Written by Vladimir Moss



Just as the English Orthodox autocracy arose out of the successful struggle with the Vikings, so the German Orthodox autocracy arose out of the successful struggle with the Magyars. King Alfred the Great’s victory at Ethandune in 878 laid the foundations for the All-English kingdom that eventually encompassed three nations: the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes in the East and the Celts in the West. In the same way, King Otto the Great’s victory over the Magyars at Lech in 955 laid the foundations for the Salian monarchy, which, while not quite as extensive as the Carolingian empire at its height, lasted much longer.

However, Germany proved more difficult to weld into a single whole than England. It was only after a series of civil wars that Otto won the submission of the duchies of Lotharingia, Swabia, Bavaria and Franconia in addition to his native Saxony. And this even after he had been formally elected by “the whole people” of the Saxons and the Franks, and had been anointed to the kingdom in a double ceremony in Charlemagne’s palace-chapel at Aachen.

After defeating the rebellious princes, Otto decided to remove the native ducal dynasties and distribute their lands to his relatives. But rebellions continued, so he resorted to a bold and fateful experiment: government, not through secular officials, dukes or counts, but through bishops and abbots. Thus Otto put Lotharingia, as Davis writes, “in charge of his young brother Bruno, who was a cleric and Archbishop of Cologne. The combination of an archbishopric and a duchy did not seem in any way incongruous to him, for he did not consider that there was any essential division between ‘Church’ and ‘State’; they were merely different aspects of the same society.”[1] As he wrote to Bruno, “you have both priestly religion and royal strength”.[2] This failure to see any essential division between Church and State was a consequence of the feudal Weltanschauung.

The system of government through bishops had the advantage, from the king’s point of view, that he could appoint the bishops, who, since they could not marry, could not found hereditary dynasties that might challenge his power at a later date. Moreover, he founded imperial churches or abbeys with vast swathes of land to which he granted “immunity” from interference from the local dukes and counts. These abbots then became in effect the local judges and tax-collectors. Although this system of government through the clergy was clearly caesaropapist in essence, it was not opposed by the papacy. However, it had the weakness from the king’s point of view that while the bishops and abbots could be appointed by him, they could be dismissed only by the Pope. Moreover, only the Pope could create new bishoprics or ecclesiastical provinces. In the case of conflict with a bishop, therefore, - and such a conflict took place between Otto and Archbishop Frederick of Mainz, the Primate of Germany - the king would need the help of the Pope in order to impose his will.


Otto hoped that the Pope could be persuaded to grant more “stavropegial” grants to abbeys, making them directly subject to the Pope and so “immune” from episcopal control. “What he wanted,” writes Davis, “and eventually got, was papal exemptions for abbeys such as Hersfeld, Quedlinburg, and Gernrode, which were to be the perfect examples of the Ottonian System. Their ‘royal immunities’ would exclude the power of counts and dukes, and their papal exemptions that of bishops and archbishops. In them the abbot would preside over all things; and over the abbot would stand the king.”[3]

In Rome, meanwhile, we enter the period of the deepest degradation in the eternal city’s pre-schism history - the so-called “pornocracy” of Marozia, an evil woman who with her mother Theodora made, unmade, lived with and begat a series of popes.[4] However, in 932 Marozia’s son Alberic, marquis of Spoleto, imprisoned his mother, took over the government of Rome and gave it a short period of peace and relative respectability. But in 955 Alberic died and his son Octavian became Pope John XII at the age of sixteen.

“Even for a pope of that period,” writes De Rosa, “he was so bad that the citizens were out for his blood. He had invented sins, they said, not known since the beginning of the world, including sleeping with his mother. He ran a harem in the Lateran Palace. He gambled with pilgrims’ offerings. He kept a stud of two thousand horses which he fed on almonds and figs steeped in wine. He rewarded the companions of his nights of love with golden chalices from St. Peter’s. He did nothing for the most profitable tourist trade of the day, namely, pilgrimages. Women in particular were warned not to enter St. John Lateran if they prized their honour; the pope was always on the prowl. In front of the high altar of the mother church of Christendom, he even toasted the Devil…”[5]

Retribution was coming, however. Berengar of Lombardy advanced on Rome, and the pope in desperation appealed to Berengar’s feudal lord, Otto of Germany. This was Otto’s opportunity to seize that imperial crown, which would give him complete dominance over his rivals. He marched into Italy, drove out Berengar and was crowned Emperor by John on February 2, 962. However, when Otto demanded that the inhabitants of the Papal states should swear an oath of allegiance to him, Otto, and not to the pope, thereby treating the Papal states as one of his dependencies, the Pope took fright, transferred his support to Berengar and called on both the Hungarians and the Byzantines to help drive Otto out of Italy. But Otto saw this as treachery on the part of the pope; he summoned a synod in Rome, deposed John, and placed Leo VIII in his place. Then he inserted a clause into his agreement with Leo whereby in future no pope was to be consecrated without taking an oath of loyalty to the Emperor.Although Otto was crowned in Rome, he did not call himself “Emperor of the Romans”, but preferred simply “emperor”. This was probably because he did not wish to enter into a competition with the Byzantine emperor.

