Was Charlemagne really a Roman Emperor?

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Historians consider the "Roman Empire" to have lasted from approximately 27 BCE (Before Common Era) until 476 CE when the last Roman emperor in Rome, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown by the barbarian King Odoacer. The empire in the east, however, with its capital in Constantinople, lasted nearly one hundred years...

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Historians consider the "Roman Empire" to have lasted from approximately 27 BCE (Before Common Era) until 476 CE when the last Roman emperor in Rome, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown by the barbarian King Odoacer. The empire in the east, however, with its capital in Constantinople, lasted nearly one hundred years longer but was known as the Byzantine Empire. The empire had been divided by the Emperor Diocletian in 285 CE. Because of these facts, Charlemagne is not considered to be a "Roman Emperor."

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was the Frankish king who succeeded in unifying much of western and central Europe, including France, parts of Germany, and parts of Italy, in the eighth century. He was born in what is now Germany. He became Holy Roman Emperor in 800, precisely because he wanted to unite the parts of Europe under his control for the future. Catholics believe he was the first emperor of a "Christian Empire in the West," and Catholic historians claim he was particularly fond of Rome and wanted it to regain its ancient authority during his lifetime. But to see Charlemagne as a "Roman Emperor" in the same way as Augustus, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius is a mistake.

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The above answer is incorrect in several aspects. Charlemagne considered himself King of the Franks, and remained so until his death. His subjects considered him as King of the Franks also as well as they did his father, Pepin the Short, and his son Louis the Pious.

Charlemagne was crowned "Emperor of the Romans" by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800 C.E. There is considerable debate about Leo's purpose in doing so, or even if Charlemagne knew he intended to do so.

Charlemagne spoke a Frankish tongue, and although he knew some Latin, he was illiterate. He spoke of his Empire as the Frankish Empire, and later generations have called it the Holy Roman Empire. He neither dressed nor conducted himself as a Roman Emperor, and considered the only true Roman Emperor to be the Emperor in Constantinople. So it did NOT depend upon whom one asked--everyone would tell you that Charlemagne was NOT a Roman Emperor by anyones definition.

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This is a great question and the answer will depend on who you ask. In other words, there will be differences of opinion. Let me start off with a few words on who Charlemagne was.

Charlemagne (Charles the Great), was the king of the Franks from 768. He also took the title of the Emperor of the Romans from 800 until this death in 814. So, if we asked him whether he was the Roman Emperor, he would answer in the affirmative. If we were to ask his subjects, they, too, would answer in the affirmative.

However, if you were to ask the East Roman Empire, which was based in Constantinople (post Constantine), they would not acknowledge Charlemagne as the Emperor of Rome. As far as they were concerned, the western empire ceased to exist.

Modern scholarship by and large does not see Charlemagne as in the line of Roman Emperors. No list that I know of traces the Western Roman Emperors to Charlemagne. Scholars are generally accepting of the fact that the last Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus (475-476).


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