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Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800

Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800

3.8 8
by Jeff Sypeck

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On Christmas morning in the year 800, Pope Leo III placed the crown of imperial Rome on the brow of a Germanic king named Karl. With one gesture, the man later hailed as Charlemagne claimed his empire and forever shaped the destiny of Europe. Becoming Charlemagne tells the story of the international power struggle that led to this world-changing event.


On Christmas morning in the year 800, Pope Leo III placed the crown of imperial Rome on the brow of a Germanic king named Karl. With one gesture, the man later hailed as Charlemagne claimed his empire and forever shaped the destiny of Europe. Becoming Charlemagne tells the story of the international power struggle that led to this world-changing event.

Illuminating an era that has long been overshadowed by legend, this far-ranging book shows how the Frankish king and his wise counselors built an empire not only through warfare but also by careful diplomacy. With consummate political skill, Charlemagne partnered with a scandal-ridden pope, fended off a ruthless Byzantine empress, nurtured Jewish communities in his empire, and fostered ties with a famous Islamic caliph. For 1,200 years, the deeds of Charlemagne captured the imagination of his descendants, inspiring kings and crusaders, the conquests of Napoléon and Hitler, and the optimistic architects of the European Union.

In this engaging narrative, Jeff Sypeck crafts a vivid portrait of Karl, the ruler who became a legend, while transporting readers far beyond Europe to the glittering palaces of Constantinople and the streets of medieval Baghdad. Evoking a long-ago world of kings, caliphs, merchants, and monks, Becoming Charlemagne brings alive an age of empire building that continues to resonate today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sypeck affectionately peers behind the legends surrounding Charlemagne and magnificently chronicles four significant years in the emperor's life. From 796 to 800, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, consolidated his kingdom through military exploits, religious diplomacy and political treaties. His love for order, his respect for education and books, his reverence for his religion and his dealings with Muslims established his reputation as a king to be feared and respected. In 800, Charlemagne's life and the destiny of Europe changed forever when Pope Leo III anointed the Frankish king as the emperor of Rome. Although the new emperor attempted to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Christianity by marrying Irene, the empress of Constantinople, her subjects so feared the alliance that they kidnapped and exiled Irene, preventing Charlemagne from achieving this aim. Sypeck, who teaches medieval literature at the University of Maryland, paints a splendid portrait of the emperor's various supporters, including Isaac, his Jewish envoy to Baghdad; Harun al-Rashid, the legendary caliph of Baghdad who, though the two never met, believed that he and Charlemagne would be great military and political companions; and the elephant, Abul Abaz, a gift from Harun. Sypeck's history offers dazzling glimpses of Charlemagne's life and times and of his journey to become the legendary emperor. 11 b&w illus., 1 map. (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This is the story of how one medieval king named Karl was shaped and guided to become the profoundly important Emperor Charlemagne. Sypeck (Holy Roman Empire; Charlemagne in World History) laces together tales of prominent eighth-century figures who influenced Karl. Uppermost were Alcuin, a British Saxon and the "most learned man anywhere"; Leo III, the possibly corrupt pope in need of the protection of a "Great Man"; Empress Irene of Constantinople, who craved power and control so much that she mutilated her own son; and Harun al-Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad, ruler of the entire Muslim world, who gave Karl the famous gift of a pure white elephant. All are woven into a tale of the shining time when Karl, already king of the Franks and king of the Lombards, was crowned Imperator Augustus by Leo III in Rome in 800. All too soon, Karl's light began to dim. After his death in 814, his surviving legitimate son, Louis "the Pious," inherited the throne, claimed that his father was far from perfect, and debased Karl's achievements. Louis's own sons then irrevocably fractured the empire into the nations that are with us today as France, Germany, and Italy. Aimed at a general audience, this short, well-written book tells the story very accessibly and is highly recommended for all libraries. Robert Harbison, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An account of the Germanic king Karl, whose legend has obscured the facts and embellished his accomplishments. Like Robin Hood and King Arthur, Charlemagne is a historical figure who has become something more than human with the passage of time. After being crowned emperor of Rome by Pope Leo III on Christmas day in a.d. 800, he stood as one of the most powerful men in the world, a monarch who defended the church, consolidated and codified laws and sought to break down linguistic barriers dividing the people of Europe. His legacy casts a long shadow even today, particularly in Brussels, where the European Union's headquarters is named in his honor. Unlike the 200-year-old sage in the epic Song of Roland, however, the real Charlemagne, known as Karl, was more likely to be found swimming or enjoying the ruckus created by his grandchildren than issuing grand proclamations that would alter the course of world history. Sypeck, who previously covered this subject for middle-schoolers (The Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne in World History, not reviewed), works here to deconstruct and dispel myths about both Charlemagne and his era. He also explores the Frankish kingdom's relative religious harmony, highlighted by Karl's peaceful overtures toward Muslim caliph Harun al-Rashid and his comparatively benevolent treatment of Jews (who would endure far worse, the author notes, in the centuries to come). Al-Rashid's gift of Abul Abaz, an elephant delivered to Karl by his Jewish ambassador, epitomizes this intermingling of cultures. Debunking the myths that surround legendary figures is a tricky business, but Sypeck acknowledges the allure of the ways in which Charlemagne and his era have beenromanticized, mitigating the sting and turning it into an educational opportunity. Illuminates the shadowy corners of an era shrouded in the mists of legend.

