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Otto I, the Great

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Roman emperor and German king, b. in 912; d. at Memleben, 7 May, 973; son of Henry I and his consort Mathilda. In 929 he married Edith, daughter of King Athelstan of England. He succeeded Henry as king in 936. His coronation at Aachen showed that the Carlovingian traditions of empire were still in force. Otto projected a strong central power, which was opposed by the German spirit of individualism. Otto's brother Henry headed those great insurrectionary movements which Otto was first obliged to suppress. The new Duke of Bavaria, Eberhard, refused to pay homage to the king. Otto subdued Bavaria and bestowed the ducal throne upon Arnulf's brother Berthold. This attitude towards the ducal, by the royal, power, now for the first time openly assumed, roused strong opposition. The Franks, ancient rivals of the Saxons, resented this absorption of power. The Frankish Duke Eberhard formed an alliance with Otto's half-brother, Thankmar, and with other disaffected nobles. Otto's younger brother Henry and the unruly Duke Eiselbert of Lorraine raised the banner of insurrection. Agitation was stirred up on the Rhine and in the royal Palatinate on the Saale. The affair first took a decisive turn when Dukes Eberhard and Giselbert fell in the battle of Andernach. The victory did not, however, result in absolute power. An internecine agitation in Franconia between the lesser nobles and the duchy favoured the king. Henry now became reconciled with his royal brother, but his insincerity was manifest when, shortly after, he conspired with the Archbishop of Mainz and the seditious border nobles to assassinate Otto. The plot was discovered. In 941 there was a final reconciliation. The monarchic principle had triumphed over the particularism of the nobles, and the way was paved for a reorganization of the constitution. Otto made good use of his success. The hereditary duchies were filled by men closely connected with the royal house. Franconia was held by Otto in his own possession; Lorraine fell to Conrad the Red, his son-in-law; his brother Henry received Bavaria, having meanwhile married Judith, daughter of the Bavarian duke; while Swabia was bestowed upon his son Ludolph. The power of these dukes was substantially reduced. Otto was manifestly endeavouring to restore their ancient official character to the duchies. This belittling of their political position suited his design to make his kingdom more and more the sole exponent of the imperial idea. It would have been a significant step in the right direction could he have made it an hereditary monarchy, and he worked energetically towards this object.

The apparently united realm now reverted to Charlemagne's policies in the regions where he had paved the way. The Southern races promoted the work of Germanizing and Christianizing in the adjacent Slav states, and by degrees German influence spread to the Oder and throughout Bohemia. The ancient idea of universal empire now possessed Otto's mind. He endeavoured to extend his suzerainty over France, Burgundy, and Italy, and welcomed the quarrel between Hugo of France and Ludwig IV, each of whom had married one of his sisters. King and dukes in France balanced the scales of power which Otto could grasp at any time as supreme arbitrator. With similar intent he turned the private quarrels of the reigning house of Burgundy to account. Conrad of Burgundy now appeared as Otto's protégé. More significant was the attitude he was about to assume towards the complicated situation in Italy. The spiritual and moral debasement in the Italian Peninsula was shocking, even in Rome. The names of Theodora and Marozia recall an unutterably sad chapter of church history. The disorder in the capital of Christendom was only a symptom of the conditions throughout Italy. Upper Italy witnessed the wars of Berengarius of Friuli, crowned emperor by Marozia's son, John X, against Rudolph II of Upper Burgundy. After the assassination of Berengarius in 924, the strife was renewed between this Rudolph and Hugo of Lower Burgundy. Hugo finally became sole ruler in Italy and assumed the imperial throne. But his supremacy was soon overthrown by Berengarius of Ivrea, against whom, also, there appeared a growing opposition in favour of Adelaide, the daughter of Rudolph II of Upper Burgundy, to suppress which Berengarius obtained forcible possession of the princess. All these disorders had been studied by Otto. Convinced of the significance of the ancient ideas of empire, he wished to subject Italy to his authority, basing his right upon his royal rank. In 951 he came to Italy, released Adelaide and married her, whilst Berengarius swore allegiance to him. Under the influence of the Roman Alberich, the son of Marozia, Pope Agapetus refused the imperial crown to the German king. But even without the coronation, the universality of his rule was apparent. He stood de facto at the head of the West. The royal power was now in need of the strongest support. New and dangerous insurrections demonstrated the lack of internal solidarity. Particularism once more raised its head. Otto's son Ludolph was the spirit of the new uprising. He demanded a share in the government and was especially irritated by the influence of Otto's Burgundian consort. The particularist element assembled in Ludolph's camp. It fermented throughout almost the entire duchy and broke out openly in many parts. The danger was more threatening than it had been in the first insurrection. On 954 the Magyars once more thronged into the empire. Owing to this crisis, the necessity for a strong, central power was generally recognized, and the insurrection died out. It was definitively terminated at the Imperial Diet of Auerstadt, where it was announced that Conrad and Ludolph had forfeited their duchies. Meanwhile the Magyar hordes surrounded Augsburg. Bishop Ulrich heroically defended the threatened city. In the great battle on the Lechfelde in 955, the Hungarian army was completely routed by Otto, who had advanced to the defence of the city. By this victory he freed Germany finally from the Hungarian peril. It marked a crisis in the history of the Magyar race, which now became independent and founded an empire with definite boundaries. It also caused Otto to realize that his great object of preventing the participation of power with the duchies was not attainable by force or through the prestige of his kingly rank. He at once endeavoured to obtain a strong support from the German Church throughout the empire.

