The imperial policy of Charles the Great constitutes a preface to the history of the later Middle Ages. He holds the balance between nascent forces which are to distract the future by their conflicts. He pays impartial homage to ideas which statesmen less imperious or more critical will afterwards regard as irreconcilable. He is at one and the same time an autocrat, the head of a ruling aristocracy, and a popular ruler who solicits the co-operation of primary assemblies. From the highest to the lowest his subjects must acknowledge their unconditional and immediate allegiance to his person; yet he tolerates the existence of tribal duchies, he revives the Lombard kingdom, and creates that of Aquitaine, as appanages for his younger sons. He fosters the growth of territorial feudalism, and lends the sanction of royal authority to the claims of the lord upon his vassal; but simultaneously he contrives expedients for controlling feudalism and stifling its natural development. He exalts the Church, and he enslaves her. He is there to do the will of God as expounded by the clergy; but he disposes of sees and abbacies like vacant fiefs, he dictates to the Pope, he interferes with the liturgy, he claims a voice in the definition of dogma and the wording of the creed. Finally, and most striking, there is the antithesis between the two aspects of his power, the monarchical and the imperial.

The Franks left to Europe the legacy of two political conceptions. They perfected the system of barbarian royalty; they outlined the ideal of a power which should transcend royalty and embrace in one commonwealth all the Catholic kingdoms of the West. On the one hand they supplied a model to be imitated by an Egbert, a Henry the Fowler, a Hugh Capet. On the other hand they inspired the wider aims of the Ottos and the Hohenstauffen. It is therefore worth our while to understand what a Carolingian king was, and what a Carolingian Emperor hoped to be.

The king's power was based upon three supports: the general allegiance of his subjects, the more personal obligations of the vassals who were in his mund, the services and customs of the tenants on the royal demesne. It is from these last that he derives his most substantial revenue. He is the greatest landowner of his realm, until in the ninth century he dissipates his patrimony by grants of hereditary beneficia. The farming of the demesnes is an important branch of the public service; they are managed by bailiffs, who work under rules minutely elaborated by the king in the form of edicts, and who render their accounts to a minister of state, the Seneschal or steward of the household. The king is further the fountain of justice, the guardian of public order, the protector of peaceful industry and commerce. Accordingly he derives large profits from the fines of the law-courts, the forfeitures of criminals, the tolls of highways and markets, the customs levied at seaports and at frontier towns. In the exercise and exploitation of his prerogatives he is assisted by functionaries of whom most are household officers: the Chamberlain who keeps the royal hoard; the Constable (comes stabuli ) who marshals the host; the Seneschal, or High Steward, who controls the demesnes; the Protonotary, by whose staff the royal letters and all documents of state are written out; the Arch-chaplain, to whom ecclesiastical suitors bring their petitions and complaints. Finally there are the Counts of the Palace, appointed from the chief races of the realm, who exercise the king's appellate jurisdiction in secular cases. But the king is bound by custom to govern with the counsel and consent of his great men - a Germanic tradition which no after growth of respect for Roman absolutism can destroy. A select body of influential nobles deliberates with the king on all questions of national importance. Their decisions are submitted for approval to a more general assembly (Mayfield), held annually in the spring or summer. By this assembly the military expedition of the year is discussed and sanctioned; here also are promulgated royal edicts (capitula).

The ordinary freeman, upon whom falls the ultimate burden of military service, has no voice in the debates of the Mayfield; but ordinances affecting the old customary laws of the several races which make up the kingdom (Salians, Ripuarians, Saxons, etc.) do not take effect till they have been accepted by popular assemblies in the provinces which they concern. And such revisions are infrequent. The royal prerogative in legislation is limited by a popular prejudice, which regards the customary law as sacred and immutable. The Capitularies are chiefly administrative ordinances; the "law of the land," which is the same everywhere and for all persons, is an ideal to be realised in England alone of medieval states. Elsewhere the king's law is a supplement, a postscript; the privilege of the free man is to live under the law of his province, his lord's fief or his free city.