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Becoming Charlemagne

Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800
By Jeff Sypeck

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Jeff Sypeck
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060797061

Chapter One

A Rome Yet to Be

Aachen, A.D. 796

Traveling to Aachen is not what it used to be.

Comfortably tucked into a green valley in Germany, Aachen is a short drive from the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands. The city receives its fair share of visitors, who typically arrive by train or through one of the nearby airports. Their intentions vary.

Some are here on business, rushing to meetings at high-tech firms. Others come to study at the colleges and universities or to heal their weary bodies at thermal baths. Many more are tourists, lured by their guidebooks' promise of a pleasant day trip. If they're pressed for time, they may be discouraged by descriptions of "unassuming Aachen" near the "unromantic Rhine" and hasten on to other cities whose names clatter more strongly with essential German-ness: Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg. In those places, they know that history will resound in museums and town squares and along old streets to confirm their preconceptions about Europe and its past.

But if they dutifully visit Aachen's main tourist attractions, they discover that at the core of its Gothic cathedral are pillars and stones pushed into place more than 1,200 years ago. This octagonal chapel, once connected to a walled fortress, should be more than a second-tier curiosity forbackpackers who wander, cameras in hand, across Germany's castle-scattered landscape. These stones--solid, unmoving, and easily unnoticed--are the foundations of Europe itself.

At the end of the eighth century, when merchants, monks, and warriors gathered here, only the absurdly optimistic would have called Aachen a city. When the king was away, it was barely even a town. To much of the world, Aachen was a blank space on the map, a few thin acres of civilization carved from a wolf-infested forest.

It was also, for a few de-cades, the capital of western Europe.

In early 796, a messenger traveling from Rome to Aachen rode briskly along the northbound road to shake off the lingering chill of winter. Merchants glared suspiciously at strangers, with good reason. When branches snapped along the roadside, hands flew to knives; when no threat appeared, travelers clenched their teeth, mouthed grateful prayers to saints, and fixed their eyes squarely on the road ahead.

Rome was hectic, crawling with scoundrels and sinners; but it was home, and its ancient churches and well-worn streets led to familiar places. Never mind the territorial wars waged by prominent families, or the starving masses who wavered between desperation and hope; Rome shone with the light of Christ. Here in wretched Francia, the land of the Franks, a Roman saw no such faith in the faces of men. How could God's grace penetrate these weeds and this tangled wilderness? The Frankish bishops did their best, probably, but their hapless flock was beguiled by old charms and mired in superstition and sin. Centuries of pagan beliefs stuck to the masses like ticks.

And, although it was hard to believe, this place got worse. Somewhere beyond this endless forest was a dangerous new threat: the Vikings. Only three years earlier, the heathens had sailed out of the icy north to rape En-gland and Ireland and terrorize the world. How could men live in such a godforsaken place?

The Franks were a common sight in Rome, where they strolled the streets in their outlandish tunics and hose or wandered indiscreetly around the papal palace. In private, some Romans smirked and dismissed them as barbarians. In public, the Romans treated them civilly. They had to; the Frankish king enjoyed great influence with the pope, and the king's men were the pope's defenders--skilled, disciplined, and deadly in battle. A visitor to their homeland could understand why: men bred in this environment had to be hard creatures indeed.

For most Romans, the town of Aachen was bound to be a disappointment. Unlike Rome, it was no magnificent city, encircled by ancient walls and graced with crumbling monuments; rather, it was a glorified village of timber and stone that struggled to impress. It was an unlikely place for world-changing decisions to be made. Nonetheless, beyond the markets and merchant shacks at the outskirts, the king's ambitious plans for his capital became evident. Behind a web of scaffolding, walls and towers were rising around a palace, and lovely arches framed doorways and porches. At Aachen, Karl had found a city of clay, but he clearly intended to leave it marble.

