Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

The Reign of Otto II

Otho ii., Emperor of Germany,—Otho the Red, as he was called, from his florid complexion,—succeeded to the Western Empire in 973, when in his eighteenth year of age. His reign was to be a short and active one, and attended by adventures and fluctuations of fortune which render it worthy of description. Few monarchs have experienced so many of the ups and downs of life within the brief period of five years, through which his wars extended.

As heir to the imperial title of Charlemagne, he was lord of the ancient palace of the great emperor, at Aix-la-Chapelle, and here held court at the feast of St. John in the year 978. All was peace and festivity within the old imperial city, all war and threat without it. While Otho and his courtiers, knights and ladies, lords and minions, were enjoying life with ball and banquet, feast and frivolity, in true palatial fashion, an army was marching secretly upon them, with treacherous intent to seize the emperor and his city at one full swoop. Lothaire, King of France, had in haste and secrecy collected an army, and, without a declaration of hostilities, was hastening, by forced marches, upon Aix-la-Chapelle.

It was an act of treachery utterly undeserving of success. But it is not always the deserving to whom success comes, and Otho heard of the rapid approach of this army barely in time to take to flight, with his fear-winged flock of courtiers at his heels, leaving the city an easy prey to the enemy. Lothaire entered the city without a blow, plundered it as if he had taken it by storm, and ordered that the imperial eagle, which was erected in the grand square of Charles the Great, should have its beak turned westward, in token that Lorraine now belonged to France.

Doubtless the great eagle turned creakingly on its support, thus moved by the hand of unkingly perfidy, and impatiently awaited for time and the tide of affairs to turn its beak again to the east. It had not long to wait. The fugitive emperor hastily called a diet of the princes and nobles at Dortmund, told them in impassioned eloquence of the faithless act of the French king, and called upon them for aid against the treacherous Lothaire. Little appeal was needed. The honor of Germany was concerned. Setting aside all the petty squabbles which rent the land, the indignant princes gathered their forces and placed them under Otho's command. By the 1st of October the late fugitive found himself at the head of a considerable army, and prepared to take revenge on his perfidious enemy.

Into France he marched, and made his way with little opposition, by Rheims and Soissons, until the French capital lay before his eyes. Here the army encamped on the right bank of the Seine, around Montmartre, while their cavalry avenged the pludering of Aix-la-Chapelle by laying waste the country for many miles around. The French were evidently as little prepared for Otho's activity as he had been for Lothaire's treachery, and did not venture beyond the walls of their city, leaving the country a defenceless prey to the revengeful anger of the emperor.

The Seine lay between the two armies, but not a Frenchman ventured to cross its waters; the garrison of the city, under Hugh Capet,—Count of Paris, and soon to become the founder of a new dynasty of French kings,—keeping closely within its walls. These walls proved too strong for the Germans, and as winter was approaching, and there was much sickness among his troops, the emperor retreated, after having devastated all that region of France. But first he kept a vow that he had made, that he would cause the Parisians to hear a Te Deum  such as they had never heard before. In pursuance of this vow, he gathered upon the hill of Montmartre all the clergymen whom he could seize, and forced them to sing his anthem of victory with the full power of their lungs. Then, having burned the suburbs of Paris, and left his lance quivering in the city gate, he withdrew in triumph, having amply punished the treacherous French king. Aix-la-Chapelle fell again into his hands; the eyes of the imperial eagle were permitted once more to gaze upon Germany, and in the treaty of peace that followed Lorraine was declared to be forever a part of the German realm.

Two years afterwards Otho, infected by that desire to conquer Italy which for centuries afterwards troubled the dreams of German emperors, and brought them no end of trouble, crossed the Alps and descended upon the Italian plains, from which he was never to return. Northern Italy was already in German hands, but the Greeks held possessions in the south which Otho claimed, in view of the fact that he had married Theophania, the daughter of the Greek emperor at Constantinople. To enforce this claim he marched upon the Greek cities, which in their turn made peace with the Arabs, with whom they had been at war, and gathered garrisons of these bronzed pagans alike from Sicily and Africa.

For two years the war continued, the advantage resting with Otho. In 980 he reached Rome, and there had a secret interview with Hugh Capet, whom he sustained in his intention to seize the throne of France, still held by his old enemy Lothaire. In 981 he captured Naples, Taranto, and other cities, and in a pitched battle near Cotrona defeated the Greeks and their Arab allies. Abn al Casem, the terror of southern Italy, and numbers of his Arab followers, were left dead upon the field.

On the 13th of July, 982, the emperor again met the Greeks and their Arab allies in battle, and now occurred that singular adventure and reverse of fortune which has made this engagement memorable. The battle took place at a point near the sea-shore, in the vicinity of Basantello, not far from Taranto, and at first went to the advantage of the imperial forces. They attacked the Greeks with great impetuosity, and, after a stubborn defence, broke through their ranks, and forced them into a retreat, which was orderly conducted.

It was now mid-day. The victors, elated with their success and their hopes of pillage, followed the retreating columns along the banks of the river Corace, feeling so secure that they laid aside their arms and marched leisurely and confidently forward. It was a fatal confidence. At one point in their march the road led between the river and a ridge of serried rocks, which lay silent beneath the mid-day sun. But silent as they seemed, they were instinct with life. An ambuscade of Arabs crouched behind them, impatiently waiting the coming of the unsuspecting Germans.

Suddenly the air pealed with sound, the "Allah il Allah!" of the fanatical Arabs; suddenly the startled eyes of the imperialists saw the rugged rocks bursting, as it seemed, into life; suddenly a horde of dusky warriors poured down upon them with scimitar and javelin, surrounding them quickly on all sides, cutting and slashing their way deeply into the disordered ranks. The scattered troops, stricken with dismay, fell in hundreds. In their surprise and confusion they became easy victims to their agile foes, and in a short time nearly the whole of that recently victorious army were slain or taken prisoners. Of the entire force only a small number broke through the lines of their environing foes.

The emperor escaped almost by miracle. His trusty steed bore him unharmed through the crowding Arabs. He was sharply pursued, but the swift animal distanced the pursuers, and before long he reached the sea-shore, over whose firm sands he guided his horse, though with little hope of escaping his active foes. Fortunately, he soon perceived a Greek vessel at no great distance from the shore, a vision which held out to him a forlorn hope of escape. The land was perilous; the sea might be more propitious; he forced his faithful animal into the water, and swam towards the vessel, in the double hope of being rescued and remaining unknown.

He was successful in both particulars. The crew willingly took him on board, ignorant of his high rank, but deeming him to be a knight of distinction, from whom they could fairly hope for a handsome ransom. His situation was still a dangerous one, should he become known, and he could not long hope to remain incognito. In truth, there was a slave on board who knew him, but who, for purposes of his own, kept the perilous secret. He communicated by stealth with the emperor, told him of his recognition, and arranged with him a plan of escape. In pursuance of this he told the Greeks that their captive was a chamberlain of the emperor, a statement which Otho confirmed, and added that he had valuable treasures at Rossano, which, if they would sail thither, they might take on board as his ransom.

The Greek mariners, deceived by the specious tale, turned their vessel's prow towards Rossano, and on coming near that city, shifted their course towards the shore. Otho had been eagerly awaiting this opportunity. When they had approached sufficiently near to the land, he suddenly sprang from the deck into the sea, and swam ashore with a strength and swiftness that soon brought him to the strand. In a short time afterwards he entered Rossano, then held by his forces, and joined his queen, who had been left in that city.

This singular adventure is told with a number of variations by the several writers who have related it, most of them significant of the love of the marvellous of the old chroniclers. One writer tells us that the escaping emperor was pursued and attacked by the Greek boatmen, and that he killed forty of them with the aid of a soldier, named Probus, whom he met on the shore. By another we are told that the Greeks recognized him, that he enticed them to the shore by requesting them to take on board his wife and treasures, which had been left at Rossano, and that he sent young men on board disguised as female attendants of his wife, by whose aid he seized the vessel. All the stories agree, however, in saying that Theophania jeeringly asked the emperor whether her countrymen had not put him in mortal fear,—a jest for which the Germans never forgave her.

To return to the domain of fact, we have but further to tell that the emperor, full of grief and vexation at the loss of his army, and the slaughter of many of the German and Italian princes and nobles who had accompanied him, returned to upper Italy, with the purpose of collecting another army.

All his conquests in the south had fallen again into the hands of the enemy, and his work remained to be done over again. He held a grand assembly in Verona, in which he had his son Otho, three years old, elected as his successor. From there he proceeded to Rome, in which city he was attacked by a violent fever, brought on by the grief and excitement into which his reverses had thrown his susceptible and impatient mind. He died December 7, 983, and was buried in the church of St. Peter, at Rome.

The fancy of the chroniclers has surrounded his death with legends, which are worth repeating as curious examples of what mediŠval writers offered and mediŠval readers accepted as history. One of them tells the story of a naval engagement between Otho and the Greeks, in which the fight was so bitter that the whole sea around the vessels was stained red with blood. The emperor won the victory, but received a mortal wound.

Another story, which does not trouble itself to sail very close to the commonplace, relates that Otho met his end by being whipped to death on Mount Garganus by the angels, among whom he had imprudently ventured while they were holding a conclave there. These stories will serve as examples of the degree of credibility of many of the ancient chronicles and the credulity of their readers.

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