John W. Barker

Your have surely heard a good deal by now about Charlemagne as the great founder of an empire--an empire that, with much justice, has been seen as a starting-point for the Europe to come.

A Europe to come, but not a Europe that was. If we were living some twelve centuries ago--not a possibility I would personally welcome--we would scarcely be conscious of anything called Europe beyond some vague geographic terminology. Certainly that Europe would not have warranted primary attention. We would have been in a world, first of all, where what we might call the West in broad terms was only one of several zones of the globe. The other major zones would be the true East, the Far East of Asia and the Pacific, and the diverse but obscure zones of the Western Hemisphere and of sub-Saharan Africa. The West we speak of would be the shores of the Mediterranean basin and its peripheries.

There had been a time when that Western world had been an entity, a world basically at peace and coherently ruled, with the Mediterranean Sea itself as the core around which it was organized. That entity is what we know as the Roman Empire, whose comprehensive governance has been dubbed the pax romana, "the Roman peace". It was the Empire that, in Edward Gibbon's memorable words, "comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind." Making allowances for eighteenth-century rhetoric and Western parochialism, the Roman Empire fulfilled that description, and for a remarkable period of some four centuries. Whatever its limitations and defects, that feat was absolutely unmatched in Western history.

Precisely because it was such a remarkable thing, its memory haunted the Western mind for centuries after the pax romana had ended. It was certainly a memory in mind of Charlemagne and his contemporaries, and a motivating force for the creation of his own empire.

What Charlemagne and his contemporaries looked back on as a memory has, of course, become a stereotype for us, further involving that great non-event of history simplistically called "the Fall of the Roman Empire". To escape that stereotype we must understand the necessary distinction between Rome the city and Rome the Empire. It had been the forces radiating out of the city of Rome that had built up the Empire of Rome. But, by the end of the third century A.D. the direct and necessary connection between the two had faded. The sovereigns of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world-state no longer treated Rome as their capital and residence. Those functions were shifted once and for all in the fourth century to the New Rome, Constantine the Great's new fortress-city on the Bosphorus, Constantinoupolis. At the end of the fourth century the "Roman Empire"--as it still called itself, in complete disconnection from the city of Rome itself--was divided into two administrative halves, but they still constituted in theory one and the same Empire. Its two courts, however, while representing two branches of the same dynasty, drifted apart, not only in policies but in capacities. The Eastern court, ruling from Constantinople, had the advantage of the large population, the prosperous economy and wealth, the vibrant urban life, and the high civilization (mostly Hellenic), that characterized the eastern end of the Mediterranean world. Ruling not from Rome itself--now mainly a symbolic city--but mostly from the administrative center of Ravenna, the Western court governed what had always been the weaker and lesser parts of the Empire's territories, the backward, underdeveloped, less wealthy, less urbanized territories: that is to say, the western regions of southern Europe and North Africa.

In the fifth century, circumstances of geography combined with bad government and internal decay to make that inferior western half of the Empire fatally vulnerable to the intrusions of those external elements we like to call the Barbarians. Mostly Germans, those intruders penetrated and parcelled out among themselves the various territories that had been under the western court's jurisdiction, dismantling its rule chunk by chunk, and creating a patchwork of effective successor states on Roman lands. In the year 476 the German warlord dominating Italy merely recognized existing reality in deciding to end the charade of having a figurehead Emperor in the west. He so informed the Emperor in Constantinople.

The year 476. That is what you will find in most general history books as the date of "the fall of the Roman Empire". But, of course, no empire fell then. If anything, the year witnessed a vaguely theoretical reunification of the Empire, for now there was only one Emperor again, the one ruling in Constantinople. Thanks to its resources, the eastern court had managed repeatedly to fend off the fate of its western counterpart, surviving the crises of the fifth century. Too frequently nowadays it is dismissively labelled "the Eastern Empire", what would in time evolve into what we have come to call the Byzantine Empire. But, in its context, it was nothing other than the Roman Empire, or what was left of it. It survived, not surprisingly, in the Empire's best lands, with no relationship to the battered old city of Rome. It was recognized even by many of the new Germanic kings as the undoubted continuation of Roman sovereignty in traditional terms.