It may also have been because he had little admiration for Old Rome, just as Old Rome had little time for him. [6] Thus He instructed his sword-bearer to stand behind him as he kneeled at the tomb of the Apostle. “For I know,” he said, “only too well what my ancestors have experienced from these faithless Romans.”[7]

Otto gained the Byzantines’ recognition of his imperial title, and persuaded them to send Princess Theophanou, the niece of Emperor John Tzimiskes, to be the bride of his son, Otto II. The marriage was celebrated in Rome in 972. Theophanou then introduced another Byzantine, John Philagathos, as godfather of her son, Otto III; he later became head of the royal finances and finally - Pope (or antipope) John XVI.This led to a sharp increase in Byzantine influence in the western empire[8], and the temporary eclipse of the new papist theory of Church-State relations. Thus in an ivory bas-relief Christ is shown crowning Otto II and Theophanou – a Byzantine tenth-century motif expressing the traditionally Byzantine concept of Church-State symphony. [9]

In 991 Princess Theophanou died and the young Otto III became Emperor under the regency of his grandmother. He “dreamed of reuniting the two empires [of East and West] into one one day, so as to restore universal peace – a new imperial peace comparable to that of Augustus, a Roman Empire which would embrace once more the orbis terrarum before the end of the world that was announced for the year 1000.”[10] To signify that the Renovatio Imperii Romani (originally a Carolingian idea) had truly begun, he moved his court from Aachen to Rome, introduced Byzantine ceremonial into his court on the Aventine hill, gave a stimulus to the rediscovery of Roman law, and began negotiations with the Byzantine Emperor for the hand of a daughter or niece of the basileus, which union would enable him to unite the two empires in a peaceful, traditional manner.

The plan for union with Byzantium was foiled (the Byzantine princess he was to marry arrived in Italy just as Otto died). But Otto sought and followed the advice of holy hermits[11], and Byzantine influence continued to spread outwards from the court. And when Gerbert of Aurillac became the first Frankish Pope in 999 and took the name Sylvester II, he revived memories, in those brought up on the forged Donation of Constantine, of the symphonic relationship between St. Constantine and Pope Sylvester I.[12]

However, Sylvester loved the true symphony, not the forged variety: in 1001 he inspired Otto to issue an act demonstrating that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery.[13] Moreover, this very unpapist Pope did not believe that he was above the judgement of his fellow-bishops. Thus he wrote in 997: “The judgement of God is higher than that of Rome… When Pope Marcellinus offered incense to Jupiter [in 303], did all the other bishops have to do likewise? If the bishop of Rome himself sins against his brother or refuses to heed the repeated warnings of the Church, he, the bishop of Rome himself, must according to the commandments of God be treated as a pagan and a publican; for the greater the dignity, the greater the fall. If he declares us unworthy of his communion because none of us will join him against the Gospel, he will not be able to separate us from the communion of Christ."[14]


This must count as a formal abjuration of the papist heresy that had held the papacy in thrall for over two hundred years. Unfortunately, Sylvester was not imitated by his successors. But the courage of his right confession deserves appreciation.

Otto and Sylvester imitated the Byzantine concept of a family of independent kings under one Christian Emperor. [15] Thus they handed out crowns to King Stephen of Hungary and the Polish Duke Boleslav. And in a Gospel book made for Otto four states – Roma, Gallia, Germania and Sclavinia (Poland) – are represented as women doing homage to him.[16] “Otto even opened up friendly relations with Vladimir, prince of the powerful Russian state of Kiev, who had accepted his Christianity from Byzantium. One can only speculate how different the future history of Eastern Europe might have been had Otto’s policy of pacification been followed by subsequent German rulers…”[17]

The forty-year Ottonian period in the history of the papacy has been viewed in sharply contrasting ways. According to Voltaire in his Essay on history and customs (chapter 36), and some later writers, “the imprudence of Pope John XII in having called the Germans to Rome was the source of all the calamities to which Rome and Italy were subject down the centuries…”[18] However, an unprejudiced view that tries to avoid racial stereotypes must accept that the intervention of the German monarchy in Roman affairs – until at least the death of Otto III in 1002 – was not wholly unbeneficial. Someone had to put a stop to the scandalous degeneration of the first see of Christendom. And if the Ottonian emperors did not finally succeed in cleansing the Augean stables[19], it was hardly their fault alone.

