Upon the death of Pope Adrian I, in 795, Pope Leo III was elected as the new head of the Christian church. Although he claimed to have been elected through an anonymous vote, Leo still had enemies. For unclear reasons, some supporters of the previous pope were bitterly opposed to the new leader of the church. They accused him with charges of immorality and misconduct, and when words failed to have the desired result, the conspirators plotted more physical attacks. In the year 799, a gang of assailants ambushed Pope Leo III as he traveled through the street. The attackers attempted to gouge out his eyes and cut out his tongue. According to Einhard (c. 770-840), the aggressors succeeded in their tasks, but the later commentator, Notker the Stammerer (c. 840-912) claimed that the pope suffered nothing more than a slashed eyelid. Whatever the case, the pope survived the attack and his eyes and tongue either healed or, according to the more fantastic tales, miraculously grew back.
Even though the plot failed, the dissidents in Rome had enough power to threaten Pope Leo’s authority. Fearing for his life and position, Pope Leo III went to Charlemagne and asked for assistance. With the help of the Frankish king, the worst conspirators against the pope were discredited, arrested and faced exile or execution. On Christmas day in the year 800, not long after order was restored in Rome, Pope Leo III bestowed upon Charlemagne the titles of Emperor and Augustus, allowing his heirs to later call their lands the Holy Roman Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Pope Leo III, by Artaud de Montor (1772–1849), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.