Your RDA of Irony

The Perfect Christmas Gift

What Christmas gift can you give the man who has everything–or at least control of France, Germany and Italy? That was the challenge confronting Pope Leo III. You just couldn’t give Charlemagne a Christmas card. It would only remind the Warlord that he was illiterate. Charlemagne was a widower, so there was no point in offering him a gift card for an annulment. Then Leo thought of the perfect gift for his Frankish friend. True, Leo had to steal it; but a Pope can always absolve himself.

So, on Christmas Day in 800, the Pope proclaimed Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, Charlemagne was not pleased with his fancy new title. Western Europe’s King was not ostentatious, and he certainly was uncomfortable with a “hot” crown. The real owner–in Constantinople–would certainly object.

The Pope–looking perfectly innocent, which should be a prerequisite for the job— had a perfect rationale for his crowning presumption. He had only made Charlemagne an Emperor; the reigning sovereign in Constantinople was named Irene. The Empress Irene was a widow, which she probably arranged; so there was no Byzantine male to contest the role of Emperor. (Irene had a son, but she had him ousted, blinded and killed; to her credit, she never harmed her grandchildren–who happened to be girls–and one would become Empress.)

In proclaiming Charlemagne to be Emperor, the Pope was not criticizing Irene. On the contrary, the Church liked her. When Irene overthrew her son and seized the throne, Pope Leo had congratulated her. That unfortunate young Emperor, like his conveniently dead father, had been proponents of Iconoclasm, a dogma condemned by the Roman branch of Christendom. Irene, however, agreed with the Roman reverence for art; she certainly preferred icons to her family.

Of course, with her aesthetic refinement, Irene would not have appreciated sharing the most prestigious title in Christendom with an illiterate warlord. The Byzantines refused to recognize Charlemagne’s title. Frankly (sorry about that), neither did Charlemagne. To legitimize his Imperial rank–and make an honest man of himself, Charlemagne offered to marry Irene.
The Empress was not flattered or tempted: she declined the proposal.

Given Irene’s family history, Charlemagne probably was lucky. At least, he lived another 14 years. His Empire did not last much longer than he did: squabbling grandsons whose ambitions surpassed their competence shredded it into warring states. For another three centuries however, Byzantium would remain the greatest power (and only civilized one) in Christendom.

Its only rival was, ironically, the Roman Church. When Pope Leo III assumed the right to appoint and crown an Emperor, he had also given the Church the perfect Christmas gift: authority over the temporal world.

None of your gifts will be that good, but try to enjoy the holidays anyway.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    The humorist Richard Armour had a different take of this story. In his book, “It All started With Europa,” he says that Charlemagne and the Pope generally got along, but then on Christmas in 800 AD the Pope came up behind him unexpectedly and crowned him. When Charlemagne came to, he discovered that he had been made Emperor of the Romans, “although he felt terribly teutonic for days,”

    • k lawler says:

      @ hal- oy another eugene in humor
      well what happened to irene?
      dont leave me hanging…k

      • Eugene Finerman says:

        Irene was overthrown in 802 and shipped off to a convent, where she died the following year. Yes, that does seem suspicious. Her imperial successor was Nikephoros, who had been the finance minister under Irene. He was an excellent administrator but an abysmal general. His campaign against the Bulgars, he lost most of the army and all of his head. His skull was used as a goblet by the Bulgar Khan.

  2. Bob Kincaid says:

    Io Saturnalia, Evgenivs!

    Didn’t the Byzantines eventually grow tired of Irene? Cute only lasts so long, but stupid sticks like glue.

    “I cannot learn to write because I cannot hold the pen because my hand has so long been used to holding a sword,” must go down in history as one of, if not THE, best excuses for illiteracy ever contrived. Thanks, Charlie! Generations of penmanship failures, myself included, longed for a little swordsmanship training.


  3. Eugene,
    Little did I know that Charlemagne was illiterate. And Irene sounds like a lovely lady murdering both her husband and her son. Merry Christmas to you. Bah, humbug.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Barbara,

      Yes, Charlemagne was illiterate. So he was a model for today’s MBAs. As for Irene, her pruning of the family tree was applauded by the Pope. She was on the “right” side of the Icon issue; her victims were not.


  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply