Charlemagne - The New Western Empire

By far the greatest character who appeared in Europe at this period was Charles, the son of Pepin le Bref, and known in history by the name of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great. 'In the course of a reign of forty five years,' says Mr. Tytler, Charlemagne extended the limits of his empire beyond the Danube, subdued Dacia, Dalmatia, and Istria, conquered and subjected all the barbarous tribes to the banks of the Vistula, made himself master of a great portion of Italy, and successfully encountered the arms of the Saracens, the Huns, the Bulgarians, and the Saxons. His war with the Saxons was of thirty years duration; and their final conquest was not achieved without an inhuman waste of blood. At the request of the pope, and to discharge the obligations of his father Pepin to the holy see, Charlemagne, though allied by marriage to Desiderius, king of the Lombards, dispossessed that prince of all his dominions, and put a final period to the Lombard dominion in Italy (774).

When Charlemagne made his first entry into Rome, he was crowned king of France and of the Lombards by Pope Adrian I; and afterwards, on a second visit, he was consecrated Emperor of the West by the hands of Pope Leo III (800). He probably attached some importance to these rites, but it is to be remarked that, as yet, the pontiff was not in the enjoyment of that high influence by which he afterwards could confer or withdraw sovereignty at his pleasure.

It is probable,' continues the authority above quoted, that had Charlemagne chosen Rome for his residence and seat of government, and at his death transmitted to his successor an undivided dominion, that great but fallen empire might have once more been restored to lustre and respect; but Charlemagne had no fixed capital, and he divided, even in his lifetime, his dominion among his children (806): Charlemagne died in the year 814, aged seventy-two. His last days were employed in consolidating, rather than extending, his empire, by the making of laws which have rendered his name famous, and his memory even blessed. Though engaged in so many wars,' says Dr. Russell, Charlemagne was far from neglecting the arts of peace, the happiness of his subjects, or the cultivation of his own mind. Government, manners, religion, and letters, were his constant pursuits. He frequently convened the national assemblies for regulating the affairs both of church and state. In these assemblies he proposed such laws as he considered to be of public benefit, and allowed the same liberty to others; but of this liberty, indeed, it would have been difficult to deprive the French nobles, who had been accustomed, from the foundation of the monarchy, to share the legislation with their sovereign. His attention extended even to the most distant corners of his empire, and to all ranks of men. He manifested a particular regard for the common people, and studied their ease and advantage. The same love of mankind led him to repair and form public roads; to build bridges where necessary; to make rivers navigable for the purposes of commerce; and to project that grand canal which would have opened a communication between the German Ocean and the Black Sea, by uniting the Danube and the Rhine.' Amidst all his greatness, his personal habits were simple; his dress was of the plainest sort, and such even as to shame his own courtiers; his hours of study set apart, and seldom omitted even in the busiest times of his life; his daughters were taught spinning and housewifery, and his sons trained by himself in all the accomplishments of the age. Charlemagne was fond of the company of learned men, and greatly encouraged their residence in his dominions. In this respect he resembled his contemporary Haroun Raschid, so famous in Arabian history, and Alfred the Great, who appeared in England shortly after this period. Superior to all national prejudice, he elevated an Englishman named Alcuin to the head of his royal academy. He was zealous for the extension of Christianity; and one of the few blots upon his name arises from his having, in the spirit of his age, caused 4000 Saxon prisoners to be beheaded in one day, because they would not submit to be baptized. Charlemagne established schools in the cathedrals and principal abbeys, for the teaching of writing, arithmetic, grammar, logic, and music.

Of the sons of Charlemagne, Louis, the youngest, surnamed the Debonnaire, or gentle, was the only one who survived. He succeeded to all his father's dominions, except Italy, which fell into the hands of Bernard, a grandson of Charlemagne. Louis, deficient in vigor of character, was unable to hold together the great empire left to him by his father. Having, among the first acts of his reign, given large portions of it to his children, the remainder of his life was spent in disgraceful quarrels with them; and. after his death (840), the empire was formally divided - Lothaire, his eldest son, obtaining Lorraine and Provence; while Charles the Bald, a younger son, continued sovereign of the western parts of France; and Louis be came king of Germany. Thus abruptly terminates the history of the second western empire.