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Charlemagne the Great

Here’s some background information about the Western Roman Empire (not to be confused with the Eastern Roman Empire!) before we talk about the main man, Charlemagne.

Sack of Rome

The sack of Rome occurred on 24 August 410 AD. It was led by the Visigoths headed by King Alaric. The sack of Rome was a decisive event that encapsulated the decline of the Western Roman Empire. The sack came as a surprise to many as it was the first time in 800 years that Rome had succumbed to a tribe outside of Rome.

Fall of Western Roman Empire

Although there was a lot of debate over the specific time when the Western Roman Empire met its demise, most would say that its fall was sealed on 4 September 476 AD.


On that day, the Germanic leader Odoacer led a rebellion and overthrew Emperor Romulus Augustulus, the current reigning emperor of the Western Roman Empire at that time. From this moment on, no other Roman emperor could ever rule again in Italy.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire was not an abrupt but instead, a gradual and ongoing process. Things got worse after the sack of Rome as it marked a period of instability inside and outside of the Western Roman Empire. The sack of Rome was an internal threat that shook the entire empire but the decline of the Western Roman Empire could also be attributed to external factors.

External factors include:

  1. Econmic instability
    • Uneven distribution of the country’s finances that was invested on the military
    • Taxes also widened the rich and poor divide
  2. Heavy reliance on slavery
    • Declined after the expansion of Rome came to a stop in the 2nd century (remember, the fall of the Western Roman Empire was gradual), meaning that the Western Roman Empire lost most of their workers
  3. Corruption of the government
    • The large size of the empire made it hard to control, and unsuccessful leadership intensified the problem

Hold up! Words, words, words… Can I get something else? Why yes you can! Watch a video here to get a visual explanation of the fall of Rome.

As mentioned, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, no Roman Emperor could rule in Italy. The reason for this is because the Germanic tribes thatoccupied the Western Roman Empire held much power over the empire, preventing any Romans from being the emperor after 476 AD.

Our main man, Charlemagne (c. 742 – 814 AD)

Charlemagne AKA Charles the Great or Charles I was a Christian (this will be important for later so keep this in mind!). In 768 AD, Charlemagne succeeded his father,Pepin the Short, after his death, to become theKing of the Franks. In less than 10 years, he conquered theLombard Kingdom, which led him to becoming the King of Italy from 774 AD.

Adding on to his list of titles, Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, making him the first accepted emperor in the Western Roman Empire since its fall 300 years before. His coronation by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800 AD enabled him to expand the Frankish state, which he called the Carolingian Empire.

Why did the Pope choose to crown Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor?

In 800 AD, there was arevolt against Pope Leo III in Rome. Charlemagne made his way to Rome in order to help the Pope and defeat the rebels. Tothank him, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, when he knelt down to pray at the altar, as the first Holy Roman Emperor on 25 December 800 AD. Although this did not grant him any extra powers, it solidified his authority over his Italian territories. Another reason why the Pope crowned Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor could be because he wanted to show that the Western Roman Empire was stable and still very much alive. Or, the reason for choosing Charlemagne was because he wasChristian. Since he was a fervent believer of Christianity, he would give money and land to the church and even protected the popes. Hence, to repay Charlemagne, they recognized his power and strengthened his relationship with the church by crowning him the first Holy Roman Emperor at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Now… Let’s fire things up with a little debate!

Did Charlemagne know that he was going to be crowned the Holy Roman Emperor?

Bathilda’s view: I feel that Charlemagne did not know that he was going to be crowned the Emperor. Given that Charlemagne was a devout Christian, he wanted to show his support for the Pope by helping the Pope deal with the rebellion. He even claimed that he would not have accepted the title if he had known. Maybe he had another motive to help the Pope. Perhaps, instead of looking to the Pope to crown him as Emperor for helping him, he wanted the Pope to endow him with more power so that he could be a better ruler, not knowing that he would be crowned the Emperor.

Sihui’s view: I think Charlemagne knew that he was going to be crowned Emperor by the Pope. He was probably just pretending not to know about it so he can still turn up at the church on that day he was going to be crowned. That way, he can be seen as humbler? Think about it: if he knew he was going to be crowned Emperor and he still turned up at the church on that day, wouldn’t the people see him as desperate, proud, or thick-skinned when he accepts this position? Nobody wants to be ruled under this kind of emperor! Thus, even if Charlemagne knew about it, he had to pretend not to know so that people can think that he had ‘no choice’ but to be the Emperor since the Pope already crowned him as one.

So… What are your views regarding this matter? Tell us what you think in the comments below!