The rivalries between the Roman aristocratic families, - which were only partly influenced by the desire to keep Rome free from foreigners, - appear to have made the city virtually ungovernable in this period. The Ottonians at least seem to have had good intentions, and the partnership of the German-Greek Otto III and the Frankish Sylvester II – a collaboration “unique in medieval history”, according to J.B. Morrall[20] - looked on the point of restoring a true unity between the Old and the New Romes. Indeed, for a short period it even looked as if Byzantinism might triumph in the West…

“But the Romans,” writes Chamberlin, “rose against [Otto], drove him and his pope out of the city, and reverted to murderous anarchy. He died outside the city in January 1002, not quite twenty-two years of age.[21] Sylvester survived his brilliant but erratic protégé by barely sixteen months. His epitaph summed up the sorrow that afflicted all thoughtful men at the ending of a splendid vision: ‘The world, on the brink of triumph, in peace now departed, grew contorted in grief and the reeling Church forgot her rest.’ The failure of Otto III and Sylvester marked the effective end of the medieval dream of a single state in which an emperor ruled over the bodies of all Christian men, and a pope over their souls.”[22]


[1] R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe, Harlow: Longman, 1988, pp. 212-213.

[2] R.H.C. Davis, op. cit., p. 213.

[3] R.H.C. Davis, op. cit., p. 217.

[4] It has been suggested by J.N.D. Kelly that this was the origin of the legend of the female Pope Joan (The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, quoted in Andrew Louth, Greek East and Latin West, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007, p. 207).

[5] Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, London: Bantam Press, 1988, p. 51.

[6] See Charles Davis, “The Middle Ages”, in Richard Jenkyns (ed.), The Legacy of Rome, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 82-83.

[7] Richard Chamberlin, “The Ideal of Unity”, History Today, vol. 53 (11), November, 2003, p. 62.

[8] Tom Holland, Millenium, London: Abacus Books, 2009, pp. 75-76. Byzantine influence had already been increasing under Alberic, whose “insistence on the forms of Byzantine administration and court hierarchy… checked the growth of any real feudal devolution of government such as the rest of Europe [outside Rome] was experiencing” (Peter Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, London: Constable, 1996, p. 307).

[9] “The image,” as Jean-Paul Allard writes, “was more eloquent than any theological treatise. It illustrated a principle that the papacy and the Roman Church have never accepted, but which was taken for granted in Byzantium and is still held in Orthodoxy today: Christ and Christ alone crowns the sovereigns; power comes only from God, without the intercession of an institutional representative of the Church, be he patriarch or pope. The anointing and crowning of the sovereign do not create the legitimacy of his power; but have as their sole aim the manifestation of [this legitimacy] in the eyes of the people.” (“Byzance et le Saint Empire: Theopano, Otton III, Benzon d’Albe”, in Germain Ivanov-Trinadtsaty, Regards sur l’Orthodoxie (Points of View on Orthodoxy), Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1997, p. 39 (in French).

[10] Allard, op. cit., p. 40

[11] Both the Greek Nilus of Calabria and the Germanic Romuald of Ravenna (Holland, op. cit., pp. 120-121, 125-126). See also Louth, op. cit., pp. 277-281.

[12] R. Lacy & D. Danzinger, The Year 1000, London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999, p. 190.

[13] Charles Davis, op. cit., p. 84. In this exposure he was correct, even if he was wrong in his dating of the forgery to the middle of the tenth century (Allard, op. cit., pp. 45-46).

[14] Pope Sylvester, Letter 192, quoted in Fr. Andrew Phllips, “The Three Temptations of Christ and the Mystical Sense of English History”, Orthodox England, vol. I, № 2, December, 1997, p. 6.

[15] J.M. Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon Publishing, 1992, p. 321.

[16] Louth, op. cit., p. 249.

[17] J.B. Morrall, “Otto III: an Imperial Ideal”, History Today, 14 January, 2011.

[18] Cyriaque Lampryllos, La Mystification Fatale (The Fatal Mystification), Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1987, pp. 59-60 (in French).

[19] Thus in 991, at a Council in Rheims attended by English as well as French bishops, Arnulph, bishop of Orleans, said that if Pope John XV had no love and was puffed up with knowledge, he was the Antichrist… See John Eadie, “The Man of Sin”, in Greek Text Commentaries: On Thessalonians, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1877, 1979, p. 341.

[20] Morrall, op. cit.

[21] He died of smallpox. See Richard Cavendish, “The Death of Emperor Otto III”, History Today, 13 December, 2001. (V.M.)

[22] Chamberlin, “The Ideal of Unity”, op. cit., p. 62.

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