call Gregorian church reform. For instance, the concern with drawing a sharper distinction between the church and the world; the focus on ecclesiastical appointments; the emphasis on the church’s freedom; the emphasis on the papacy; a distinctly polemical tone; and the use of Late Antique sources in new ways, for Florus’s short text cites Cyprian at length. In this respect as in other ways (hostility to Jews and heretics), Carolingian Lyons seems to have been something of a laboratory for later ideas.
However, Florus’s argument wasn’t effective in the 830s. He seems to have written the treatise to stop the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious from imposing a new bishop named Amalarius on the church of Lyon. But directly challenging the emperor proved not to be the most tactful approach, so Florus gamely switched tactics, and mounted a no-holds-barred campaign to show instead that Amalarius was a heretic – a campaign which eventually worked much better.
Yet Florus’s text about appointing bishops is preserved in four manuscripts from around 900 (thanks to Gallica you can see one of them here), showing that near-contemporaries could see and appreciate the general significance of this work, even after the immediate controversy it was written for had died down. The so-called Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, it’s becoming ever clearer, had very deep roots.
Image: Wikipedia (the Prague Gospels, s. IX: Cim 2, knihovně Pražské metropolitní kapituly)
 See the very stimulating article by Warren Pézé, ‘Amalaire et la communauté juive de Lyon. À propos de l’antijudaïsme lyonnais à l’époque carolingienne’, Francia 40 (2013), pp. 1-25, open access here
For a couple of years, I’ve been working intermittently on a translation of a long letter sent by the Carolingian king and emperor of Italy, Louis II, to his Byzantine counterpart Basil in 871. It probably still wouldn’t be done, had not an invitation to talk at a roundtable on Romanness after Rome prodded me to finish it. The draft translation – the first full one in English, about 5,000 words – is appended to this blog, in the hope of encouraging other people to study (and teach about) the text. It’s interesting for all kinds of reasons, but it’s especially useful for thinking through questions of what it was to be Roman after Rome, because its main concern was what it meant to be a post-Roman Roman emperor.
First, some background. Louis II, son of Emperor Lothar I, had been crowned the fourth Carolingian emperor in 844, aged around 20, before taking up sole rule in Italy on his father Lothar’s death in 855. Louis (surely the least well studied Carolingian, though Clemens Gantner is now on the case) wrote this letter towards the end of his long reign, in response to a provocative message from Emperor Basil I of Byzantium (867-886). Basil’s letter itself is now lost, but its content can be fairly guessed from Louis’s reply and from the known political context, which included military co-operation against North African raiders and a marriage proposal.
In spite of this close collaboration, or maybe because of it, Emperor Basil’s letter centred on a refusal to accept that Louis was the, or even a, Roman emperor. This was on two grounds: because the title was not hereditary (paternum), and because it was not suitable (non convenit) for someone from a gens, that is from an ethnic group, such as (in this case) the Franks. There was only one Roman emperor, and that was him, Basil. Louis might perhaps be emperor of the Franks, but that was all – and Basil was not sure even about that, because only the leader of the Romans could be the basileus (the Greek word for emperor). Louis was a Frank, and that was that.
To a great extent, therefore, Basil’s arguments (and understanding of his own office) rested on his conceptions of ethnicity and Romanness. For Basil, the world was divided between the (Byzantine) Romans on the one hand, and all the various ‘peoples’ gentes on the other. Being a Roman was not the equivalent to being a Frank, or a Saracen, or a Khazar, because Romanness was not an “ethnicity”: there was no Roman gens. As a consequence, having an ethnic identity, as Louis did, in Basil’s view intrinsically excluded an imperial identity.
Louis’s conceptions of ethnicity were very different, with major implications for how he viewed Romanness and empire. For Louis, *everyone* belonged to an ethnic group. This included the Romans, whom Louis describes as the gens romana: these were the people with a glorious past who lived in Rome, and whom (Louis points out) the Byzantine emperors had deserted. Each of these peoples or gentes could be led by a basileus, and historically often had been: the rulers of Constantinople had no monopoly on that title, but shared it with “other gentes”.
These gentes also included the Franks, who however had a special place. In a very interesting passage, Louis situates the Franks as not just the successors but the surrogates of the Romans, through a fascinating metaphor: “When the branches were broken, we were grafted onto them; when we were wild olives, we were joined to their roots and became fat with olives. We say therefore that the branches were broken so that we might be grafted on”. The Franks were therefore in effect the new ancient Romans.
