In 799, King Charlemagne was fifty-one years old. His titles were the same as those he had held a quarter-century earlier, back in 774, when he was 26 years old: King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans. But one year later, on Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor.
Charlemagne’s Imperial Coronation
After being crowned emperor in 800, it took another year or two for Charlemagne to settle on what exactly his new title should be, but he settled on: Charles, the most serene, the distinguished, the great, the peacemaking, the crowned-by-God emperor ruling over the Roman Empire and, through the mercy of God, King of the Franks and the Lombards.
The title was a mouthful. It staked important claims, danced around delicate issues, and remained his title to the moment of his death, in 814 at his palace in Aachen—his favorite place to be.
Because Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor would be the event for which later generations best remembered him, there is a tendency to see his entire life as leading up to that moment.
Certainly, historical hindsight can be helpful to historians, as it helps to identify those events and trends that would impact the future, and those that would not. At the same time, hindsight can sometimes trick us into reading history backward, into projecting later events and developments onto earlier periods where they really do not belong.
Charlemagne’s imperial coronation is a case in point.
Was King Charlemagne Always Aiming to Become Emperor?
Charlemagne, as best as one can tell, had not spent his whole life, or even his whole adult life, in pursuit of the imperial title. Neither in the 760s, when he became king of the Franks; nor in the 770s and 780s, when he was also king of the Lombards and Patrician of the Romans; does Charlemagne seem to have even once entertained the notion that one day, he would be an emperor ruling an empire.
Also, for much of the 790s, one cannot find any evidence, even of the most allusive and indirect kind, that Charlemagne was thinking of reviving a western European empire. The precise moment when Charlemagne first contemplated the possibility of becoming emperor is unknown. Similarly unknown is the precise moment when he began taking steps to make that possibility a reality.
Both of those moments, however, likely date to the years 797 to 800, which is to say, not long before the imperial coronation itself.
During those few years, a sequence of anomalous, overlapping events, with one in particular, opened up a window of opportunity that made Charlemagne’s assumption of the imperial title conceivable and possible.
This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Irene: Ruler of the Byzantine Empire
Between 797 and 802, a woman ruled the Byzantine Empire. That female emperor was Irene. She had been the wife of Emperor Leo IV, who died in 780, leaving behind a ten-year-old heir named Constantine VI. Irene became his regent, ruling the Byzantine Empire in his name until he was old enough to assume power himself.
After Constantine VI attained the age of majority, Irene continued to serve as co-ruler; she was loath to give up the position that she had attained following her husband’s death. In 790, Constantine VI banished Irene from his court and proclaimed himself to be sole ruler; but in 792, he allowed mother to return to court and to resume her position as co-ruler.
Allowing his mother’s return turned out to be a mistake; in 797, Irene orchestrated a coup during which the conspirators captured and blinded Constantine VI. He then disappeared entirely, never to be heard from again. Irene was the sole emperor from 797 to 802, when a coup, in turn, deposed her.
Vacancy of the Imperial Office
In Rome, in Aachen, and elsewhere in the Kingdom of the Franks, those attuned to the broader political world knew about these machinations and Irene’s anomalous rule as a female emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Frankish annals, called the Annals of Lorsch, contain an entry, composed around 801, describing Charlemagne’s imperial coronation.
The Annals of Lorsch state that Franks and Romans held meetings in Rome during November and December 800. The purpose of the meetings was to decide whether Charlemagne should be crowned emperor.
An important factor in the Franks’ and the Romans’ thinking was how, in the Byzantine Empire, the ‘name of emperor’, or nomen imperatoris, was at that moment ‘absent’ among the Byzantines, who were subject to ‘female imperial rule’ (femineum imperium).
Stating that ‘the name of emperor was absent’ was a roundabout way of asserting the illegitimacy of Irene’s rule and the vacancy of the imperial office. And, if the imperial office was indeed vacant, it followed, at least implicitly, that a worthy claimant had every legal right to assume the imperial title—a worthy claimant such as Charlemagne.
Common Questions about Charlemagne Assuming the Imperial Title
King Charlemagne settled on his imperial title a year or two after his imperial coronation. His title was: Charles, the most serene, the distinguished, the great, the peacemaking, the crowned-by-God emperor ruling over the Roman Empire and, through the mercy of God, King of the Franks and the Lombards.
Irene ruled the Byzantine Empire as the sole female emperor from 797 to 802. In 802, a coup deposed her.
The Annals of Lorsch state that Franks and Romans held meetings in Rome during November and December 800, to decide whether Charlemagne should be crowned emperor. An important factor in their thinking was how, in the Byzantine Empire, the ‘name of emperor’, or nomen imperatoris, was at that moment ‘absent’ among the Byzantines, who were subject to ‘female imperial rule’ (femineum imperium). Stating that ‘the name of emperor was absent’ was a roundabout way of asserting the illegitimacy of Irene’s rule and the vacancy of the imperial office.