From Leo III the Isaurian to Francis II

December 1 2012

Imperial reigns:

Leo III Syrus (the Isaurian) 717-41

Charlemagne 800-14

Otto I 962-73

Otto III 996-1002

Henry IV 1084-1105

Frederick I (Barbarossa) 1155-90

Frederick II (Stupor Mundi) 1220-50

Francis II 1792-1806

Athênê Poliûchus, Athânâ Chalcioecus, Tychê Antiocheôn, Fortuna Praenestina, and the other deified combatants in a mêlée of conflicting parochial idols had eventually been called to order by being subordinated to the oecumenical supremacy of a Dea Roma and a Divus Augustus; and a post-Diocletianic absolute version of this consolidated worship of the concentrated power of a politically unified Mankind was formally revived in Western Christendom, a quarter of a millennium before the revival of city-state-worship in Lombardy, when Charlemagne was crowned as a Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Saint Peter’s on Christmas Day A.D. 800.

The memory of this Carolingian evocation of a “holy” Roman ghost of an extinct Hellenic universal state cannot come into our minds without reminding us simultaneously that, since then, the same ghost had been re-evoked again and again in the Western World in the course of the eleven and a half centuries that had elapsed between the date of the coronation of Charlemagne at Rome and the time of the writing of these lines.

The all but fatal collapse of the nascent Western Christian Civilization itself, which had been the price of Charlemagne’s failure to resuscitate the Roman Empire in the West effectively, did not deter a Saxon Otto I from repeating his Austrasian predecessor’s attempt; and the subsequent failure of Otto’s attempt in its turn did not deter a Swabian Frederick I [Barbarossa] from attempting, for his part, to undo the political effects of the humiliation of a Franconian Henry IV at Hildebrand’s hands by employing against a triumphant Hildebrandine Church the refurbished spiritual weapon of a recently disinterred Justinianean Law. Thereafter, when Frederick Barbarossa’s experience had demonstrated that the necromancer’s wand provided by his Bolognese legists was a broken reed, his grandson Frederick Stupor Mundi set himself to reverse, at the eleventh hour, the cumulative disaster of Charlemagne’s, Henry IV’s, and Frederick I’s successive discomfitures – though the weapon in which Frederick II trusted to conjure a victory out of his forlorn hope was one which had missed fire, more than two hundred years back, in the hands of his Saxon predecessor Otto III.

This imaginative tenth-century forerunner of a thirteenth-century Stupor Mundi had sought to condense an insubstantial wraith of a defunct Imperium Romanum into at least a similitude of flesh and blood by transferring the seat of a rehabilitated Western Christian “Holy Roman Empire” from Western Christendom’s Saxon marches over against the North European barbarians to her Roman march over against Orthodox Christendom. At the turn of the tenth and eleventh centuries of the Christian Era the Ducatus Romanus was a patch of common ground on which the domains of the two Christendoms overlapped; and, in installing himself in the ci-devant Imperial City, Otto III had hoped to fortify the sickly counterfeit of the Roman Imperial Power that had been palmed off on Western Christendom by reinforcing it with tougher metal imported from a Byzantine mint. The success of Leo III Syrus’s revival of the Roman Empire in Orthodox Christendom had been as conspicuous as the failure of Charlemagne’s subsequent attempt to perform a corresponding feat of political necromancy in the West. Could not a clumsy Western necromancer’s abortive essay be salvaged by the Herodian expedient of turning to Western Christendom’s account the achievements of an Orthodox Christian necromancer’s virtuosity?

This complicated experiment of trying to raise the ghost of a dead civilization by employing a living civilization as a medium, which Otto III had failed to carry to success in the cultural crucible of a late-tenth century City of Rome, was repeated by Frederick II under more promising conditions in a thirteenth-century Kingdom of Sicily which was the East Roman Empire’s Transadriatic successor-state. The outcome of this more ambitious adventure in the black art of political alchemy was […] a war to the death between a pseudo-Byzantine “Holy Roman Empire” and a Hildebrandine Papal Roman Church which brought the victorious ecclesiastical combatant to the ground in the same ruin as his vanquished secular adversary and thereby compromised the future of a promising Western Christian attempt to explore a previously untried approach towards the goal of the baffling enterprise of Civilization. Yet the ghost of an obsolete Hellenic institution that had been so inauspiciously raised at the close of the eighth century of the Christian Era by an Austrasian king and a Roman patriarch was still able to induce fresh Western victims to feed it with their life-blood within full view of their infatuated predecessors’ unburied corpses.

By the time of the extirpation of Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s brood, the cumulus of historic disasters, that had gradually come to be associated with academic pretensions to the imperial prerogative in the West, had gathered round a tragic imperial crown into a lowering nimbus which might have been expected to serve as an effective deterrent against any further repetition of Charlemagne’s folly. Yet this scarecrow Caesarea Maiestas was eagerly appropriated by the architects of a Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy for the sake of the prestige that it could still lend to their strictly practical enterprise of providing an Early Modern Western World with a local carapace to protect it against Ottoman aggression in the Danube Basin; and, after the decay of the Ottoman Power had rendered a Hapsburg Empire’s service to the Western Civilization superfluous, [a Corsican adventurer proclaimed himself Emperor and on December 2 1804 crowned himself in Paris in the presence of Pope Pius VII].

The last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated on August 6 1806.

Leo the Isaurian, for Toynbee, is the real founder of a remodelled Orthodox Christian Roman Empire in the east:

The Roman Empire in the East ran out between the death of Justinian in A.D. 565 and the overthrow of Maurice in A.D. 602, the East Roman Empire was constructed by Leo Syrus (imperabat A.D. 717-40).

All Byzantine Emperors regarded themselves as “Roman” Emperors. The first use of the word “Byzantine” was in 1557, when the German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ, a collection of historical sources. The term comes from Byzantium, the name of Constantinople before it became the capital of Constantine.

In 812 the emperor Michael I Rhangabes recognised Charlemagne as Emperor, although not necessarily as “Emperor of the Romans”. What were the relations between the two emperors between 962 and 1453?

The second and third Romes


A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

One Response to “From Leo III the Isaurian to Francis II”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    And what were the relations of the popes with both emperors from 800 onwards?

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