Cover image for Becoming Charlemagne : Europe, Baghdad, and the empires of A.D. 800
Title:
Becoming Charlemagne : Europe, Baghdad, and the empires of A.D. 800
Author:
ISBN:
9780060797065
Edition:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Ecco, c2006.
Physical Description:
xx, 284 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
Contents:
Empires -- A Rome yet to be : Aachen, A.D. 796 -- An empress of Byzantium : Constantinople, A.D. 797 -- Sowing the seeds of empire : Tours, A.D. 796-798 -- Daybreak in the city of peace : Baghdad, A.D. 797-799 -- The merchants of Ashkenaz : Francia, A.D. 797-799 -- Emperor -- Blood of the martyrs : Rome and Paderborn, A.D. 799 -- Prayers and plots : Francia, A.D. 799-800 -- Karl, crowned by God / Rome, A.D. 800 -- An elephant at Aachen : Ifriqiya to Aachen, A.D. 801-802 -- Little men at the end of all things : Verdun, A.D. 843.
Summary:
In the year 800, Pope Leo III placed the crown of imperial Rome on a Germanic king named Karl. Thus, the man later hailed as Charlemagne claimed his empire and forever shaped the destiny of Europe. Transporting readers far beyond Europe to the glittering palaces of Constantinople and the streets of medieval Baghdad, 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 Muslim caliph. For 1,200 years, the deeds of Charlemagne captured the imagination of his descendants, inspiring kings and crusaders, the conquests of Napoleon and Hitler, and the optimistic architects of the European Union.--From publisher description.
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Summary

Summary

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 Napol#65533;on 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.


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly 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. 11 b&w illus., 1 map. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Booklist Review

Shortening the distance to medieval history and imaginatively lifting its obscuring mists, Sypeck creates a vibrant Charlemagne narrative. Culminating in the Frankish king's elevation in 800 to emperor of a restored Roman Empire (a coronation retrospectively symbolic of aspirations of European unity), Sypeck's drama substantively strives to evoke the king's personality and the lives of his subjects in the few years on either side of Charlemagne's crowning glory. Amid tactile descriptions of everyday toils such as travel or farmwork, Sypeck evokes, especially in quotes from writings by Charlemagne's friend Alcuin, the prevalent cultural outlooks suffused in religious, dynastic, and political trends. The latter are covered more conventionally in Derek Wilson's fine Charlemagne (2006), whereas Sypeck expands factual nuggets into the immediate experience of events, such as depicting Alcuin's monastic routines amid his advice to Charlemagne, or producing an entertaining vignette about an ambassador's delivery of an elephant given by the caliph of the Abbasid Empire. An inspired, instantly readable work of popular history. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2006 Booklist


Choice Review

Sypeck (literature, Univ. of Maryland) has written a lively, informative, and wide-ranging popular account of the transformations that turned a Frankish king named Karl into both the real and the legendary Charlemagne. His focus is on the key six years 796-802, with a lot of backstory and future. The book, attractively written and eminently readable, is based on most (but far from all) of the best recent scholarly research, mostly in English, and uses translations from contemporary Latin poetry (most of them Sypeck's own) creatively to get at details of social and cultural life hardly accessible elsewhere. If the breezy style contains a few too many maybes and perhapses, the book's coherence and range, from Aachen to Baghdad (with vivid stops along the way at Tours, Paderborn, Rome, and Constantinople, and vivid characters at each stop--Alcuin, Leo III, the basilissa Irene, and Harun al-Rashid) offers a fine narrative device. So, too, does the leitmotif of the five-year embassy of Isaac the Jew to Baghdad and his return to Aachen with the elephant Abul Abaz (796-802), which ties the various locations in the book together nicely. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General and lower-level undergraduate collections. E. Peters University of Pennsylvania


Kirkus Review

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 been romanticized, mitigating the sting and turning it into an educational opportunity. Illuminates the shadowy corners of an era shrouded in the mists of legend. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Becoming Charlemagne Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 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 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 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 . . . Becoming Charlemagne Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 . Copyright © by Jeff Sypeck. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A. D. 800 by Jeff Sypeck All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


Table of Contents

Karolus Magnus
Introductionp. xii
Part 1 Empires
1 A Rome Yet to Be: Aachen, A.D. 796p. 3
2 An Empress of Byzantium: Constantinople, A.D. 797p. 25
3 Sowing the Seeds of Empire: Tours, A.D. 796-798p. 45
4 Daybreak in the City of Peace: Baghdad, A.D. 797-799p. 63
5 The Merchants of Ashkenaz: Francia, A.D. 797-799p. 83
Part 2 Emperor
6 Blood of the Martyrs: Rome and Paderborn, A.D. 799p. 103
7 Prayers and Plots: Francia, A.D. 799-800p. 123
8 Karl, Crowned by God: Rome, A.D. 800p. 137
9 An Elephant at Aachen: Ifriqiya to Aachen, A.D. 801-802p. 161
10 Little Men at the End of All Things: Verdun, A.D. 843p. 185
Notesp. 207
Bibliographyp. 249
Illustration Creditsp. 269
Indexp. 271