In the sixth century, the surviving Roman Empire even struck back, in Justinian's bold but ill-advised effort to recover parts of the old western territories. Badly strained by a subsequent series of crises, the Empire then reeled before an event far more disruptive than anything yet seen. That was, concomitant with Muhammad's preaching of the new faith of Islam, the eruption of the Arab Conquests. The dynamic Arab armies swept along the eastern, southern, and extreme western shores of the Mediterranean during the course of the seventh century. The Mediterranean Sea, once the unifying core of the Western World, had now become both a barrier and a zone of conflict, with hostile concentrations of culture, ideology, and polity confronting each other, along geographic lines that have but minimally changed since then.

In 1925 the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne published his book known as Mohammed and Charlemagne. In it he argued that the unity of the Mediterranean world which had been framed by the pax romana was not destroyed by the Germanic invaders. They, it could be shown, had actually struggled to maintain the old Roman order they had taken over. It was, Pirenne insisted, the Arab conquests that had definitively disrupted Mediterranean trade and had initiated in the remnants of Roman western Europe the processes generating what would come to be the medieval European world. Without Muhammad, he opined, there would have been no Charlemagne. Pirenne's arguments were based too exclusively upon economic evidence, which itself has been challenged as to its accuracy or completeness. But Pirenne's broad point still has undeniable power. From the seventh century on, the Western world was irrevocably divided into three main zones.
These zones are what I like to call "the three worlds of the Middle Ages". They were set apart from each other not only by geography but according to ideology, culture, and language, despite some internal subdivisions. And each was represented for most of the Middle Ages by respective imperial regimes or their imitations. For the most recently created of those zones, the religion was Islam, the unifying language was Arabic, and the imperial regime was the Caliphate. The other two zones were Christian, but of increasingly divergent character. The eastern Christian zone was that of the Orthodox tradition, the language was Greek at the core and Slavonic on the fringes, and the imperial regime was East Rome or Byzantium, augmented by its Slavic fringe. The western Christian zone was that of Latin Christianity, the languages were either Latin-derived "romance" or Germanic tongues, and the imperial regime was--well, what?

That "what" was the question hovering over the old Roman territories in western Europe for some three centuries in which internal disunity and disarray was the working order. The peoples of the old Roman lands spoke variants of popular Latin that evolved into modern romance languages, while their rulers were German-speaking. Rulers and ruled shared Christian faith, but with irritating sectarian divisions. Divided within themselves, they were also divided against each other. And, in the lands beyond them, there lay the Germanic and other peoples not yet converted to Christianity. There had been four major successor regimes established on Roman territories by German tribes in the fifth century, and one more appeared in the sixth century. Of those, by the eighth century all but two had been eradicated. In North Africa, the Vandal state had been shattered by Justinian's Reconquest, but the region fell to the Arabs in the next century. In Spain, the Visigothic Kingdom was swept aside by the final major wave of Islamic conquest, when the Moors and Arabs overran the Iberian peninsula in the early eighth century. The Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy was another casualty of Justinian's Reconquest. But almost immediately Constantinople lost large portions of the peninsula to the latecomer Lombards. The Lombards themselves failed to create a coherent and unified regime in their parts of Italy, and their energies waxed and waned. By the eighth century, only the Frankish Kingdom in Gaul could be called a European power of serious strength and potentialities.

From their earliest establishment in fifth-century Gaul the Franks had dreamed of wide expansion, pursuing it in a number of directions and even entertaining ideas about Italy at times. Frankish momentum stalled in the seventh century amid the weakness and fragmentation of the original Merovingian dynasty, whose successive representatives became mere figureheads for local warlords. The definitive seizure of functional leadership in the eighth century by Charles Martel refocused Frankish energies and allowed his son, Pepin the Short, to bring formalities in line with realities by claiming the crown itself. The stage was now set for the first of three landmark events of the eighth century, landmarks in the genesis of the Europe we would recognize.

Like the last of these landmarks, the first involved the Bishop of Rome--or call him the Pope, as long as we do not project backwards the later attributes of that pontiff. Since the Justinianic Reconquest, the Bishop of Rome had been the subject and dependent of the Emperor in Constantinople. By the mid-eighth century, however, that Emperor was too distracted with affairs closer to home to give any serious aid to the Popes against the resurgent menaces to Rome being mounted by the Lombards. The Pope needed to find a new and different protector--though another Christian one, of course. The only such prospect on hand was the Frankish Kingdom. The leader of the Franks, Pepin the Short, himself needed decisive endorsement for transferring the royal title from the feeble Merovingian dynast. An obvious deal was in order. In 754 Pope Stephen II journeyed to Gaul where he crowned Pepin as King of the Franks, thereby securing the Carolingian family as the legitimate royal house. In presumed return, Pepin conducted two campaigns in Italy in the same year and in 756. Through them he neutralized the Lombard Kingdom and established a Frankish protectorate over the Papacy, in the process guaranteeing the secular as well as spiritual rule of the Popes in Rome and its environs--that last matter in itself one of the pivotal events in the history of Italy.

The Frankish Kingdom was now confirmed in its position as the predominant and almost exclusive superpower in Christian western Europe. It was an empire in all but name, and the symbolic step that would make it official was left to Pepin's son. When Charlemagne eliminated his rival brother in 771 and became sole Frankish King, he did not represent something new, but rather the glorious fulfiller of what Frankish momentum had been building toward for generations.

Completing the conquest of the Lombard Kingdom in 774, Charlemagne assumed its crown for himself, and stood a good chance of taking control of the rest of Italy thereafter. He continued the missionary activities of his grandfather and father among the Frisians and Germans. By conquest and missionary efforts combined, he incorporated Bavaria and Saxony into his realm, extending Frankish power eastward to the fringes of the Slavic world. By the year 800, Charlemagne had almost doubled Frankish territorial control. Not since the days of Roman rule in the west had there been a single realm so far-flung and diverse. It was therefore a not inappropriate step for the Pope to take advantage of a visit by Charlemagne in Rome to crown him with the title of Imperator Romanorum, Emperor of the Romans.

The actual circumstances and meaning of that event constitute the sort of thing historians dearly love: a "problem" they can never solve but about which they can argue interminably. There are various interpretations of the event, as to who took the initiative, and what it meant. Was it the idea of the Pope himself, with his own long-range agenda in mind? Was it something sought by Charlemagne himself? Was it an embarrassment to him, either in general, or simply because the Pope brought it about? Theorists on both the Frankish and Papal sides argued over such issues, at the time and long thereafter.

What can be said is that the Christian west now had an empire, and Charlemagne had secured the title that decided it. The award of the imperial title to a German leader was, of course, in utter defiance of a principle that had prevailed since the fifth century: the principle that no "barbarian" could bear it, only a "Roman" by birth. For Charlemagne, Karl the Frank, to hold this title was to assert at last that Europe's destiny was to be forged by German peoples, rather than Mediterranean ones. In that sense, the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 was simply the fulfillment of the process begun in 754 with the Popes' abandonment of Byzantine suzerainty and their alliance with the Franks. Those events may justly be seen as a declaration of independence by western Europe, setting on the march to its future growth and consolidation as the ultimate global powerhouse.

By taking the title of Emperor, Charlemagne identified western Europe as an empire in its own right. But, in so doing, he also challenged the perquisites and presumptions of the existing imperial legality in the Christian world--the perquisites and presumptions of the old Roman Empire that still survived in its eastern lands. During these very centuries East Rome was evolving into what we could now call Byzantium. In the sixth century it passed through the fires of administrative reorganization and dire foreign menaces, notably the Slavic takeover of the Balkans and the onslaught of the Arabs. Forget the stereotypes of Charles Martel saving Europe from Islam at the Battle of Tours in 732. That was a tawdry scrap with raiders from Moorish Spain, which was in no position to mount serious new conquests. Rather, it was the heroic Byzantine resistance in 717-18 to the Arab siege of Constantinople--the largest land/sea attack mounted before Eisenhower's D-Day enterprise--that decisively halted the momentum of Islamic conquests. Then, through the eighth century and beyond, Byzantium was racked by the theological, spiritual, and cultural upheaval of the Iconoclastic Controversy, from which it would emerge in the mid-ninth century to begin a process of brilliant revitalization.

The issues of Iconoclasm prompted Charlemagne to make his first challenge to Byzantine ascendancy. In 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea, established the basic condemnation of Iconoclastic theology, in decisions that were theoretically binding on the entire Christian community, east and west. The controversy over the use of images in Church worship did not particularly excite concern in the Latin west, but Charlemagne was dissatisfied with the decisions of the Nicaean council themselves. More to the point, to receive and promulgate these decisions seemed to him an admission of subjection to Constantinople. He decided to reject the new council's efforts, as if to say that Byzantium was already too steeped in heresy to resolve doctrinal truth properly. Accordingly, he issued his own set of decrees, the so-called Libri Carolini, containing his own refutation of Iconoclasm. His own positions really involved only trifling differences with Byzantine Orthodoxy on doctrinal issues, differences based as much on linguistic and cultural misunderstandings as theological divergences. But they represented a new declaration of western-European independence. Under his guidance, and with the Bishop of Rome now his creature, the Church in the west would no longer be the docile appendage of an all-wise and omnipotent Constantinople. 

Charlemagne's taking of the title of Emperor, however--as the third Frankish defiance of Constantinople--was an even more blatant gesture. To be sure, Charlemagne coveted territories that were still Byzantine, and he had plans for taking them. But he seems not to have imitated usurpers of old, who aspired to the ultimate sovereignty in Constantinople itself. He simply wanted his new title to imperial power in the west to be accepted as legitimate. But the title itself was the sticking point. For all our labeling of them as "Byzantines" (or "Greeks" as the westerners were coming to call them), the peoples of East Rome understood themselves as nothing other than "Romans". For them the word "Roman" identified them in three ways: as the continuers of Roman imperial polity and law, as the preservers of Greek linguistic and cultural heritage, and as the protectors of Christian Orthodoxy. Since 476, there had been and could only be one Emperor of the Romans, only one transcendent deputy of God on earth, and that was their sovereign in Constantinople. For this upstart German in the west to claim that title was worse than illegal: it was a kind of blasphemy. That there could be two "Roman Empires" was unthinkable. To be sure, Charlemagne's polemicists had their own arguments. One was that he was merely reconstituting the old dichotomy of a western Roman court in tandem with an eastern one, within the same Imperial concept. (Never mind that he was a German doing so, rather than one of old Roman origins.) Beyond that lay an even more interesting argument. In the year 800, they might claim, Charlemagne was not challenging any rightful Roman Emperor, for there really was no Emperor in Constantinople after all. The throne there was technically vacant.

In that, they had a point. Up until three years before, the Byzantine sovereign had been Constantine VI, the latest and last of the so-called Isaurian dynasty. He had succeeded to the throne as a child, under the regency of his mother, the dowager Empress Irene. The latter's appetite for power had grown in the experience, and she resisted giving it up as her son matured. Constantine pushed her aside but then so botched things that the wily Irene was able to lead a coup against him in 797. She disqualified him for rule by having him blinded; as it happened, in the very room where he had been born.

Thenceforth she ruled in her own name, though bowing to prejudice by calling herself "Emperor Irene" in some official enactments. She was, in her way, a brilliant personality and she had as many devoted supporters as opponents. But her position was vulnerable, and it may well have been the challenges posed by Charlemagne that finally brought about her undoing.

The Franks had been pressing for control of various parts of Italy and Dalmatia, including the lagoons of what we now know as Venice. These were tensions that themselves required resolution, while Charlemagne was equally concerned about winning recognition from Constantinople for his Imperial title. That idea had been rejected out of hand by the Byzantine court. But both sides recognized the need for discussion, perhaps even for a dramatic solution. We know that in early 802 Charlemagne received in Aix-la-Chapelle an embassy from Irene. Her emissaries returned home, accompanied by Charlemagne's own ambassadors, with instructions to pursue a idea that was bold, to say the least: that a marriage might be negotiated between Charlemagne and Irene themselves, thereby restoring the unity of Imperial traditions. The idea seems as bizarre and impractical to us twelve centuries later as it did to her contemporaries, and it is difficult to imagine how it could have been made to work. But Irene seems to have taken the idea seriously. She was about fifty years of age at the time, hardly old by our standards, if certainly mature by those of her day, and still sufficiently attractive to be a matrimonial prospect. There is even a legend that, at one point after the ambassadors' arrival in Constantinople that summer, she received them while taking a bath, almost as if to display the marital merchandise.
Whatever the case, these negotiations seem to have been the last straw for the leaders of her court. That she might even consider such a disruptive marriage was enough to move them to action. The Frankish embassy was still in Constantinople when on the night of October 31, 802, Irene was removed from power and sent off into exile, in which status she survived less than a year. The question of resolution between

