The Thousandth-Year Reich

Though Christendom was embattled, not all its frontiers were collapsing. In the marches of Saxony, along the banks of the Elbe, the broad-flowing river which served East Francia as its flank, Christian warriors stood on watchful sentinel, and dreaded no one. The Saxons, as they contemplated the heroic struggle to uphold God’s order, knew themselves in its vanguard. Beyond the Elbe to the east, in sinister groves adorned with idols and animal horns, Slav tribes, known collectively by the Saxons as the “Wends,” still worshipped demons and indulged in their “vain superstitions”;1 but westwards, the very landscape bore witness to the protecting hand of Christ. Wherever the soil was fertile, and the wilderness capable of being tamed, there the marks of His favour thrived: farms, and homesteads, and raw stone churches. Even on the Elbe itself, the border forts were prospering – and this despite the continued enthusiasm of Wendish war bands for crossing it in search of plunder.

The linchpin of the defences raised against such raids was the fortress of Magdeburg: originally founded by Charlemagne as a frontier station, where the bags of merchants travelling out of Christendom could be inspected for contraband armour and weapons, it already ranked, by the early tenth century, as the capital of the eastern marches.2 Flush with the profits of trade, and a booming hinterland, it could boast churches, markets and even a “Hof” – a court for the entertainment of Saxony’s duke. Meanwhile, beyond its haughty gatehouses, and the road which led eastwards over the Elbe, the pagans “lived in such brutish poverty that what in Francia would seem an insupportable burden is counted by them almost as a plea sure.”3 As it had been back in the earliest days of the Magdeburg customs post, even a mail shirt was held a wonder by many tribes. Indeed, such was the awe with which helmets and hauberks were regarded by the Wends that armour was likeliest to adorn, not their warriors, but their gods. Deep immured in forest shrines, their idols stood, blank-eyed and menacing, “fearsomely girt in mail.”4

The Saxon Reich

To the Saxons, the folly of this demon-worship was all the more minatory for the fact that they had once shared in it themselves. A people who had learned to rejoice in the felling of trees and the raising of churches on root-cleared plains could not forget that they too, barely a century and a half before, had staged their most sacred rituals in the darkness of oaken glades. The dreadful rumours of what had been practised there still darkened the nightmares of Christian homilists. Prisoners, it was whispered, hung from the boughs of sacred trees, having been pierced through with spears: for the spear had been sacred to Woden, most far-seeing of the gods. To the initiates of this sacrifice, awful privileges had been owed: to those who harvested the blood of the still-writhing victims, and traced it over runes, the wisdom of Woden himself; and to those who consumed their beating hearts, a power over the dead. Charlemagne, storming the strongholds of this monstrous evil, had felt himself obliged to purge it thoroughly with axe and sword. Trees holy to Woden had been hacked down and the branches consigned to fire.

The Saxons themselves, as obdurate in their paganism as in their reluctance to accept the Frankish king, Christ’s own anointed, as their new master, had been treated with a matching ferocity. After one particularly savage rebellion, thousands of prisoners had been beheaded in a single dispatch; the populations of entire areas forcibly relocated; death introduced as the penalty for refusing baptism, for clinging to the ancient rites, even for eating meat during Lent. Not since the age of the Caesars had atrocities been committed on quite so imperious a scale – and never before with the goal of imposing the love of Christ.

There were many in Charlemagne’s train who had paled at the knowledge. To wage a war of aggression and conquest, even against heathens steeped in the most idolatrous savagery, appeared to them the very opposite of the Christian ideal. “Faith,” as Alcuin had put it anguishedly, “arises from the will, not from compulsion. You can persuade a man to believe, but you cannot force him. You can haul him to the waters of baptism, but not to faith itself.”5 Time, however, had proved this warning wrong. The Saxons, exhausted by their struggle against Charlemagne, had in due course been brought to acknowledge the full scale of their defeat. Woden had failed them. The Christ of the victorious Franks had proved Himself invincible. It could be held no shame to submit to such a god. And so the Saxons had duly submitted. Woden, toppled from his throne, had been banished from Middle Earth. On occasion, it was reported, at nightfall, he and his followers, she-wolves, carrion crows and the spirits of the dead, surrounded by black clouds, would return to intrude upon their ancient dominion, crashing through the woods, riding the icy winds; but there was nothing in such a superstition to impress the Saxon elite. Those on the margins of the retreating wilderness, peasants and pioneers, might sometimes bow their heads before the passage of the demon hunt; but never the aristocracy. They knew perfectly well what they owed to the favour of Christ. No longer wallowing as the Wends still did, in a brutish poverty, they were now the peers of anyone in Christendom – even their former conquerors. “For moulded by the Christian faith into brothers, they had become almost an identical people with the Franks.”6

So much so, indeed, that by the early tenth century, and with the realm of East Francia on the brink of seeming collapse, men could even speak of the Duke of Saxony as a possible future king. Henry, head of the Liudolfing clan, fully merited such excited approbation. Since inheriting his title in 912, he had shown himself “a lord rich in wisdom, abounding in severity, and of righteous judgement.”7 To the pagans beyond his borders, he had proved a predictably stern and tireless foe. To the ambitions of the clans within them, he had been a more subtle, but no less effective, opponent. The great warlords of Saxony, whose instinct had always been to indulge themselves in murderous rivalries, had been systematically broken to his will: variously menaced, bought off and cajoled. Talents such as Henry could deploy, in a failed state such as East Francia was fast becoming, were not lightly to be ignored. Even Conrad, its prickly but increasingly hapless king, was finally brought to acknowledge as much. In 915, abandoning all his earlier efforts to check the ambitions of his unsettlingly able neighbour, he signed a truce that effectively appointed the Saxon duke his deputy. Three years later, as Conrad lay dying, he told his brother, Eberhard, to propose Henry as his successor. The following spring, in May 919, Eberhard dutifully followed up this deathbed advice. The Frankish nobility joined with their Saxon peers in acclaiming Henry as king. For the first time, the rule of East Francia was entrusted to a man who was not even a Frank.

No wonder that the fateful moment would later be enshrined in legend. Messengers sent to inform the new king of his elevation, it was said, had been unable to find him at first, and only after several days had he finally been tracked down to a wild marshland, where Henry, an avid huntsman, had been painstakingly setting traps for ducks. It was an apt reflection, certainly, of the predatory cool and patience that “the Fowler” now brought to the task of redeeming East Francia. Careful not to aggravate the great dukes of his tottering realm, men who still regarded themselves, at the very least, as his peers, Henry forwent the self-indulgence of being anointed. Yet even as he colluded in the dimming of the royal aura, and promoted himself, not as the heir of Charlemagne, but rather as something altogether more modest, as merely a first among equals, he was stalking his opponents. Over the next few years, a succession of potential rivals were methodically humbled, or else seduced with high-sounding titles and offers of marriage into the Liudolfing house. Soon enough, the princes of East Francia found themselves hopelessly entangled in a delicate mesh of dependency and obligation. By 935, when Henry met at a summit with his brother kings of Burgundy and West Francia, he did so not merely as their equal, but as the dominant figure in Christendom. There was certainly no one now to dispute the right of a Saxon to rule as “King of the Franks”: as the lord of what his subjects, in their own language, termed their “Reich.*

It was a startling achievement – and yet Henry, even while breaking in the fractious dukes of East Francia, had simultaneously been keeping his eye on more threatening game. It was not sufficient to haul the Reich back from the brink of internal collapse; it also had to be preserved from the onslaughts of those who would bleed it to death from without. The Hungarians, whether the outriders of Antichrist or not, had somehow to be confronted – and Henry the Fowler, as ever playing a long game, was patiently preparing his traps. In 926, trading temporary humiliation for future advantage, he agreed to pay tribute in return for a truce. Warriors, like hawks or hunting dogs, needed to be trained for the kill. Those among his followers who could afford the costs of a warhorse were encouraged to invest as well in the even more crippling expense of a mail coat, to transform themselves into “loricati”: men of iron. Poorer levies, meanwhile, were set to work raising fortresses along the Reich’s eastern frontier, bases suited not merely to defence, but also to the launch of counter-offensives. Even criminals were summoned to the cause. At Merseburg, a stronghold some seventy miles south of Magdeburg, a legion of thieves and bandits was installed, and instructed to train itself for battle by launching expeditions against those perennial objects of Saxon prowess, the Wends. In 929, when a Wendish army, stung by such aggravation, presumed to launch a counter-raid across the Elbe, it was met in open battle, and annihilated. Warriors on horseback, newly coated in their expensive shirts of iron, provided the shock force. Three years later, feeling sufficiently confident at last to bait his snare, the Fowler cancelled his tribute payments to the Hungarians, sending them, instead of gold, a tailless and crop-eared dog. The Hungarians, responding to provocation just as the Wends had done, dispatched a raiding party to pillage Saxony: it too was cornered, confronted and wiped out. Once again, it was the heavy cavalry, singing to the Almighty as they rode, who led the slaughter.

The victory, it was true, had hardly been decisive. Already, Henry had to assume, beyond the frontiers of the Reich, in the great plain of the Danube, that teeming womb of pagans, a dreadful vengeance was being planned. The supreme test, one that would witness either the Hungarians destroyed as a threat for ever, or else the ruination of East Francia, was still to come. Yet now at least there seemed hope for Christendom. In 936, as Henry, succumbing at last to age and weariness, prepared to meet his maker, he set the seal on a lifetime’s labours by refusing to sanction the carve up of his legacy. Instead, in a pointed reversal of Frankish custom, he bequeathed it entire to Otto, his eldest son: “a great and far-spreading dominion – not one that had been handed down to him by his forefathers, but won instead by his own exertions, bestowed upon him by God alone.”8

And that the Almighty had indeed blessed the Saxons, and granted to them a role of fateful moment in His plans for Christendom, could be witnessed by virtue of a heavenly proof. Back in 926, the same year that had seen the truce signed with the Hungarians, Henry’s attentions had been devoted to browbeating his brother king of Burgundy. By the terms of a treaty signed that year, Henry had agreed to hand over a chunk of the province of Swabia – what is now Switzerland and Alsace – in exchange for a treasure “infinitely precious”: a spear of terrible power. No one doubted that it was the Saxon king who had secured the bargain by this arrangement. Men claimed that the weapon had long ago belonged to Constantine – and that it had won for him the empire of the world. As well it might have done: for upon the head of the spear were crosses fashioned out of nails, those very same spikes of iron that had once pierced the hands and feet of Christ, “joining the realm of the mortal to that of heaven.” The Saxons, whose ancestors, in their vulgar credulity, had imagined Woden swaying the world with a spear, could now contemplate with wonder an authentically earth-shaking relic. For such a weapon, in the hands of a great king, would surely render him as invincible as Constantine had been: “certain of victory against all his enemies, visible and invisible, assured of perpetual triumph.”9 And so for Henry it had proved.

But now he was dead; and the peoples of the Reich waited with bated breath to gauge the measure of their new king. Certainly, Otto could have had no illusions as to the full weight of the burden that was being laid upon his youthful shoulders: for at his coronation, it was made manifest to all Christendom. “Drive away the enemies of Christ,” the Archbishop of Mainz instructed him in dreadful tones, handing him a sword. “Establish an enduring peace for Christians everywhere.”10Yet if the trust being placed in the new king was awesome, then so too were the rituals that pronounced him worthy of it. Unlike his father, Otto had no compunction about being anointed with holy oil; nor in laying claim, very obviously, to the mantle of Charlemagne. Not only was the ceremony staged at the great emperor’s capital of Aachen, but the Saxon king even made sure, in a pointed one-off, to dress for the occasion in the distinctive torso-hugging tunic of a Frank. To the dukes and great lords who stood assembled before the royal chapel, gazing up at Otto as he sat in splendour upon the throne of Charlemagne, the point could hardly have been driven home any more forcibly: the traditional notion of kingship as something uniquely elevated, sacred even, was back.

Delight at this among the battle-hardened magnates who had grown accustomed to Henry’s more collegiate manner was, unsurprisingly, less than universal. Even as Otto, looking to celebrate his coronation in the by now traditional Saxon manner, headed eastwards across the Elbe to extort tribute and submission from the Wends, so resentment was already festering among the great princes of the Reich. Particularly threatening was the mood in Franconia, where the aged Duke Eberhard had good cause to take umbrage at Otto’s high-handedness: for he it was, after all, back in 919, who had done much to secure the throne for the Liudolfings. Yet even Eberhard’s sense of disenfranchisement was as nothing compared with that of Otto’s bitterest enemy, and most malignant rival of all: Henry, his younger brother. The two had been jockeying for position since childhood; and Henry, denied all royal status by the terms of his father’s will, had responded to his exclusion with predictable fury. Indeed, so abusive had he become that Otto, rather than risk any disruption of his coronation, had ordered his brother to be imprisoned for the duration of the ceremony.

In general, however, naked though Henry’s indignation was, the new king showed himself strikingly reluctant to punish it. Instead – as though out of a guilty sense that it might even be justified – he worked hard to appease it. Only a few months after his coronation, Otto arranged for Henry to marry the most eligible heiress in the realm: Judith, the daughter of the Duke of Bavaria. This was to grant his troublesome sibling a rare dignity – for Bavaria, despite the depredations inflicted upon it by the Hungarians, was a duchy endowed with resources of an almost regal scope. Indeed, of all the princedoms of the East, only Saxony itself offered more to an ambitious ruler. Otto’s gamble in granting his brother the opportunity to put down roots there was, therefore, a considerable one – and doomed, it appeared, to failure. Henry, resolutely unmollified, continued to breathe sedition. His new in-laws, with reasons of their own to resent Otto’s imperious style of lordship, were more than happy to back the young pretender in his plotting. From the Alps to the North Sea, the whole of East Francia began to seethe with rebellion.

Yet Otto himself, for all the scruples that inhibited him in his handling of his brother, remained, in his dealings with the other magnates of the realm, magnificently self-assured. Rather than attempt to appease insubordination, he preferred to slap it down: not by inflicting savage tortures or brutal executions on those who presumed to defy him, but by the no less effective expedient of mocking them. When Duke Eberhard, pursuing a feud with one of his vassals, presumed to destroy a fortress sited on Saxon territory, Otto’s response was prompt. Having first whipped the Franks on the field of battle, he next summoned the venerable duke and his retainers to Magdeburg, where they were obliged to star in a great ritual of disgrace. To the raucous jeers of the whole town, a procession of warhorses was led up to the Hof, and presented with splendid ceremony to the king: a fitting – and hugely expensive – expression of ducal penitence. Yet mortifying though the sound of hoofs clopping through Magdeburg must have been to the duke, even worse was to follow: the yapping of hounds. The sight of the beasts, borne squirming and slavering in the arms of his red-faced henchmen, would have been the final rubbing of Eberhard’s nose in his own humiliation. There was, for a Frankish nobleman, no greater shame than to be witnessed in public carrying a dog.

To be sure, the deliberate humbling of a duke, on the eve of a possible Reich-wide rebellion, might have been thought not the most sensible of policies. Otto, however, had known what he was doing. To be seen as a man of honour, of strength, of magnanimity; to be the cynosure of watching, gawping crowds; to be enshrined in admiring talk as a hero truly worthy of his rank; this, in East Francia, was the very essence of lordship. Although the duties of governance were burdensome, even they were not so pressing as the need always to be on display. So it was that Otto, conscious of the need to look as well as behave like a king, had perfected an intimidating trick of throwing glances that were said to flash like lightning. He also worked at accentuating his prime physical asset: for he was, even by Saxon standards, quite magnificently hairy. Not only did he grow his beard out, but he made sure to display the “the shaggy lion’s mane”11 which adorned his chest at every opportunity. Restlessly, from day to day, from stopover to stopover, Otto would grace his subjects with the roadshow of his majesty. The spectacle he had staged in Magdeburg, of a king enthroned in splendour, dispensing justice, in the full assurance of his power and physical strength, was one that he never tired of reprising. A great king, such as Otto aspired to be, had little choice but to promote himself as great.

True, there were some, Eberhard and his own brother Henry prominent among them, who aimed to call his bluff. In 938, they and their supporters finally rose in open revolt. Once again, however, Otto proved more than capable of turning a crisis to his own account. In 939, after a year of desperate struggle, he brought his enemies to crushing defeat on the banks of the Rhine, at Andernach. Two of the rebel dukes were left as corpses on the battlefield – and one of them was Eberhard. Otto, obliged to appoint his successor, coolly nominated himself. Franconia, from that moment on, was to serve him like Saxony, as a personal power base. His vaunting claims to greatness, so crucial to his authority as king, could now be raised on an impregnable bedrock of lands and wealth. Those who had presumed to question his prestige had served only to burnish it to an even more brilliant sheen. As in his peacetime migrations, so amid the carnage and chaos of war, Otto never neglected an opportunity to enhance the glory of his name. Indeed, such was his talent for grandstanding that not even being caught out in a palpable blunder could throw him off balance for long. Trapped in the course of one campaign on the opposite side of the Rhine to his vastly outnumbered men, he had barely broken a sweat. Instead, ordering the Holy Lance to be planted on the river bank, he had fallen to his knees, and begun to pray before it with a flamboyant and ostentatious fervour. His troops, inspired by this edifying spectacle, had duly pulled off a startling victory. Warrior king and talisman washed in Christ’s holy blood: the two had proved themselves invincible together.

Henry, meanwhile, that fractious rebel against his brother’s authority, had been left to nurse not only his injured pride but an arm that had been almost severed clean off in the fighting. Only his heavy armour – now more than ever the surest mark of rank in East Francia – had served to keep him from permanent disfigurement.