In local administration the king relies, outside the tribal duchies, on counts whose districts are subdivisions of the old national provinces. The count, often a hereditary official, is a royal deputy for all purposes, military and civil. He collects the royal dues, leads the free men to the host, maintains the peace and administers justice. His tribunal is the old Germanic hundred-court, in which the free suitors ought to be the judges; but the suitors for this purpose are represented by a few doomsmen (scabini) chosen for their respectability and knowledge of the law. They are an ineffectual check upon the count, and it is a standing difficulty to find ways and means of compelling these local viceroys to act with common honesty. For this purpose the king annually appoints itinerant inspectors (missi dominici); in twos and threes they are dispatched on circuit to acquaint the count with royal instructions, to promulgate new legislation, and above all to receive and adjudicate upon the complaints of all who are oppressed. A comparatively late expedient, and the first part of the Carolingian system to disappear, these tours of inspection were the one safeguard against local misgovernment and the feudalising of official power. When they ceased, the Carolingian county too often became a hereditary fief exploited for the lord's sole benefit.

The Empire was not intended to supersede this system of royal government; kings no less than emperors were regarded as holding a definite rank and office in the Christian commonwealth. No traditions of imperial bureaucracy, except in a debased and orientalised form, were accessible to Charles the Great. In Gaul and Italy he had subjects who lived under a corrupt and mutilated Roman Law; but he was unacquainted with the scientific principles of the great jurists whose writings were the highest achievements of the Roman genius. To the best minds of the eighth century the Roman Empire appeared, not as to an Athaulf or a Theodoric, a masterpiece of human statesmanship, but rather a divine institution, providentially created before the birth of Christ to school the nations for the universal domination of His Church. The model of the Carolingian Emperors was not Augustus but Constantine the Great, the Most Christian ruler who made it his first business to protect the Church against heretic and heathen, to endow her with riches, to enforce her legislation. However his relation to the Pope might be conceived, the Emperor held his office as the first servant of the Church. What then were his practical duties? According to some he was pledged to restore the material unity of Christendom and to subdue all heathen peoples. This childlike ideal of his office no emperor could put into practice. Charles the Great waged no important wars after his coronation; he did not scruple to make peace with the Eastern Empire or even to exchange courtesies with Haroun al Rashid, the Caliph of Bagdad. He held, and the sanest of his counsellors agreed, that his first duty was to protect, unite and reform the societies over which the Church already exercised a nominal dominion. To conquer other Christian rulers was no more to be expected of him than that he should surrender his own royal prerogative; though it was desirable that they should do homage to him as the earthly representative of spiritual unity.

Within his own realms the imperial office was to make a difference in the spirit rather than the forms of government. The Empire raised to a higher power the dignity and the responsibilities which belonged to him as a king. He conceived himself bound to provide more carefully than ever for the maintenance of ecclesiastical and the betterment of secular law. His subjects were to realise that through their allegiance to him they were God's subjects, bound to observe the law of God as a part of the law of the Empire; he on his side was to be, to the best of his power, a moral censor, an educator, a religious missionary, a protector of the clergy, a defender of the faith.

When we turn from this noble dream to follow the history of the Carolingian Empire, the contrast between the real and the ideal is almost grotesque. Within a generation the Frankish realm is partitioned after the Merovingian fashion; all that remains as a guarantee of unity is the imperial title attached to one of several kingdoms, and the theory that the kings are linked in fraternal concord for the defence of Church and State against all enemies. Contemporaries laid the blame on the weakness of Lewis the Pious and the ambition of his sons. These causes undoubtedly accelerated the process of disruption; but others more impersonal and more gradual in their operation were at work below the surface of events.

