Otto III

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Otto III

The medieval ruler Otto III (980-1002) was Holy Roman emperor from 996 to 1002 and German king from 983 to 1002. Well educated, brilliant, and filled with hopes of reviving some type of Roman Empire in the West, he died while still a young man.

Otto III was the only son of Emperor Otto II and the Byzantine princess Theophano. He was 3 years of age when his father died, making him German king. Most of Otto's younger years were spent in Germany, where, after a period of difficulty with Duke Henry the Wrangler of Bavaria, his mother served capably as regent. After her death in 991, Otto's grandmother, the dowager empress Adelaide, became regent until, in 994, Otto himself came of age at 14.

During Otto III's minority the empresses Theophano and Adelaide had been relatively successful in keeping peace within Germany itself and in preventing the French kings from annexing Lorraine, which they coveted; but they had been less successful with the Danes, the Slavs beyond the Elbe River, and the Hungarians. The Slavs raided northern Germany constantly; the Danish king had gained control of his Church, which had been in German hands; the Polish ruler Miezko I had been given a crown by the Pope in 990; and the Hungarians remained hostile.

Soon after Otto III assumed personal power, he crossed the Alps into Italy in 996, suppressed a revolt in Rome, and was crowned emperor by his cousin Gregory V, whom he had made pope. Two years later, in 998, he again intervened in Rome, Pope Gregory V having died. Otto made his old friend the scholarly Gerbert of Aurillac pope, with the title of Sylvester II (reigned 998-1003). He and Sylvester collaborated closely until Otto's death in 1002.

The last years of Otto III's reign have caused much controversy among historians, who have been in disagreement as to the Emperor's aims. His mind seemed filled with projects of reviving in some form the Roman Empire in close collaboration with the papacy. His motto, "The Renewal of the Roman Empire," was inscribed on his seal ring, and Otto attempted to make the city of Rome his imperial capital. He also betrothed himself to the niece of the Byzantine emperor Basil II. On the other hand, Otto fully understood the Frankish precedents behind his imperial title, and he did not behave like a sacerdotal ruler. He also felt it important to allow the neighboring rulers of Denmark, Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary a large measure of freedom, control of their local churches, and loose association with his empire, thus conciliating them and helping to integrate their realms into one Western Christendom. Whatever plans Otto III may have had for the future, however, died with him in 1002, and a new and less exalted era ensued for Italy and Germany.

Further Reading

Indispensable to an understanding of Otto III are Geoffrey Barraclough, Origins of Modern Germany (1947; rev. ed. 1966), and Eleanor Duckett, Death and Life in the Tenth Century (1967). But they should be supplemented by accounts found in Francis Dvornik, The Making of Central and Eastern Europe (1949); Christopher Brooke, Europe in the Central Middle Ages, 962-1154 (1964); Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: The ImperialCenturies, A.D. 610-1071 (1966); and Karl Morrison, Tradition and Authority in the Western Church, 300-1140 (1969). □