The Ottonian system, a close alliance of the German realm with the Church, was begun. Charlemagne, too, had carried out the great conception of unity of Church and State, but the ecclesiastical idea had given a religious colouring to Frankish statesmanship, whilst Otto planned a State Church, with the spiritual hierarchy a mere branch of the interior government of the realm. In order to solve this problem Otto was first constrained to permeate the Church with new spiritual and moral life and also free himself from the dominion of the lay aristocracy. His own deeply religious nature was his best guarantee. Some part of the spirit of ascetic piety which distinguished his mother, Mathilda, was found also in the son; and his brother Bruno, later Archbishop of Cologne, as the clever representative of ecclesiastical views, also exercised a great influence upon the king's religious dispositions. The close union of Church and State had an equally salutary effect upon both of the powers concerned. By granting the Church such royal domains as were not in use, the State could devote its revenues to military purposes. For the united realms this situation was likewise rich in blessings, since under the protection of bishops, commerce and trade were developed on the great ecclesiastical estates, and the lower classes received from the Church protection against the nobles. The kingdom everywhere retained supremacy over the Church: the king could nominate bishops and abbots; the bishops were subject to the royal tribunals; and synods could only be called with the royal approval. The German court became the centre of religious and spiritual life. In the so-called Ottonian renaissance, however, women were chiefly concerned, led by women of the royal family: Mathilda, Gerberga, Judith, Adelaide, and Theophano. Quedlinburg, founded by Otto in 936, was an influential centre of culture. But this Ottonian system depended upon one premise: if it were to benefit the State, the king must control the Church. As a matter of fact, the supreme authority over the German Church was the pope. Yet Otto's policy of imperialism was rooted in the recognition of the above premise. The conquest of Italy should result in the subjection of the highest ecclesiastical authority to German royalty. Otto was consequently obliged to make this campaign; and the much discussed question of the motive dictating the imperial policy is resolved. The unworthy John XII was at that time reigning in Rome. He was the son of Alberich, the Tyrant of Rome, whose covetous glances were directed towards the Exarchate and the Pentapolis. A rival in these aspirations rose in the person of Berengarius who endeavoured to extend his rule over Rome. Otto complied with the pope's request for aid, which exactly suited his projected church policy. He had previously caused his son, Otto, a minor, to be elected and anointed king at the Diet of Worms in 961. He left his brother Bruno, and his natural son, Wilhelm, regents in Germany, and journeyed over the Brenner and thus to Rome, where he was crowned emperor on 2 Feb., 962. On this occasion the so-called Ottonian privilege was conferred, whose genuineness has been frequently, though unjustly, attacked. In its first part this privilege recalls the Pactum Illudovici of 817. It confirms the grants which the Church received from the Carlovingians and their successors. The second part goes back to the Constitution of Lothair (824), according to which the consecration of kings should not be permitted before swearing allegiance to the German ruler. When Otto marched against Berengarius, Pope John entered into treasonable relations with the emperor's enemies; whereupon Otto returned to Rome and forced the Romans to take an oath never to elect a pope without his own or his son's approval. John was deposed and a layman, Leo VIII, placed upon the papal throne. Then Berengarius was defeated in his turn and carried a prisoner to Bamberg. Once more Rome, always in a state of unrest, rose in arms.