(1) The first was the dawning of nationality. North of the Alps the subjects of the Empire fell into a Germanic group, lying chiefly east of the Rhine, and a Romance group nearly co-extensive with the modern France; Italy was sharply severed from both by geography, by differences of race and language, and by political tradition. In the Treaty of Verdun (843), which begins the process of political disintegration, these natural divisions are only half respected. The kingdom of the East Franks is wholly Germanic; that of the West Franks contains the Gallo-Roman provinces subdued by Clovis; but between them lies the anomalous Middle Kingdom, the portion of the titular Emperor, in which are united Italy, Provence, Burgundy, the valley of the Moselle and a large part of the Netherlands. In each re-distribution of territories among Carolingian princes the lines of partition approximate more closely to the boundaries of modern nations. Burgundy and Provence alone remain, after the year 888, as memorials of the Middle Kingdom. Italy becomes an independent state; the northern provinces (Lotharingia) are disputed between the East Franks and the West Franks. And already the rulers of the new states are identifying themselves with national sentiments and aspirations; it is not without reason that a later age has given to Lewis, the first King of the East Franks, the title of "the German."

(2) But, in the minds of ordinary men, national sentiment was little more than a contempt for those of alien race and speech. The nationalities were ready enough to separate one from the other; having done so, they split asunder into tribal or feudal groups. Thus in Germany the Saxons, Suabians, Bavarians, Thuringians, Franconians group themselves round provincial chieftains. West of the Rhine, where Roman rule had long since weakened tribal feeling, we can see a broad distinction between the North and South of Gaul, but in each half of the country the feudal principle is the dominating force; from the middle of the ninth century we remark the formation of those arbitrarily divided fiefs which play so large a part in French history. But of the feudal movement we shall speak elsewhere.

(3) Last but not least we must allow for the disappearance of that moral enthusiasm which Charles the Great had evoked in his subjects. His conception of the Empire was too large for narrow minds. They could see no reason in it. They were acutely alive to the sacrifices which it demanded in the present, and sceptical as to the advantages which it promised in the future. The idea of working for posterity does not naturally occur to half-civilised peoples; they live from hand to mouth, and are continually absorbed in the difficulties of the moment; they believe in the supremacy of chance or fate or providence, and speak of human forethought as presumptuous or merely futile. The imperial programme was cherished and publicly defended by a little clique of clerical statesmen; but they did not succeed in making many converts. When the last of the Carolingian Emperors was deposed (887), there were cries of lamentation from ecclesiastics. But among lay statesmen not a hand was raised to stay the process of disintegration. This Emperor, Charles the Fat, had succeeded by mere longevity in uniting all the dominions of his family under his immediate rule; but in three short years he dissipated whatever lingering respect attached to the idea for which he stood. In the words of the annalist "a crop of many kinglets sprang up over Europe." All the new pretenders came from the class of the great feudatories. Among the West Franks it was Eude the Count of Paris who seized the royal diadem; the East Franks elected Arnulf, Duke of Carinthia; Italy became an apple of discord between the margraves of Spoleto and Friuli; Burgundy was partitioned by two native families.

Yet within a hundred years there arose a reaction in favour of the imperial idea - a reaction of which Germany was the apostle, which Italy accepted, which made many converts in West Francia. There were new and sufficient reasons for returning to the discarded system. The national hierarchies, who had undermined the Frankish Empire to broaden the foundations of ecclesiastical privilege and influence, were discovering that they had set up King Stork in place of King Log; the exactions of an Augustus were as nothing compared with the lawless pillaging of the new feudalism; and elective sovereigns, ruling by the grace of their chief subjects, were powerless for good as well as harm. The lower ranks of laymen had no better cause to be content with the new order under which the small freeholder was oppressed, the peasant enslaved, the merchant robbed and held to ransom. The freedom of the aristocracy spelled misery for every other class. These self-constituted tyrants passed their lives in devastating faction fights. Worst of all, their divisions and their absorption in petty schemes of personal aggrandisement left Europe at the mercy of uncivilised invaders. In the ninth and tenth centuries, medieval society experienced the same ordeal to which the Roman Empire had been subjected in the fifth. From the North and from the East a new generation of barbarians, perceiving the patent signs of weakness, began to break through the frontiers in search of plunder and of settlements.

