Charlemagne: The Synthesis of Roman, German, and Christian Culture

My first major assignment for my first college history class. Yikes!

Imagine a world where a once great empire falls at the hands of barbarians, wars and chaos rage as civilized culture is being lost, and a single church tries to hold fast and shine a light in the storm that has overtaken the land. This world was the world of Europe’s ancestors. Roman, German, and Christian culture each fought to assert its dominance and avoid dying out or being overshadowed. One German tribe, the Franks, would come to preserve its own identity while also reviving Rome, and Christianity was the glue that held the two identities together. Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 to 814, was one of the greatest and most influential kings to come from the Franks. Through his life, Charlemagne embodied the synthesis of German, Roman, and Christian culture that would help shape the future of Europe.

Charlemagne crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III

Charlemagne’s military career and philosophy show a mix of Roman, German, and Christian characteristics. During his reign Charlemagne more than doubled the territory of the Franks (Einhard ¶15). This mindset of expansion and “conquer or be conquered” is a very Roman idea; the inability to conquer more land was a contributing factor the Roman Empire’s downfall. Charlemagne was a great warrior, embodying the Germanic ideal of the fearless leader winning the spoils of war for his men. The war with the Lombards honored the agreement between Rome and Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, and confirmed the new-found cooperative relationship between Rome and the Franks (¶6). Charlemagne’s philosophy of war was based on the Bible and he saw himself as a type of Old Testament king. For him, going to war with the pagan Saxons was a “high purpose,” and it was his responsibility to conquer for Christ (¶7). Charlemagne’s military life was neither solely German, solely Roman, or solely Christian, but rather it reflected all three.

Charlemagne’s political life as king, and eventually Roman Emperor, contained German, Roman, and Christian elements. After the Pope crowned Charlemagne the Emperor of Rome, the Emperors of Constantinople sought alliances with him (¶16). Constantinople represented the old Eastern Roman Empire, and so the relationship between that city and Charlemagne continued the Roman tradition of respectful acknowledgment and distrust between the two sides of the empire. Charlemagne’s vast undertakings of public works and infrastructure improvements also reflected the Roman tradition of grandeur (¶17). However, Charlemagne’s politics were also decidedly German. He decided to revamp Germanic law by reconciling discrepancies without undermining Germanic customs and traditions (¶29). Also, upon his death he did not practice primogeniture (a Roman custom) outright (¶30). Louis was his only surviving heir, but if that had not been the case then Charlemagne’s empire would have been divided among all of his sons per the German tradition. A very Christian idea lay underneath Charlemagne’s political life. Charlemagne firmly believed that he had a heavenly mandate to rule (¶30). This is important because any political decision Charlemagne made was justified by the belief that God put him in charge and blessed his authority.

Charlemagne’s religious life defied the tradition of the Germanic tribes and embraced Roman Christianity. Most German tribes’ form of religion was defined by their local church, with no concept of a global church and no acknowledgement of the authority of the Pope in Rome. The Franks were among the only Germans to adopt Roman Christianity. Throughout his life, Charlemagne showed unwavering devotion to and support of the church of Rome. He visited Rome to observe holy days and he regarded the Pope as the leader of the faith (¶10). He showed great respect for the Pope and sent gifts to the church (¶27). Charlemagne believed in the sanctity of the building of the church and would not allow any “improper or unclean thing” to be brought inside (¶26). This type of regard for the church harkens back to the sanctity and holiness of the Arc of the Covenant in the Old Testament.

Elements of German, Roman, and Christian values were also incorporated into Charlemagne’s personal life. Charlemagne was committed to becoming a liberally educated person; he studied rhetoric and Latin, among other subjects (¶25). In Charlemagne’s world the Romans represented culture, civilization, and education. By being dedicated to education, Charlemagne helped fight against “dark ages” of a world ruled by barbaric militant kings with no regard for culture and knowledge. Charlemagne had his children educated following Roman curriculum, while also incorporating Germanic customs: his sons learned horsemanship and his daughters learned cloth-making (¶19). Charlemagne also held to his German identity by only dressing in Frankish clothes. The only time he would adopt the dress of another culture is when the Pope asked to dress in Roman garb for special occasions (¶23). In his marital life, Charlemagne adhered to the traditional Old Testament view of marriage. Though he was not a polygamist, Charlemagne was married several times. As per the tradition of Old Testament kings like Solomon, Charlemagne had concubines (¶18). Because he viewed himself as an Old Testament king, Charlemagne felt that his marital practices were acceptable and justified.

The world of the eighth and ninth centuries was a complicated, messy place. Fusing three dominant cultures together was neither easy nor pretty, but they had to come together in order to survive in harmony. Charlemagne is the embodiment of this fusion. He was a Germanic warrior crowned Roman Emperor by a Pope. Looking back, Charlemagne is the struggles and triumphs of early Europe superimposed and reflected into a single person. Like Europe, his life was a messy yet successful synthesis of German, Roman, and Christian cultures.

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