Bruised in both body and mind, he proved sufficiently chastened by the final collapse of the rebellion to seek an accommodation with his brother – and Otto, with his customary imperious magnanimity, was content to grant it. “Be a lion in battle, but like a lamb when taking vengeance!”12 So the wise advised – and besides, Henry’s days of fratricidal ambition appeared brought to a close at last. In 947, he was installed by royal decree as the new Duke of Bavaria – and this time, Otto’s gamble proved a sound one. Henry, although as restless and combative as ever, now had new opponents, and new horizons, in his sights.

For no sooner had he taken possession of his dukedom than he was leading his followers into the scorched and perilous no man’s land that marked Bavaria’s eastern frontier, and beyond which lay that breeding ground of pagan blood-drinkers, the plain of Hungary. An enterprise such as this was of an order to keep even Henry’s hands full: for no one had ever before presumed to beard the Hungarians in their own lair. Yet though the fighting was of a predictably relentless ferocity, it was not, as events would prove, an altogether reckless initiative that the new Duke of Bavaria had launched: for in 950, he succeeded in inflicting an unheard-of humiliation upon the Hungarian warlords. Just as they had always dealt with the Reich, so now he dealt with them: breaking through into their heartlands, abducting their women and children, despoiling them of their gold. Such a triumph could not be hailed by the Bavarians with a wholly unqualified enthusiasm, for they knew that what their duke had done was, in effect, to fling a stone at a hornets’ nest. The Hungarians, accustomed as they were to preying on their victims with impunity, were hardly the people now to turn the cheek themselves. A full-scale assault on the realm of the Eastern Franks would not be long postponed. The hour of reckoning was drawing near at last.

And it would be for Otto, as Christendom’s greatest king, to pass the fearsome test. Almost two centuries had passed now since the Saxons, the objects of Charlemagne’s mingled frustration and self-righteousness, had been brought to Christ at the point of hissmoking sword; and still, by the Saxon aristocracy, it was taken for granted that warfare might be a Christian’s ultimate duty. It was true that numerous churchmen, in the years following the conversion of Saxony, had sought tirelessly to combat this presumption – not only foreign missionaries, but native scholars too, those who had actually studied the Gospels and pondered their unsettling, pacific teachings. These could not help but appear bizarre to most Saxons, yet there had been heroic attempts made to propagate them, even so. A monkish poet, back in the very earliest days of Saxon Christianity, had gone so far as to put words directly into the Saviour’s mouth: “If I wished to fight, then I would make the great and mighty God aware of it, so that He would send me so many angels wise in warfare that no human beings could stand up to the force of their weapons.” So Christ had been imagined as telling Peter, at the moment of His arrest. “We are to bear whatever bitter things our enemies do to us.”13 A message not unsuited, it might have been thought, to its earliest listeners, still bleeding as they were from the wounds of the Frankish conquest. But to a people such as the Saxons, blessed by Providence, had subsequently become? That was a quite different matter. Once, it was true, they had been compelled to swallow the gall of defeat, and to humble themselves, and to bow their necks before their conquerors – but they had not been left forever prostrated in the dust. God’s hand, manifesting itself through the irrefutable proof of all the great victories granted them, had restored to the Saxons their vanished glories – and multiplied them a hundredfold. And now a lord of Saxon blood sat on the Frankish throne, guarded about by his warriors, like “angels wise in warfare” – and opposed to them were the hordes of a ravening paganism. Who was it, after all, who had entrusted the defence of East Francia to Otto, and endowed him with a martial splendour, and brought into his hands the Holy Lance, if not the Almighty Himself? A cloistered virtue, at such a moment, could hardly be relied upon for the saving of Christendom.

Anno Domini 954, and the storm broke at last. The Hungarians had chosen their moment well. Feuding among members of the Liudolfing clan, kept in check since the defeat of Henry’s revolt, had recently erupted into flames once again. The principal agitator against Otto this time, however, was not his brother, but Liudolf, his eldest son – and the rebellion was directed as much against the Duke of Bavaria as against the king. Liudolf, resentful of his elders, and quite as impatient as his uncle had ever been for power, had secured allies for himself as far afield as Italy, and with these had succeeded in capturing Regensburg, the site of Henry’s palace and treasury, and convulsing all of Bavaria. Henry himself, humiliated and fast sickening, had found himself impotent to retrieve the situation.

Simultaneously, on the borders of Saxony itself, where Otto’s iron rule had brought his subjects there a measure of peace, the Wends were displaying an alarming upsurge of enthusiasm for their traditional pastimes: the slaughter of garrisons, the abduction of women, the lighting up of the Elbe by fire. Depredations such as these, which Otto had trusted stamped out for ever, spoke to a beleaguered East Francia of a peril even more menacing than the seemingly bottomless capacity of barbarism to renew itself; for the Wendish leader, a warlord of bloody reputation by the name of Stoinef, had recruited as his lieutenants two Saxon renegades. Wichmann and Ekbert were brothers: prominent noblemen, offshoots of the royal line, men who should properly have been fighting at the side of their lord. Darkness, it appeared, might shadow the souls of Christians as well as pagans. Evil might rise from within as well as without the realm of an anointed king.

Yet Otto did not despair. Rather, as was ever his habit in moments of crisis, he laid on a spectacular masterclass in the art of turning weakness into strength. Neglecting for the moment the Wendish threat to his own duchy, he marched instead for Bavaria, where he loudly accused his son of being in league with the Hungarians. The charge, true or not, had an immediate and devastating effect on Liudolf’s fortunes. As the Hungarians withdrew from the Reich with their customary trains of looted treasure and stumbling captives, the revolt against Otto imploded. With summer fading into autumn, Liudolf himself was brought to surrender. With winter melting into spring, the last outposts of the revolt followed him in submitting to their lawful duke. In April, Regensburg was finally restored to a now grievously ill Henry, and Bavaria could stand united once again.

And not a moment too soon. That summer of 955, even as eastern Saxony burned, grim news was brought to Otto from his dying brother. The Hungarians, swarming across the frontier, had returned to the Reich – and in numbers never seen before. The unprecedented scale of the invasion force, not to mention the presence in its train of siege engines, suggested a chilling possibility: that the Hungarians, after decades of contenting themselves with hit-and-run raids against Bavaria, had resolved at last upon its outright conquest. And yet, as Otto’s entire reign had demonstrated, in peril might lie opportunity – and in the very ambitions of his enemies their potential ruin. Always, for as long as the Hungarians had been preying upon Christendom, they had delighted in outpacing the cumbersome armies of the Germans; but now at last, it seemed, they might be tempted into open battle. News that warfare on Saxony’s frontier with the Wends was reaching an unprecedented pitch of ferocity would certainly have been brought to their leaders; and they had clearly calculated that Otto, if he did dare to confront them, would be able to summon only a fraction of the potential manpower of East Francia to his banner. And so it proved.

No more than a small bodyguard of Saxon horsemen could be spared for the desperate expedition to Bavaria. There were other duchies that sent no contingents at all. Of those princes who did answer Otto’s summons, there were many who had been in open revolt against him only the previous summer. And yet still, with perhaps some three thousand warriors in his train, Swabians, Franconians and Bavarians as well as Saxons, and the Holy Lance borne proudly aloft, Otto did ride to war; and on 9 August, as he advanced southwards along the bank of the River Lech, a tributary of the Danube, he saw on the horizon ahead of him black smoke, and caught on the breeze a smell of death.

A few miles distant lay the city of Augsburg. There, in the fields before its eastern gate, the cathedral garrison had been desperately attempting to stave off the Hungarians’ assault, while behind them men laboured to repair the crumbling ramparts, and women walked in procession, raising up tearful prayers. That the Almighty had heard these, and in the very nick of time too, even as the siege engines of the Hungarians were crawling towards the walls, was confirmed for the Augsburgers when the great pagan host, pausing in its assault, broke up abruptly and started streaming northwards. News that the King of East Francia had come against them did not, as it would once have done, prompt the Hungarians to turn tail and seek to elude him; instead, reassured that Otto was indeed grievously outnumbered, they prepared themselves to wipe him out. Twilight was already darkening over the Lech as they closed in on the tiny royal army. Halting for the night by the side of the river, they fed their horses, made sure of their bow strings and waited with a fierce expectancy for the dawn.

Otto’s warriors, meanwhile, having spent the day in prayer and fasting, were looking forward to the morning with no less confidence. At sunrise, they swore solemn oaths of fellowship to one another, and then began their advance along the western bank, their heavy mail shirts glinting, their banners fluttering, their warhorses trampling down the dew-wet grass. It was Otto’s intention to take the Hungarians by surprise; and yet, as had happened to him many years previously, in the war against his brother, it was he and his men who were ambushed first. The enemy, as lethally mobile as ever, emerged seemingly from nowhere, and fell upon their rearguard; three of the seven divisions under Otto’s command were routed; only desperate resistance by a fourth, the Franconian, prevented the fighting from being over almost before it had begun. The king, granted a crucial breathing space by the valour of the Franks, frantically marshalled what remained of his host into the semblance of a battle line; and then, above the hissing of arrows, the screaming of the wounded and the keening “hiu-hiu” of the Hungarians, he cried out to his men, calling on them in the name of God to unsheathe their “invincible swords.” “For who are we, to submit to such an enemy? We, who should blush at the very idea! We, who are the lords of almost all of Europe!”14

So it was, at the great tipping point of his reign, that Otto spoke not as a Saxon, not even as King of East Francia, but as the defender of all Christendom; and it was as a Christian that he now urged his followers into battle. Wheeling his horse round to face the enemy, he reached for the Holy Lance; and then, answering the harsh ululations of the Hungarians with a proud war cry of his own, he led the charge. Behind and all around him, the hoofs of their great warhorses making the field of the Lech to shake, there galloped his cavalry, the loricati, the men of iron: a strike force of killers long forged for such a moment. Although their numbers were sorely diminished even from the host that had left camp at dawn, there was to be no withstanding Otto’s warriors that day. With a surging crash, the steel-armoured tide flooded over the hordes of the enemy, hacking and spearing and trampling them down; for against the loricati, trapped at close quarters, the unarmoured Hungarians found themselves defenceless.

The slaughter was prodigious; and of those who attempted to flee, many were drowned in the waters of the Lech, others cornered in villages where they had sought refuge and burned to death, while others still were hunted down like wild beasts. It was this harrying of the defeated, even more than the Battle of the Lech itself, that proved the true calamity for the Hungarians; and Otto, as harsh towards his pagan enemies as he was magnanimous towards Christian rebels, set the seal on his triumph with an act of calculated savagery. Against every usage and custom of war, he chose not to ransom the Hungarian princes who had fallen into his hands. Instead – one last gift to his brother as he lay on his deathbed – Otto ordered them sent to Regensburg. There, strung up from the public gallows, the warlords who had thought to subdue all Bavaria and far beyond were left to twist and rot.

Otto, even as the corpses of his deadliest enemies were being picked clean by carrion birds, was already heading north, to confront Stoinef, the Wendish warlord, and a second great host of pagans. It was late in the campaigning season by the time he arrived back in Saxony, amid “wild dancing and celebration”;15 and not until 16 October did he at last bring Stoinef to battle. No less than it had been at the Lech, however, Otto’s ultimate triumph was as brutal as it was complete. The paganism that for so long had menaced the borders of the Reich suffered a second decapitation. Otto, as if to demonstrate this in the most literal manner possible, ordered the beheading of all his Wendish prisoners of war, while the head of Stoinef himself, who had fallen in the battle, was sawn off and mounted on a pole. Only towards Wichmann and Ekbert, the two Saxon brothers who had so grievously betrayed him, did Otto display his more habitual magnanimity, permitting them to return from the exile into which they had fled after Stoinef’s defeat, and restoring to them their lands; but they were his countrymen – and Christians.

Mercy, that virtue proper to any lord, was not to be wasted on the barren soil of pagans’ hearts. East Francia had suffered too long and too bloodily at the hands of the Hungarians for her king to countenance any notion of toleration or compromise now. With barbarians so insensate in their savagery that they dared to trample upon the laws of the Almighty, there could be no accommodation: so Otto devoutly believed. Cutting the pagans down, he had done so as God’s champion. That this was no arrogant self-deception on his part appeared, after the annus mirabilis of 955, beyond dispute. For the first time in almost a century, the eastern ramparts of Christendom stood secure. A new march, constituted on Otto’s direct orders, would hence forward serve to keep theReich from all further Hungarian incursions: “the Eastern Command,” as it was known, or “Ostarrichi” – “Austria.” Not since the conquest of Saxony had there been such a victory won for Christ. Not since Charlemagne had there been so puissant a Christian king.

No wonder that the men who had followed Otto to the Lech should have hailed him, in the aftermath of the great battle, as “imperator”: a Latin title of portentous ambiguity. Once, in the fabulously distant past of Rome, the word had been used to acclaim a victorious general; but it had also, over the centuries, come to possess a far more fateful meaning – “emperor.” In the West, the holders of that title had long been withering away in dignity – until, by 924, there had been no one to lay claim to it at all. Such a vacancy, to a man such as Otto, could hardly help but present a glittering opportunity. Already, back in 951, he had ventured over the Alps in an attempt to secure an imperial coronation for himself, until the crisis back in Bavaria had obliged him to abandon the effort. Even four years later, when there was no one who could justly dispute the merit of his claims, the rivalries of Rome’s fractious princelings, as limited in their achievements as Otto was famed for his, threatened to render any expedition to the city quixotic. Like hungry dogs tossed shreds of meat, the various factions scrapping it out in Italy served to diminish the value of the very prizes over which they fought – and it was the papacy, that supreme prize, which had come to seem the most diminished of all.

In 955, five months after the Battle of the Lech, open scandal made explicit what had long been evident: the subordination of the Holy See to the ambitions of a single clan. For decades, the Theophylacts, Rome’s most powerful family, had been securing the election of assorted supine puppets to the Lateran; now they went one better, and elevated one of their own. Octavian, who had succeeded to the leadership of the Theophylacts only the year previously, was hardly a man cut out for a papal career. Notorious, even by the standards of the Roman aristocracy, for his promiscuity and partying, he made little effort to disguise his boredom with anything that smacked of the spiritual. He was also barely sixteen. Not even a change of name to the more satisfyingly apostolic “John” could dampen the gossip that was soon swirling around the teenage Holy Father. *It was claimed that he had converted an entire wing of the Lateran into a brothel; that when he was not blinding or castrating priests, he was ordaining them in his hunting stables; that he was in the habit of offering up drunken toasts to Satan. A pope capable of such blasphemies was hardly likely to prove accommodating to a mere earthly king. Saviour of Christen dom or no, Otto and his imperial ambitions cut little ice with John XII.

It did not take long, however, for the papal tearaway to be tripped up by his own ambitions. Otto, well practised in the art of leaving his adversaries to fall flat on their faces, watched patiently from beyond the Alps as John, proving himself as ill-disciplined in the field of diplomacy as in every other sphere, steadily affronted his neighbours. By 960, he found himself menaced on all sides by predatory princes. After an abortive attempt to meet them in battle – yet another scandal to set alongside all the others – he found himself with little option but to do as Stephen II and Leo III had done before him: look north for a protector. Late that year, a frantic embassy was dispatched to East Francia; and Otto, needing no further encouragement, swung immediately into action. By the following year, he had secured both Lombardy for himself and the papal patrimony for John; and in February 962, having arrived in Rome at last, he exacted his price. The Pope, lowering the imperial diadem on to Otto’s head, confirmed him in the title that his warriors had first bestowed upon him seven years previously, beside the Lech. All was now official. There ruled, once again, an emperor in the West.

But what precisely, in an age far removed from that of Charlemagne, let alone that of the ancient Caesars, did being an emperor mean? John, and Rome’s other clan leaders too, had cheerfully presumed that the title would prove an empty one: an optimistic notion, and one of which Otto was quick to disabuse them. When John, attempting to pull rank, sought to make his customary trouble, the new emperor briskly convened a synod amid the awful splendour of St. Peter’s, and had the Pope arraigned on multiple charges of moral turpitude. It did not take long for the accused, palpably guilty as he was, to be convicted, deposed and replaced with a candidate more amenable to Otto’s wishes; but John, citing the ancient principle that no earthly power could judge the Bishop of Rome, refused to accept the verdict. The result was an outrage: two competing popes. Not even John’s death a year later from a stroke, the result of overly strenuous grapplings with a married woman, served to ease the tribulations of the Holy See. *Otto, leaving no one in any doubt as to what he judged his prerogatives to be, continued with his policy of crushing all hints of papal independence. One pope, Benedict V, merely for the sin of having been elected without imperial approval, had his staff ceremonially broken over his head, before being exiled for life to Hamburg; his successor, John XIII, installed and maintained in office at the point of Otto’s sword, scrabbled with unsurprising servility to do his master’s every bidding. A humiliation for the papacy, naturally – but re sounding splendidly to the emperor’s already refulgent prestige.

Sure and just indeed, the Saxons might have reflected, were the workings of Providence. Less than two centuries it had taken the Almighty to raise them from their condition of utter ruin to one in which they stood as the very shapers of Christendom. Few had seen it coming – not even among the ranks of the Saxon royal family itself. Gerberga, the Queen of West Francia, writing in her despair to Adso of Montier-en-Der, had done so barely a decade before the Battle of the Lech: a victory won by a man who was not merely her compatriot, but her elder brother. That the heirs to the dignity of the Roman Empire might prove to be her own family had simply never crossed Gerberga’s mind. Now, however, with Otto enthroned as emperor, the master of Rome herself, who was there left to doubt it? Who left to doubt that he and his empire stood as the surest bulwark against those encroaching shadows that had so oppressed Gerberga’s dreams: the shadows of chaos, of evil, of Antichrist?