First came the Northmen from Norway and Denmark. Like the Saxons of the fourth century they were unrivalled seamen. Their fleets transported them from point to point faster than land forces could follow in pursuit; the great rivers served them as natural highways; and if beaten in a descent upon the land, they had always their ships as a safe refuge. To make treaties and to offer blackmail was a worse than useless policy; the Vikings came in bands which operated separately, or united in this year to scatter and form new combinations in the next. One leader could not bind another; to buy off one fleet was merely to invite the coming of a second. These pirates had begun to molest the British Isles and Frisia before the death of Charles the Great; but after the first partition of his Empire they fell on the whole coastline from the Elbe to the Pyrenees. Originally attracted by the hope of plunder they soon aimed at conquest; when, at the close of the ninth century, there was a sudden pause in the flood of armed emigration from the North, the Danelaw in England and Normandy on the opposite side of the Channel remained as alien colonies which the native rulers were obliged to recognise.

It was in Gaul that the ravages of the Normans were most severely felt, though for a few years they were the scourge of Frisia and the adjacent provinces. Germany and Italy had other enemies to fear. In the year 862 a new danger, in the shape of the Hungarians, appeared on the borders of Bavaria. They were an Asiatic people, from the northern slopes of the Ural Mountains, who had been moving westward since the commencement of the century. Contemporaries identified them with the Huns of Attila, and the resemblance was more than superficial. The Hungarians were of the Tartar race - nomads who lived by hunting and war, skilled in horsemanship and archery, utterly barbarous and a byeword for cruelty. The rapidity of their movements, and the distances to which their raids extended, are almost incredible. In 899 they swept through the Ostmark and reached the Lombard plain; in 915 they sacked Bremen; in 919 they harried the whole of Saxony and penetrated the old Middle Kingdom; in 926 they went into Tuscany and appeared in the neighbourhood of Rome; in 937 they even reached the walls of Capua. In fact, until the great victory of Otto I upon the Lech (955), they were the terror of two-thirds of Christian Europe. Italy, the most disunited of the new kingdoms, was further vexed by the Saracen pirates who roamed the Western Mediterranean. The only sea-power capable of dealing with them was that of the Byzantine Empire. The Greek fleet protected the southeast of Italy, but was powerless to save Sicily, which was conquered piecemeal for the Crescent (827-965). Farther north the seaports of Amalfi, Gaeta, Naples and Salerno paid tribute or admitted Saracen garrisons; in 846 Ostia and the Leonine quarter of Rome (including the basilica of St. Peter) were pillaged. Robber colonies established themselves on the river Garigliano, and at Garde-Frainet, the meeting-point of Italy and Provence.

The effect which these disasters produced on the minds of the sufferers is nowhere more clearly visible than in England. Here the House of Alfred was able, within a century of the partition made at Wedmore between the West Saxon kingdom and the Danes (878), to establish a kingdom of imperial pretensions, loosely knit together but more durable and more highly organised than any power which had arisen in Britain since the Roman period. In Germany the Saxon line, beginning with Henry the Fowler (919-936), was permitted to make the royal title hereditary, and to assert an effective suzerainty over the other tribal dukes. In France the House of Paris, after ruling for many years in the name of a degenerate Carolingian line, was invited in the person of Hugh Capet to assume the royal dignity (987). We have here a European movement in favour of monarchy; and on the heels of it follows another for the restoration of the Empire. The new royal dynasties did good work; even the weakest among them, that of France, served as a symbol of unity, as a rallying point for the clergy and all other friends of peace; but both on practical grounds and on grounds of sentiment they left much to be desired. National monarchy meant national wars and the right of national churches to misgovern themselves according to their several inclinations. Every year the rent in the seamless robe of Christendom grew wider; political unity was disappearing, and religious unity would soon go the same way. The kingly title made but a slight appeal to the imagination or the conscience; with whatever ceremonies a King was crowned, the real source of his power was the position which he held, independently of his office, as a chief of a tribal or a feudal group; of men who, as St. Odo bitterly remarked, being oppressed took to themselves a lord that with his help they might become oppressors. Sovereign power had lost all poetry and dignity; it was being perverted to serve petty ends. An Emperor was needed to restore a higher sense of justice, to exalt the spiritual above the material side of life.

