The shadow of the Roman empire looms large in European history. Even after its official fall in 476 AD, it lived on in many ways.
In the eastern parts of the empire, it lived on as…the “Roman Empire.” Today, we call this the Byzantine Empire, but to those living at the time, they were very much Roman.
In the west, the story is a little different. When the city of Rome fell, its biggest impact was felt in western Europe. The lack of a central authority led to political instability and an economic downturn. The people of the time knew the glory days were behind them, meaning the Glory Days of Rome.
The enduring power of Rome, or rather the idea of Rome, can be seen in the story of power in Medieval Europe. For centuries after the fall of the City Upon a Hill, no one power was really in charge. But as the popularity of Christianity grew, the political landscape became more and more dominated by the Church, which was headquartered in Rome, turning it into one of the most powerful institutions of the Middle Ages.
But it didn’t do it alone. To secure its power, the Church needed some help from some non-Church people, aka some kings and queens.
This came in the 8th century AD with the rise of the Carolingian Dynasty and forever changed the course of European history.
The Rise of the Franks
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, the many different Germanic people of Europe began settling western Europe. Eventually, groups combined into kingdoms, and kingdoms combined and grew into realms that stretched across vast territories of western Europe.
Of all these groups, the Franks soon rose to be the most powerful. United under their leader, Charles Martel, who ruled out of France, the Franks were a formidable force in the 8th century AD.
Then, when they stood up and beat back the advancing Umayyads, an empire based in the Middle East that was responsible for the spread of Islam, there was no one else in Europe that could match the power of the Franks.
But a strong army is not enough to secure a realm. A good leader must also win the hearts and minds of the people he hopes to conquer.
Enter the Duchy of Rome and the Catholic church.
The Duchy of Rome
After the fall of Rome, Italy itself was divided into a number of smaller, independent political regions. Some, particularly in the north, were conquered by the Lombards, another Germanic kingdom in rivalry with the Franks. But by the 8th century BC, much of the lands of Italy had been conquered by the Byzantine Empire.
One small stretch of land around the city of Rome, known as the Duchy of Rome, remained relatively independent. A duchy is a royal territory smaller than a kingdom but bigger than a county.
Despite their best efforts, Byzantine rulers lacked the resources to properly govern Italy even if they claimed it to be theirs. And Rome’s authority over the Catholic Church helped make the Duchy even more powerful on its own.
It used this power to hang onto the right to name the “true” emperor of Rome. For the most part, it made sense for the Pope, the leader of Rome and the Church, to give this title to the Byzantine emperor. But eventually it did not.
By the 8th century, the Byzantine Empire lost control of Italy, and the Lombards threatened to step in. Feeling as though their influence in Constantinople was waning, and also wanting to save their own necks, the Romans, more specifically the Pope, appealed to the Franks, the rising power of Western Europe.
The Donation of Pepin
The first thing the Pope did was support the kingship of Pepin, aka Pepin the Short. The son of Charles Martel, Pepin was competing with another powerful lord for the right to rule the Franks.
His father’s success, plus the support of the Pope, helped him claim his rule. From there, he went out to return the favor. His armies moved into Northern Italy, conquering a number of lands from the Lombards. But instead of just doing what most other conquerors in history have done and taking these lands for himself, he chose to donate them.
That’s right. He wrapped them up in a nice box with ribbon and handed them to the Duchy of Rome to keep all for himself.
At this point, these territories were mainly loyal to the Pope anyway. But doing this helped cement the relationship between the Church and the Frankish king.
This donation became known as the “Donation of Pepin” and represented a monumental leap forwards in the Church’s medieval power.
Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire
Pepin died in 751 AD and his brother, Charlemagne, took over. And seeing that the relationship between his kingdom and the Pope was beneficial to both, he decided to take things one step further.
First, he officially designated the lands of the Duchy of Rome as belonging to the Pope. He was free to rule it as he saw fit. But he also expanded the territory of the Pope to include even more lands in northern Italy.