Constantinople and Aix-la-Chapelle was deferred, if only in stages. In an exchange in 803 with Charlemagne, Irene's successor Nikephoros I flatly refused to recognize the Frankish ruler's claim to an imperial title, though he agreed in 803 to a truce between Byzantium and the Franks. But that would not last long. The bone of contention was the northern headland of the Adriatic Sea, and most particularly the Venetian lagoon area. Its steadfast loyalty to its Byzantine suzerain had been disrupted briefly and was coveted by Charlemagne as part of his program to consolidate his power throughout Italy. His son Pepin undertook a campaign of annexation in 809-10. But its repulse by the lagoon defenders served to focus settlements definitively in the islands and mudflats that would become the Venice of today.

In the ensuing stalemate, a compromise solution was negotiated in 812. In exchange for the return of the Adriatic regions to Constantinople's rule, and respect for Byzantine rights to southern Italy, Charlemagne was given a qualified recognition of his Imperial title by the new Byzantine Emperor, Michael I. To be sure, the Frankish ruler was acknowledged with the title of Basileus or "Emperor", but not of Basileus Romaion, or Imperator Romanorum, "Emperor of the Romans". It was a technicality that preserved the Byzantine sense of priority: there were once again two parts of the Roman world, each ruled by an Emperor, but the one in Constantinople was heaven's true deputy and the paramount worldly sovereign, while the one in the west was only a junior partner. To be sure, that solution was probably enough for Charlemagne. It confirmed him in a status appropriate to the scope of Frankish territorial control, and it legitimized his use of the title which proclaimed him the inheritor of Roman authority, even if he was a German.
In three successive steps taken by Frankish rulers in the latter half of the eighth century, then, western Europe declared its independence and struck out boldly on its own course, no longer subordinate to the Eastern Roman leadership of Constantinople. Pepin I's alliance with the Papacy in 754, Charlemagne's Libri Carolini after 787, and the coronation of Charlemagne with the Imperial title in 800 had been those steps. By the time Charlemagne died in 814, he had given meaning to the nostalgia for the pax romana, that amazing four-century epoch of the civilized world in peace and unity. Not only that, he had linked his own glory to that longing, making him in his own turn a figure of nostalgia for later European generations.

In immediate terms, however, his vision of a new and revitalized Roman order under German leadership for western Europe was actually a mirage, and his empire was quickly shown to be a failure.

In that vision he was too far ahead of his times. Those times were marked by a breakdown of long-range communications, a decay of the old Roman social and urban institutions, and a decline into stagnant localism. In such conditions, leadership could exist not on transcendent legal grounds but only through personal loyalties, the loyalties of emerging feudal ties. The strains and limitations of far-flung personal bonds could be accommodated to some extent by the powerful and commanding personality of Charlemagne himself. But his son and sole successor, Louis the Pious, was in no way able to fill his Charlemagne's shoes. Moreover, there was another force undermining Charlemagne's imperial dream, pernicious tradition inherent in Frankish dynastic principles: the idea of treating a realm as a family patrimony, to be disposed of as any other heritage through division among the surviving sons. Charlemagne himself briefly had a brother as a rival in his first years of rule. He later had blocked out some partitioning of territories to his own sons. That his empire was not indeed divided upon his death resulted simply from the accident that only one son survived him. But that son, Louis the Pious, had several sons of his own, and he was too week to resist their unbridled ambitions in his own lifetime.

