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Charlemagne was also known by another name, Charles the Great. As with many of the other greats, he received the title of ‘‘great’’ because of the things he accomplished and his impact on history. To fully understand that impact we must look at his rise to power, the empire he built, and the after-effects he left on Europe.
In most cases, emperors and kings inherit their kingdoms from their fathers before them. Yet, due to an old Frankish tradition, Charlemagne only inherited part of his father’s kingdom, the other part was inherited by his brother Carloman. Historical articles have differed as to who inherited the better part of the kingdom. Some think it was Carloman because his kingdom was manageable and stable, and some think it was Charlemagne because his part of the kingdom was larger. One thing is true though Charlemagne did have a harder time managing his lands; since a large portion was still newly incorporated, once he took control, he was met with a revolt, ‘‘one that was very difficult to suppress.’’ To further add to his difficulties, tensions between him and his brother were increasing, reaching a level were war seemed a possibility.
This drove Charlemagne to look for an edge over his brother, something that would guarantee his victory. Eventually, he would turn to Desiderius, King of the Lombards, taking the King’s daughter as his wife. However, luckily for him, the threat of war would later subside when his brother falls ill and dies in the year 771. Making his father’s previously divided kingdom, whole once again under Charlemagne’s rule. At this point, Charlemagne now possessed the physical means to launch all kinds of military conquests. Knowing this full well, he set his sights on accomplishing his ambition, an ambition that would lead him on many military campaigns. Charlemagne wanted to unite the Germanic people under one banner and one religion, Christianity. His most notable and time-consuming military actions were against the Saxons. For three decades (772-804), Charlemagne waged war on the Saxons determined to conquer them and convert them to Christianity.
The Frankish fought many relentless battles against the Saxony forces with few defeats, but the Saxons put up a fight and refused to go down easy. This pushed the Franks to take drastic actions. They annexed large masses of land between the Rhine and Elbe rivers, they pillaged, took hostages, performed mass killings, deported rebels, and even went after Saxon allies, all to force them to accept Christianity.
Yet, Charlemagne didn’t stop with the Saxons, in fact, he had several other campaigns happening simultaneously against other kingdoms. In 773, the Pope asked him for help against his own ally, the Lombards. The Pope had greater influence and was of more use to Charlemagne than Desiderius, king of the Lombards. This prompted Charlemagne to repudiate his wife and usurp Desiderius’ crown and lands, forging an alliance with Rome. But Charlemagne’s thirst to expand was not yet quenched. Later in 788, he would annex Bavaria, an act that would bring him face to face with another adversary in the Avars. The Avars were a group of Asiatic nomads, who assembled to form an extensive empire; in 796 the empire would disintegrate, and Charlemagne would claim a large portion of it and converted many of the subjects to Christianity.
While his many great successful military campaigns are indeed impressive, he did have his fair share of failures. During the time of Charlemagne, the Islamic Caliphate was quite powerful. They had a large empire along the Mediterranean sea, with lands stretching across Asia, Africa, and Europe as they reached into Spain. Of course, Charlemagne perceived the Caliphate as a threat, after all, it was a powerful empire with a religion other than Christianity. He sought to fortify himself against them by striking first and swiftly, coming into an alliance with an inside man, a Muslim leader in Barcelona. He sent a commander by the name of Roland to invade Spain alongside his ally, only to have them suffer a complete defeat, followed by retaliation from the Muslims destroying the rearguard and killing Roland.
Another failure came at the end of Charlemagne’s reign when he was unable to successfully respond to the raids from the Danes on his kingdom. Although it is very clear that his successes far outweighed his failures, Charlemagne’s deeds reached beyond that of just military actions. The good relations he maintained with Rome and the pope would eventually lead him into being anointed as emperor.
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