Booyah! Things were looking good for the Pope and the people of Rome.
In return, the Pope, specifically Pope Leo III, named Charlemagne as the new “emperor of Rome,” giving a substantial boost to Charlemagne’s position.
The reason this was such a boost is that, even 400 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the people of Europe still saw the Roman Empire as the only true leader of Europe. To them, when Rome fell in 476 AD, it didn’t fall. Instead, the focus just shifted to the east. The “idea” of Rome, a unified realm under one leader, guided by God, stayed alive.
The rise of Charlemagne brought the focus back to the West, or so said the Pope.
A Split from Byzantium
Since the fall of the western Roman Empire, the emperors ruling from Constantinople, the modern-day city of Istanbul, declared themselves the true rulers of Rome. This is all very confusing because the city of Rome didn’t actually belong to their realm.
However, the word Rome by this point in history was almost synonymous with “civilization.” You see, during the period of the Romans, they did such a good job connecting the territories they conquered through roads, trade, and politics, that the idea of being Roman became entrenched in people’s identities. When the city fell, the civilization it had built was much bigger than just one city.
Therefore, anyone hoping to claim any sort of authority over lands previously considered Roman would likely need to connect themselves to the Roman empire.
For the leaders in Constantinople, this was easy. They had long been part of the Roman empire, so when the city fell in 476 AD, they simply carried the torch in a new direction.
But what happens if the leader of Rome itself decides you are no longer the “leader of Rome?” That could be problematic.
Leo III Breaks Free
This is exactly what Pope Leo III did. He wasn’t motivated by anything other than politics.
The Byzantines had long held that they were the continuation of the Roman empire, but over time they began to shut out the leaders of Rome itself. The Byzantine emperor, who was considered to be designated by God, began breaking free from the influence of Rome.
Rome’s grip on power, and its influence over Christian doctrine, was slipping.
But before it completely slipped away, Pope Leo III switched things up by turning away from Byzantium and naming the Frankish king Charlemagne as the new emperor of Rome.
This was the ultimate double power move. In fact, most records indicated Charlemagne didn’t even know it was going to happen, and that he wasn’t happy about it at all. But he accepted nonetheless and the Holy Roman Empire, aka the Christian kingdom of Europe, was born.
The “Holy” Roman Empire?
The rise of the Carolingian dynasty, starting with Charles Martel through Charlemagne, ushered in a new era of the Medieval period. For the first time since 476 AD, there was a powerful central authority ruling Europe.
Today, we call that authority the “Holy Roman Empire.” It gets this name because by this point in history, the source of Rome’s power was that it was the center of the Catholic church. The Pope bestowed Charlemagne with the title of just “Roman emperor.” There was nothing especially holy about it at the time.
It became known as the Holy Roman Empire over time since this union between Charlemagne and the Pope brought religion, mainly Christianity, to the forefront of Medieval politics. From then on, anyone wishing to acquire any sort of meaningful power in Europe would need to first go through Rome.
Charlemagne’s Death and the Impact of the Carolingian Dynasty
However, all of this was kind of a false start. Charlemagne died in 814 AD, and, like always, no one could agree on who was to take his place. This wound up splitting this newly-revived Roman empire into three parts, the Western, Central, and Eastern Frankish kingdoms.
Still powerful in their own right, these kingdoms lacked the unity provided by the Carolingian kings.
But the real significance of Charlemagne and Carolingian dynasty was that it put the Catholic church, through the Duchy of Rome, at the center of Western European politics. It would take another 200 years, but the title of “Holy Roman Empire” would emerge again, and this time it would stick around for a millennium.
Pope Leo III set the precedent that the Pope would have a say in who ruled Europe. And given the popularity of Christianity at the time, the nobility of Europe went along with it.
In the grand scheme of things, the Carolingian Dynasty was short-lived. But the reign of Charlemagne and his union with the Church forever changed the course of history.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao