Louis II of Italy and the Kaiserbrief (841/842?)

Clemens Gantner

October 15, 2018 | Clemens Gantner | HI Research Blog |

The current blog entry is dedicated to the relations of Louis II of Italy (840-875) with the Byzantine Empire in the earliest phase of his reign in Italy.

Louis1 was the oldest son of Emperor Lothar I (840-855) and thereby a great-grandson of Charlemagne. He was born in approximately 825: It is indeed strange that we know neither the date, nor the place of his birth, unusual for Carolingian princes in the ninth century. Louis had two younger brothers: Lothar II, the future king of the Middle Frankish Kingdom and name giver of Lorraine (Lotharingia), and Charles, who after 855 was the short-time king of Provence. Louis was designated as ruler of Italy early on and, accordingly, spent the biggest part of his youth in the Po plain. In the year 839/840, he was officially instated as king of the Lombards, by his grandfather Louis the Pious (814-840). Louis was thereby his father’s sub-king, who as co-emperor was also responsible for the Italian part of the realm. Lothar had already established his power base on the peninsula during the near constant controversies with his father and brothers since the 830s. When Louis ascended to the throne, he was therefore firmly embedded in a network of Frankish counts, bishops and other officers, who had been placed in northern Italy by his father.

Louis was crowned co-emperor for his father by Pope Leo IV (847-855) and became sole emperor of the west in 855 upon his father’s death.
The first contacts Louis had with the eastern empire revolved around a marriage plan – a common feature indeed in the fates of the Lotharian branch of the Carolingian family. Also connected with this is one of the most prominent documents of Byzantine origin stemming from the ninth century: the so called Kaiserbrief of St Denis. The Kaiserbrief is among the oldest extant documents sent by the Byzanzine chancellery and the oldest letter still extant in the original, today kept in the Archives nationales in Paris.

This document has puzzled medieval and Byzantinist research for centuries. Dating has been difficult, which is strange for a legal document. In the picture, we see the remaining part of the papyrus letter. It is a sizeable fragment, 155 cm in length, and still 33 cm wide. Despite this remarkable size, we still only have the lower half of the original. The upper half is long-since lost and, unfortunately, a copy had never been made. In letters of the period, both the sender and the addressee are only named in the first lines; hence, both points are irrevocably lost. The dating clause at the end of the letter has been preserved, unfortunately, however, without the actual date, which would usually have been expected towards the end of that sentence. The reason for this is that our remaining letter has also lost text from both sides of the leaf, as the papyrus is in a rather sorry state – frankly to be expected from a papyrus document kept continuously in Europe since the ninth century under averse climatic circumstances. This problem was of course also already known at the time, but papyrus was the material used by the Byzantine chancery. It conveyed a sense of Roman antiquity and, more importantly, of imperial continuity from that time to the sender’s present. Papyrus was thus also used as a symbol of authenticity for the letter.

The letter at least plainly reveals one important piece of information about the addressees directly on the document. In the lower region, it bears a large Latin legimus note. This sign proves that the addressee has indeed read or been informed about the content of the document – and that the addressee stemmed from Frankish Western Europe (which included at the time northern Italy), for it was a usual way of marking charters or diplomatic writings in that area.

Apart from this one hint, research practically depends on an analysis of the content of our invaluable source. The proposed datings so far range between 827 and the 840s. Let’s first have a look at the remaining information in English translation, following the German translations by Dölger and Ohnsorge.

          …that at this expedition all relevant military forces have to aid, in order that
          the exalted glory of the merciful God shall itself be restored and by the divine
          counsel the brotherly love of Our Majesty shall be spread over You, the
          friendship between Our Majesty and our beloved son, the King (of Italy) shall
          be permanently affirmed, God shall be praised by all, Our just restoration shall
          reach the borders of Christianity and our common enemies shall be annihilated,
          our (common) friends be saved. The grace of God, His peace and his good will
          be with you! And it is within your competence to issue a memorandum with an
          order to our aforementioned son in Christ, the king (of Italy) to reach this goal,
          as you have been appointed by Him who has created you as his father and
          legal guardian.2

From the remaining text, we can gather a lot of information: A Byzantine emperor is writing to an addressee, who is of basically the same rank, which is why the letter refers to ‘brotherly love’. Brother, adelphos in Greek, was an expression, which the emperors in the east used for those in the west. It expresses equality without granting the western emperor the Greek imperial title basileus, conveniently reserving the latter for the eastern ruler.