The exiled pope, John, forced his supplanter to flee. But John died in 964, and the Romans elected a new pope, Benedict V. The emperor energetically restored order and Leo was reinstated in his position. It was already apparent that the emperor really controlled the papacy which occupied the position of a mere link in the German constitution. The Ottonian system was of the greatest significance to Germany in her position towards the secular powers. How greatly the German King was strengthened through the close alliance between Church and State and how it enhanced the prestige of the empire, is evident from the progress that Teutonism and Christianity were making in Slav territory. Otto chose Magdeburg, for which he had a special attachment, as the local centre of this new civilization, and raised it to an archbishopric.

Recurring disorders now recalled him to Rome. The pope whom he had chosen, John XIII, found antagonists in the Roman nobility. The emperor performed his duties as protector of the Church with stern justice and punished the turbulent nobles. John XIII then crowned his son, Otto, emperor. As a logical consequence of his imperial policy, he now openly avowed his intention of acquiring Lower Italy. His supremacy would be absolutely safeguarded if he succeeded in gaining possession of the southern part of the peninsula. Otto, however, finally abandoned the war in the south. His son's prospect of obtaining a Byzantine princess for his bride turned the scale against it. The old German axiom of legitimacy, which was once more honoured in this marriage, was destined later on to revenge itself bitterly.

Otto was buried at Magdeburg. His contemporaries compared his tremendous physical strength to that of a lion. He was a Saxon through and through. In his youth he had learned all the arts of the profession of arms. Though subject to violent fits of temper, and conscious of his power and genius, he prayed devoutly as a child. A shrewd calculator, always convincing and always toiling, he correctly estimated the importance of diplomatic negotiations. He was a keen observer and possessed a fine knowledge of human nature which always enabled him to select the proper persons for important offices in the government.


KÖPKE AND DÖNNIGES, Jahrbücher des deutschen Reiches unter Otto dem Grossen (Berlin, 1838); KÖPKE AND DÜMMLER, Kaiser Otto der Grosse (Leipzig, 1876); FICKER, Das deutsche Kaiserreich in seinen universellen und nationalen Beziehungen (Innsbruck, 1861); VON SYBEL, Die deutsche Nation und das Kaiserreich (Düsseldorf, 1862); SACKUR, Die Quellen für den ersten Römerzug Ottos I in Strassburger Festschrift zur 46. Versammlung deutscher Philologen (Strasburg, 1901); SICKEL, Das Privilegium Otto I für die römische Kirche vom Jahre 962 (Innsbruck, 1883); MENKEL, Ottos I Beziehungen zu den deutschen Erzbischofen seiner Zeit und die Leistungen der letzteren für Staat, Kirche und Kultur (Program, Magdeburg, 1900); MITTAG, Erzbischof Friedrich von Mainz und die Politik Ottos des Grossen (Halle, 1895).

About this page

APA citation. Kampers, F. (1911). Otto I, the Great. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Kampers, Franz. "Otto I, the Great." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerald Rossi.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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