So the idealists reasoned, and in Germany their arguments found willing converts. This may appear strange, since Germany had taken the lead in repudiating the Carolingian Empire, and Henry the Fowler, who established the new German monarchy, was the reverse of an idealist. But the truth was that the peculiar constitution of the German kingdom and the peculiar problems raised by German expansion towards the East were such as to make the ideal policy the safest. Though Henry the Fowler had sedulously limited his attention to German problems, his son, working on the same lines, found himself led by the natural sequence of events to cross the Alps, seize Italy and take the imperial crown from the Pope's hands.

Henry the Fowler, elected after nineteen years of nominal kingship and unbridled anarchy, defined his position by a series of compacts with the great Dukes. Suabia, Bavaria and Lotharingia became dependent principalities, whose rulers attended national Diets, occasionally appeared at court, and still more occasionally rendered military service. Under their sway the new feudalism, which they encouraged as the means of creating armies both for defence and for pursuing an independent foreign policy, took root and throve as a legal institution. Within the borders of the duchies Henry had little power except as the patron of the church. He claimed the right of nominating bishops - though in Bavaria this claim was not made good till the next reign - and religious foundations held their privileges by his grace. The ecclesiastical councils which legislated with his sanction were more important than the Diets composed indifferently of laymen and prelates. His general policy gave greater cause for satisfaction to the clergy than to the remainder of his subjects. The assertion of supremacy over Lotharingia (925), and Bohemia (929), and the defeat of the Hungarians at the Unstrut (933), were national achievements; but for nine years before the battle of the Unstrut the King had allowed the Hungarians to work their will in Bavaria and Suabia, having secured the immunity of his own duchy by a separate truce. He had chiefly employed those years in building strong towns for the defence of Saxony, and in extending Saxon power by the conquest of Brandenburg, Lusatia, Strelitz and Schleswig. These could only be called national services on the assumption that the crown was to remain the hereditary possession of his house; but the German kingship was elective. To the Church, however, nothing was more welcome than conquests gained at the expense of heathen Slavs and Danes. In her eyes this Saxon statesman was the forerunner of the Christian faith in the dark places of Europe. For all these reasons, then, the power of Henry and his successors remained a power resting upon ecclesiastical support. To strengthen the alliance of church and state must be the first object of a Saxon ruler.

For some years after his accession (936) Otto I was harassed by pretenders of his own family who allied themselves with one or more of the great Dukes. The Bavarians threatened to secede and form an independent nation; the Franconians rebelled when their right of waging private wars was called in question; the Lotharingians intrigued to make themselves an independent Middle Kingdom. All such malcontents found it easy to secure a brother or a son of the King as their nominal leader. Even when Otto had placed all the duchies in the hands of his own kinsmen or connections, his power was still precarious. For he claimed new rights which, though necessary to the maintenance of kingly power, did violence to feudal and provincial sentiment; while the Dukes whom he nominated usually took up the pretensions of their predecessors, and identified themselves with the interests of their subjects. It was more important than ever that the King should have the help of the clergy in educating public opinion. But in the most critical period (939-955) of the reign the German primate, Archbishop Frederic of Mainz, lent the weight of his influence and high personal reputation to the rebel cause. In another direction also Otto found the clergy the chief opponents of a cherished scheme. Organised missions were among the means on which he relied for civilising and extending his father's conquests in Slavonic territory. For this purpose he planned, with the approval of Rome, to make Magdeburg an archbishopric and the head of a Slavonic province. To this proposal the sees of Mainz and Halberstadt offered strenuous resistance, on the ground that it would curtail their jurisdictions (955). Twice, therefore, Otto had been sharply reminded that his authority over the German Church was insufficient for his purpose.