In fact, within three years of Charlemagne's death his grandsons were already arranging partitions of the Frankish Empire amongst themselves. The disintegration of the Empire was fully under way long before Louis's largely irrelevant demise in 840. External threats from Vikings on the northern shores, Magyars in central Europe, and Arabs in Italy would soon batter diminished Frankish resources. The Carolingian divisions also reflected the divergences of languages and cultures taking shape among European peoples. That said, some blurred lines in these divisions were to become enduring blights on European polity even into the twentieth century. The point is, in the ninth century, and for centuries thereafter, western Europe was simply not receptive to becoming the unitary empire Charlemagne had tried to project along the Roman model.

The prompt fragility of Charlemagne's empire stands in striking contrast with the situations of the other two empires in the Western world of his day. The East Roman or Byzantine world with which Charlemagne had endeavored to compete was made of far stronger stuff. Liberated from the turmoil of Iconoclasm, it proceeded through the ninth century to renew its cultural life in terms that would enjoy continuing maturity down to the fifteenth century. As a state and a military power, it would throw back its aggressive neighbors and reclaim many of its old lands, to the degree that, by the beginning of the eleventh century the Byzantine Empire was quite simply the strongest, richest, most cultured portion of the Western World, matched within it by no other power in those other two zones of the Middle Ages. The Byzantine sense of "Roman" identity, combining Roman polity, Hellenic culture, and Christian Orthodoxy, seemed incontestably triumphant. 

To be sure, in that pivotal eleventh century a descent into governmental mismanagement in the face of unexpected new external challenges would badly diminish Byzantium's standing. That happened at the same time when new forces and regimes emerged in western Europe--ones very different from what Charlemagne's imperial vision had projected. Those new factors would, partly through the effects of the Crusading movement, pull western Europe ahead of Byzantium, marginalizing it, brutally disrupting it with the Fourth Crusade, and leaving it too weak to resist ultimate destruction at the hands of a resurgent Islamic world in the form of the Ottoman Turkish conquest. But that final outcome would be put off until the fifteenth century, seven centuries after the disintegration of Charlemagne's empire had become an irreversible fact.
We have said little so far about that third of the three worlds of the Middle Ages, the Islamic Empire of the Caliphs. That Empire's destiny was to be far less solid than Byzantium's, if only a bit less grim than that of Charlemagne's Empire. Under the title of Caliph, the successors of the Prophet Muhammad combined spiritual with political power. And, under the Caliphate's first hereditary dynasty, the Mediterranean-focused Omayyads, the fusion of Islamic faith with energetic Arab expansiveness created a spectacular new empire during the course of the seventh century. The Omayyad failure before Constantinople in 718 brought a halt to the Arab Conquests and planted the seeds of the dynasty's destruction. In 750 it was swept away and replaced by the very different Abbasids, who soon established themselves in their new inland capital of Baghdad. Their ascendancy did not keep the Islamic Empire fully intact, since a surviving member of the Omayyad family created a rival caliphate in breakaway Spain. Thus, decades before Charlemagne's Empire was legitimized in his imperial title, and almost a century before the Frankish disintegration, the Islamic Empire suffered the first of what would be a number of its own phases of crumbling.

Nevertheless, it was still an Islamic Empire of grandeur and glory at its peak under the early Abbasids in Charlemagne's day. The most famous of the Abbasid Caliphs, Haroun al-Rashid (786-809) was an exact contemporary of our Frankish Emperor, and there are indeed parallels between the two of them in the legendary status they came to assume in their respective cultural traditions. Haroun's son and true successor, Mamun (813-833), was scarcely less spectacular in his power and glory, and it was under him that medieval Arab thought and art achieved their first blossoming under his patronage. Mamun's successor was, however, to be the last energetic member of the dynasty. Subsequent Abbasid caliphs became evermore just puppets and figureheads for competing court factions, while external, even non-Arab elements, fought their way to ascendancy. That process was launched, we may note, in the same time period in which the Frankish disintegration was in full cry. The detachment of fringe territories began, while local centers distant from Baghdad came to be the true sparkplugs of Islamic and Arab energies.

