TW Viewpoint | The Restoration of Rome Part 2 - Charlemagne

October 09, 2019 | Jonathan Riley

Charlemagne or Charles the Great is one of the key historical figures in the reconstruction and unification of the Western Roman Empire. He arrived on the scene almost three hundred years after the last Roman emperor to control Western Europe was deposed by Germanic tribes. Who was Charlemagne and what role did he have in the restoration of Rome?


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Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD the role of the Bishop of Rome was severed from the remaining regions controlled by Constantinople in the Eastern Roman Empire. This was briefly reversed under the rule of Justinian, as examined in Part one of this series. However three years after Justinian’s death the Lombard’s invasion of Italy took place.

Charlemagne was a Germanic warrior; in fact the entire Frankish kingdom consisted primarily of modern-day France and Germany ruled by a Germanic elite. His father Pepin the Short was the first member of the Carolingian dynasty, with the blessing of the Pope, to be crowned King of the Franks in 751 AD. In exchange of this support, he donated the land that became the Papal States and it was Pepin’s close relationship with the Papacy, which formed the future role of Charlemagne and the church in Rome.

When Charlemagne was crowned king in 768 AD, it was alongside his brother Carloman. Four years later Carloman died and the entire Frankish kingdom was under his control. His early reign was replete with military campaigns in order to expand and solidify his rule. With the souring of the Lombard/Papacy relationship, largely due to outstanding debts which Rome was unable to repay and claims of land in the peninsula, Charlemagne, as had his father, chose to side with the Pope. It was in 773 AD that he crossed the Alps for his first campaign in northern Italy.

With the Pope granting Charlemagne the title of ‘Patrician’ sometime during his successful campaign against the Lombards, the already growing divide between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Bishop of Rome was well underway, with the latter drawing much stronger ties with the future leader of Western Europe. Charlemagne was an ardent supporter of the Catholic church and saw his role and responsibilities as king as a way to proselytise both his subjects in Francia and the surrounding pagan tribes. His rule ushered in a period of enlightenment, although his educational upbringing was considered basic, Charlemagne brought about the Carolingian Renaissance which saw the standardisation of text, significantly increased literacy levels and served to provide increased trade, economic stability and a rebirth of culture which hadn’t been seen since the Roman Empire. His reign stands in stark contrast to other rulers of his time, in the period often referred to as the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne was actively involved in all aspects of governing the kingdom. However it was his direction in religious affairs and close relations with the Papacy that paved the way for his future title of Holy Roman Emperor. After a number of years of successful campaigns, particularly in the north and East of his territory, Charlemagne travelled to Rome in the winter of 800 AD. It was on Christmas Day that he knelt to pray in St. Peter’s Basilica when Pope Leo III crowned him Imperator Romanorum or “Emperor of the Romans”. This was despite the Eastern Roman Empire being ruled by Empress Irene, who was standing in as regent for her son Constantine VI.

The act of crowning Charlemagne was not intended to divide the West from the East but an effort, at least on the part of the Pope, to unite both sides under the rule of Charlemagne; most probably in response to Irene having her son killed in order to usurp the throne but also because Pope Leo III had just had his eyes and tongue removed by citizens of Rome and sought protection from Charlemagne.

In the end, the reign of Charlemagne was transformed by this event. He sat in court on a throne made of marble, erected prior to the coronation but intentionally placed on a higher level of the chamber so that all his subjects would look up to him and regard him as king, ordained with a divine right to rule. Charlemagne even sat in judgement over the Pope on one occasion. His role combined that of church and state and working alongside the Pontiff, Catholicism spread both through the schools he constructed and the laws he enforced.

In more recent times Pope John Paul II called Charlemagne “the father of Europe” and in many respects Charlemagne ignited the dream of a united Europe, a dream that exists in many today.

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