All his reign, Otto had known it his duty as a Christian king to combat God’s enemies on the fields of battle. His subjects – despite the earnest attempts of missionaries and scholars to persuade them otherwise – had known it too. Deep in their souls, the Saxons had understood, as only a people brought to Christ through conquest could possibly have understood, that the God they worshipped was indeed a god of war. This was a presumption that Otto, with the Bishop of Rome directly under his thumb, was now in a position to propagate in the very capital of Christendom. No matter that it ran directly contrary to the traditional teaching of the Church. The days when Christians from the more ancient heartlands of the faith had condescended to the Saxons as ignorant barbarians were long gone. Who was John XIII to lecture the emperor, his patron and guardian? Indeed, far from Otto being rendered more Roman by his sojourn in the ancient capital, it was the papacy, huddled in his far-spreading shadow, humiliated by its blatant dependency and diminished by ceaseless scandal, that appeared to be adopting the perspective of the Saxons. In 967, John XIII confirmed this impression by formally establishing Magdeburg, that stern and bristling stronghold on the frontier of Christendom, as an archbishopric. Just as the city had long served Saxony as its foremost bulwark against the malice of the pagan Wends, so now was it to serve the Church. By papal fiat, all the Slavs who dwelt beyond the Elbe were pronounced subject to Magdeburg’s new archbishop: “both those converted, and those to be converted still.”16

So was constituted a fortress of the Christian faith as strong in its proofs of God’s favour as were the eastern marches in their ramparts and their armoured horsemen. This was a destiny for which Otto had long been preparing Magdeburg. As far back as 937, only a year into his reign, he had founded a great monastery there, and, from that moment on, had never ceased to lavish splendid gifts upon it: “precious marble, gold and gems”;17 estates both in Saxony and on the far bank of the Elbe; dues of silver raised as tribute from the Wends. Here, it might have been thought, was a standing provocation: the endowment of such a treasure house in the full view of the malignant heathen. Fortunate, then, and ample evidence of Otto’s careful planning, that the saint to whom it had been dedicated was well qualified to guard his own.

Maurice, the captain of the Theban Legion, had long been a favourite of the Saxons. Typically, they admired him not as the passive martyr who had preferred death to the drawing of his sword in an unjust cause, but rather as “Christ’s own soldier”;18 and in 961, looking to imbue his favoured monastery with a truly celestial impregnability, Otto had ordered the saint’s relics translated there from their former resting place, “to the salvation of Saxony.”19 Just as the emperor himself, long the shield of his kingdom, could now bend his frown upon the East and know that everyone would shrink from it, so had it been charged to St. Maurice, that warrior of God, to stand sentinel over the Elbe, dauntless and unflinching, the heavenly warden of the Reich. No wonder that in time, even the Holy Lance should have come to be regarded as his, and its association with Constantine quite forgotten. To the Saxons, Maurice appeared infinitely less distant than did a long-dead Roman emperor. It was only two centuries previously, after all, that their ancestors had been putting their faith in a similarly supernatural being and his spear.

The vision of warfare that the Saxons still clung to, as an undertaking that might indeed be blessed by the heavens, remained from that past; but the pagan kings of old had never been brought to such prosperity by Woden as Otto had attained by the grace of Christ. By the time he died, on 7 May 973, he was famed across the whole of Christendom as a king “who had ruled his subjects with a fatherly beneficence, freed them from their enemies, conquered the arrogant foe by force of arms, subjugated Italy, destroyed the sanctuaries of pagan gods among neighbouring peoples, and established churches and orders of clergy everywhere.”20 Even beyond the frontiers of the Reich, in lands still steeped in heathenism, Otto and his fearsome god, the celestial emperor who had so palpably brought the Saxons all their greatness, were spoken of with awe.

With envy too. It was true that the Wends, with the sullen obduracy of the brutalised, still spurned the faith of their conquerors; but they were coming to seem a mere island of paganism, one lapped by an ever-rising tide of conversions. East of them, for instance, Miesco, the duke of a barbarous people known as the Poles, had been formally baptised in 966. His first church, a chapel built inside the stronghold of Gniezno, had been begun shortly after that. In due course, so enthused was he by his new religion that he would take a Saxon, a former nun, no less, to be his bride. Meanwhile, in the same year as Otto’s death, a bishopric was established south of the Wendish marches, in the young dukedom of Bohemia, led by priests trained at Magdeburg. Even in Hungary, where the war bands shattered at the Lech had for years been licking their wounds and questioning the gods who had so comprehensively failed them, missionaries from Bavaria were reaping a prodigious harvest of souls. It was an age of miracles indeed.

No longer, in short, was it Christendom that lay under siege. No longer was it East Francia that had to fear for its borders. No longer, after the reign of Otto the Great, who had redeemed both his own kingdom and the Roman Empire from the very brink of destruction, did the world’s end appear quite so sure and imminent.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

In Constantinople, however, they had their doubts. There, like autumn leaves borne on the chill winds of the Bosporus, anxieties swirled and gusted through the streets of the great city. Innumerable proofs of a looming convulsion in human affairs had begun to afflict the venerable empire. Earthquakes and thunderbolts, torrential rains and fearsome signs lighting up the sky; all, to those who tracked them, appeared to foretell “that the expected Second Coming of the Saviour and God is near, at the very gates.”21

More unsettling than any of these wonders, however, were reports of what in East Francia had prompted only relief and rejoicing: the rout of pagan armies. For so long had the citizens of Constantinople been habituated to defeat, and to the dull slog of staving off their empire’s total ruin, that they had quite forgotten their ancient habits of victory. The reign of their city’s founder, who had been the master of Christendom in fact as well as name, now seemed incalculably remote from them. They had come to regard the monuments of Constantine and his successors, all the haughty statues and triumphal arches that still adorned the New Rome, as the repositories of eerie portents, profoundly alien to themselves. In the weathered frieze work of such trophies, in the scenes of battle, and fettered captives, and emperors riding in glory, they identified messages bequeathed to them by ancient necromancers: prophecies set in stone, foretelling how the world would end.22 Now, with prisoners and treasures once again being paraded through Constantinople, “in so great a quantity as to resemble an abundantly flowing river,”23 the gawping citizens felt a sense of dread as well as pride. Surely, with the frontiers of their empire everywhere expanding, the days of the fabled last Roman emperor, who was destined to rule the whole world, were near at hand? Learned scholars, performing abstruse calculations, confirmed that his coming was indeed only decades away.24 And after him, and his death upon Golgotha, the reign of Antichrist.

Small wonder, then, that the citizens of Constantinople should have regarded with some ambivalence a programme of imperial expansion that threatened such a climax. Nor did it help that they were being bled white to fund it. The larger the army, and the lengthier the campaigning on distant frontiers, the higher their taxes. It was no coincidence that the most proficient of their warrior emperors, the aptly named Nicephorus, or “Victory Bearer,” should also have been the most widely hated. A battle-hardened ascetic from the empire’s eastern front, capable of drilling a pike through the front of an armoured enemy and out the other side, and with the appearance, so it was reported,25 of a wildly bristling pig, he had paraded a hair-shirted distaste for the sensibilities of the metropolis. The same man who, on the frontiers of the empire, had busied himself with the capture of “more than a hundred towns and fortresses,”26 had also, back in Constantinople, transformed his palace into an army camp, throwing up imposing battlements to screen himself from his subjects, and hunkering down behind them. A fruitless precaution, however – for his enemies had lurked everywhere.

In 969, his own nephew, an ambitious young officer by the name of John Tzimiskes, had put himself at the head of a plot to usurp the throne. Shortly before Christmas, he and an assassination squad had rowed across the Bosphorus to where the walls of the palace met the sea. There, dangling from an upper balcony, they had found a basket, lowered in anticipation of their arrival. Men would later say that it was the empress herself, enraptured by Tzimiskes’s inexhaustible aptitude for sexual gymnastics, who had betrayed her husband with this fatal act of treachery; for she was known to have been as vicious as she was insatiable. Whatever the truth of the rumour, however, it is certain that Tzimiskes and his accomplices, stealing into the emperor’s private chapel, had there found their victim wrapped in a bearskin, snoring gently on the floor. A hail of knives had done their work. Nicephorus’s head, severed to provide a token of Tzimiskes’s accession, had been brandished from a palace window. The people of Constantinople, revelling in the excitement of regime change, had cheered the murderers, and the dispatch of the greatest conqueror to have graced their empire’s throne for three long centuries and more.

In the West too, at the Saxon court, news of the coup had been greeted with delight. No surprise, perhaps, that Otto and Nicephorus, both of them peerless warriors, both of them claimants to the title of emperor, should have regarded the pretensions of the other with resentment. In 968, hostilities between Christendom’s two greatest monarchs had come to a head: Otto, attempting to annex southern Italy, had invaded the territories there still ruled from Constantinople; shortly afterwards, finding his campaign bogged down, and resolved to redeem the situation through a display of quite breathtaking nerve, he had sent an ambassador to the imperial capital and demanded a princess for his younger son and namesake, Prince Otto. This was a gambit that Nicephorus, unsurprisingly, had dismissed with furious snorts of scorn; but Tzimiskes, a well-honed athlete much given to vaulting over horses, had shown himself more willing to take a leap into the dark. The youthful Otto may have been barbarian – yet he was not a wholly worthless catch. Liudolf, the rebellious crown prince, had died back in 957 – leaving Otto as his father’s only heir. Whoever married him, so Tzimiskes had calculated, was likely to end up Empress of the West. A tempting prospect – even by the standards of Constantinople. So it was that in 972 a young girl of perhaps twelve or thirteen, adorned in the heavy robes of an authentic Byzantine princess, weighed down with gold and precious stones, and accompanied by an intimidating train of flunkeys, treasure chests and changes of wardrobe, had been dispatched to Rome. Her name was Theophanu; and both the elder and the younger Otto had been dazzled by the show of her arrival. The marriage contract, inscribed on parchment painted to look like purple silk, had licensed the most splendid wedding in Saxon history. St. Peter’s had provided the venue; the Pope himself had officiated; the very union of East and West had seemed achieved as the squat and ginger-haired groom was joined to his willowy bride.

Only in the complaints of a few curmudgeons, muttered behind the emperor’s back, had the awkward truth been whispered: Theophanu was not, as everyone at the Saxon court had initially been led to believe, Tzimiskes’s daughter at all, but his niece. Some had even suggested that she be returned to Constantinople as damaged goods. Otto I had refused. It had not taken him long to appreciate the pearl he had obtained in his new daughter-in-law. By the time of his death, barely a year after his son’s wedding, Theophanu was already casting the spell of her star quality over East Francia. Indeed, so protean were her abilities that the Saxons could not even agree as to what they were. Some praised their empress for her modesty, “which is, of course, a rare thing in a Greek”;27 others for the very opposite, an eloquence which they felt might easily shade into “insolent prattling.”28 All, however, were agreed on her talent for forging the kind of political friendships that were so essential in the Reich, fractured as it was, and fractious too. On her own, Theophanu could hardly hope to mitigate the more turbid characteristics of her husband’s court, and yet her very presence at the side of Otto II, elegant, silken and bejewelled, served as a constant reminder of a very different style of monarchy: a touch, in the heart of Saxony, of the ineffable glamour of the New Rome.

For Theophanu herself, the experience of life in the West, where displays of riotous merriment were held to impair the kingly dignity not a jot, would certainly have provided a most striking contrast with the decorousness she had left behind. The court of theBasileus, its conceit burnished by its antiquity, persisted in its sublime ambition to hold a mirror up to heaven. The emperor himself, elevated and aloof, presided over his table as the image of Christ; the empress by his side as the Virgin Mary; even the eunuchs, sexless go-betweens, flitted around in the manner of angels. Back in the West, where one of the distinctive marks of royal table manners was held to be the ferocious cracking open of animal bones for their marrow, such role playing would have been regarded as so stiff and chill as to be grotesque; and yet Otto II, under Theophanu’s influence, showed himself not immune to its appeal. So it was, for instance, in the years following his accession, that he and his wife paraded their devotion to the Virgin with a quite exceptional show of piety – even as the Virgin herself, not previously famed in the West for having dripped with priceless jewellery, began to be portrayed across the Reich in the manner of a Byzantine empress. The glory of this, even as it dignified Theophanu, naturally redounded upon Otto as well – and hinted at the aspirations that were starting to gnaw at him.

For less than a decade into his reign, and East Francia was already coming to seem altogether too cabined a stage for his dreams. Whether it was the whisperings of his empress that had seduced him or the impetuosity of his own desires, Otto, bold and wilful, appeared no longer content with the sway of his native land. In the winter of 980, he and Theophanu left Saxony for Italy. By the spring, they were in Rome. Here, in the months that followed, Otto drew up plans to subdue the whole peninsula. A primordial fantasy, one that had haunted many generations of princes, was once again stirring from its troubled sleep. The dream of an empire without limits, of a universal dominion – of a Rome reborn.

Yet it remained the nature of this phantasm to mock all who sought to embrace it. Beyond the southernmost limit of Otto’s Italian kingdom, as tantalising as any mirage, there stretched regions that in ancient times had been both the playground and the breadbasket of the Caesars. Ruins from this fabulous past – palaces and temples, theatres and baths – still dominated the landscape, their hulking stonework defying the passage of the centuries, whether looming up from the curve of the Bay of Naples or frowning down upon the winding, inland roads. All their massy grandeur, however, served only to emphasise their abandonment – and the desolation of the badlands in which they now stood. It was barely a decade previously, after all, that southern Italy had been a war zone, fought over by the rival empires of East and West; and now, in the summer of 981, Otto II was minded to make it so again. The bonds of alliance woven by his marriage to Theophanu had already snapped: for in Constantinople John Tzimiskes was dead – poisoned by a eunuch, it was claimed – and Theophanu herself, implacably hostile to the dynasty that had replaced her uncle’s, clearly believed the rumour true. In September, when the Saxon emperor, riding at the head of a great force of iron-sheathed loricati, advanced southwards out of Rome, his queen was by his side. That it was Otto’s intention to lay claim to the entire inheritance of the ancient empire, in defiance of the new regime in Constantinople, Theophanu knew and surely approved. Empress of the West, perhaps she dared to imagine herself raised to rule the East as well.

Not that the new regime in Constantinople was the only enemy facing her husband in his ambition to lay claim to Italy – let alone the world beyond. As Otto and his horsemen clattered southwards that autumn, they knew that there lurked ahead of them a danger far deadlier and more immediate than the garrisons of the New Rome. Marks of it were everywhere. By the roadside, ancient towns stood abandoned and crumbling, while in the distance new settlements clung nervously to hilltops, hunched against the horizon, and ringed about by walls. Alongside the coast, and especially the banks of estuaries, the desolation grew even more menacing. There, as the Saxons watered their horses, they found no vineyards, or villages, or fields, but only desolation – and over it all a stillness like that of a rifled grave. Terror, in southern Italy, came surest by the sea.

Italy in the reign of Otto II

Indeed, what the tattoo of thundering hoofs had once sounded out to those in the path of the Hungarians, the glimpse of triangular sails on the Mediterranean signalled to those who lived anywhere south of the Alps. The pirates, although they had originally spread from Africa, were certainly not confined to the lower reaches of Christendom. Some, sailing into the waters off Marseille, had secured a base for themselves on Frankish soil, at a village named Garde-Freinet, securely situated on a cliff top, and surrounded by bristling cacti, “so that if any man stumbled against one of them it would cut clean through him like a sword.”29 Others took to the Alps, where they infested the mountain passes. Others, in the most shocking and impious predation of all, had established their vipers’ nest beside the mouth of the River Garigliano – less than a hundred miles south of Rome itself. The Holy City, its surrounds laid to waste by decades of plundering, had found itself being throttled. Even the horses in the papal stables had begun to starve. A succession of popes had begged, cajoled and exhorted their neighbours to flush out the corsairs. Finally, in 915, after decades of papal hectoring, and an unprecedented alliance of assorted Italian powers, the lair had been swept clean at last. The Holy Father himself, in his excitement at having helped to forge such a victory, had charged the enemy twice. Heaven’s forgiveness of this offence, witnessed by the startling but widely attested appearance of Saints Peter and Paul in the battle line, had provided a fitting measure of the crisis.

Now, however, the corsairs were returning to their former haunts. The shadow of peril was deepening and lengthening northwards once again. Otto’s determination to confront it even through the rigours of a winter campaign was a reflection less of bravado than alarm. Pledged as he was to the defence of Rome, he knew that the Holy City was the prize of which the pirates had been dreaming for more than a century. Why, back in 846, they had even dared to sail up the Tiber, and sack St. Peter’s itself. Stripping the shrine bare of all its treasures, they had ritually desecrated its altar, to the scandal of the faithful everywhere, and flung a spear at an icon of Christ. Blood, it was said, had immediately begun to flow from the wound; but the pirates had only jeered, and boasted that they had made the god of the Christians bleed.

It was a terrifying prospect, then, that the descendants of such men might sweep into Rome again. Who precisely were they, these blasphemers, who had dared to scoff at Christ Himself? Pagans, self-evidently; but there were few, even among their victims, who cared to know anything more than that. It was not the superstitions of the corsairs that made them hated, but rather their cruelty, their savagery, their greed. Why should any Christian care what such monsters might believe? True, the odd dark rumour had arisen: that the origins of the corsairs lay in the aptly merciless sands of Arabia; that they prostrated themselves in prayer before idols; that the greatest of their gods was named “Mahound.” Also dimly recalled was the manner in which their ancestors had once ranged far beyond the bounds of the Mediterranean, burning and looting deep into Francia, indeed, as far north as Poitiers; and that only their defeat there in a great battle, at the hands of Charlemagne’s grandfather, had served to roll them back.

All that, however, had long since faded from the memories of most Christians; and if those in the eye of the storm generally responded to their tormentors with an indomitable lack of curiosity, then those far away in Francia enjoyed an even profounder ignorance. Certainly, to those riding in Otto’s train, the enemy ahead of them would hardly have appeared an exceptional one. A relish for violence and plunder was, in the opinion of the Saxons, the mark of pagans everywhere. Both the Wends and the Hungarians had preyed on the fold of Christendom; and both of them had been mightily repulsed. Why, then, should the emperor’s current enemies not be crushed in a similar manner? Indeed, there seemed little to suggest that they and their kinsmen, the race of pagans known by the learned as “Saracens,” might be an enemy of Christendom like no other.

Theophanu, however, riding by her husband’s side, would have offered Otto an altogether more chilling perspective. In Constantinople, even young girls in their nurseries had heard of the Saracens, and learned to shiver at their name. During all her long reign as the Queen of Cities, the New Rome had faced many terrible enemies; but none so terrible as those which, like lightning from a clear blue sky, had blazed out of the Arabian desert more than three centuries previously, and in the course of a bare few decades conquered for themselves the fairest portion of the Christian world. From Carthage in the West, where St. Augustine had once studied, to Jerusalem in the East, with its incomparably holy shrines, all had been lost to the empire of the New Rome. Twice the Saracens had sought to capture Constantinople herself, their armies massed jackal-like on the shore of Europe, their ships crowding the Bosphorus. Twice, by the grace of the Virgin, protectress of the Holy City, they had been repulsed. The empire had been held together.

Still, though, the flood tides had continued to lap at its ramparts. In southern Anatolia, along the margins of a dominion much shrunken from its former greatness, raiding parties of infidel fighters – “mujahidin,” as they termed themselves – had yearly stained the mountain passes with blood, until Nicephorus, “the pale death of the Saracens,”30 had at last, and with a mighty effort, succeeded in pushing back the frontier. Even now, with the empire at its largest extent in centuries, the soldiers of the New Rome could not afford to relax their guard. Just as they knew Constantinople to be the bulwark of Christendom, so too did their enemies. The West, which imagined the Saracens pagans like any other pagans, was deluding itself. These were no pagans. These were something infinitely more menacing. That Constantinople remained, as she had always been, the prize most hungered after by the Saracens reflected a sense of mission on their part that no pagan would ever have understood: the belief that all the universe would one day submit to their faith.

Where had it come from, this presumptuous and terrifying heresy? “Many false prophets will arise,” Christ had warned his disciples, “and lead many astray”31 – and so it had proved. “Mahound,” whom scholars in the West took for an idol, had in truth, their Byzantine counterparts knew, been something quite different: the founder of the Saracens’ pestiferous superstition, and a veritable “forerunner of Antichrist.”32 Through his life and teachings, he had provided his followers with their surest model of behaviour, a model that all in Constantinople found so abhorrent as to seem diabolical. Christ, seized by His enemies, had ordered Peter to put away his sword; but Mahound – or Mohammed, as the Saracens called their prophet – had gloried in war and conquest.

Startling evidence of this bellicosity had been obtained by Nicephorus, in the course of his victorious campaigns, when he had captured a fortress containing a truly fearsome relic: a sword that the Saracens claimed had belonged to their prophet himself. “Zulfiqar,” they called it; “the Cleaver of Vertebrae.” Fitting weapon for a man who had, if the Saracens’ own boasts were to be believed, fought in battles, staged mass executions and even commissioned murder squads.33 “Do prophets come with sword and chariot?” So the Byzantines, from the very onset of the Saracens’ assaults upon them, had asked in revulsion. That Mohammed had indeed been “an impostor,” and his heresy an affliction sent by God as punishment for their sins, appeared to them beyond all doubt. “There is no truth to be found in the so-called prophet. There is only the shedding of blood.”34

It was true that the Saracens were not alone in believing that instruments of war might be cherished of God. Otto, as he advanced into enemy territory, had the Holy Lance go before him. The more barbarian he, the Byzantines might well have retorted. No matter that they had been obliged for centuries to fight against enemies pledged to the capture of their holy city and the utter prostration of their faith, they had still, throughout it all, clung with a heroic obstinacy to the conviction that war was evil – indeed, “the worst of all evils.”35 That this sat awkwardly with the venerable claims of the New Rome to universal rule was something that most in Constantinople were content, by and large, to overlook. Gazing into the murky depths of human nature, and drawing on the teachings of the Fathers of their Church, they had judged that a lust for conquest could not help but corrupt the soul. What surer proof of this was there than the Saracens themselves, in whom violence and sanctimony appeared blended to such deadly effect? “Fight those who believe not in God,”36 Mohammed had commanded his followers: an injunction that, to the Byzantines who had for so long borne its brunt, appeared nothing but the most vicious hypocrisy, merely “a licence to loot in religion’s name.”37Especially repugnant to them was the claim, which for centuries had inspired the Saracen faithful on their larcenous raids, that any warrior who fell far from his own country, in the struggle to spread the dominion of his faith, might be reckoned a martyr, his sins forgiven, his soul translated to paradise. When Nicephorus, who had lived altogether too long “in the shadows of swords,” *had made the shocking demand of his bishops that they sanction a matching doctrine, one that would grant to any soldier who died in defence of the Christian empire a martyr’s crown, they had recoiled in the utmost horror. The Church’s ruling on the matter, they had pointed out with icy finality, was clear. Any soldier who shed blood, even in defence of his fellow Christians, existed in a state of sin: only three years of the strictest penance could serve to purge him of the offence. Trust to Providence, the Church advised, rather than to the swords of sinful men. God’s hand would achieve all. In due course – and perhaps sooner rather than later, if the forecasts of the world’s imminent end were to be believed – global dominion would be restored to Constantinople. In the meantime, however, it was the duty of the empire’s leaders to man the ramparts, to patrol the frontiers and always “to prefer peace above all else, and refrain from war.”38

Small wonder, then, that the instincts of the Byzantine military, to a quite striking degree, should have inclined to the defensive. Better the negotiations of diplomats, the payment of bribes and tributes, even the exercise of treachery, than open combat. Battle and the loss of life were to be avoided at all costs. So it was, for instance, in southern Italy, where the garrisons were perilously undermanned, that the high command had made little attempt to combat the Saracen incursions, preferring instead to sit them out. To a man such as Otto, and a people such as the Saxons, it was a policy that could not help but appear pusillanimous.

In January 982, when the mailed horsemen of East Francia first crossed into Byzantine territory, they too were met by bolted gates, just as the corsairs had been. Infuriated by the refusal of his fellow Christians to join him in the campaign against the Saracens, their common foe, Otto nevertheless bided his time, giving them every opportunity to submit; but by April his patience was exhausted. News had reached him that in Sicily, long a stronghold of the corsairs, a Saracen prince was mustering a massive expeditionary force against him; and Otto, resolved as he was to confront this menace head on, knew that he would need a secure base in his rear. Accordingly, “after a brief but forceful attack,”39 he seized the port of Taranto from its Byzantine garrison, and formally proclaimed himself, in portentous terms, sole Emperor of Rome. With the city echoing to the sound of warhorses being shod, hauberks being prepared and over two thousand reinforcements clattering through the streets, Otto’s self-justification for this step could hardly have been more ringing. Constantinople, through her own cowardice and feebleness, had forfeited all rights to the name of Roman. No longer did she deserve to be ranked as the shield of Christendom. The title was now Otto’s alone.

In July, its standards proudly fluttering, the massive task force assembled for the conquest of southern Italy duly advanced against the Saracens, cornered them south of Cotrone by the sea, engaged them in a great and terrible battle – and was annihilated. Most of Otto’s heavy cavalry, the shock force of the Reich, perished amid the carnage. The cream of the nobility too. Otto himself, obliged to borrow a horse from a passing Jew and ride it out into the sea, barely escaped with his life. To compound his humiliation, the ship that rescued him, “a galley of marvellous length and speed,”40 had been dispatched to Italian waters from Constantinople. “Let us hope,” the mortified Otto found himself muttering to its captain, “that your emperor, my brother, will be a loyal friend to me in my time of need.”41 Not that he had any intention of hanging around to find out. Arriving off the coast where Theophanu was waiting for him, he plunged into the sea and swam frantically ashore, there to be reunited with his wife and his few surviving troops: chastened, mightily relieved still to be alive, and dripping wet.

So ended Otto’s attempts to sweep the Saracens into the sea. Rumour would subsequently have it that Theophanu, furious at her husband for his incompetence, had insisted, with a tactless flare-up of patriotism, that her countrymen would never have blundered into such a catastrophe. If true – and Saxon gossip about the empress was often malicious – then she had only put into words what most people in southern Italy were thinking. Not that Byzantine schadenfreude could reign wholly undiluted. Even though the captain of the Saracens, the “Emir,” as he was termed, had fallen in the very hour of his great victory, everyone knew that the corsairs would be back, and more bloodily than ever. And so it would prove. Far distant from the beleaguered Italian front, however, in the chanceries of Constantinople, news of Otto’s defeat had confirmed the imperial elite powerfully in their vision of the world. It was a vision in which, unchangingly, there could be room only for two great powers, locked, as they had always been, in a globe-spanning embrace of rivalry, arch-antagonists doomed to their mutual hatred until the very end of time: themselves, of course, and the Saracens. A vision, certainly, which left no room for barbarian emperors from the North.

Otto, doubting the courage and the resolve of Constantinople, had been grievously mistaken. Dutiful son of the Church a Basileus might be, and yet still boast that his spear “had never been seen at rest,” that all his life he had “kept vigilant, guarding the children of the New Rome.”42 Nicephorus, so ascetic in the private practice of his faith that he had dreamed of retiring to a monastery, was far from being the only emperor to have stained his weapons with blood. Even as Otto was limping northwards from the toe of Italy, great deeds were being plotted in Constantinople. Against the empire’s enemies in the Balkans, where the frontier remained menacingly unstable, a full-scale strategy of invasion and annexation was being planned, with the goal of permanently securing the northern approaches to the capital, just as Nicephorus had secured the South. Yet imperial policy, even when setting its sights, as ultimately it would, upon the limits of the Danube, never ceased in its essence to be defensive – and fixated on the threat from its deadliest foe of all. Turbulent and dangerous though the northern barbarians – the Bulgars, the Croats and, yes, the Saxons too – were, they appeared, compared with the Saracens, the merest clods, brutish thugs bred of forest, and rock, and mud. Men understood, in Constantinople, a truth as unsettling as it verged on the scandalous: the Saracens, their eternal opposite, were their mirror image too.

Mon semblable, mon frère. Infinitely more than any Christian power, it was the kingdoms of those who most yearned to conquer her, the followers of Mohammed, that offered up to the New Rome the surest reflection of her own splendour and sophistication. Courts bejewelled and silken with luxuries, immense and teeming cities, baths and gushing fountains, bureaucracies and standing armies: the Saracens had them all. The people whom the wretched peasants of Italy knew only as pirates were in truth the possessors of a stupefyingly vast and flourishing dominion, stretching in a mighty crescent from the western ocean to the rising of the sun. “There are two empires,” a Patriarch of Constantinople had written early in the tenth century, “that of the Saracens and of the Romans, which hold between them the entirety of power in this world, shining like twin torches in the celestial firmament.”43 The observation had been made in a letter sent to the fabulous city of Baghdad, where there had sat enthroned in fearful splendour a prince whose claim to the rule of every nation under the sun was made manifest in his very title: that of the “Caliph,” or “Successor,” to Mohammed. Yet ambitions of global conquest, the Patriarch had argued, if permitted to blaze with an equal ferocity in both Constantinople and Baghdad, would surely expose both to the risk of annihilation. Rather than compete to rule the world, might not the truest course of wisdom be to accept its division into two? The Caliph, committed as he was by his rank to work for the propagation of Mohammed’s faith to the outermost limits of the universe, had given this proposal predictably short shrift; but opinion formers in Constantinople, unperturbed by this rebuff, had continued to push for a policy of détente.

Which they had been able to do, as the decades passed, from a position of gathering strength. Increasingly, with the single exception of the Italian front, the Saracen frontier appeared stable, even pacified. Beyond it, meanwhile, in the heartlands of the Caliphate, all was disintegration. True, a caliph still reigned in Baghdad, but he did so only as the cipher of a Persian warlord, one of numerous adventurers who had begun systematically to carve up the Saracen world between them. Nor was he any longer the only ruler who claimed the rank of Mohammed’s successor. In Egypt, which had been lost to Baghdad back in 969, the master of that most ancient and wealthy of kingdoms also wore the title of “Caliph,” claiming as his justification a supposed descent from Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima. Diplomats in Constantinople, well versed in the art of stirring up trouble among their adversaries, had naturally tracked all these developments with relish. To the “Fatimid” Caliph, as an encouragement to him in his ambitions, they had duly sent Zulfiqar, Mohammed’s sword: a splendid gift, to be sure, but a treacherous one as well. After all, with a rival caliph still enthroned in Baghdad, and a host of squabbling emirs beyond their frontiers, it appeared likeliest to be Saracen vertebrae that would end up cleaved by the Fatimids, not the spines of the Romaioi.

The Byzantine Empire

Otto might have doubted the backbone of Constantinople, but the Saracens no longer did. “The field is left open to her,” acknowledged a commentator at the Fatimid court as he mournfully surveyed the spectacle of the splintered Caliphate. “She has been able to seize what was previously closed to her, and to nurture ambitions that until recently would have been unthinkable.”44 No wonder, then, when set against such a drama, the tectonic grinding of two such ancient and mighty powers, each one the opposite and the semblance of the other, that the pretensions of upstarts such as Otto should have appeared a boorish irrelevance. If indeed, as all the signs seemed to indicate, the end of the world was nearing, then it was the rivalry of Caliph and Basileus that would surely pattern it, just as it had patterned the centuries past. “Twin torches”: so the Patriarch had described the Caliphate and the empire of the New Rome. Set against such a blaze, what could Francia be accounted, save a twilit backwater, a doltish wilderness of ignorance and bloodstained shadows?


As Otto stumbled back to Rome with his shattered retinue, he would have found himself passing by ruins familiar to him from his outward journey: looming reminders of the vanished empire whose heir he claimed to be. The menace of these silent temples and amphitheatres would have borne down ominously upon the imperial party. It was not only ghosts that were rumoured to haunt their mouldering stonework. Saracen raiders, always on the lookout for secure strongholds, had long been in the habit of setting up camp within the shells of outsize classical buildings. Well might Italians have come to regard the memorials of their Roman past as things baleful and accursed. Many, abandoning them altogether, had decamped to walled towns up in the hills. Others, rather than endure the dread that the ancient structures inspired, had been known to pull them down. In Naples, for instance, at the start of the tenth century, panic had inspired a veritable frenzy of demolition. Fearful that a Saracen emir of notorious rapacity and sadism might be descending upon their city, the Neapolitans had sought to leave nothing standing for the marauders to occupy. Far along the seafront, celebrated monuments had been sent crashing into the shallows. Most spectacular of all the casualties had been the palace in which the last Roman emperor of the West, some five hundred years previously, had passed his days.

Here, in the pile of rubble left where such a haughty villa had once stood, was dramatic illustration of how profoundly Italy had slumped from her one-time greatness into impotence and poverty. That Saracen war bands preferred to occupy ancient ruins rather than monuments raised in more recent times was sombre evidence of how shrunken the resources available to most Italians had become. It was certainly not in the hope of plundering any great treasure that the corsairs kept returning to their old haunts. For a long while now, across vast swaths of the Italian countryside, the bones had been picked almost clean. Yet what did remain was self-evidently more than lure enough. “Behold,” a pope had mourned, back in the ninth century, “the towns, castles and estates perish – stripped of inhabitants.”45 An exaggeration? Not if stunned reports of the near-industrial scale of the slave trade were true: one traveller, witnessing a great flotilla of ships in Taranto, then in Saracen hands, claimed to have seen some twelve thousand captives being loaded ready for transport to the markets of Africa.46

System as much as savagery was what underpinned this trafficking. The duties of slavers were carefully divided up. Some would guard the ships, others prepare the irons, others bring in the captives. Some even specialised in the rounding up of children. The natives too – those with the determination to profit from the slavers rather than to end up as their victims – had their roles to play. Italians at every level of society were profoundly implicated in the hunting down of their fellow Christians. Even a pope, it was rumoured, feeling the pinch, had once dabbled in it on the quiet. There were others who positively flaunted their collaboration. Amalfi, a city perched on the edge of a rocky peninsula south of Naples, was particularly notorious for her partisanship of the Saracens. So too, indeed – the occasional panic notwithstanding – was Naples herself. These two cities, by offering support and supplies to the slave trade, and by systematically frustrating all attempts to combat it, had begun gradually to pull themselves free of the general impoverishment of the times. Only the cost to their souls, perhaps, had to be put on the debit side. Already, in the ninth century, the markets of Naples had grown so bustling that visitors commented on how they appeared almost African in their prosperity. The Amalfitans, meanwhile, defying the barrenness of their native rock, had profited even more shrewdly from their links to the slavers, and transformed their cliff-top city, somewhat implausibly, into a hub of international trade. While other Italians huddled together for refuge on bleak hilltops, the merchants of Amalfi were to be found in harbours across the entire Mediterranean, from Tunisia to Egypt to Constantinople, flush with Saracen gold.