In the tenth century, the Shiite dynasty of the Fatimids, having taken control first of North Africa, seized Egypt and created a caliphate of their own, set in doctrinal as well as political rivalry against the claims of the Orthodox Sunni Abbasids. In the latter half of the eleventh century the Seljuk Turks established domination over the old Abbasid lands, retaining the dynasts as figureheads but beginning the shift in power in the Islamic Middle East away from Arabs and towards Turkish elements. The Abbasid Caliphate was finally ended with the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. By then, however, it had been Turks as much as Arabs who had fought against the Crusades. The mainstream leadership of Islam had passed from Saladin's dynasty to the Turkish Mamluks, who would be superseded in turn by the Ottoman Turks. Only the latter would generate a new Islamic empire, complete with revival of the caliphal title, in the dawn of the modern era. A patchy imperial record, then, but one in which the imperial idea, embodied in the concept of the Caliphate, retained an unquenchable vitality for the Sunni Islamic world.

With the geographically distant and ideologically distinct Abbasid Caliphate Charlemagne had far less contact than with the neighboring and collegially Christian Byzantine Empire. It was against Omayyad Spain, not Abbasid-ruled territories, that Charlemagne fought the campaigns across the Pyrenees that produced the legends later embodied in the Song of Roland and that, in more practical terms, laid foundations for the later Christian Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. And it was against the local Arab regime of Sicily, independent of Abbasid jurisdiction, that Charlemagne's grandsons fought in southern Italy. Legend had it that Charlemagne enjoyed friendly diplomatic contacts with Haroun al-Rashid, and that his great Abbasid counterpart even sent the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as a courteous gesture, making Charlemagne protector of that great pilgrimage shrine. But there is no more truth to that legend than to others which had Charlemagne leading a great military expedition to Palestine to beat up the Muslims and conquer Jerusalem. Still, that was a legend which could and did inspire the French Crusaders of the twelfth century. Such a legend was one of many through which Charlemagne remained a figure of potent memory, long after his day. Beyond such legends, however, there is little to offer as to interactions between the Empire of Charlemagne and the Empire of Islam.

That Charlemagne's memory ran steadily through the consciousness of the European generations following his time is undeniable. Western European medieval consciousness remained obsessed with the concept of unity, of synthesis: the idea that the diversities of life and thought and expression could and should be brought together in ultimate harmony and compatibility. In political terms, many believed that the realities of localized diversity and polycentric government should yield to some ultimate unification of polity. As the image of the pax romana haunted medieval ideas of leadership, so too did the image of Charlemagne's noble if abortive effort to recreate that kind of imperial polity. Meanwhile, Charlemagne's title of Emperor was tossed about among his descendants for a century--only occasionally, and sparingly, it might be noted, given grudging recognition by Constantinople. After Carolingian aspirants made their claims on it, the title was further dragged down by ephemeral Lombard princes, until a new series of German dynasties revived it as a cap upon their efforts to create a viable German monarchy.

Thus was generated in the tenth century what became known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. It was seen by some theorists in the Central Middle Ages as the natural and necessary expression of unitary temporal power, just as the Papacy was presumed to represent ultimate spiritual authority. In the twelfth century, one of the most pretentious of these German Emperors, Frederick Barbarossa, even had Charlemagne proclaimed a Christian saint, so as to give yet greater prestige to the Frankish Imperial idea with which the German Emperors sought to identify themselves. But the imperial idea proved inadequate against the irresistible emergence of the concept of the nation state, the true product of medieval European political innovation. The dogged persistence of an imperial organism would ultimately boil down to the muddled regime of the Austrian Hapsburgs which, by the eighteenth century, Voltaire could ridicule as being "not Holy, not Roman, and not an Empire."

