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 Napolýon 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.
Starred Review. 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. (Dec.) Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 21, 2006
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Excerpt from Becoming Charlemagne by Jeff Sypeck
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 for backpackers 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 England 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.