And all the while, the attentions of the Saracens themselves had been growing ever more predacious. No longer, by the late tenth century, were most slavers operating as freebooters: instead, they had begun to receive official backing in their activities from the rulers of Sicily. The brother of one emir, indeed, had been known to lead slaving expeditions in person. This was an ominous development indeed. No wonder that some Christian leaders, marking the sweep of corsairs across entire provinces of Italy, the winnowing of cities for human booty and the sustained harrowing of the countryside, had begun to wonder whether the depredations might not be motivated by something more sinister than simply greed. Christendom, it appeared to them, was being systematically drained of her lifeblood: her reservoir of human souls. Worse – the more she was emptied, the more those who fed on her were sustained. “For it is the fate of prisoners of our own race,” as one despairing monk observed, “both male and female, to end up adding to the resources of the lands beyond the sea.”47

Such paranoia was not unjustified. True, the main concern of the slavers remained, as it had always been, the harvesting of profit; and their ignorance of their own faith – to say nothing of their appalling Arabic and their fondness for raw onions – were things of scandal across the Saracen world. Nevertheless, state sponsorship of the corsairs had increasingly, throughout the tenth century, served to grace their marauding with a sheen of religiosity: for it was the practice of the rulers of Sicily, even as they creamed off their own percentage, to cast their subjects’ brigandage as a spiritual discipline. “Jihad,” they termed it: a word of rare and suggestive potency, signifying as it did the eternal struggle, incumbent upon all followers of Mohammed, to spread his faith to the utmost limits of the world. Corsairs, even as they glided in through the gates of an unsuspecting Italian town, could do so in the certainty that they were following in the footsteps of the divine. “How many cities have We destroyed?” So God Himself, according to Mohammed, had demanded. “Our punishment took them on a sudden by night or while they slept for their afternoon rest.”48

Well might jurists in the Caliphate have termed the world beyond their frontiers “the House of War.” Its strife-torn poverty and backwardness appeared to those who preyed upon it merely the natural state of things: irrefutable proof that God had indeed abandoned the “infidel,” and transferred dominion into their own hands. Mohammed himself, the very first of his faith to have assaulted and despoiled a foe, had been graced with a firm assurance of this by the archangel Gabriel, no less. So, at any rate, it was recorded in the Qur’an: the holy book of his revelations. To the Prophet, and to all who followed him, had been granted the “spoils of war”49 – and a constituent part of this plunder, divinely gifted, had been human livestock. *All loot, if diverted to the proper charitable causes – “to near relatives, orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer”50 – might be reckoned to serve God’s purpose; but prisoners, perhaps, most of all. Slavery did not have to be for life. Mohammed, who had prescribed that only infidels be sold as chattels, had also declared the freeing of converts a blessed act. Even a priest abducted from his church, as he toiled in a foreign field, or a nun, stolen to serve in a master’s bed, might find food for thought in that.

To be sure, there were many Christian slaves, putting their trust in the life to come, who did stay true to their native faith; but there were many more who did not. Conversion to their masters’ religion, for such renegades, brought not only the prospect of freedom, but a measure of dignity. All men, Mohammed had taught, were equal before God – for all men, even the very greatest, were His slaves. So it was that the Prophet’s followers referred to themselves not as “Saracens,” a word that meant nothing to them, but as “Muslims”: “those who submit.” In the prayer halls of their places of worship, the “masajid,” as they were termed, or “mosques,” it was not merely the slaves who abased themselves before their divine master, kneeling, bowing, pressing their foreheads to the dust, but the entire community of believers. Expressed through this surging and mighty wave of prostrations was the great paradox of Mohammed’s faith: that servitude, to the slaves of God, was the wellspring of their greatness. In their facelessness lay their identity; in their surrender, their victory. As one body, free and unfree, in lands that embraced the limits of the horizon, across all the vast and peerless extent of the Caliphate, that incomparable empire won by the dauntless swords of the faithful, they acknowledged their submission – what they called, in Arabic, “islam.”

One day, when all the world was Muslim, there would be no more wars, and no more slavery. In the meantime, however, the merchant who shipped his human cargo to Tunis or Alexandria could be regarded as performing a deed that was meritorious as well as lucrative; just as the captives transported in all their stupefying numbers from Europe to Africa were something more than merely the tribute of flesh and blood that the weak had timelessly paid the strong. God was great. Not a fragment of masonry shaken loose from the House of War but it could be put to use in the walls of the House of Islam. Cannibalisation, indeed, had long been the fate ordained for Christendom. Slaves garnered from frontier wars had only ever been conceived of as a beginning. Conquest, outright conquest, promised the richest opportunities. Mohammed, as shrewd and innovative an empire-builder as there had ever been, had carefully prescribed for his followers how best to make their victories pay. Christians, once brought to acknowledge their own subjugation, were not to be slaughtered or obliged to convert, but carefully husbanded, as befitted a valuable resource. It was more profitable in the long run to fleece a flock of sheep than to put them all to the sword. “Otherwise,” as one of the Prophet’s earliest followers had put it, “what would be left for the Muslims who will come after us?”51 Jesus, eyes fixed on the Kingdom of Heaven, might have disdained to elaborate a fiscal policy – but not Mohammed. Tolerance had been set carefully at a price. The extortion of protection money from both Christians and Jews had been laid down by the Prophet as a most solemn duty of the faithful. All those who paid it – “dhimmis,” as they were termed by their Muslim conquerors – were to be made to “feel themselves subdued.”52Travelling to pay their tax, they were forbidden to ride a horse, a privilege reserved for the faithful; if on a mule, they had to sit side-saddle, like women; as they handed over their money, they were obliged to keep their hands below those of the official collecting it. In the House of Islam, it was the ledger book no less than the sword that imposed subordination.

In the Book of Revelation, Saint John described his vision of how the world was set to end. Two scenes from it are represented here. In the top illustration, Satan is shown being bound by an angel within a bottomless pit; below it, “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan,” is shown breaking free after an imprisonment of a thousand years. From the socalled “Bamberg Apocalypse”: commissioned for imperial use in or just before the year 1000, the manuscript bears telling witness to the fascination with millennial themes at the very apex of Christendom.

The conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity was a defining moment in European history. In its wake, Christians would increasingly take for granted that a Caesar might rule on earth as the deputy of Christ. Nevertheless, by the time this representation of Constantine’s baptism was painted in the mid-twelfth century, people in the West had only the haziest notion as to who the first Christian emperor had actually been. (Morgan Library)

Charlemagne: Frankish warlord, and restorer of the Roman Empire in the West. Two hundred years and more after his death, when this statue was sculpted, he remained the very model of a Christian king. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

By the early tenth century, the empire forged by Charlemagne was splintering and crumbling away. Christendom itself appeared on the verge of ruin. Unsurprisingly, there were many, caught up in the savagery and violence of the times, who openly dreaded that “the last time of the world had dawned.” This biblical battle scene, drawn by a monk in the Low Countries, held up a fitting mirror to the anarchy of the age.

The Holy Lance: a weapon of reputedly awesome power. Believed to have been owned by Constantine, and to be adorned by the very nails that had once pierced the hands and feet of Christ, it was said to guarantee its owner “perpetual triumph.” Its purchase in 926 by Henry the Fowler, the first Saxon king of the German Reich, served as a potent symbol of his status as the dominant figure in Christendom. (Kunsthorisches Museum)

The marble coronation throne at Aachen cathedral. Dating back to the time of Charlemagne, it was where Otto I, in 936, sat to be crowned. “Drive away the enemies of Christ,” he was solemnly instructed by the officiating archbishop. “Establish an enduring peace for Christians everywhere.” Words that Otto would never forget. (Author photo)

In 962, Otto I travelled to Rome for a second coronation: this time as emperor. Once again, after a vacancy of almost sixty years, the throne of the Roman Empire in the West had an occupant. From that moment on, whenever Otto’s documents needed to be stamped, it would be done with an authentically imperial seal.

Otto II and Theophanu: Saxon Caesar and Byzantine princess. Their marriage in St. Peter’s was the most glamorous that Rome had staged for many centuries. As sophisticated as she was imperious, Theophanu would illumine her husband’s reign with a rare star quality. (Author photo)

Among the Byzantines, distaste for the spilling of blood on battlefields was paralleled by a no less fervent conviction that Constantinople should rule the world. Despite widespread unease back in the capital, a succession of tenth-century emperors threw themselves with gusto into the task of pushing back the imperial frontiers. As the Millennium approached, the empire of the New Rome appeared more formidable than it had done for centuries. (Vatican Museum)

With its Roman brickwork, its Visigothic arches, and its pillars plundered from a demolished cathedral, the Great Mosque of Córdoba was no less triumphantly Islamic for its wholesale cannibalisation of infidel traditions. As Mohammed himself had put it: “God desires that if you do something you perfect it.” (Commons.wikimedia.org)

Otto III: the robes of a Caesar, the posture of Christ in heaven. Four women, representing Rome, France, Germany, and the lands of the Slavs, bring the Emperor gifts, while his attendants watch on, each with the hint of a smile. But no smile lightens the expression of Otto. Enthroned in majesty he may be, yet he has the look of a man burdened by the fearful conviction that he is ruling at the end of time. (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek/SuperStock)

Astounding as Gerbert’s achievements appeared to his contemporaries, they appeared something altogether more sinister to subsequent generations. Surely, it was presumed, only the blackest magic could have brought a peasant to sit on Saint Peter’s throne? Here, in a fifteenth century illustration, Gerbert sports a sinister 5 o’clock shadow while beaming complacently at the Devil. (Wikipedia)

There was no one in the France of the Millennium more proficient in the revolutionary new art of castle building than Fulk Nerra, “the Black,” Count of Anjou. His princedom was studded with fortifications—with some, like this keep at Loches, so cutting-edge as to be constructed entirely out of stone. By 1035, it reached thirty-six metres high. (Author photo)

If forests were places to be feared as the haunts of wolves and demons, then so also could they provide peasants with ready storehouses: ones that did not depend on the ploughing and harvesting of fields. Here, in an English work calendar from the early eleventh century, hogs are shown sniffing the September air for the scent of acorns. (British Library)

Of all a peasant’s possessions, the most precious were his oxen. Keep them, and he would preserve his freedom. Lose them, and he was almost guaranteed to lose his freedom as well. (British Library)

If castles were one mark of the gathering tide of social upheaval that afflicted many regions in France in the approach to the Millennium, then so too were the gangs of mail-clad thugs employed to garrison them. Cnichts, they were called in English, or “knights”: a novel and menacing order.

Indeed, without dhimmi taxes, it might prove hard to pay for an army at all. This was why, in a seeming paradox, it was those states with the largest number of Christians that could most readily afford jihad. In Sicily, for instance, which had finally been secured for Islam only in 902, the emirs regarded their vast population of infidel subjects with a cagey ambivalence. Devout Muslims that they were, and naturally mistrustful of those who did not share their faith, they were regular sponsors of new mosques and mass circumcisions across the Christian heartlands; but they also had to reckon with the need to husband their tax base. By the time of the expedition against Otto II, the Muslim population of Sicily was nudging perhaps a third of the island’s total, and it appeared that the perfect balance of manpower and revenue had been attained. Bureaucracy had fused with banditry to forge a state that was lethally primed for war. The corpses left on the beach by Cotrone had borne sufficient witness to that.

Yet the notion that tax collectors might present quite as grave a threat to Christendom as corsairs was profoundly alien to the Saxons. Otto, master of a far-spreading dominion though he was, had no great reservoir of bureaucrats on which to call, no elaborate system for keeping track of his subjects, not even a capital. Indeed, to those Muslim leaders who deigned so much as to note its existence, the Reich appeared barely to qualify as a functioning state at all. One of them, addressing an envoy sent to his court by Otto I, had been open in his scorn. “Why does your king not concentrate power in his own hands?” the ambassador had been asked in withering tones. “Why does he allow his subjects to have such a share of it? He doles out the various regions of his empire among them, expecting in that way to win their loyalty and submission, but he is deluding himself. For all he fosters is rebellion and pride!”53

Here had spoken a man whose own sense of what was due to him had never needed the slightest boosting. Abd al-Rahman bin Mohammed bin Abd Allah, not content with the rank of emir that he had inherited from his grandfather, had even laid claim to that very ultimate in honorifics, the title of Caliph. No less than his peers in Baghdad and Egypt, Abd al-Rahman had made sure to justify his pretensions to global dominion with a truly spectacular display of wealth and power. Otto’s ambassador, an abbot from the Rhineland by the name of John, had certainly never seen anything to compare. The Caliph’s palace, he reported years later in still breathless tones, stretched for miles. Everywhere he had looked, there were soldiers standing to menacing attention, or riding on horseback, staging intimidating manoeuvres, “filling our party with consternation, such was their arrogance and swagger.” Even the dustiest gatehouse had been adorned “with carpets and precious fabrics.”54

It was all in startling contrast with the décor of a monastery; but even those visitors who were not Frankish abbots might well be stupefied. Abd al-Rahman had regarded it as below his dignity to deal in anything but the most extravagant superlatives. Twelve thousand loaves of bread, it was claimed, were required to feed his fish alone. Indoors, away from the draped courtyards, the flower-scented lawns and the moated zoo, silks blended with stucco, precious metals with patterned tiles. At the very heart of the fabulous complex, in the great reception hall, there stood a pool of mercury, capable, when stirred, of sending shivers of reflected sunlight dancing across the marble walls; while above it, suspended from the gold and silver roof, there hung a giant pearl.

All this splendour, however, had provided merely the setting for the palace’s truest jewel. Alone on a cushion-laden dais, “like a god accessible to none or very few,”55 there had reclined the Caliph, Abd al-Rahman himself. Dumpy he may have been, and prone to melancholy, confiding to his diary that in all the forty-nine years of his reign, he had known only fourteen days of happiness – and yet he and his family, the Umayyads, provided a living link to Islam’s most heroic age. Like the Fatimids, they could trace their bloodline back to the time of the Prophet. Unlike the Fatimids, they could also lay claim to an even more exclusive status: that of Islam’s first-ever dynasty of caliphs. From their capital of Damascus, in Syria, they had witnessed Muslim armies besiege Constantinople, cross the Indus and raid deep into Francia. For almost a century, from 661 to 750, they had been the most powerful family on earth. Abd al-Rahman, in short, had pedigree.

Yet though the Umayyads’ blood undoubtedly was blue, so also, by the tenth century, were their eyes. Their skin was pale; Abd al-Rahman himself, concerned to appear properly a son of the desert, had been obliged to dye his beard black. Much had befallen the Umayyads over the previous two centuries. Toppled from power in 750 by the dynasty that would subsequently transfer the capital of the Caliphate to Baghdad, most had been systematically eliminated, often amid grotesque brutalities: the tongue of the ruling Caliph, for instance, had been hacked out and fed to a cat. Indeed, of all the Umayyad princes, only one had succeeded in escaping the bloodbath – and he had done so by fleeing to the far ends of the earth. Never again would the Umayyads return to their beloved capital.

Over the centuries, to be sure, they had done their best to assuage their abiding sense of homesickness. Abd al-Rahman’s entire palace, so commanding, so sumptuous, so exquisite, appeared to visitors from Damascus like a fantasy conjured up from their city’s golden age. Raised as it had been upon tiers carved out of the gently sloping foothill of a mountain, it was possible to look out from one of its many levels and see, in the valley below, a landscape that likewise appeared transplanted from the Umayyads’ much-missed homeland: a vision of almond blossom, date palms and pomegranate trees. Travel beyond the palace and scenes even more evocative of Syria might be found, plains adorned with glittering fretworks of irrigation, fed by the groaning of immense hydraulic wheels, and nourishing fields of fantastical plants: figs and oranges, rice and sugar cane. Yet these were not Syrian fields. Damascus was more than two thousand miles away. Abd al-Rahman’s palace stood not in the Near East but in that abode of exile that was the furthest west, on the very edge of the world – in Spain.

The Ornament of the World

Muslim armies had first crossed from Africa into Europe long previously, back in 711. Beyond the straits of what would ultimately, after the general who had led the invasion, be known as “Tariq’s Mountain,” or “Jabal Tariq” – “Gibraltar” – there had lain the kingdom of a people named the Visigoths. These, like the Franks, had originally been invaders from beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire: fiercely, even violently Christian, their kings had ruled from the craggy heights of Toledo, in the very heart of the peninsula, which they had adorned with splendid churches, and termed with soaring pride a “new Jerusalem.” Indeed, believing themselves, to a degree exceptional even by the standards of the times, a chosen people, and aiming to overawe their native subjects, it was the Visigoths, long before Pepin, who had first presumed to anoint their kings with holy oil. All to no avail. For reasons that would later be much debated – an epidemic of sodomy being the favoured explanation – the Visigoths had been abandoned by God. Their armies had been shattered upon the Muslim advance. Their kingdom had been delivered up into the hands of the invaders. Only in the bleakest wilds of the peninsula, in the poverty-stricken mountains of Galicia, in the farthest north-west, had there been left so much as the rump of a Christian state. Secure in their remote fastnesses, the men of this tiny kingdom had succeeded not only in keeping the Muslims at bay, but even, with a painful effort, at clawing back lost territory. Two and a half centuries after it had seemed as though the whole of the peninsula might fall to the invaders, upwards of a third of it had been redeemed for Christendom. The nerve centre of Christian resistance was no longer to be found in the mountains, but further south, on an open plain, within the walls of the ancient Roman fortress of León. Toledo, its crags now as adorned with minarets as they had once been with bell-towers, stood almost on the front line.

