Otto III, Emperor

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Reign: German King 9831002, Emperor 9961002.b. 980. d. Paterno, Italy. Buried St. Mary, Aachen. Otto III was the son of Emperor Otto II and Theophanu. Otto ascended the throne at the age of three and, though legally king, clearly required guidance in the business of government. Since the standards concerning rule by minors and the formation of regencies were as yet ill defined, the immediate result of the young king's succession was a battle for control among his relatives. Otto's uncle, Henry "the Quarrelsome" seized the young king and declared himself the boy's guardian. Henry had just been freed from captivity, his punishment for rebellion against Otto's father (Otto II). Since Henry was Otto's oldest male relative, he had a valid claim, and as Theophanu was still in Italy, he had the advantage of surprise. Initially, Henry gave the impression that his ambitions went no farther than the guardianship. Gradually, however, it became clear that he intended to exercise power in his own right or perhaps to rule alongside Otto as a dominant co-ruler, on the Byzantine model. Public opinion, divided to this point, now began to rally around Otto, who may have benefited from the fact that he had already been anointed and crowned. On June 29, 984, Duke Henry was forced to surrender the king to a regency that was dominated by the boy's mother, Theophanu, until her death in 991, and afterwards by Otto's grandmother Adelheid. The two women continued the patterns of government established by Otto I, especially the alliance with the church. In the west, Theophanu's skillful diplomacy ensured that Lotharingia remained within the boundaries of the Empire. In the East, campaigns continued to be launched against the trans-Elbian Slavs, though without reversing the results of the great uprising of 983. In Italy, the support of powerful magnates and the presence of Adelheid, erstwhile queen of the lombards, insured the stability of Ottonian interests.

Otto reached his majority in 994. In spite of vigorous scholarly debate regarding the significance of specific aspects of Otto's reign, there is little doubt regarding his concern to redefine the political order in Italy and on the Empire's eastern frontier. In 996, Otto launched his first expedition to Italy. This visit is noteworthy, among other things, because it marked the advent of the first German pope. Upon hearing of Pope John XV's death, Otto had his cousin Bruno installed on the papal throne. The new pope took the name gregory v (996999) and repaid Otto's generosity by crowning him emperor on May 21,996. Subsequently, Otto issued diplomata in which he referred to himself as "Emperor of the Romans," and demonstrated his role as leader of Christendom by presiding over a synod together with the pope. Although this point remains very much in dispute, it is possible that Otto also used this occasion to denounce as a forgery the Constitutum Constantini (donation of constantine). It was on this occasion, as well, that Otto met and was deeply impressed by Gerbert of Reims and adalbert of prague, two men, one a great intellectual and visionary, the other a saint and martyr, who would significantly influence the emperor's imperial vision. It is indicative of the limits of Otto's power that Pope Gregory encountered difficulties as soon as his imperial protector left Italy. Under the leadership of Crescenzio (Crescentius), the Romans expelled Gregory from the city and elevated in his place John Philagathos as Pope John XVI. This act of rebellion incited Otto to launch a second expedition to Italy which, among other things, resulted in the execution of Crezenzio and the degradation of his anti-pope.

Upon the death of Gregory V, Otto appointed Gerbert of Aurillac as Pope Silvester II (9991003). Silvester's reign was marked by continued cooperation between pope and emperor. This cooperation was evident, in particular, on the Empire's eastern frontier, where Otto and Silvester collaborated in the establishment of a Polish archbishopic at Gniezno (1000). Gniezno was the burial place of Adalbert of Prague, and contemporary sources portray the emperor's progress from Rome as a kind of pilgrimage. Modern scholars have seen in it yet another example of Otto's concern to represent himself as the leader of Christendom. Diplomata issued along the way described Otto as "servant of the Apostles" and "servant of Jesus Christ." On the way back to Rome, Otto stopped at Aachen, where he apparently had the tomb of Charlemagne opened so that he could view the emperor's corpse. The meeting at Gniezno also appears to have substantially altered political relations between the Empire and Poland, and may have affected relations with other eastern neighbors as well. The establishment of an archbishopric at Gniezno marked the beginning of an independent ecclesiastical organization for the Polish duchy and hence, an important stage in its consolidation as a medieval state. Otto clearly intended to elevate the prestige of the Polish duke, Boleslav "Chrobry," whom he declared an "ally and friend of the Roman people." Although this point too is controversial, he may also have elevated Boleslav to the rank of king through the bestowal of a crown. If this latter point can be accepted, Otto's regulation of the Empire's relations with Poland may be seen, in conjunction with the foundation of a Hungarian archbishopric at Gran, as part of an overall imperial strategy.

Among modern scholars, that strategy is commonly identified as having the goal of creating a renovated Roman empire based on the city of Rome. This plan or program found its most striking manifestation in the phrase Renovatio Romanorum imperii, which appears on a lead seal attached to one of Otto's diplomata. In his classic definition of Otto's Renovatio, P. E. Schramm declared that Otto had constructed the policies of his government around an ideal vision of Rome that was unique in being specifically secular, political, and universal. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on Schramm's definition without necessarily replacing it. In any case, Otto's untimely death, at the age of twenty-one, ensured that whatever plan he may have had remained incomplete.

Bibliography: p. e. schramm, Kaiser Rom und Renovatio (Berlin 1929, reprint Darmstadt 1984). h. beumann, Die Ottonen 2nd. ed. (Stuttgart 1991) 127156. d. a. warner, "Ideals and Action in the Reign of Otto III." Journal of Medieval History 29: 118. e. mÜller-mertens, "The Ottonians as Kings and Emperors," in The New Cambridge Medieval History, ed. t. reuter (Cambridge 1999) 3:233266

[d. a. warner]