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Otto III

German king and Roman emperor, b. 980; d. at Paterno, Jan. 24, 1002

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Otto III, German king and Roman emperor, b. 980; d. at Paterno, January 24, 1002. At the age of three he was elected king at Verona, in very restless times. Henry the Quarrelsome, the deposed Duke of Bavaria, claimed his guardianship. This nobleman wished for the imperial crown. To further his object he made an alliance with Lothair of France. Williger, Archbishop of Mainz, the leader of Otto’s party, improved the situation. He induced Henry to release the imprisoned king, for which his Duchy of Bavaria was restored. Otto’s mother, Theophano, now assumed the regency. She abandoned her husband’s imperialistic policy and devoted herself entirely to furthering an alliance between Church and State. Her policy bore a broad national stamp. On her husband’s death, this princess styled herself simply “Emperor” in Italy, though she was obliged for political reasons to acknowledge Crescentius as Patrician by her personal presence in Rome in 989. In France Louis V had died without heirs, and Hugh Capet was elected. This was the work of the French episcopate. Theophano was not able to prevent France from speedily freeing herself from German influence. The regent endeavored to watch over the national questions of the Empire in the East. One of the greatest achievements of this empress was her success in maintaining feudal supremacy over Bohemia.

After her death, the less capable Adelaide assumed the regency. Unlike her predecessor, hers was not a nature fitted to rule; the Slavs rose on the eastern border, and the Normans were with difficulty held in check. She died in 999. The influence of these two women upon the education of the young king (who assumed the government in 994) was not slight. But two men exercised even greater influence on him: Johannes Nonentula, a protégé of Theophano, and Bernward of Hildesheim. The austere Bernward awakened in him inclinations to fanciful enthusiasm which colored his dreams of empire.

Supported by the spiritual princes of the Empire, he marched into Italy. Here he behaved as though the Roman see were a metropolitan bishopric under the Empire. He it was who presided at synods and dared to revoke papal decisions, and who selected the popes. Like Charlemagne, he was convinced of the spiritual character of his imperial dignity, and deduced from this the necessity of setting the empire over the papacy. He raised a German, Bruno, to the Chair of Peter under the name of Gregory V. The new pope crowned Otto emperor May 21, 996, but he did not act counter to the ancient claims of the Curia, and he emphasized the duties and rights of the popes.

Otto returned to Germany in 996. It was of the greatest consequence that in Bruno the papal throne contained a man who encouraged the ideas of the reform party for purification and spiritualization within the Church, and a consequent exaltation of the papacy. Harmonizing with this reform party was the ascetic movement within the Church, whose principal exponent was a native of Southern Italy called Nilus. Among his pupils was the Bohemian, Adalbert, second Bishop of Prague, who was at that time in Rome devoting himself entirely to mystical and ascetic enthusiasm. In 996 Otto met this remarkable man whom he succeeded in sending back to his see. As he scrupled returning to Bohemia, he went as missionary to the Prussian country, where he was put to death in 999. The emperor was affected by the grotesque piety of this man, and it had aroused ascetic inclinations in him also. Still another person obtained great influence over him: the learned Frenchman, Gerbert, who came to the Imperial court in 997.

In Rome, meanwhile, Crescentius had set up an antipope named John XVI and forced Gregory V to flee. In 998 Otto went to Rome, where he pronounced severe judgment upon those who had rebelled against his decisions. Gregory died in 999, and the emperor raised his friend Gerbert to the papacy as Sylvester II. He too, followed the ancient path of the Curia, and advocated papal supremacy over all Christendom. How was this consistent and energetic policy of the Curia to affect the youthful emperor’s dreams of a fusion of the ideal state with the ideal church in an Augustan Theocracy? The interference with Italian affairs was now to react bitterly upon Germany. In 1000 Otto made a pilgrimage to the tomb of his friend Adelbert at Gnesen, where he erected an archbishopric destined to promote the emancipation of the Eastern Slavonians. He practiced mortifications at the tomb of an ascetic, and thrilled with the highest ideas of his imperial dignity, he afterwards caused the tomb of Charlemagne at Aix to be opened. Before long his dreams of empire faded away. Everywhere there was fermentation throughout Italy. Otto, lingering in Rome, found himself, with the pope, obliged to abandon the city. In Germany the princes united in a national opposition to the imperialism of this capricious sovereign. He had few supporters in his plan to reconquer the Eternal City. Only by recourse to arms could his body be brought to Aix, where recently his tomb has been discovered in the cathedral.


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