And yet – ultimately, even for Louis, the Roman empire transcended ethnicity. Even at the height of the Roman empire, Louis declared, non-Romans had become emperors. “In what way”, asked Louis, “is [the imperial title] inappropriate for a people (gens), since we know – mentioning only a few for the sake of brevity – that Roman emperors were created from the people (the gens) of Hispania, Isauria, and Khazaria?” The latter two examples related to fairly recent Byzantine history, but the former took the reader back to the fourth century. Louis went on to explain, “For certainly the elder Theodosius and his sons Arcadius and Honorius, and Theodosius the younger, the son of Arcadius, were raised from Spaniards to the summit of the Roman empire. And we do not find that anyone complained or grumbled that he was not a Roman but a Spaniard (quod non Romanus sed Hispanus existeret)”.
What was relevant for imperial rule was therefore not what one was or was called, but what one did. Louis accordingly contrasted Frankish military prowess and bravery with Byzantine cowardice. Strikingly, Louis declares his intention to conquer Sicily too, to restore it to its “former liberty” after its recent capture by the Muslims.
Louis’s Roman imperial title was justified by war, then. But its chief justification nevertheless lay elsewhere: in religion. The superiority of Frankish belief was manifested partly by Frankish religious learning – the letter itself is intended to show the command the Franks had of historical and ethnographic knowledge, both Greek and Latin. It was partly demonstrated by their missionary activities. But most of all, it was expressed by the recognition given to them by the Pope of Rome, who had rejected the ‘cacadoxy’ and indeed heresy of the Byzantines in new Rome in favour of the orthodoxy of the gens Francorum. Louis was Roman emperor, because God had given him the city, people and church of Rome to protect, through the Pope.
Talking of post-Roman Roman emperors has a touch of paradox about it, which is not dispelled by the squabbles between a Greek-speaking ruler based in Constantinople and a Frankish ruler who seldom actually visited Rome over who was the rightful heir to the Roman legacy. Indeed there is a related paradox at the heart of this letter. Basil did not think that the Romans were an ethnic group at all – and yet he nevertheless defined the Roman Empire in ethnic terms, in that it was defined against ethnicity. Louis by contrast lived in an entirely ethnicised world, and yet did not view the Roman Empire as defined by a relationship to ethnicity: this was the empire of God, Who had created all the gentes.
Basil to be sure had the greater weight of continuity on his side, since his arguments resonated with older Roman conceptions of group identity. But Louis’s arguments made good sense of the facts on the ground, so to speak. And proof of how convincing Louis’s arguments were is perhaps provided by the letter’s authorship. The letter was of course written in Louis’s name, and we may assume that he agreed with its sentiments. But Louis had naturally outsourced the actual drafting to someone else, in this case probably a prominent cleric called Anastasius the Librarian. Anastasius was highly educated and had experience of the Greek court, so he was an obvious choice. But Anastasius was not himself Frankish: he was Roman, from an important family of the city of Rome.
That such a figure, at the heart of the papal establishment, could elaborate the Frankish view of ethnicity – the simultaneous ethnicisation of Romanness and de-ethnicisation of empire – so conscientiously suggests that to some extent he had internalised it; that it was now the Roman view. By the late ninth century, Rome and the Byzantine world had indeed drifted very far apart.
For a study of the changing role of ethnicity in Roman and post-Roman Europe, see P. Geary, ‘European Ethnicities and European as an Ethnicity: Does Europe Have Too Much History’, in M. Staub and G. Loud (eds.), The Making of Medieval History (Woodbridge, 2017), 57-69.
Louis II is not well served in English-language work, but see now C. Gantner, ‘”Our Common Enemies Shall Be Annihilated!” How Louis II’s Relations with the Byzantine Empire Shaped his Policy in Southern Italy’, in Southern Italy as Contact Area and Border Region during the Early Middle Ages, ed. Wolf and Herbers (2017), pp. 295-314, concentrating on the earlier part of Louis’s reign.
*** Professor Berto has kindly brought to my attention his new English translation, Italian Carolingian historical and poetical texts, Pisa, 2016, which includes an English translation of Andreas of Bergamo’s chronicle as well as some poetical works (but does not include this text). 27.03.17 ***
***Clemens Gantner has kindly pointed out that the manuscript containing Louis’s letter is now available online: Vat. lat. 5001, fol. 60: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.5001 05/07/19***
A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)