Meanwhile the train of events had drawn him into Italian politics. The Kingdom of Italy had been seized, in 926, by Hugh of Provence, an adventurer of Carolingian descent. In 937, on the death of Rudolph II of Burgundy, Hugh designed to seize this derelict inheritance. He was forestalled by Otto, who assumed the guardianship of the lawful heir of Burgundy, the young Conrad; a united kingdom of Italy and Burgundy would have been too dangerous a neighbour for the German Kingdom. Hugh, however, secured for his son, Lothair, the hand of Conrad's sister Adelaide, thus keeping alive the claims of his family for a future day. Somewhat later Otto retaliated by giving protection to an Italian foe of Hugh, the Margrave Berengar of Friuli, who came to the Saxon court and became the liegeman of the German King. In 950 this relation suddenly acquired political importance, through the unexpected deaths of Hugh and Lothair, and the succession of Berengar in Italy. Reminded of his oath to Otto, the new King repudiated his obligations as a vassal, and gave further provocation by ill-treating the widowed Adelaide. Otto was thus equipped with a double excuse for making war. And war was forced upon him by the ambitions of his brother Henry, Duke of Bavaria, and of his son Liutolf, Duke of Suabia. Both cast covetous glances on Italy, which was hopelessly divided and an easy prey for the first-comer. In 949 the Duke of Bavaria had seized Aquileia; in 951 the Duke of Suabia crossed the Alps ostensibly to champion Adelaide. Otto could not remain idle while two of his subjects and kinsmen contended over the spoils of Italy. He collected an army and followed hard on the footsteps of Liutolf. Berengar fled, the Dukes made peace with their suzerain, and Otto was free to dispose of the Italian kingdom (951).

It is possible that, if the opportunity had been forthcoming, he would at once have proceeded to Rome for an imperial coronation. But the Pope, who alone could make an Emperor, was the nominee of a Roman faction, headed by the ambitious Alberic the Senator who aspired to build up a secular lordship on the basis of the Papal patrimony. Otto was not invited to visit Rome. After some hesitation he decided, instead of himself assuming the unprofitable duties of an Italian King, to restore Berengar on condition of a renewal of homage. Perhaps the arrangement was intended to be temporary. Otto was still menaced by conspiracies in Germany; and Berengar might serve to guard Italy against ambitious Dukes, until the hands of his overlord were free for Italian adventures. Later events justify some such hypothesis. Within a few years the chief difficulties of Otto were removed. A great ducal rising collapsed; the Hungarians were so decisively beaten at the Lechfeld (955) that they ceased to trouble Germany; death relieved Otto of his most dangerous rivals, Archbishop Frederic of Mainz and his own son, Duke Liutolf. Then, in 960, arrived the long-delayed call from Rome. John XII, a dissipated youth of twenty-two, the son of Alberic (died 954) but devoid of his father's ability, invoked the aid of Germany to protect the temporal possessions against Berengar. Otto required no second summons. Descending upon Italy, he expelled his vassal, assumed the Italian crown at Pavia (961) and then repaired to Rome. Here in 962 he was crowned by the Pope as lord of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. For good or for evil the prerogative of Charles the Great was inseparably united to the German monarchy.

From this complicated series of events some interesting conclusions may be deduced. The Empire, which has so often been abused as a source of countless woes to Germany, was revived in the interests of a purely German policy. Unlike his son and his grandson, Otto I never submitted to the spell of Italy. Since the time of Charles the Great it had been taken for granted that the Empire could only be conferred by the Pope and only held by a King of Italy. Otto did not greatly value his Italian dominions, though circumstances forced him to reside in Italy for a large part of his later years. For a time he had thoughts of recovering Apulia and Calabria from the Greeks, Sicily from the Arabs. But he abandoned his claims against the Eastern Empire as the price of a marriage-alliance, and he left Sicily untouched. The Crown of Italy was valuable to him chiefly as a qualification for his imperial office. To the ecclesiastical duties of that office he was not indifferent. His bishops, though largely employed as secular administrators, were chosenwith some regard to their spiritual duties; he was a friend to the Cluniac movement for monastic reform. But clearly he did not visit Rome in pursuit of any plans for cleansing that Augean stable the Papacy. The vices of John XII were notorious; but, as a Pope who could legally confer the Empire, he was good enough for Otto's purpose. Only when John repented of his bargain and turned traitor was he evicted in favour of a more reputable successor (963). And John's successor was a layman until the time of his election. Otto's chief concern was to secure a trustworthy partisan; this remained the Saxon policy till the days of his grandson.

