Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor

Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor
Otto III
Otto III from the Gospels of Otto III.
Holy Roman Emperor
Reign 21 May 996 – 24 January 1002
King of Germany
(formally King of the Franks)
Reign 25 December 983 – 24 January 1002
Predecessor Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
Successor Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor
Regent Henry II, Duke of Bavaria
Adelaide of Italy
King of Italy
(formally King of the Lombards)
Reign c. February 996 – 24 January 1002
Predecessor Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
Successor Arduin of Ivrea
House Ottonian
Father Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
Mother Theophanu
Born 980
Kessel, North Rhine-Westphalia
Died 23/24 January 1002
Civita Castellana
Burial Aachen Cathedral
Religion Roman Catholicism

Otto III (980 – 23 January 1002), a King of Germany, was the fourth ruler of the Saxon or Ottonian dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire. He was elected King in 983 on the death of his father Otto II and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 996.


Early reign

Otto was born in Kessel, near Goch, in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia.

He was acclaimed King of the Romans in Verona in June 983,[1] at the age of three, and crowned in Aachen on 25 December the same year by Willigis, Archbishop of Mainz and John, Archbishop of Ravenna.[2] His father had died on 7 December in Rome, but the news did not reach Germany until after the coronation.[2] The arrival of a minor on the throne saw both Germany and Italy thrown into confusion.[3]

In early 984 Henry the Quarrelsome, who had been deposed as Duke of Bavaria by Otto II, seized Otto and claimed the regency as a member of the reigning house.[3] Henry was supported by Egbert (Archbishop of Trier), Gisilher, Archbishop of Magdeburg and Bishop Dietrich I of Metz,[4] while Otto was supported by Willigis, Archbishop of Mainz and the Dukes of Saxony, Bavaria and Swabia.[3] Soon however, Henry was claiming the crown for himself, obtaining the allegiance of Mieszko I of Poland and Boleslaus II, Duke of Bohemia.[4] However, the threat of war saw Henry, forced by Willigis and Conrad I, Duke of Swabia, to relinquish Otto on June 29, 984, and agreeing to respect the rule of his mother, the Byzantine princess Theophanu, as regent.[4] She abandoned her husband's imperialistic policy and devoted herself entirely to furthering an alliance between Church and Empire. She was unable, however, to prevent France from speedily freeing itself from German influence.

In this, France was aided by Henry the Quarrelsome, who continued to conspire against the young Otto, and towards the end of 984, he began negotiating with King Lothair of France, and in exchange for agreeing to make Henry king, Henry agreed to relinquish Lotharingia.[4] The two agreed to join their armies on February 1, 985, in order to take the city of Breisach, but at the last minute, Henry’s resolve weakened. He submitted to Otto in June 985, and in return the duchy of Bavaria was restored to him.[5] Nevertheless, Lothair continued to press on into German lands and succeeded in overrunning the Verdun by March 985.[6]

The regent endeavoured to watch over the national questions of the Eastern Empire. One of the greatest achievements of the empress was her success in maintaining feudal supremacy over Bohemia, as Duke Boleslaus II of Bohemia was forced to accept the authority of Otto and his mother.[5] After Theophanu's death in 991, Otto's grandmother, Adelaide of Italy, then served as regent together with Willigis until Otto III reached his majority in 994.[7]

In external matters, the situation was equally difficult for the new king. Already in 983, the Lutici had initiated a successful revolt in the Billung and Northern Marches.[8] The unsuccessful attempts to reconquer these marches became a central objective of Otto's early rule, and he participated in these campaigns in person since the age of six (see Lutici). During his 986 expedition against them, he received the homage of Duke Mieszko I of Poland, during which Otto received many gifts, including a camel.[5] Although the Lutici were subdued for a time in 987, they continued to occupy the young king’s mind, and when he reached is majority he again took to the field against them in the fall of 995, together with the Polish Duke Bolesław I Chrobry.[9] Then in 997, he had to deal with a new Lutici incursion against Arneburg on the Elbe, which they managed to retake for a short while.[9]

Other foreign powers were also busy during this time. In 991, the Hungarians were repulsed after a failed invasion, as Vikings from Scandinavia plundered the countryside.[5] Slavonic raiders captured Brandenburg, under the command of the Saxon Kizo, forcing Otto to take to the field in 992 to deal with them as well as the Scandinavian raiders.[10] If this weren’t bad enough, 993 saw disease, famine and pestilence affect the land, causing great misery, while 994 and 995 saw fruitless campaigns against the northern Slavs and the Vikings.[10] The only bright spots were the reconquest of Brandenburg in 993 and the defeat of the Obotrites in 995.[10] After this the northern situation settled down enough for Otto to turn his attention to the place he was most interested – Italy.[9]

Arrival in Italy

Otto attempted to revive the glory and power of ancient Rome with himself at the head of a theocratic state.[9] In 996, he came to the aid of Pope John XV at the pope's request to put down the rebellion of the Roman nobleman Crescentius II.[11] Reaching Pavia at Easter, he was declared King of the Lombards,[11] but failed to reach Rome before the Pope died.[12] Crescentius in the meantime had tried to be conciliatory by allowing John XV to return, and now agreed to accept the Imperial nominee as pope.[11] Otto’s selection was his cousin and the court chaplain, Bruno of Carinthia, as Pope Gregory V, the first German pope.[13] Nevertheless, Crescentius shut himself in the Tomb of Hadrian, fearful for his future.[14]

The new pontiff crowned Otto emperor on 21 May 996, in Rome. Here his main advisors were two of the main characters of this age, his tutor Gerbert of Aurillac[9] and the bishop Adalbert of Prague.[15] Together with these two visionary men, influenced by the Roman ruins and perhaps by his Byzantine mother,[16] Otto devised a dream of restoration of a universal Empire formed by the union of the Papacy, Byzantium and Rome.[9] He also introduced some Byzantine court customs.[17]

The Emperor showed his intentions very quickly as he refused to renew the confirmation of the papal see’s privileges by his grandfather Otto I, as well as refusing to acknowledge the Donation of Constantine which he declared a forgery.[17] This resulted in tensions with the Roman nobility and Curia.[17] He also convened a council in Rome which condemned Crescentius and sentenced him to exile, but as a result of the pope’s petition, the sentence was revoked.[16] He did however, manage to obtain support from the other non-Roman, Italian nobles, such as the Tuscan count, Hugh.[16]

However, as soon as Otto had left Rome one year later, the city magnate Crescentius II deposed Gregory and installed John XVI as pope.[18] Leaving his aunt, Matilda of Quedlinburg, as regent in Germany, Otto returned to Italy and retook the city in February 998, storming the Tomb of Hadrian.[14] Crescentius was executed in the Tomb of Hadrian, the antipope mutilated and blinded, and Gregory reinstated.[19]

Otto made Rome the administrative center of his Empire and revived elaborate Roman customs and Byzantine court ceremonies. He built an imperial palace on the Palatine Hill,[17] and planned to restore the Roman Senate.[20] He established a regular administrative system of government for the capital, naming a patrician, a prefect, and a body of judges, who were commanded to recognize only Roman law.[21] He took the titles "the servant of Jesus Christ," "the servant of the apostles",[17] "consul of the Roman senate and people" and "emperor of the world".[20] When Gregory V mysteriously died in 999, Otto arranged for Gerbert to be elected pope as Sylvester II.[19] The use of this papal name was not casual: it recalled the first pope of this name, who had allegedly created the "Christian Empire" together with Constantine the Great.[9] Otto therefore was to be seen as the ideal successor to Constantine in the task of reunifying the Roman Empire.

Between 998 and 1000 Otto, being a fervent Christian, made several pilgrimages, although his enemies declared that he made those pilgrimages in order to do penance for having captured Crescentius after promising his safety.[19] He travelled to the Gargano Peninsula in Southern Italy and to Gaeta, where he met Saint Nilus the Younger, then a highly venerated religious figure. Later he left Italy, taking the pro-Byzantine Duke of Naples, John IV, captive with him, for the tomb of Adalbert of Prague (who in the meantime had been martyred by the pagan Prussians) at Gniezno, and during the meeting with Bolesław I the Brave in the Congress of Gniezno he founded the archbishopric of Poland. In Eastern Europe Otto and his entourage strengthened relationships with the Polish Duchy and with Stephen of Hungary, who had requested and been granted a crown by Sylvester.[22] Otto was advised by Saint Romuald, the fervent reforming hermit idealized by Saint Peter Damian in the "Vita beati Romualdi". Romuald urged Otto to become a monk.

Another model to which Otto strongly aspired was Charlemagne. In the year 1000 he visited Charlemagne's tomb in Aachen, removing relics from it.[20] He had also carried back parts of the body of Adalbert, which he placed in a splendid new church he had built in the Isola Tiberina in Rome, now San Bartolomeo all'Isola. Otto also added the skin of Saint Bartholomew to the relics housed there.

A minor rebellion by the town of Tibur (Tivoli) in 1001 ended up as his undoing. He retook the town, but spared the inhabitants, which angered the people of Rome, as Tibur was a rival they wanted destroyed.[20] This led to a rebellion by the Roman people, headed by Gregory, Count of Tusculum; Otto was besieged in his palace and then driven from the city.[19] He withdrew to Ravenna to do penance in the monastery of Sant'Apollinare in Classe. After having summoned his army, Otto headed southwards to reconquer Rome, but died in the castle of Paterno, near Civita Castellana, on 24 January 1002.[23] A Byzantine princess (probably Zoe, second daughter of Emperor Constantine VIII) had just disembarked in Puglia, on her way to marry him.[24]

Causes of death

Otto's death has been attributed to various causes; medieval sources speak of malaria, which he had caught in the unhealthy marshes that surrounded Ravenna.[19] The Romans suggested instead that Stefania, the widow of Crescentius, had made him fall in love with her and then poisoned him.[20] Otto's body was carried back to Germany by his loyal soldiers, as all the while his route was lined with Italians who hurled abuses at his remains.[22] He was buried in Aachen Cathedral together with that of Charlemagne.[25]

Otto's cousin Henry, son of Henry the Quarrelsome, succeeded him as king (and later as emperor) as Henry II.


Otto's mental gifts were considerable, and were carefully cultivated by Bernward, afterwards bishop of Hildesheim, and by Gerbert of Aurillac, archbishop of Reims.[7] He spoke three languages and was so learned that contemporaries called him "the wonder of the world."[26] Enamoured as he was of Greek and Roman culture, he ended up being contemptuous of his German subjects.[26]

Accounts of his reign

Between 1012 and 1018 Thietmar of Merseburg wrote a Chronicon, or Chronicle, in eight books, which deals with the period between 908 and 1018. For the earlier part he used Widukind's Res gestae Saxonicae, the Annales Quedlinburgenses and other sources; the latter part is the result of personal knowledge. The chronicle is nevertheless an excellent authority for the history of Saxony during the reigns of the emperors Otto III and Henry II. No kind of information is excluded, but the fullest details refer to the bishopric of Merseburg, and to the wars against the Wends and the Poles.


See also

  • Kings of Germany family tree.


