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Will the real Roman Emperor please stand up?

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 the various 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 – which we might translate almost as “being a foreigner” – 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, ethnicity wasn’t about being a foreigner: rather, everyone belonged to an ethnic group. 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”. Those gentes 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 Byzantines had deserted.

And they included too the gens Francorum. 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 Romans.

And yet – ultimately Louis did not define the Roman empire in relation to 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 Roman 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. There’s a delightful passage in the letter in which Louis comments on Basil’s claims that the Frankish envoys were so uncouth that they would have attacked the Byzantines with their teeth, had they not been afraid of him, Basil. Nonsense, says Louis, that can’t be right: our men would never have behaved like that – but anyway they aren’t afraid of anybody! 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: 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. This was a Roman empire justified by results.

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 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.

Translation (pdf)Emperor Louis II of Italy to Emperor Basil I

*** 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 ****

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2 thoughts on “Will the real Roman Emperor please stand up?”

  1. I have been trying to find out how Louis II died, but I can’t find any information other than “he died close to what is now Brescia in 875”. Do you have any information in this regard?

    Thanks, best wishes and congrats on the blog

    Alex

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