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Charlemagne, Father of Europe
Thursday, March 12, 2020 - 6:45 p.m.
Emperor Charlemagne, ca. 1513, by Albrecht Dürer (German National Museum, Nuremberg)
To the French he is Charlemagne, to the Germans Karl der Grosse, and to Pope Leo III he was the man worthy of reviving the office of emperor of the Romans after it had lain vacant in the West for three centuries. Charles the Great, king of the Franks (r. 768–814), was the greatest and most successful of the barbarian rulers who rose to power after the fall of the Roman Empire.
In a reign marked by constant warfare, Charlemagne created an empire that encompassed what is today France, Germany, northern Italy, and Catalonia. His Christian zeal and lust for territory, plunder, and slaves drove him to reduce the pagan Slavs and Turkic Avars of Central Europe to tributary peoples, and to devote 33 years to the conquest and conversion of the fiercely independent pagan Saxons of northern Germany. And yet this warrior king was also a great patron of the arts, learning, and religion.
The Carolingian Renaissance he sponsored and funded with the profits of war preserved the legacy of the classical world into the Middle Ages and modern times. It is little wonder that within three centuries of his death, he had become a mythic figure and the center of a cycle of epic poems. Charlemagne embodies the paradoxes of the early Middle Ages, the period popularly (and misleadingly) known as the Dark Ages.
Richard Abels, professor emeritus of history at the United States Naval Academy and visiting scholar at Catholic University, explores both the man and the myth of the so-called Father of Europe.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)