Yet the Caliph and his advisers, though hardly complacent in the face of this Christian resurgence, felt no great cause for alarm. The men of León, long confined to mountains and desolate plains as they had been, appeared to the Muslims like wolves: dangerous certainly, but only if permitted to intrude from the wilderness that was properly their home. So it was that everywhere along the frontier, raised to stand bristling proof against Christian predators, there loomed battlements and mighty watchtowers: fortifications that the Muslims termed “husun.” North of these, drear and savage, the House of War; south of them, as blooming a garden as any in the House of Islam, rich with crops, studded with great cities, and adorned with the arts of peace, a “paradise” hailed even by her Christian enemies as “the ornament of the world,”56 the land known to its inhabitants as “al-Andalus.”*

Indeed, such was the flourishing condition of Spain’s Muslims that they had long since ceased to depend for their prosperity upon the exploitation of infidels. This was just as well; for increasingly, under the lengthy rule of Abd al-Rahman and of his able and sophisticated son al-Hakam, al-Andalus had come to lose its character as a frontier society. Conversions to Islam, once a trickle, had become a flood. At the start of the tenth century, it has been estimated, the population of al-Andalus was only one-fifth Muslim; by the time al-Hakam died, in 976, that percentage had been reversed.57 The status of Christians in Islamic Spain had always been a second-class one; and certainly, burdened as they were by extra taxes, banned from employment in the state bureaucracy, and saddle-sore, no doubt, from perpetually riding mules, they had hardly lacked for incentives to abandon their ancestral faith. Yet while to be a dhimmi in the House of Islam had always been both expensive and a source of petty humiliations, so also, by the tenth century, had it become something even more debilitating: unfashionable. The Church in al-Andalus had long been thundering against the passion of its flock for Saracen chic; but increasingly, whether translating the scriptures into Arabic, or adopting Muslim names for themselves, or dancing attendance on the Caliph at his court, even bishops were succumbing to its allure.

Only in the countryside, far removed from the wealth and glamour of city life, did sizeable numbers of Christians still endure; and they, in the opinion of Muslim sophisticates, were little better than wild beasts. “For when they cast off the yoke of obedience,” so one complained, “it is hard to make them return to it, unless they are exterminated – and that is a difficult, prolonged process.”58 In al-Andalus, the days of living off the fruits of extortion, whether plunder or taxes, were gone for good.

There were many Muslims, nostalgic for the time when their ancestors “were admirable and excellent, determined in jihad and eager for God’s rewards, throwing themselves on the Christians in warfare and siege,”59 who regretted this; but the majority were too busy making money in less strenuous ways to care. The Caliphate may have been politically fractured, but it still offered, to the ambitious merchant, a free-trade area like no other in the world. Far eastwards of al-Andalus it extended, to Persia and beyond, while in the markets of the great cities of Islam were to be found wonders from even further afield: sandalwood from India, paper from China, camphor from Borneo. What was Christian Spain, with her flea-bitten little villages, to compare? Why, unlike their equivalents in Italy, they were not even good for slaves! The Andalusis, whose ancestors, back in the valiant first flush of conquest, had once dispatched thirty thousand prisoners to Damascus in a single train, had long since lost their taste for grubbing around after human prey. Now it was they who were the importers; and a swarm of Christian suppliers, with little else to offer which might serve to tickle Andalusi palates, had competed to corner the market no less eagerly than their Muslim competitors. The fair hair of the Umayyad caliphs, bred of concubines from the distant North, was only one proof of their success. A second was the palace guards who had so alarmed Abbot John; for these were not native Andalusis, but “Saqaliba” – Slavs. In Arabic, as in most European languages, the word was becoming, by the tenth century, increasingly synonymous with human cattle: a reflection of how widely, when demand required it, the tendrils of trade might extend beyond the House of Islam, even to the limits of the House of War.

Nothing, indeed, in the fractured Europe of the time, was more authentically multicultural than the business of enslaving Slavs. Wends captured in the wars of the Saxon emperors would be sold by Frankish merchants to Jewish middlemen, who then, under the shocked gaze of Christian bishops, would drive their shackled stock along the high roads of Provence and Catalonia, and across the frontier into the Caliphate. A cosmopolitan perspective was no little help when it came to gauging the likely demands of a sophisticated foreign market such as al-Andalus. Few opportunities were neglected in the struggle to obtain a competitive edge. In the Frankish town of Verdun, for instance, the Jewish merchants who had their headquarters there were renowned for their facility with the gelding knife. A particular specialisation was the supply of “carzimasia”: eunuchs who had been deprived of their penises as well as their testicles. Even for the most practised surgeon, the medical risks attendant on performing a penectomy were considerable – and yet the wastage served only to increase the survivors’ value. Exclusivity, then as now, was the mark of a luxury brand.

And luxury, in al-Andalus, could make for truly “fabulous profit.”60 The productivity of the land; the teeming industry of the cities; the influx of precious metals from mines in Africa: all had helped to establish the realm of the Umayyads as Europe’s premier showcase for conspicuous consumption. While it was the Caliph himself, naturally enough, who stood at the apex of the pyramid, and skimmed off most of the taxes, he was certainly not alone in profiting from the orderly conditions of his empire. Five miles west of the great caliphal palace, for instance, there sprawled a city that in its size and sophistication was no less a wonder of the age – and no less dependent for its prosperity on stable governance. Córdoba, like León, had originally been a Roman foundation – but the capital of al-Andalus, as befitted a city so fattened on the fruits of peace, had long since burst its ancient walls. Indeed, so utter had been the transformation of the original Christian town that even its street plan had been obliterated: for Muslims, who had never quite got the hang of carts, had no need of wide streets or squares. Instead, all was labyrinthine, a stupendous agglomeration of winding alleyways and crowded markets, of palaces and gardens, of a hundred mosques and a thousand baths. Just as Otto, emperor though he was, lacked a residence that could rival so much as the gatehouse of the palace of the Caliph, so was there nowhere else in western Europe a settlement that remotely approached the scale and splendour of Córdoba. Indeed, in the whole of Christendom, there was only a single city that could boast of being a more magnificent seat of empire – and that was Constantinople, the Queen of Cities herself.

As the caliphs of Córdoba were well aware. Back in the palmiest days of their family’s greatness, when their ancestors had reigned in Damascus, emulation of the New Rome had been as much an Umayyad tradition as attempts to breach her walls; so much so, indeed, that their habit of “Qysariyya” – of “behaving like a Caesar” – had come to shock and perturb the faithful. The Umayyads themselves, befittingly imperious, had scorned all the bleats of the pious. “None would believe in his power,” as the dynasty’s founder had put it, “if he did not behave and look like an emperor.”61 Three centuries on, and the Basileus remained the standard by which the Umayyads measured themselves. Byzantine diplomats, skilled as they were in the art of setting their enemies at one another’s throats, had not failed to recognise opportunity in this. Numerous embassies had been dispatched to al-Andalus. Sedulously, these had fortified the Umayyad Caliphate in its inveterate rivalry with the Fatimids – and had presented, as seasoning to their encouragements, a whole array of splendid gifts. So it was that the Caliph’s palace outside Córdoba had been beautified with treasures from the workshops of Constantinople: here a row of marble columns, there an onyx fountain adorned with sculpted beasts. So it was too that in the very holiest place in al-Andalus, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the golden mosaics which covered the Caliph’s private prayer room glittered with the unmistakable stamp of the Byzantine; courtesy of a master craftsman sent by Nicephorus, that notorious bane of the Saracens.

And yet, to the Caliph himself, the intrusion of Christian fingers upon the most sacred recesses of the mosque had implied no sacrilege. The very opposite, in fact. Turn from the aureate shimmer of the Byzantine mosaics, and fragments of other empires, of other traditions, all of them blended into a regular and awe-inspiring symmetry, could be seen receding towards the daylight that blazed in through the prayer hall’s nineteen doorways. Tent-like in its spareness, the ceiling of the Great Mosque was supported upon a mighty forest of pillars, some salvaged from the ruins of pagan temples, others from the demolished cathedral that had once stood on the site. The arches, which alternated brick with stone, white with red, had been constructed according to Roman methods; the horseshoe style of their curves had originally been Visigothic. No unease was felt by the architects at this wholesale appropriation of infidel traditions. Why should there have been? Just as slaves, uprooted from the House of War, could soon be brought to forget their origins, and learn to think of themselves as Muslims, nothing more, so similarly might the glories of a defeated civilisation, once they had been absorbed and transmuted into something holy, something authentically Islamic, serve to contribute to the greater glory of God. As evidence of this, no more haunting proof existed, and none more majestic, than Córdoba’s mosque.

“God desires that if you do something you perfect it.”62 So Mohammed had instructed his followers; and they, raising upon the ruins of toppled empires the dominion of his faith, had fashioned out of the rubble the greatest empire of them all. The centuries had passed, and the House of Islam had fractured; yet still, the devout believed, there could be seen in its architecture a glimpse of that even more profound order, the eternal order of God. Muslim scholar ship, in its attempt to fathom creation’s mysteries, had drawn quite as profitably on the learning of infidels as the bureaucracy of the Caliphate had drawn on their wealth. Both, after all, were legitimate spoils of war. If God, in His mysterious wisdom, had granted insights to pagans, then so also had He granted to Muslims the opportunity to appropriate those insights, to assimilate them and to render them their own. Mathematicians who explored the nature of infinity did so using numerals derived from the idol worshippers of far-off India; mystics who pronounced that salvation might be attained through a mastery of the sciences depended for their philosophy upon the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato, long-dead Greek idolaters who had never heard of Mohammed. Even in al-Andalus, where overexcited scholars and their speculations had traditionally been regarded with frowns of disapproval, a sublime fantasy had begun to flourish: that the wisdom of the entire world might be comprehended. Enthusiasm for this heroic ambition had reached to the very top. Caliph Al-Hakam, in particular, had been celebrated for his obsession with books. Remarkable stories were told of the fruits of his mania. The library in the caliphal palace, it was rumoured, had ended up numbering more than four hundred thousand volumes – of which forty-four “were employed in the mere catalogue.”63

Meanwhile, in what had once been the very wellspring of pagan wisdom, the lands of the Romans, or Rum, all appeared decay and ignorance. In Constantinople, to be sure, there were still certain texts from antiquity preserved, the writings of ancient philosophers and savants; and some of these, on occasion, might even be dusted down and sent to the various capitals of the Caliphate as gifts. Yet the Rum, to Muslim eyes, appeared unworthy of their peerless heritage. Deep in the countryside beyond Constantinople, one ambassador reported, there stood a temple where the ancient pagans were said to have worshipped the stars, piled so high with manuscripts that it would have taken a thousand camels to carry them away; and all the manuscripts were crumbling into dust. Compared with the rest of Christendom, however, Constantinople appeared a veritable treasure house of learning. No books could be expected of the Saxon king, for instance. Abd al-Rahman, wishing to congratulate Otto I on his victory at the Lech, had sent him, not a rare manuscript, but gifts more calculated to impress a barbarian: “lions and camels, ostriches and apes.”64 Indeed, in the whole of western Christendom there were few libraries more than a thousandth of the size of the Caliph’s in Córdoba. So rare were books that the going rate for one on the black market might be a warhorse. Al-Hakam, had this been brought to his attention, would hardly have been surprised. Rather, it would have confirmed him in all his certitudes: that God had turned His back on the Christians; and that the House of Islam would inherit the world for sure. Without learning, after all, what hope for order – and without order, what hope for any empire?

Such questions haunted many in Christendom itself. Just as Queen Gerberga, in her desperation to find some pattern in the anarchy of the times, had looked to a famous scholar for answers, so were there famous scholars, oppressed by similar anxieties, who had turned to the books of pagans. The most celebrated of them all was a peasant, as upwardly mobile as he was precocious, by the name of Gerbert; and it was whispered by his detractors that he had actually studied in Córdoba. Whether indeed he had visited the Saracens in their very lair, it was certain that he was familiar with their learning; for Gerbert, despite being a native of the town of Aurillac, in the remotest Auvergne, had completed his education in a monastery in Spain. Here, on the outermost frontier of Christendom, he had mastered branches of knowledge so exotic that later generations would brand him a necromancer: from the strange Indian numerals used by the Saracens to the operation of an abacus. Yet Gerbert was no sorcerer. His passion – one which “boiled within him”65 – was for the tracing of God’s order amid seeming chaos. So it was, as a teacher in Reims, that he had constructed out of delicate bronze and iron wires a series of fantastical instruments, designed to demonstrate to his pupils the orderly circling of the planets about the earth, and the turning of the universe on its poles. So it was too, in Rome, amid all the festivities for Otto’s wedding to Theophanu, that Gerbert had distinguished, as though they formed their own “ingenious mechanism,”66 the filigrees spun by God to encircle and order time itself. Once there had been a Christian empire that embraced all the world, and brought to humanity the inestimable fruits of order and peace; and so there would be again. This conviction was hardly original to Gerbert; but rarely had it been held by a man of such erudition and brilliance. Born a peasant he may have been; but Gerbert’s genius had served to win him the attention of emperors and kings. Back in 971, in Rome, he had tutored the young Otto II. A decade later, shortly before Otto left on his disastrous invasion of southern Italy, Gerbert had appeared before the imperial court again, this time in a formal debate with the Reich’s most formidable scholar, the head of the cathedral school in Magdeburg – and wiped the floor with him. In 983, with Otto licking his wounds back in Rome, Gerbert was formally appointed to the imperial service. At such a time of crisis for the Reich, the conviction of Christendom’s most famous scholar that a Roman Empire might still be restored was an asset not lightly to be overlooked.

Further calamities, however, would soon enough test even Gerbert’s optimism to the limit. In an empire laid claim to by a single ruler, an earthquake in southern Italy might reverberate as far as the forests of the distant North; and sure enough, in the summer of 983, the Wends rose suddenly in revolt, burning the cathedrals raised over their lands by their occupiers, pursuing the Saxons “as though they were deer,”67 and ravaging as far as Hamburg. Although Magdeburg itself stood firm amid the firestorm, and the line of the Elbe was eventually stabilised, all that lay beyond it, won with such effort by Otto’s father, was permanently lost. Otto himself, brought the news in Rome, was obliged to abandon his plans for further campaigns against the Saracens, and prepare wearily to head back north: a prospect rendered all the more agonising by the swollen state of his haemorrhoids. Before he could so much as mount his saddle, however, he fell ill with violent diarrhoea; and on 7 December Otto II Augustus, “Emperor of the Romans,” died.

Otto’s sudden end left the Reich rudderless. His son and heir, the third Otto in succession, was only three years old. Taken to Aachen, the little boy was consecrated king, just as Charlemagne had been crowned emperor, on Christmas Day, but was then almost immediately abducted. The kidnapper, proving himself very much a chip off the old block, was none other than the son and namesake of Henry, Duke of Bavaria, whose endless machinations had caused so much trouble for Otto I. The second Henry, whose nickname of “the Quarreller” was a fitting measure of the man, had already proved himself inveterately rebellious – but now, sniffing opportunity as a wolf scents blood, he surpassed himself. In 984, on Easter Day, he formally laid claim to the throne. The nobility, torn between their loyalty to Otto III and their dread of being ruled by a child, havered. It appeared that the Reich itself was on the verge of civil war.

“Ruined, ruined,” Gerbert wailed. “What hope can there possibly be?”68 But he did not despair for long. As Theophanu, having buried her husband in St. Peter’s, hurried northwards to beard the usurper in East Francia, Gerbert was already hard at work, writing to the princes and bishops of the Reich, stiffening them in their loyalty to their rightful king. So effective was his campaign that by the time Theophanu crossed the Alps, in May, Henry the Quarreller found that all his supporters had melted away. A month later, sulkily, he surrendered the infant Otto to his mother, and retired in high dudgeon to Bavaria.

Theophanu, “that ever august empress, always to be loved, always to be cherished,”69 was appointed regent on behalf of her son. In this role, she proved formidably effective. “Preserving her son’s rulership with a manly watchfulness, she was always benevolent to the just, but terrified and conquered rebels.”70 Three years after the crisis of 984, she even obliged a fuming Henry, along with three other German dukes, to serve as waiters at Otto’s table, in full view of the Reich’s nobility, who had all gathered at court for the feast of Easter. Although she died in 991, while her son was still legally a minor, Theophanu had successfully secured the empire for Otto III. In September 994, he was presented with the arms of a warrior, and officially came of age.71 One year later, and he was leading his men in that traditional rite of passage for a Saxon king, a campaign against the Wends. By 996, the year of his sixteenth birthday, all that remained was to be crowned emperor – and so it was, that very spring, that Otto III announced his departure for Rome.

And all this Gerbert had followed with the keenest interest. Although Theophanu, with the ingratitude that was an empress’s proper prerogative, had failed to reward his services with commensurate patronage, the great scholar had not stinted in his loyalty to her or to her son. Mathematician, astronomer and historian, Gerbert could hardly have been oblivious to the date that was approaching. “It seems,” he had pronounced sensationally back in 991, “that Antichrist is at hand.”72 He knew as well – for he was a friend of Adso, and owned a copy of the famous letter to Gerberga – that the end of days would be presaged by a great convulsion in the affairs of the Roman Empire. And now, four years before the one-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, a prince with the blood of both West and East in his veins, of the twin halves of the ancient empire, so long divided, to the scandal of Christians everywhere and to the profit of its foes, was travelling to Rome.

Well might Gerbert have dreamed of meeting him: for he appreciated better than anyone that it was Otto’s destiny to rule in interesting times.

