Otto III, born in 980, was an ambitious, but short-lived, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was deemed old enough to rule in 994, at the age of fourteen. His dream was the renewal of the ancient Roman Empire, a passion probably fanned by Otto’s mother, Theophano, an imperial princess from the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in the Byzantine city of Constantinople.
Before the turn of the century, Otto III dramatically expanded his influence into Rome. In 996, Otto coerced the church to elect his cousin, Bruno of Carinthia, a man of only twenty-three years, as the next pope. Bruno took the name, Gregory V, and used his papal authority to confer on Otto III the lofty title of Holy Roman Emperor. Almost immediately after Otto left Rome, Pope Gregory was deposed, but the emperor returned to Italy in 997 and, by early 998, he deposed the new rival pope, reinstated Gregory V, and executed the instigator of the resistance. When Pope Gregory V died in 999, Emperor Otto III once again took it upon himself to choose who would be the next head of the church. This time Otto’s own tutor, Gerbert of Aurillac, became pope, taking the name Pope Sylvester II. Around this time, Otto III also made Rome his capital city, a move that unnerved both Germans and Italians.
In the year 1000, Otto III may have wanted some time to reflect. The twenty-year-old emperor took several pilgrimages that year. He went to Gniezno, Poland, to visit the tomb of archbishop Adelbert of Prague. More importantly, he entered the tomb of Charlemagne in Aachen and viewed the great king’s remains. By that point, Charlemagne had been dead for nearly two centuries, so what Otto saw laying in the tomb was quite decayed and shriveled, albeit still decently intact for such an old corpse. According to the tales about Otto’s visit to the tomb of Charlemagne, he trimmed the fingernails of the deceased king, which decomposition had made to seem as if they had grown long. In addition to this, although the body of Charlemagne was still mostly whole, much of the king’s nose had crumbled away. To remedy this, Otto had a golden nose cap fashioned and placed it on Charlemagne’s face. Despite fixing Charlemagne’s countenance, Otto also took with him one of Charlemagne’s teeth as a lucky keepsake. Nevertheless, the relic from the tomb of Charlemagne did not save Emperor Otto III. He died of illness two years later while his empire was faced with revolt.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer (Introduction), translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.