The ‘brother’ of the Byzantine emperor is then asked to talk to the rix of Italy. Rix is a loanword from the Latin rex, king. The addressee is quite clearly defined as this king’s father. The father is now asked to command the son to launch an expedition against the ‘common enemies’ of Christendom. In fact, we thus have a Carolingian emperor of the west, who has a son who is a sub-king in Italy, which becomes clear from the perceived fact that the emperor can issue orders to him. And finally this sub-king is to lead an attack against common enemies of the Franks and Byzantines.

This constellation only existed twice in Carolingian history: From 787 to 810, Pippin of Italy, the short-lived second son of Charlemagne ruled in the kingdom of Italy; he can be excluded from our equation, because he does not meet the other parameters, as we shall see shortly. From 840 onwards, Louis II also ruled Italy under the circumstances described here. His father Lothar had himself been sub-ruler of Italy from 817 onwards – but he had served in this capacity in the rank of co-emperor from the beginning. The chancellery in Constantinople would hardly have made the gaffe of calling an emperor a rix in the political situation in which the letter was written; one was soliciting for immediate support by the addressee after all!

A further crucial information is then provided by the Byzantine emperor calling the king his ‘son in Christ’. This could be discounted as hollow rhetoric, as a generic attestation of closeness as well as hierarchical subordination of the king. But we have additional information in this case: Louis II was engaged to a Byzantine princess since about 841/842, the marital negotiations are reported by both Greek and Latin sources. These sources also inform us that the princess was certainly one of the four surviving daughters of Emperor Theophilos (829-842), possibly his oldest daughter Thekla3.

When we add up all this information, our preserved text fragment fits Louis II of Italy best by far. This leaves us with the identification of the Byzantine emperor, as in 841/842 we have two. Emperor Theophilos died at the beginning of our modern year 842 (the Byzantine indiction had in fact already changed in September 841). His demise came totally unexpectedly, probably while the delegation negotiation the modalities of the betrothal was still staying with Emperor Lothar I in the west. Theophilos was succeeded by his minor son Michael III. Franz Dölger pointed out many decades ago, however, that the approximately three year old Michael could hardly have addressed the 17 year old Louis as his ‘son in Christ’, that would truly have been ridiculous. Hence, we can cautiously assert that the Kaiserbrief was despatched when Theophilos was still alive, in the latter part of 841 or the first weeks of 842.

What then remains for us is a definition of the ‘common enemy’ mentioned in the letter: The Greek historical texts inform us that the marriage alliance was mainly sought to make the Franks agree to a joint action against Muslims, who in the texts of the time are mainly called Saracens. I will also use this term, because firstly I don’t have to determine whether all of these were in fact Muslims, which is far from certain. Not all Saracens of our sources were Arabs, many of those active in Italy were in fact of Berber origin. The Saracens had since the seventh century taken all of North Africa, and had overrun Visigothic Spain between 711 and 716. In the ninth century, the real power in Africa was held by the dynasty of the Aghlabids, who ruled the region from their capital in Kairouan south of modern-day Tunis. The Aghlabids started to organize sizeable raids and partial invasions on Sicily from 827 onwards and managed to conquer the entire island until the end of the century. From the 840s onwards, Saracen groups of different origins, some with ties to Kairouan, were active on the south Italian mainland as well. By 847, Saracens controlled the important harbours of Bari and Taranto. This process had been enabled by the acrimonious civil war fought among the south Italian Lombards between 839 and 848. Sicily first and foremost was of great importance for the Byzantine empire. The island was pervaded by Greek language and culture at the time, and was thus a part of the larger Greek world. Its strategic position also enabled its rulers to control the sea routes around the Mediterranean. Emperor Theophilos was certainly aware, however, that the Franks did not command a significant navy, so that they were unable to attack the Saracens on the island. It stands to reason that, instead, the Byzantines wanted the Carolingians to intervene in southern Italy and thereby to secure access for the Byzantine navy into the eastern parts of Sicily. The Franks should prevent the Saracens from permanently holding important ports in the south.

From what we can gather from the western sources, Louis II of Italy seems to have done exactly that. In 844 he broke off an expedition, but in 848 and 852 he was marching south again, this time taking the city of Benevento by force and compelling the Lombards of the region to sign a peace treaty that separated the principality of the southern Lombards between Benevento and Salerno. Louis failed, however, to get the ports under control and he could not get rid of the Saracens yet.

The Kaiserbrief and the engagement had thus led to the desired immediate effect, but not to the desired result. Louis II thus ended up marrying a Frankish noblewoman named Angilberga instead. Communication with the Byzantines was significantly reduced until the usurpation by Emperor Basil I in 867 brought new dynamics. At that point, Louis was again campaigning in the south, where political realities were shifting once again – but that’s another story.

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