The Last Roman Emperor

Pilgrims heading southwards to worship at the tomb of St. Peter knew that what awaited them was a cityscape like no other in the Latin West. “O Rome,” went the song, “noble Rome, mistress of the globe, there is nowhere that can rival you, most excellent of cities!”73 Even visitors from the great capitals of Islam might find themselves stupefied: one Muslim merchant, approaching Rome and seeing in the distance the city’s churches, mistook the green-grey lead of their roofs for the waves of a sea. On Christians from the North the impact was overpowering. Nothing in their own muddy homelands could have prepared them for the spectacle of the ancient capital of their faith. That a city might boast a population numbering some twenty-five thousand souls; that her walls might stretch for twelve miles; that these walls might contain a seemingly infinite number of shrines: all this had to be seen to be believed. Otto, as he arrived in Rome, would have felt himself entering a dreamlike realm of wonders.

And into his destiny as well. “Rome, head of the world, and mistress of cities, alone makes emperors of kings.” So the peoples of the North had long acknowledged. “Cherishing as she does in her heart the prince of saints, it is she who has the right, if she so wishes it, to enthrone a prince over all the lands of the earth.”74 The irony of this – that it was the very blood spilled by the pagan Romans that had preserved their city’s title to the rule of the world – never ceased to delight the devout. The victory of St. Peter over those who had martyred him was manifest wherever one looked in Rome. Monuments that had once proclaimed her Babylon the Great, “the devil’s own city,”75 were leprous with decay. Squalid hovels crowded the squares of forgotten emperors; around the Colosseum, which in ancient days had been “stained purple with saintly blood,”76 there now hung the haze of malarial swamps and the fumes of corpse-pits; on the Palatine Hill, nothing remained but rubble of the palace of the Caesars. Debris, as though the breath of an angel had swept the scene, lay everywhere; and where the debris ended open fields began.

Yet Rome endured, and more than endured: for though she was capital of the dead, yet it was not the shades of pagan emperors, howling to see cattle wander where once their chariots had rolled, whose presence animated the spectacle of her desolation, but rather the martyrs, whose holy bones were the city’s most priceless treasures. Everywhere, repositories of an awesome supernatural power, churches stood guard over them, their stonework suffused with the charisma of the departed saints themselves. Many shrines, like St. Peter’s itself, were of a venerable antiquity; but from others there came hammering or the smell of drying plaster. Even amid her decay, Rome was forever renewing herself. “Daily, rising up out of the ruins of shattered walls and decayed temples, we see the fresh stonework of churches and monasteries.”77 Here, then, perhaps, in the Holy City, lay a vision of how the world itself might be renewed.

Otto, certainly, was of a mind to think so. Still only fifteen when he first arrived in Rome, the emperor was as precocious as he was visionary, a young man of already luminous ambition. He was well schooled in all the attributes expected of a Saxon king, and his mother had sought to stamp him with something of Constantinople too. As his tutor – and godfather – she had duly appointed a Greek from southern Italy, one John Philagathos, an abbot who combined formidable learning with a ferocious self-assurance. Byzantine education was famously stern: its goal was to instil in children nothing less than the demeanour of saints. Theophanu, in her choice of teacher, had shown her customary eye for scholarly talent. The young emperor, though celebrated for his charm, had grown to manhood distinguished as well by a profound solemnity; a sense of the great and terrible charge which had been laid upon him since his earliest years. No less than any Basileus, Otto believed in the Roman Empire as the chosen agent of God’s will. It was a Roman emperor, after all, at the end of days, who was destined to obtain for Christ and His Church all the limits of the world – and who was to say, the times being what they were, that the end of days was not at hand?

Well might Otto have fixed his gaze beyond the horizons of Saxony. Already, looking to seal his rank as a prince of East as well as West, he had dispatched his old tutor, John Philagathos, to Constantinople, with instructions to arrange a marriage for him with the daughter of the Basileus. Meanwhile, in Rome itself, the papacy was being broken to his will. To a degree that even his father or his grandfather would have found startling, Otto regarded the Pope as his subordinate, to be nominated as he saw fit. Not even the customary fig leaf of an election was to be permitted the papal see. When news had reached Otto, as he was heading to Rome, that the reigning Pope was dead of a sudden fever, he had recognised in this accident the certain hand of God. At once, he had moved to foist his own candidate on the Holy City: not a Roman, not even an Italian, but a twenty-four-year-old Saxon, his cousin Bruno.

Early in May 996, the first German ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter was duly consecrated as Pope Gregory V. Rome’s traditional power brokers, stunned by the sheer audacity of Otto’s manoeuvre, had found themselves impotent to counter it. The most feared of their number, a hardened strongman by the name of John Crescentius, was reduced to begging the young emperor not to send him into exile. Imperiously, and before the full gaze of Rome, Otto graced him with his mercy. No one was to be left in any doubt that the city – and indeed all of Christendom – now had an emperor who was Roman in more than name. On 21 May, Ascension Day, Otto was formally crowned in St. Peter’s, “to the plaudits of all Europe.”78 His cousin, having first anointed him, then delivered a sword into his hand. On to the new emperor’s finger was slipped a ring: symbol of his union with the Christian people. From his shoulders there hung a cloak, and on it, “marked out in gold,”79 were scenes from the Book of Revelation: St. John’s vision of the end of the world.

None, perhaps, should have been surprised at the speed and daring that had brought Otto to this spectacular coronation. Young he might have been – but he had already been well instructed in the demands of power upon a king. He had seen the villages of his own people burned and corpse-strewn, and he had torched the villages of the Wends in turn; he had ridden across blood-soaked fields, and trampled his slaughtered foes underfoot. Such was the doom of sinful man, on Middle Earth: to suffer and wither and die. Yet Otto, crashing through the Wendish forests with his loricati, had also stared into a profounder darkness. Trees were already reclaiming the churches planted there by the Saxons. Walls were crumbling away which had once sheltered the body and blood of Christ. The Wends, unlike the Saxons themselves, had refused to accept the Prince of Peace at the point of a conqueror’s sword. What, then, confronted by such obduracy, was Otto to do? He knew that above the fallen world, invisible but effulgent, its radiance brighter than even the most interminable pagan forest was steeped in darkness, there soared the City of God – and that it was his duty, as a Roman emperor, to bring the heathen to acknowledge its glory. Yet he could never forget either, even as he looked to shape Christendom and the realms beyond it to God’s purpose, what Christ Himself had taught His followers: to love their enemies, to turn their cheeks, to sheathe their swords. Otto, as sensitive to his own moral failings as he was insistent upon his godlike dignity as a Caesar, never ceased to be tormented by the resulting tension. “Outwardly he assumed a cheerful expression; but within his conscience groaned under the weight of many misdeeds from which, in the silence of night, he continually sought to cleanse himself through vigils, earnest prayers, and rivers of tears.”80

Perhaps it was hardly surprising, then, that Otto should have found himself peculiarly obsessed by Rome. In the fabulous juxtaposition that it presented of the vaunting and the humble, the martial and the pacific, the mortal and the eternal, the city must have appeared to him like a mirror held up to his soul. Lingering there after his coronation, he could admire details on antique columns which portrayed the slaughter of barbarians by stern-faced emperors; just as he could attend, “day and night,” to a very different lesson, one taught him by a monk who was famous, notorious even, for his scorning of worldly titles, an admonishment that Otto should “regard himself not as one of the great, not as a Caesar, but as a mortal man, and therefore destined, all his great beauty notwithstanding, to end up as ashes, rottenness, and food for worms.”81

The name of this spiritual pundit was Adalbert. Though he was cloistered in a Roman monastery, across the valley from the ruins on the Palatine, far distant from the marches of the Reich, he was nevertheless profoundly sensitive to the pressures weighing on Otto’s shoulders. This was because, to a degree, he had shared in them himself – and buckled beneath them too. Born in Bohemia of aristocratic parents, educated in Magdeburg, appointed by Otto II to the bishopric of Prague, Adalbert properly ranked as one of the great men of the Reich. Far from revelling in his high office, however, he had grown so troubled by the compromises required of him that it was said he had forgotten, such was his unhappiness, how to laugh. Run out of town after his attempts to halt the slave trade had threatened the income of the local duke, Adalbert “had laid the dignity of his bishop’s office aside, and become a humble brother.” Yet even as “merely one among many,”82 he had continued to stand out from the crowd. Take off dirty shoes at hismonastery, for instance, and Adalbert would immediately swoop to clean them: a display of humility striking enough in any monk, let alone one who still ranked officially as a prince of the Church. Other bishops, needless to say, were appalled by such eccentricities; but Otto, who had been brought up to admire holy men, and actively to seek them out, preferred to regard it as the mark of saintliness. Adalbert, who had only to pray and the croaking of frogs in the Roman marshes would mysteriously be silenced, was evidently a man with a formidable talent for instilling serenity in the troubled – and Otto was certainly troubled. With news reaching him in the summer of 996 that the banks of the Elbe were once again ablaze, Adalbert seemed to offer him what he most craved: a way through the darkness ahead. Otto was not the only man, amid the stifling summer heat of Rome, to have his thoughts fixed on the wilds of the East. Adalbert too was planning to leave for there. He would travel, though, not in the pomp of his ecclesiastical vestments, but in his tattered habit; not as a prince, but as a humble missionary. Yes, he insisted, it was indeed possible for the pagans to be brought to see the City of God – and it did not have to be done at the point of a sword.

The following spring, by the side of an icy lake, a bare day’s journey beyond the borders of Poland and the protection of Boleslav, its Christian duke, Adalbert was hacked to death. His killers were Prussians, a heathen and turbulent people, much given to tattooing themselves and downing pints of blood, who had scorned the missionary’s preaching as the sinister work of a “German god.”83 Otto, brought the news in Aachen, was predictably distraught. Yet even as he mourned his loss, miraculous things were already being reported of Adalbert’s death. An angel, it was said, sweeping down from heaven, had caught the martyr’s head as it was sent flying through the air by a Prussian axe, and later, reuniting it with the decapitated trunk, had left the corpse to be found on the far side of the lake. From there, it had been tenderly transported by two of Adalbert’s disciples back across the border, to safety, and the awestruck reverence of the Poles. Boleslav, delighted to find himself with such a potent relic in his possession, had promptly sealed his ownership of the martyr’s body by entombing it at Gniezno, the capital that he had inherited from his father, Duke Miesco. To his subjects, a people who only four decades previously had been quite as heathen as the Prussians, the shrine raised over Adalbert appeared an awesome and a wondrous thing, a beacon of blazing holiness, a joining of earth to heaven. It had needed no burning of villages to ensure this, no mass gibbets, no planting of Saxon garrisons. In death, if not in life, Adalbert had fulfilled his dearest wish. He had indeed helped to purge heathenism from the eastern wilds – and the only blood shed had been his own. A new people had been confirmed in their membership of Christendom. The Poles had been secured for Christ.

And for Otto as well? So he certainly trusted. Despite the loss of Adalbert, and despite the continued violence along the frontier with the Wends, the emperor’s sense of mission and self-confidence remained undimmed. Indeed, if anything, it was coming to shine more radiantly still. Adalbert was not the only inspirational figure to have entered Otto’s orbit the previous year. Gerbert too had been in Rome in the wake of the coronation. Struggling, as he had been doing ever since his brush-off by Theophanu, to secure an office worthy of his talents, he had travelled there originally to petition the Pope; but soon enough, having turned the full glare of his charisma on to Otto, had found himself being employed as the emperor’s secretary. Although this role had lasted only a few weeks, until Otto’s departure from Italy, Gerbert had had no intention of letting his opportunity slip. By October, he had successfully insinuated himself back into the emperor’s company.84 That autumn, both he and Adalbert had spent over a month closeted with Otto, “day and night,” as Gerbert later proudly boasted.85 It was never divulged which topic had proved so fascinating as to keep Christendom’s greatest ruler distracted from affairs of state for such an unusual length of time with two clerics; but events would soon serve to offer a hint.

In the summer of 997, Otto formally issued Gerbert with what the great scholar had long craved: a command to serve him as his mentor. “Demonstrate your distaste,” went the order, “for Saxon parochialism”86 – and Gerbert obliged with relish. Even as Otto laboured late into the campaigning season to secure the frontier of his homeland, his new counsellor was steeling him in a sense of the global role that it was his to play. “For you are Caesar Augustus,” Gerbert reminded him exuberantly: “Emperor of the Romans, sprung from the noblest blood of the Greeks,” the master of Italy, of Germany, and, yes, of “the brave lands of the Slavs” as well. “The Roman Empire – it is ours, ours!”87

So it was that Christendom’s most enduring spectre was summoned from its grave once again, and saluted as though it might be flesh and blood. Gerbert, as practical-minded as he was polymathic, could not have been oblivious to the tension between all his exultant sloganeering and the chaos that was the true state of the world. Neither – for he had spent the entire year of 997 bludgeoning the Wends out of Saxony – could Otto. Yet the bleeding state of things, far from tempering the bold talk of restoring a universal order, seems only to have made it more grandiloquent. In 998, the ambition would appear inscribed on Otto’s seal, pledging him, every time that he stamped a document, to the “renovatio” – the renewal – of the Roman Empire. A quixotic fantasy? So it might have seemed. No hint was offered, either by Gerbert or by Otto himself, as to what a programme of renovatio might actually mean – still less how it was to be achieved. Yet this silence, far from expressing any lack of purpose, almost certainly veiled the very opposite: a consciousness of mysteries too earth-shaking and arcane to be spoken of publicly, of a mission literally cosmic in its implications, and of a duty shaped by the patterns of the revolving centuries.

At Magdeburg, when first summoned there by Otto, Gerbert had dazzled the assembled courtiers by demonstrating to them that it was possible, with the proper learning, and a fantastical instrument named the astrolabe, to track and measure the stars. Ancient sages had known this, and Saracen astronomers too; but never before had it been demonstrated with such brilliance by a Christian philosopher. God’s creation, it appeared, might indeed be apprehended through a grasp of mathematics: “for numbers both encode the origins of the universe,” as Gerbert had put it, “and serve to explain its functioning.”88 What significance, then, in the lengthening shadow of the Millennium, that year which “surpasses and transcends all other years,”89 did he identify in the magical number 1000? Infuriatingly, intriguingly, we have no certain answer. Not a single mention of it appears in all the surviving writings of Christendom’s greatest and most enquiring mathematician: a silence so profound, in the circumstances, as to be deafening. Formidable scholar that he was, and devout Christian, Gerbert would have been well aware of Augustine’s teachings on the end days. He would have known how sternly it had been forbidden to speculate as to their possible timing. Did he, as a consequence, scorn to pay any attention to the imminence of the Millennium? Or did he, encouraged by his imperial patron, secretly dare to follow the more dangerous course, and consider that perhaps Augustine had been wrong, and that the one thousand years spoken of by St. John, after which evil was to triumph across the world, might, just might, have been meant literally? After all, if anyone had the sanction to engage in such perilous enquiries, then surely it was Otto III, the Roman emperor whose dominion was the single bulwark capable of being raised against the coming of Antichrist, and whose fate it was to be ruling with the one-thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation just a couple of years away?

Certainly, the nearer the Millennium drew, the more Otto seems to have felt oppressed by a sense of urgency – as though the passing of days itself were a flood stream to be breasted. If it were true that time was indeed running out, then the challenge of securing the Roman Empire was evidently not to be a simple one – not in the face of all that a transcendent and gathering malice appeared to be hurling against him. No matter that the Wends, by the end of 997, had been pacified at last. A fresh and more insidious threat to Otto’s ambitions was already looming. Alarming news had arrived from the very heart of the great project of renovatio: Rome herself. The city’s erstwhile tyrant, John Crescentius, unappeased by the pardon granted him following Otto’s coronation, had made a sudden power grab. Pope Gregory, who had originally pleaded with his cousin to grant Crescentius mercy, had himself been served with exile. As his replacement upon the throne of St. Peter, and the willing stooge of his Roman sponsors, there had emerged blinking into the limelight a most unexpected figure: Otto’s own godfather, one-time tutor and ambassador to Constantinople, John Philagathos. No matter that his attempt to secure a princess from the Basileus had ended in failure – the embassy had evidently done nothing to diminish his conceit. Indeed, if anything, it appeared to have boosted it; for Byzantine diplomats, despite their private scorning of Philagathos as “slime, the son of perdition, worthy of every curse, a pile of steaming excrement, obese, a man whose true god protrudes just below his wobbling paunch,”90 had cheerfully puffed him up in his ambitions, keen as they were to see a Greek as the Bishop of Rome. Crescentius too, whose family had long had close affiliations with Constantinople, was widely suspected of being an agent of the Basileus. Meanwhile, Philagathos himself, as the countryman of one Roman emperor and the godfather of a second, was sublimely confident of securing the support of both men for his papacy. This was a reasonable enough calculation, perhaps; except that neither he nor any of the conspirators had quite grasped what Otto believed to be at stake.