Otto was not indifferent to the splendour or the more ambitious claims of his office. He paraded before the world the benevolent protectorate which he exercised over the young rulers of Burgundy and France; he insisted upon the homage of the Polish and Bohemian dukes. He held magnificent Diets to celebrate his new position, and made great efforts to win recognition from the Byzantine court. But in substance his ambitions were those of a German national king. He had a keen sense of realities, a keen appreciation of concrete results; from first to last his thoughts centred round the problems of his native land. The extension of the eastern frontier, the alliance with the Church, the management of the duchies - these were his main achievements as they had been his main ambitions. But he had built better than he knew; and the Empire acquired before his death a nobler significance than he perhaps had ever contemplated.

The work of Otto I was skilfully done, since it survived the follies of his son and grandson. For twenty years after his death (973) the titular rulers of the Empire were boys and women-regents. At Rome, in Germany, on the western and eastern frontiers all the beaten factions and humiliated rivals plucked up courage to make another bid for victory. The old Empress Adelaide, and her daughter-in-law the Empress Theophano, divided or disputed the control of the administration until 991; from that date till 998 the elder woman, freed from interference by the death of Theophano, exercised a great though a declining influence. Neither Empress was competent to handle the singular difficulties of the situation. Adelaide, though true to the German ambitions of her husband, was guided by personal prejudice in the selection of her ministers. Theophano, a woman of remarkable abilities and attainments, despised the monotonous intricacies of German politics, encouraged both her husband and her son to regard Italy as the worthiest field for the activities of an Emperor, and in Italy looked rather to Rome and the South than to Lombardy. It was the church party, both in Germany and in Lombardy, which in these years kept the subjects of the Empire true to their allegiance. The German dukes were less disinterested. But the precedents which Otto I had established proved invaluable when his son was required to deal with a rebellion, or had the opportunity of appointing to a vacant dukedom.

The blame for the chimerical ambitions of Otto II and Otto III is usually thrown upon Theophano, that brilliant missionary of Byzantine culture and Byzantine political ideas. But the influence which perverted the judgement of these Emperors, until they became a byeword in Europe, was something more impalpable than the will-force of a domineering woman. They were born into the misty morning twilight of the medieval renaissance, of an age when intellectual curiosity was awakening, when philosophy, the sciences and Latin literature were studied with a lively but uncritical enthusiasm, when the rhetorician and the sophist were the uncrowned kings of intelligent society. The philosophy was little more than school-logic, derived at second or third hand from Aristotle, the science a grotesque amalgam of empiricism and tradition. The Latin classics, apart from their use as a source of tropes and commonplaces, only served to inspire a superstitious and uncomprehending reverence for ancient Rome. Of this new learning Otto II and his son were naive disciples. They could not sufficiently admire the encyclopaedic Gerbert, the most fashionable and incomparably the ablest teacher of their day. Otto II and his court listened patiently for hours while Gerbert disputed with a Saxon rival concerning the subdivisions of the genus philosophy. Otto III invited Gerbert to come to court and cure him of "Saxon rusticity"; he deluged the complaisant tutor with Latin verses, consulted him in affairs of state, and finally promoted him to the Papacy. Gerbert was in fact a subtle and ambitious politician, who filled the chair of Peter with no small degree of credit. But his more serious talents would never have found their opportunity save for his skill in ministering to the pseudo-classicism of rustic Saxons.

Each of these Emperors turned his back on Germany at the first opportunity. Each met in Italy with bitter disillusionment and an untimely fate.