  • Reuter, Timothy, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. III: c. 900-c. 1024, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  • Canduci, Alexander (2010), Triumph & Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Immortal Emperors, Pier 9, ISBN 978-1741965988 
  • Duckett, Eleanor (1968). Death and Life in the Tenth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Bryce, James, The Holy Roman Empire. 1913
  • Comyn, Robert. History of the Western Empire, from its Restoration by Charlemagne to the Accession of Charles V, Vol. I. 1851
  • Althoff, Gerd, Otto III, Penn State Press, 2002 ISBN 0-271-02232-9
  •  Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Otto III". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 


  1. ^ Reuter, pg. 255
  2. ^ a b Duckett, pg. 106
  3. ^ a b c Comyn, pg. 121
  4. ^ a b c d Duckett, pg. 107
  5. ^ a b c d Duckett, pg. 108
  6. ^ Duckett, pgs. 107-108
  7. ^ a b Comyn, pg. 122
  8. ^ Reuter, pg. 256
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Reuter, pg. 257
  10. ^ a b c Duckett, pg. 109
  11. ^ a b c Duckett, pg. 111
  12. ^ Comyn, pg. 123
  13. ^ Duckett, pg. 111; Reuter, pg. 258
  14. ^ a b Comyn, pg. 124
  15. ^ Duckett, pg. 113
  16. ^ a b c Duckett, pg. 112
  17. ^ a b c d e Reuter, pg. 258
  18. ^ Duckett, pg. 124
  19. ^ a b c d e Comyn, pg. 125
  20. ^ a b c d e Canduci, pg. 227
  21. ^ Bryce, pg. 146
  22. ^ a b Comyn, pg. 126
  23. ^ Bryce, pg. xxxvi
  24. ^ Norwich, John Julius (1993), Byzantium: The Apogee, pg. 253
  25. ^ Bryce, pg. 147
  26. ^ a b Canduci, pg. 226

Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor
House of Saxony (Liudolfing)
Born: 980 Died: 1002
German royalty
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Otto II
King of Germany
Succeeded by
Henry II
Holy Roman Emperor
King of Italy
Succeeded by
Arduin of Ivrea
Preceded by
Consul of the Roman Empire
Succeeded by

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor — Otto II redirects here. For the Margrave of Brandenburg, see Otto II, Margrave of Brandenburg. For the King of Hungary, see Otto II of Hungary. For the Duke of Andechs and Merania, see Otto II of Andechs and Merania. For the Count of Oldenburg,… …   Wikipedia

  • Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor — Otto IV redirects here. For other uses, see Otto IV (disambiguation). Otto IV 19th Century impression of Otto IV Holy Roman Emperor Reign …   Wikipedia

  • Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor — Otto I redirects here. For other uses, see Otto I (disambiguation). Otto I The Magdeburger Reiter: a tinted sandstone equestrian monument, c. 1240, traditionally intended as a portrait of Otto I (detail), Magdeburg …   Wikipedia

  • Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor — Henry III (29 October 1017 ndash; 5 October 1056), called the Black or the Pious, was a member of the Salian Dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors. He was the eldest son of Conrad II of Germany and Gisela of Swabia and his father made him duke of… …   Wikipedia

  • Holy Roman Emperor — Infobox Former Emperorship realm = the Holy Roman Empire insignia = Banner of the Holy Roman Emperor (after 1400).svg insigniasize = 120px insigniacaption = Flag of the Holy Roman Empire caption = Otto I the first Emperor first emperor = Otto I… …   Wikipedia

  • Holy Roman Emperor — noun sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire • Hypernyms: ↑emperor • Instance Hyponyms: ↑Charlemagne, ↑Carolus, ↑Charles, ↑Charles I, ↑Charles the Great, ↑Charles II, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor — Charles V Holy Roman Emperor; King of the Romans; King of Italy Reign 28 June 1519 – 27 August 1556[1] …   Wikipedia

  • Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor — Charles VI Charles VI in the regalia of the Order of the Golden Fleece Holy Roman Emperor; King of the Romans (King of Germany) Reign …   Wikipedia

  • Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor — For other uses, see Emperor Maximilian (disambiguation). Maximilian I Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1519 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Maximilian holds his personal emblem, the pomegranate …   Wikipedia

  • Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor — Maximilian II King of Bohemia Reign 20 September 1562 – 12 October 1576 Coronation 20 September 1562, Prague Predecess …   Wikipedia