The Death of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II 1,030 years ago

7 December 983, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II died in Rome of malaria at the age of 28.
“Indeed, after leaving his venerable mother in Pavia, the emperor came to Rome where he immediately became very ill. … After making his confessions, in Latin, before the pope and the other bishops and priests, he obtained the absolution he desired and departed from this light on 7 December.” (Thietmar of Merseburg, "Chronicon Thietmari“, around the year 1015)

Emperor Otto II, contemporary depiction

The lands of Austrasia beyond the once Roman Rhine, the old Germanic tribal regions that made up much of East Francia, always had a reputation of being something of the wild backyard of the Frankish Empire. When, after the various break-ups and reunifications of Charlemagne’s old realm, the lands were split up for good with the Treaty of Verdun in 840, Louis the German drew a bit of a blank, compared to his brothers with their portions of still well-developed Gaul and Northern Italy. Two generations later, an ironic twist of history made a Saxon duke the successor of the Carolingians and elected king of the tribes who spoke diutisk (“like the people” instead of Latin, the root of the word “Deutsch”, German). The Saxons had fought Charlemagne and his ancestors with tooth and nail for over a hundred years. Henry the Fowler was the first crowned head of the Saxon dynasty, the Liudolfings, and he had his hands full with defending his domain against the Norse, Elbe Slavs and especially the Magyars who already raided deep into Italy and Gaul. His son Otto the Great’s victory on the Lechfeld over the Magyars, his rigid policy of integrating the church as well as Italy under his reign and finally his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 962 did not alone mean the final transition of the Imperial title to the Eastern kingdom, but quite an arduous and large inheritance his son Otto II had to assume in 973 after his father’s dead.

Michael Echter's (1812 - 1879) Romantic imagination of Emperor Otto I at the Battle of the Lechfeld 

It is astonishing how a major military defeat can ruin a ruler’s reputation for posterity. While the Lechfeld was Otto I’s stepping stone to become emperor, Otto II’s disaster at the Battle of Stilo in Calabria in 982 against the Saracens of Sicily meant that he was regarded as an incompetent weakling for centuries. The defeat had indeed severe consequences, the most notable being the successful Great Slav Raising that lost the Holy Roman Empire most of its Slavic territories along the Elbe and stopped the Imperial advance and the  Christianisation of Central Eastern Europe for 200 years in its tracks. Otto's death a year later in Rome didn’t improve matters, neither in regards to the contemporary situation nor, in hindsight, in terms of his reputation. Nevertheless, Otto II had continued his father’s policy of strengthening the church in East Francia as major administrative element under firm royal supremacy as well as integrating and expanding Imperial rule in Italy and eastern Gaul and halting the Danish advance of Harald Bluetooth. Otto’s marriage to the Byzantine princess Theophanu with the artists, architects and artisans in her retinue meant a considerable cultural upturn in the Empire, not seen since the days of the Carolingian Renaissance 150 years earlier. And Theophanu was a boon for the Holy Roman Empire beyond that.

The coronation of Otto II and Theophanu
 as emperor and empress by Christ himself,
probably Byzantine origin, around 982

Otto III, Otto’s designated heir, was three years old when his father died. It took two years until Empress Theophanu was finally attributed with the regency, but in 985 she became the first female ruler in the west for centuries. And with unruly princes and threats on every border, she did a formidable job of ruling the Holy Roman Empire for the next ten years, handling every crisis as well as securing the throne for her son. Theophanu died after a short illness in her early 40s in Nijmegen and was succeeded by her mother-in-law Adelaide who lead government until Otto III came of age in 996. His reign was short, though. He would die, like his father, in Italy, probably as well of malaria, at the age of 22, plunging the Holy Roman Empire into the next succession crisis.

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