Otto II, in whose idealism there was a trace of his father's concrete ambition, planned the conquest of South Italy and Sicily. The scheme was not impracticable as the Hohenstauffen were afterwards to prove. And in the year 980 it could be justified as advantageous to the whole of Christian Europe. A new Saracen peril was impending in the Western Mediterranean. A new dynasty of Mohammedan adventurers, the Fatimites, had arisen on the coast of Northern Africa and had made themselves masters of Egypt (969). Five years before that event they had already occupied Sicily; in 976 they turned their attention to Italy. The south of the peninsula was divided between the Eastern Empire and Pandulf Ironhead, the lord of Capua, who had established an ephemeral despotism on the ruins of Lombard and Byzantine power. Even he could not face the Arabs in the open field, and his death (981) was followed by the partition of his lands and bitter strife among his sons. Unless Otto intervened it was not unlikely that Italy, south of the Garigliano, would become a province of the Caliphate of Cairo. Otto, however, was ill-qualified to be the general of a crusade. His military experience had been gained in petty operations against the Danes and Slavs, and in an invasion of France vaingloriously begun but ending in humiliation (978). Full of self-confidence he led a powerful force into Apulia, intending to expel first the Greeks and then the Arabs. He captured Bari and Taranto without difficulty; but he had no sooner entered Calabria than he allowed himself to be entrapped by the Emir of Sicily. On the field of Colonne (982) he lost the flower of his army and barely escaped capture by flight to a passing merchant vessel. Next year he died, in the midst of feverish preparations to wipe out this disgrace. It was left for the despised Greeks to repel the Arabs from the mainland; Sicily remained a Mohammedan possession till the coming of the Normans (1062).

It is easier to sympathise with the policy of Otto II than with the man himself. The case is reversed when we turn to the career of his son. Otto III, an infant at his father's death, escaped from female tutelage in 996, and made his first Italian expedition as an autocrat of sixteen. He went to free the Papacy from the bondage of a Roman faction, the party of the infamous John XII, again rearing its head under a new leader. The boy-ruler suppressed the rebels with some gratuitous cruelty. But he was not without noble ambitions or the capacity of appreciating finer natures than his own. Called upon to nominate a Pope he selected his cousin Bruno, a youth little older than himself, but a statesman and an idealist, who set himself to assert the authority of the Holy See over the national Churches, partly no doubt in the interests of the Empire but more in those of morality and discipline. Unhappily Bruno died before his influence had eradicated from the Emperor's character the weaknesses fostered by scheming flatterers and an injudicious education. Gerbert, who succeeded Bruno with the title of Sylvester II, encouraged his pupil in a career of puerile extravagances. While the new Pope extended his jurisdiction and magnified his office, the young Emperor was planning to revive in Rome the ancient glories of the Caesars. Otto built a palace on the Aventine; he imitated the splendour and travestied the ceremonial of the Byzantine court; he devised pompous legends to be inscribed on his seal and on his crown. In the year 1000 he made a solemn pilgrimage to Aachen and opened the vault of Charles the Great; another to Poland, to pray at the shrine of his martyred friend, St. Adalbert, in Gnesen. Meanwhile the serious business of the Empire was neglected; the Slavonic states shook off the German connection; the eastern frontier was unguarded. Even the Romans, whom he cherished as his peculiar people, despised his vagaries and rose in insurrection. This was the awakening. Alive at last to the difference between his dreams and his true position, he quitted the Eternal City to wander aimlessly in Italy, and died broken-hearted at the age of twenty-one.

It would obviously be unjust to judge the Holy Roman Empire of the first Otto by the tragicomic aberrations of his immediate successors. Their careers illustrate, in an extreme form, the temptations to which an Emperor was exposed; but neither of them understood the essence of the institution. Far from idealising the Empire overmuch they did not make it ideal enough. The true conception of Empire eluded their grasp and was unaffected by their failure. The policy of Otto the Great is justified by the fact that he, like Charles the Great, gave to a national monarchy the character of a religious office and the sense of a sacred mission. To appreciate his achievement we need only compare the German monarchy, as it stood in the year 1000, after a generation of misgovernment had marred the architect's design, with that of the Capets in France or of the House of Egbert in England. The difference is not only in size or outward splendour. The Holy Roman Empire stood for a nobler theory of royal and national Duty.