Christendom would have fared ill if it had had in the eighth century no stronger defender than Roderick and the weakened Goths, for it was pressed on every side by heathen and barbaric peoples. There had been indeed no united Christendom since the death of Theodoric two hundred years before. The union of Christian nations, into which the barbarian Clovis had been the last king to be admitted, had fallen to pieces at Theodoric's death, and no man had been strong enough to unite the warring tribes and nations of the Teutonic and Roman races until there succeeded to the throne of Clovis the Frankish Charles, known in history as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great.
Charlemagne was the hero of Europe for all the Middle Ages. Even the Saxons, who had every reason to hate him as their conqueror, wrote on the pages of history, "The best man on earth and the bravest was Charles: truth and good faith he established and kept." In the hour when they trembled before his "fierce fury" the barbarian nations admired the Frankish king. But how they feared him! There is a story of Didier, a Lombard king who opposed him and was driven by his armies within the walls of the strongest city of the Lombards.
Didier had never seen the Frankish king, but Otger his friend had been at his court. When they heard that the formidable Charles was approaching, the two went up to a high tower to spy him from afar.
When the baggage train appeared, followed by the engines of war with which to attack the city, Didier said to Otger, "Is Charles in that great host?"
"No," replied Otger, "Charles is not yet there."
Then Didier saw a host of common soldiery coming, and spoke confidently, "Of a truth Charles advances now in this throng."
"No, no," replied Otger, "not yet."
The king fretted himself and cried, "What then shall we do if he has more than these?"
"The manner of his coming you will see," replied Otger, solemnly, "but what shall become of us I know not." For Otger was afraid; well he knew the wealth and might of the peerless Charles. "When you see the plain bristle with a harvest of spears, and rivers of black iron come flowing in upon your city walls, then you may look for the coming of Charles."
While yet he spoke, as the chronicler tells it, a black cloud arose in the west and the glorious daylight was turned to darkness. The emperor came on; a dawn of spears darker than night rose on the besieged city. King Charles, that man of iron, appeared. Iron his helmet, iron his gauntlet, iron the corselet on his breast and shoulders. His left hand grasped an iron lance. Iron the spirit, iron the hue of his war steed. Before, behind, and at his side rode men arrayed in the same guise. Iron filled the plain and open spaces; iron points flashed back the sunlight.
"There is the man whom you would see," said Otger to the king.
Charlemagne is described as "large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not over-tall. His eyes were very large and animated, his nose long, his hair fair, and his face laughing and merry. His appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting."
"Charlemagne used to wear," the chronicler continues, "the national, that is to say the Frankish, dress,—next his skin a linen shirt and linen breeches, and above these a tunic fringed with silk; while hose covered his lower limbs, and shoes his feet, and he protected his chest in winter by a close fitting coat of otter or marten skins. Over all he flung a blue cloak, and he always had a sword girt about him, usually one with a gold or silver hilt and belt; he sometimes carried a jeweled sword, but only on great feast days. On these he made use of embroidered clothes, and shoes bedecked with precious stones; his cloak was fastened by a golden buckle, and he appeared crowned with a diadem of gold and gems; but on other days his dress varied little from the common dress of the people. Above all things he despised foreign costumes, however handsome."
This is the portrait, as it has come down to us by pen and picture, of the great ruler who came in the year 800 to the gates of Rome, the first Teuton to receive the title "Emperor of Rome,"—the man who stands in history halfway between the ancient world and the modern, the central figure of the Middle Ages. The barbarian of one age had become the noble of the next. The Pope of the Christian Church received him at the gates of the city, for had he not restored and extended the ancient bounds of Christendom? He had found Christendom smaller than in the days of Theodoric, much smaller than the extent of the Roman Empire. Spain had been lost since the three days' battle of Guadelete; Slavic peoples held the eastern lands which Theodoric and his Goths had forsaken to come over into Italy; and beyond the Rhine border heathen Saxons had occupied the northern regions which Goths had held in the days of Drusus and Athanaric. In twenty-five years of conquest Charlemagne had driven back the Saracens, who had been looking with longing over the mountains into the fertile plains of France. Only at fearful cost had they been checked. Roland and Oliver and flower of the Frankish army had fallen on that terrible day at Roncesvalles, celebrated in song and story, but they had not died in vain if they had held back the stream of Moslem warriors from Christendom. The Saxons had been conquered and brought to Christianity; their heathen king Wittekind had received baptism in the presence of Charlemagne on Frankish soil; the Slavic peoples had been driven back and subdued; and now in a realm where peace and prosperity reigned, the great warrior had laid down his arms and come to Rome to receive the title which had been handed down by the proudest people on earth for many centuries.
On Christmas Day the Franks and Romans went to the great church of St. Peter's to worship. It must have been an impressive scene,—the huge building but dimly lighted with candles, save for the altar, where three thousand candles made a great triumphal arch; the Pope and his attendants in the rich robes of their office conducting the stately Christmas service; Charlemagne and his sons kneeling before the altar, a little apart from the crowd. Then when the service was over, as the king rose from his knees, the Pope suddenly came forward with a great crown of gold, which he set upon his head. Instantly the huge assembly responded with the shout: "Long life to Charles the Augustus, the mighty Charles, crowned of God, the great and pacific Emperor of the Romans," and the Pope and all the people gave him homage.