What waited behind the palace walls was less certain. Everyone knew that the king had surrounded himself with Europe's most gifted intellects; and all had heard that theology lessons, legal disputes, or other royal business could occur anywhere: over dinner, behind the walls of the king's hunting grounds, or even in the steamy comfort of the royal baths. Aachen had a reputation for more earthy entertainments, too, from bearbaiting and bawdy songs to old men who sang the deeds of pagan heroes--dubious pastimes that made visiting monks exchange pained glances over their beer mugs and slip into polite silence.

Whatever revelry was easing the residents of Aachen through the last weeks of winter, the king was probably surprised to see a messenger from Rome, because no sane person traveled so far in wintertime or crossed the treacherous Alps without good reason. Unfortunately, the news was urgent and terrible: Hadrian, who had been the pope in Rome for more than twenty years, had died on Christmas Day.

"At God's call," wrote Hadrian's official biographer, "his life came to an end and he went to everlasting rest." Einhard, a member of Karl's inner circle, recorded his king's far less stoic response: "When the death of Hadrian, the Pope of Rome and his close friend, was announced to him, he wept as if he had lost a brother or a dearly loved son."

In his biography of Karl, Einhard vividly describes his friend the king as a tall, thick-necked warrior with white hair, large eyes, an affable . . .


Excerpted from Becoming Charlemagne by Jeff Sypeck Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Sypeck. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jeff Sypeck teaches medieval literature at the University of Maryland. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, among other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A. D. 800 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
RQuinones More than 1 year ago
Most people know the name Charlemagne, perhaps from their seventh grade history class or an advertisment trying to entice more buyers into a store, but not many people know anything more about the enigmatic man behind the title. Sadly, Mr. Speck does not delve into what the King of the Franks did for the first years of his reign, but rather concentrates on the people and events surrounding his coronation as emperor. However, by his complete devotion to his topic, Jeff Speck has brought to life, at least for the time that you are reading his book, the world in which Charlemagne lived. The reader becomes acquainted with Alcuin, a prior who was also a firm believer and friend of the King, with Irene, the Empress who took control of the Byzantine Empire from her son and leaving open the technical title of Emperor, with Isaac, a Jew who was a representative for Charlemagne, and with many more individuals. For someone with no basis in Frankish history or with this particular time period, then this academic work is a splendid way to start. Speck does not bog down the book with multiple dates and unnecessary details, but tries to create an image of how Charles and his contemporaries thought. To keep academic legitimacy though, he makes sure to place words such as, "probably" when he does elude to possible thought processes. Overall, it is a very enjoyable read for the beginning historian, but readers who have studied more of this time period should look elsewhere for a more academic study.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read many books on the Medieval period and Charlemagne in the last two years. This is now one of my favorites. Jeff Sypeck put the events of the period in a context which allows the reader to understand the various political forces competing against one another during that era, and the skill used by King Charles which ultimately led to him being referred to as King Charles the Great or Charlemagne. I had read mentions of Empress Irene of the Byzantine Empire, but her villainy and treachery never really impressed me until reading Sypeck's version. This time it took on the magnitude worthy of Shakespearean tragedies. The lives of Jews during the time of Charlemagne is a topic I had not seen mentioned at any length in the other various books I read, and Sypeck devoted a chapter to discussing how their treatment which by and large are hidden in the historical record. Charlemagne did not persecute Jews as he did those in his realm who worshiped pagan idols. Many Jews were educated, well-traveled, merchants, and officials in the royal courts. One Jew was sent by Charlemagne as an ambassador to Baghdad to speak with the leader of the Muslim empire, Harun al-Rashid. It is the various acts of political gifts from one leader to another 'Harun to Charlemagne' which were then perceived as a political slight by other leaders 'Empress Irene' that I found most fascinating. And then there is the dramatic saga of Pope Leo III and his attempted assassination that underscores the dramatic story of Charlemagne's coronation as Emperor. This isn't dry history with a simple recitation of facts, it is a story of intrigue brought to life. You know that Shakespeare had to base his stories on something.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a magnificent book. This is a unique approach looking at the influence Irene's Constantinople, Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, and King Karl's Europe had on each other, and along with brutal papal Italian politics, led to the crowning of and making of the legend of Charlemagne. This is not a boring tome. In remarkable readable length Jeff Cypeck brings this brief golden age of medieval Europe to life. I would reccommend this book to everyone - you will learn something and you will be entertained.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is a short 154 pages to begin with, and mainly describes the events and people surrounding Karl's (Charlemagne's) coronation as roman emperor in 800 AD. Some historical facts support the narrative, but much speculation is relied on as the author introduces other characters central to the event, like the Abbott Alcuin, the Byzantine Empress Irene, and Isaac the Jew, a diplomatic emissary.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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