WHEN CHARLEMAGNE DIED on January 28, 814, his will listed an unusual set of matching furniture. Charlemagne owned three ornamental silver tables, each with a map or image of a city engraved on it. The first bore an image of the city of Rome. The second depicted the Byzantine capital city Constantinople, which thought of itself as “New Rome.” In his will, Charlemagne left these two tables to two different bishops. He sent the “Constantinople” table to the bishop of Rome and the “Rome” table to a bishop of former Byzantine territory that he...Read More
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BEAUTIFUL LADIES doing embroidery, strong knights jousting, troubadours serenading their lovers, castles hung with tapestries. That is the Middle Ages in our heads. But it was not Charlemagne’s Middle Ages. All of that would come later. The first serious castles were built, not just as his empire was crumbling, but because it was crumbling: people needed strong places to defend themselves against attacking armies. And the whole feudal system of knights and allegiances, troubadours and ladies, would not arise for centuries.
The world of...Read More
THE NEXT TIME you are on the Internet, type “Charlemagne” into a search engine and look at the pictures that come up. You will see paintings of Charlemagne looking regal, with an ornate crown on his head. Or you may see warrior Charlemagne, wielding a massive sword. The most dramatic pictures are of Pope Leo III “unexpectedly” placing the emperor’s diadem on the head of a majestic (but humble) Charlemagne.
The pictures you never see, though—but ones that would better reflect the importance that Charlemagne had in the Middle Ages—are of the...Read More
IT HAS ECHOED IN ART through the ages: Charlemagne, king of the Franks, at prayer in St. Peter’s Basilica before the tomb of the Apostle Peter on Christmas Day. Leo III, pope of the Roman Catholic Church, placing on his head a great jeweled crown and proclaiming him head of a Christian Roman Empire.
Then, a chronicle related, “all the faithful Romans, seeing how [Charlemagne] loved the holy Roman church and its vicar and how he defended them, cried out with one voice by the will of God and of St. Peter, the key-bearer of the kingdom of...Read More
CHARLEMAGNE WAS TALL, handsome, and slightly overweight. He resisted the suggestion of his doctors that it might be better for his health if he ate less roast meat. He enjoyed hunting and riding. Bathing in the warm natural spa baths at Aachen was a special pleasure, which he shared in the Roman way with his entire entourage—and sometimes all his servants—until there might be 100 of them in the baths. He seems to have liked to win swimming races, and usually did.
He may have loved Roman baths, but he dressed like a Frank, in a shirt and...Read More
THE ROMAN EMPIRE in the second century A.D. stretched from southern Scotland to present-day Iraq. It gleamed with painted marble, and its economy bustled vibrantly. While it maintained its ancient republican institutions in name, in reality strong emperors ruled. A third of the Italian population lived in cities, where local aristocrats paid for public works out of their own pockets as a civic duty and to build their own prestige.
But in the late second century, crisis came. Philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius left power to a son who was an...Read More