In February 998, the Holy Lance was planted before the walls of Rome. Behind it there spread the massed ranks of the imperial army, the hardened veterans of a thousand bloody skirmishes in the forests and bogs of the North, a sight fit to strike terror into the heart of any southerner. Philagathos, discovering too late the full, horrendous scale of his misjudgement, had already fled the city. Crescentius, equally appalled by what he had drawn down upon himself, was holed up in his private fortress, in the shadow of St. Peter’s, waiting for the storm to pass. But it did not pass. The emperor and his army remained implacable. In desperation, after several weeks of the siege, Crescentius disguised himself in a monk’s cowl and slipped out from his stronghold, to throw himself on Otto’s mercy. Coldly, Otto sent him back to his doom. Shortly afterwards, once Easter was past, the deployment of immense siege engines enabled the citadel to be stormed. Crescentius himself, taken prisoner, was briskly decapitated. His headless corpse, so as to warn others against being “deceived by the devil’s wiles,” was first flung into a ditch, and then “hung by the feet from a gibbet, on the highest precipice of the fortress.”91

Yet even his fate was not so salutary as that of the wretched Antipope. Philagathos had been quickly hunted down. Although his life was spared, such were the mutilations inflicted on him that he might well have yearned for execution: for first his eyes were removed, then his nose, and then his lips and tongue. When the hideously disfigured prisoner was finally hauled into the imperial presence, the spectacle of what had been done to his old tutor reduced Otto to appalled silence; but not to clemency. The captors were given rich rewards; while Philagathos himself was handed over to the tender mercies of the man whom he had thought to replace. Pope Gregory, keen to brand his rival an apostate before the public gaze of the entire city, ordered him fitted with a cap of animal skins, and then had him “placed on the back of a donkey, facing towards the tail, as a public crier led him through the various parts of Rome.”92 Finally, to set the seal on his degradation, Philagathos was ceremonially expelled from the priesthood, stripped of his pontifical robes and led away to a monastery, there to count the long days until his death. By such decisive measures, Otto could reflect with grim satisfaction, had the Holy City been preserved against the tide of darkness that had seemed almost ready to swallow it.

Except that there were men of God, even peers of Adalbert, who were not so certain that it had been preserved. While the Roman crowds had cheerfully entertained themselves by kicking the corpse of Crescentius as it was dragged past them, or pelting Philagathos with dung, those whose approval Otto most desperately craved, his spiritual advisers, were horrified. One of them, a hermit of legendary saintliness by the name of Nilus, had even dared to confront the emperor directly. Despite being in his nineties, and weak from his Lenten fast, he had tottered along to the trial of Philagathos and begged for mercy on behalf of the fallen Anti-pope. When this plea was rejected, he had cursed Otto and Gregory both. “For if you do not forgive him whom God has delivered up into your hands,” Nilus had warned the two cousins, “neither will the heavenly Father forgive you your own sins.”93 Then, ignoring all Otto’s appeals to stay with him and grant him absolution, the aged hermit had turned on his heels and headed away southwards, back to the lonely valley that sheltered his cell.

Otto did not pursue him. After all, a retreat from the world was hardly an option open to a man pledged to the fateful mission of preserving Christendom from Antichrist. If the Roman Empire were indeed to be restored to its vanished potency, then the securing of Rome itself could rank only as a beginning. Though it was bejewelled with churches, the ancient city had to be fitted once more to serve as the capital of an empire. Orders were duly given that the ruins on the Palatine, “that seat and head of all the world,”94should be cleared of their rubble and rendered habitable again.95 Ceremonial too was upgraded, to match the prestigious new imperial address. No more cracking open of animal bones for Otto; instead, in an echo of the gilded rituals of his mother’s native city, he began to sit at feasts aloof from his henchmen, at a semicircular table, and to be saluted as “the Emperor of Emperors.” Even the titles with which he graced his courtiers in turn – “senator,” “consul,” “prefect of the fleet” – had all been fastidiously pilfered from the lumber box of antiquity. In short, it was a display of pageantry like nothing seen in Rome for many centuries – and those who witnessed it were accordingly dazzled. To the excitable, it seemed almost as though Otto’s work were already done; as though, through the sheer force of his will, he had indeed brought the Roman Empire back to life and restored its greatness to its ancient limits. Both Baghdad, “the empire of iron,” and Constantinople, “the empire of gold,” were imagined by admirers as bowing in stupefaction before “great Otto.”96 “Rejoice, O Pope,” as one of them put it, “rejoice, O Caesar! Let the Church exult in a fervour of joy, and let joy be great in Rome, let the imperial palace rejoice! With this pope, under this Caesar, the age itself is renewed!”97

But the young Caesar himself was racked by doubts. Visionary he may have been – but he was not naïve. He had patrolled the frontiers of Saxony. He knew perfectly well that Rome, although the heart of Christendom, was not the world. He knew too – for the words of Nilus still sounded in his memory – that all his labours to fortify his empire, all the blood he had spilled and all the brutalities he had committed, might have served only to put his fitness as God’s anointed into doubt. For a year, he continued to ignore the promptings of his conscience. Then, in February 999, and with the anniversary of the Lenten atrocities fast approaching, Pope Gregory fell suddenly sick and died. The cause was malaria – but how was Otto to attribute it to anything save the effect of Nilus’s curse? Abruptly after his cousin’s death, he left Rome and headed southwards. Although he did not neglect the due business of an emperor on the way – taking hostages here, dispensing favours there, exploiting the rivalries of his Italian subjects with his customary dextrousness – he also made sure to perform acts of very public penance. Wherever there was a shrine, he would walk to it barefooted. By the time he found himself approaching Nilus’s cell, it was evident that his contrition had been accepted as truly heartfelt: for the old man, leaving his cave, walked to the side of the road, from where he saluted the emperor fondly. Otto, slipping down from his saddle, knelt in tears before the hermit; and then removed his crown. A portentous gesture: for so it had been prophesied that the last Roman emperor would do, as he knelt upon Golgotha, and thereby usher in the end of days. Nilus paused – and then, demonstrating that he regarded the man before him as guiltless of any presumption, gave him his blessing. Finally, with due reverence, he handed the emperor back his crown.

Otto, returning to Rome, could do so with his sense of mission powerfully fortified. Even the death of his cousin, which only a few weeks earlier had struck in him a knell of icy foreboding, now appeared the working of Providence. At a fateful moment for him and for all mankind, with the one-thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation only months away, and the great labour of renovatio weighing down implacably upon his shoulders, he had been graced with the opportunity to promote to St. Peter’s throne the man best qualified to help him. On 2 April 999, Gerbert of Aurillac, the peasant from the Auvergne, was crowned Pope. The name he took – Sylvester II – signalled unmistakably to all the world how he saw his own role and that of his master. Just as the first Sylvester was supposed to have served Constantine, so would he serve Otto: Pope and emperor together, they would shepherd the Christian people.

And swell their numbers too. Ancient prophecies long current in Italy foretold how at the end of times the last Roman emperor would summon all the pagans in the world to baptism; and now, as the fateful year of the Millennium dawned, a Roman emperor was preparing to do just that. Not at sword point – the example of Adalbert would hardly have licensed forced conversions – but rather in a manner as pacific as it was mystical. So it was, for instance, that the chieftain of the Hungarians, those one-time predator horsemen, was sent a replica of the Holy Lance by Otto, and a diadem by Pope Sylvester, and publicly welcomed, as King Stephen, into the order of Christian royalty. So it was too, in the spring of the millennial year, that the Roman emperor himself, travelling eastwards to where the ancient Caesars had never reached, crossed the border into Poland and processed to Gniezno. Columns of brightly dressed warriors stood massed to greet him as he walked, barefoot once more, to the shrine of St. Adalbert. Then, having prayed beside the tomb, Otto rose and set out to complete what his murdered friend had begun. The Polish duke, like the Hungarian prince, was presented with a crown and a copy of the Holy Lance; the fur-clad Boleslav, not to be outdone, reciprocated by givingthe emperor one of St. Adalbert’s arms. Otto, profoundly moved, burst into tears. “And that day the two men were joined together with such bonds of affection that the Emperor called Boleslav his brother, and proclaimed him a friend of the Roman people.”98

True, there was in all this a steely measure of calculation. The Poles were valuable allies in the struggle against the Wends. That Otto retained his hard-edged streak of pragmatism was evident from the presence in his train, even as he prayed by Adalbert’s tomb, of hostages from Italy. Yet pragmatism, in the shadow of the end time, could go only so far. Dimensions infinitely beyond that of the earthly present were also in play: the threads of history, woven according to God’s plan throughout the centuries, were on the verge of being gathered up and placed into Otto’s hands. Or so Otto himself appears devoutly to have believed. It is certainly hard to explain otherwise why, after an absence from his homeland of many months, with his nobility fractious and his countrymen resentful of all their emperor’s foreign adventuring, his principal concern should have been to consult, not with the living, but with the dead.

By late April, barely a month after leaving Gniezno, and having toured Saxony at a blistering speed, Otto was in Aachen: site of the tomb of Charlemagne. On Pentecost – the day when the Holy Spirit, descending upon the earliest disciples, had imbued them with the fire of an unearthly wisdom – he and three companions passed down into the opened crypt. There, within its tenebrous depths, they supposedly found Charlemagne sitting as though asleep, a golden crown on his head, a sceptre in his gloved hands; “and the fingernails had penetrated through the gloves, and were sticking out.”99 Otto, having first knelt in homage before his great predecessor, next ordered the corpse to be clothed in white robes, those very garments which, at the end of time, in the great battle with Antichrist and all his cohorts, would be worn by “the armies of heaven.”100 Then, re-emerging from the darkness of the underworld into the light of day, he prepared to move on again: not to Saxony, but back to Italy. Well might his countrymen have felt themselves snubbed and undervalued. As one chronicler phrased it with diplomatic understatement: “the Emperor’s doings received a somewhat mixed reaction.”101

Otto himself was not oblivious to the mutterings. He knew that many of his actions were bound to strike his subjects as bizarre, or even unsettling. That, however, could not be helped. The mission with which he believed himself charged by God was hardly one that he could parade. Already, however, to those in the know, the proofs of its success must have appeared manifest. Day by day, month by month, “the one thousandth year since the Incarnation was being completed happily”102 – and Antichrist had not appeared. That did not mean, however, that Otto could afford to let slip his guard. Just the opposite. Christ’s life had contained many significant moments – and who was to say from which of them the one thousand years, after which Satan was to be loosed from his prison, were properly to be measured? Already, as the new year of 1001 dawned, there came a sobering reminder that the forces of darkness were very far from spent. The Romans, whom their emperor had “loved and cherished above all,”103 were reported to have risen in revolt. Otto immediately hurried to the ancient city. Only a full-scale onslaught by his soldiers, and the unveiling of the Holy Lance, “glinting terribly”104 in the hands of the bishop who wielded it, served to quell the insurrection. Despite being stunned by the Romans’ ingratitude, and besieged by their repentant tears, Otto did not permit his devotion to the city to override his strategic judgement: a full-scale withdrawal was ordered to Ravenna. From here, now menacing his foes, now mollifying them, he continued to display his customary political acuity. Although Rome herself remained too unsettled to serve him as his capital, he knew that she would not defy him for long. In the autumn of 1001, he dispatched orders to East Francia, summoning fresh troops. They were to be with him by late January. Passing the winter in Lombardy, the emperor could rest confident that not only Rome but all of Italy would soon be his.

And perhaps even more as well. Otto’s efforts in the millennial year to buttress the Roman Empire had self-evidently been sufficient to keep Antichrist at bay; but there was much still left to be done. All his labours notwithstanding, Christendom remained divided. Accordingly, in the summer of 1001, Otto had dispatched a second embassy to Constantinople, led by a bishop more trustworthy than Philagathos – and this time his demand for a princess had been met. Indeed, it was reported that she was already on her way, and could be expected, like Otto’s reinforcements, come the spring: the two halves of the Roman Empire seemed on the verge of being joined at last. Even that prospect, however, giddy though it was, seems barely to have satisfied the young emperor. For what if there were a still greater and yet more terrible destiny awaiting him, one prophesied for many centuries and fated to convulse all the universe? Confirmation of his suspicions, in that year of 1001, seemed to lie right on his doorstep.

Beyond the great palaces and churches of Ravenna, those monuments to long-dead Christian emperors, there stretched a pestiferous wasteland of salt marshes and mudflats, all stagnancy and whining insects, unutterably desolate. Not wholly so, however: for occasionally, amid the bleakness, there might be glimpsed a makeshift shack. In each one of these, barefoot and unkempt, there lived a hermit; and among them, on a remote and boggy island, was their leader, the most renowned saint in all Italy. The name of Romuald was one to put even Nilus’s in the shade. Holiness was manifest in the very appearance of his skin, which had turned hairless and bright green, “like a newt’s,” following an extended immersion in a swamp.105 On those rare occasions when the saint did deign to clean himself, his dirty bathwater, it was reported, could heal the sick. One group of villagers, on discovering that he was planning to move on from their neighbourhood, had even plotted to murder him and saw his body up into relics, such was his reputation as a miracle-worker. Spared dismemberment by pretending to be mad, Romuald had survived and flourished, to become a living model of sanctity. No wonder, then, that Otto should often have made the journey out into the marshes beyond Ravenna. These trips, however, were not mere spiritual tourism. The emperor, as he pondered the future, had a particular reason to consult with the saint.

Both men, despite all the immeasurable differences in their station, were embarked upon a matching quest. Both shared the passionate conviction that the Second Coming was imminent; and both had resolved to meet it by leaving as little as possible for the returning Christ to condemn.

“For who is not terrified,” as one of Romuald’s disciples would later put it, “who is not shaken to his very roots, by that statement of the Lord Himself in the Gospel: ‘Like lightning flashes from the east as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.’”106 The way of life established by Romuald at Ravenna was a consciously heroic effort to keep this dread of judgement at bay. An existence of implacable and excruciating deprivation, whether lived in a swamp, or in the depths of a forest, or bricked up in a cell, with nothing for company save for birds and the vermin that swarm and feed on rags: such, argued the saint, was the only serviceable preparation for the end of days. Here was a conviction with which his imperial visitor had evidently expressed great sympathy: for one of Romuald’s companions, after Otto had left them for the last time, turned and asked his master in perplexity, “What has happened to the King’s noble resolution, the promise he confided secretly to Christ, to become like one of us?”107 But it is evident too that Otto’s vow, however he may precisely have phrased it, had been misunderstood. Not for the emperor a shack in a swamp. Instead, he had revealed to Romuald, it was his intention to travel to Jerusalem, and there to lay down “the badge” of his royalty: his earthly crown.108 “For after three years, during which I will set right all that is wrong in my empire, I will abdicate my kingship. And I will offer it instead to one who is better than me.”109 Romuald’s followers may have failed to grasp whom their visitor had meant by this – but Romuald surely knew.

The king to whom Otto intended to hand his crown was Christ. The world once readied for the hour of judgement, the emperor would climb the hill of Golgotha, and kneel, and commit his soul to God; and thereby usher in the end of days. Romuald, by granting Otto his blessing, had shown that he, like Nilus, approved of this intention. He had shown that he believed himself in the presence of the last Roman emperor.

But all his hopes, and those of Otto himself, were to be dashed. When the emperor, early in 1002, began his advance on Rome, the venerable hermit was by his side. As the expedition headed southwards, however, a giant dragon was spotted overhead, glittering brightly in the winter sky. Everyone who saw it knew it for a certain portent of doom. Sure enough, soon afterwards, Otto fell sick of malaria – and by late January he was dead. Many plans, many dreams perished with him. The reinforcements summoned from East Francia had been only a single day’s march away as their emperor breathed his last. The princess sent from Constantinople to serve as Otto’s bride had no sooner landed than she was being sent back home again. The new King of Saxony had no time for fantasies of global rule. For Henry, Duke of Bavaria, son of “the Quarreller” and grandson of the Henry who had schemed so tirelessly to steal the crown from Otto I, it was sufficient that one of his line had the rule of the Reich at last. Not until 1014 would he finally succeed in battling his way south to Rome, and his coronation as emperor; and when he did so, there would be no Pope Sylvester waiting for him there with brilliant talk of renovatio.

Gerbert, who had loyally followed Otto to Ravenna, had returned to the Lateran following his patron’s death; and there, in May 1003, after a miserable year of being bullied by the resurgent Crescentius family, he too had died. It had not taken long for his extraordinary story to be transmuted into myth. That a peasant – still more a non-Italian peasant – should have risen to hold the office of pope appeared to most too remarkable to credit to mere human agency. So it was that Gerbert of Aurillac, “the philosophical pope,”110 who had devoted the last years of his life to buttressing the Roman Empire, would be remembered, not for all his labours in the cause of learning and of Christendom, but as a thing of Antichrist, a beast, “risen up from the abyss shortly after the completion of a thousand years.”111

“Caesar is gone. And with him gone, all future ages are thrown into confusion.”112 This epitaph, composed in the confused months that followed Otto’s death, was not, perhaps, a wholly exaggerated one. A tipping point had indeed been reached: the dream of universal empire as a solution to the world’s problems, for all that it might still animate the chanceries of Baghdad and Constantinople, would never again, as a practical policy, serve to motivate a monarch of Latin Christendom. “Like one of the pagan kings of ancient times, he struggled to resurrect the glories of Rome, that city with its deep-buried foundations – but in vain.”113 So it would be remembered of Otto. None of his successors would follow his example. His dreams had been too dazzling – and his failure too total as well. Although he never did make it to Jerusalem, and although he never did surrender his crown into the hands of Christ, Otto would prove to have died as what he had long imagined himself to be: the last Roman emperor.

* The Latin term used by the chroniclers of Henry I’s reign is “imperium.” The German word – despite its unfortunate connotations – conveys a much better sense of its meaning than any alternative word in English.

* Only one man had previously changed his name on being elevated to the Papacy: John II, back in 533. Following Octavian’s initiative, however, the practice became increasingly common, until, by the beginning of the eleventh century, it was the norm.

* An alternative version of his death claims that John XII was murdered by the outraged husband.

* Mohammed, in a celebrated hadith (The Book on Government, 4681), declared that “the gates of Paradise are under the shadows of the swords”: a sentiment profoundly shocking to Byzantine sensibilities.

* Or, as Gabriel put it, “those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom God has assigned to thee”: Qur’an 33.50.

* The origins of the name are notoriously problematic. Some derive it from the Vandals, invaders of the Roman Empire who passed through Spain on their way to North Africa; others from Atlantis, the legendary island written about by Plato, and which was supposed to have been located in the furthest west. The uncertainty persists.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!