The empires of Charlemagne's age died slow and hard deaths. Byzantium fell in 1453. The Holy Roman Empire was abolished by Napoleon in 1806. The more modest effort of Bismarck to reinvent it as a Prussian imitation foundered after barely three-and-a-half decades. The Caliphate, revived by the Ottomans, was abolished in 1924, two years after the suppression of the Turkish Sultanate itself by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Nevertheless, in Europe itself along the way, the dream of unity that had inspired Charlemagne still continued to fire his later heirs. Hapsburg Emperor Charles V in the sixteenth century was the last sovereign who strove to create a single ascendancy in Europe on the basis of the Holy Roman Imperial concept. Napoleon, who abolished that concept, did so in pursuit of his own refashioned goal of uniting Europe into a comprehensive imperial order. When he had himself crowned with the title of Emperor in 1805, Napoleon presented himself as the reincarnation not only of Augustus and of Justinian but of Charlemagne--by then recognized, of course, as a Frenchman, not a German! (Remember, by the way, that in English, we today use the French form of his conjoined name and epithet, Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great, not Karl der Grosse!)
The concept of empire is nowadays emphatically out of fashion. We think of an empire as something produced by conquest and maintained by coercion. Even thus tarnished, however, the concept of empire has found new life in recent times through transformation and redefinition. The British Empire, the pax britannica--as much a product of commerce as conquest--became redefined by devolution as the British Commonwealth. The Russian Empire of the Czars was forced into nominal and ideological transformation as the Soviet Union, with renewed territorial ambitions, but ere long it collapsed out of its own economic, social, ideological, and regional implausibility. The most notable transformation has come in Europe itself. Charles V and Napoleon have been replaced by Jean Monet and the bureaucrats of Brussels, who have labored to unite Europe not into an imperial state in the old sense, assembled by force, but into a unity created by voluntary evolution. The European union of today is still far from complete, but the euro is a present reality, a European constitution is being drafted at the moment, and an economic giant is clearly in the making. It may not be long before a new kind of European empire is in existence, one with a scope and character of which Charlemagne could never have dreamed, one that, even a few generations ago, would have been inconceivable.

There is something to be said after all for the concept of empire. Setting aside the grave issues of conquest and coercion, we may perceive positive and even benevolent aspects to it. However cruel we may decide the Romans were, the pax romana was a genuine achievement and a remarkable reality. Without it we would not have the Christian faith as we know it, or the languages we speak, among other things. We still celebrate the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and even the Soviet Union, rejoicing in the liberation of subject peoples. Nevertheless, we are entitled to wonder just a little if at least some of the lands once subject to those imperial systems are necessarily better off or better governed under the new regimes that followed their sway, regimes cast in that form called the nation-state. We all do obeisance to that organism, the nation-state, beloved of nationalists and of super-patriots. But it is a European concept, generated, in fact, out of the medieval European forces that foredoomed Charlemagne's Empire. It is a concept fraught with inherent difficulties on its own turf but with still further problems when extended to non-European cultures. By transcending factors of ethnicity, nationality, sectarianism, and cultural regionalism, imperial governments have at times managed in their ways to avoid the shortcomings of the nation-state. That, plus economic advantage, is what the goal of European unity is all about, after all.

And think of us, the U.S. the United States. There are those who have denounced our country as an "imperialist" state in modern terms, and scoffed at the hegemonies of the world's only superpower. Be that as it may, we might think specifically about the basic reality of our country. As it spread across the continent, drawing in people of diverse nationalities and cultures and races, it was often identified by commentators as not a nation but a "nation of nations", an empire in itself. Is our federal system in fact the latest adaptation of the concept of empire? We are certainly not a nation in the European sense--at least in terms of the rationale that created the nation-state in the first place. The principles on which our country was founded derived directly from the Enlightenment political philosophies of Locke and Montesquieu, but their solution to establishing one comprehensive government out of a maze of local governments points back to forces much older. Did our Founding Fathers, all unknowing, stumble into becoming a new species of Charlemagnes, creating a political unity out of political diversities in a way that would have dumbfounded medieval theorists? Remember our motto: e pluribus unum--"out of many, one". Could not Charlemagne himself have gladly assumed that as his own motto?

The empires of Charlemagne's day--the one he attempted to create, the ones with which was familiar--have long since become things of the past. The city of Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle, was once Charlemagne's capital, where his palatine chapel is still a potent treasure of political architecture. But it is now a shrine to latter-day European unity, where he himself is honored as a kind of patron saint and father-figure to such unity. In that fact, if not also for arguable inspiration to our governmental order, we may see in Charlemagne and his empires not only a distant and irrelevant memory but an enduring force.