Rethinking Otto III – or Not

Chris Wickham revisits an article by J.B.Morrall, first published in History Today in 1959, on the strange, shortlived emperor who in the tenth century sought to rule the lands we now call Germany and Italy.

J.B.Morrall in 1959 wrote what was for the period a pretty good account of Otto III’s unusual but brief career. Why Morrall, who was a political scientist, seized on Otto is not clear, but he caught the fascination of the man and the difficulty historians have had in placing him. They are no more agreed today.

Otto III (983-1002), from a family based in Saxony in northern Germany, was emperor of what we now call Germany and Italy; they had been ruled together since his grand-father Otto I took Italy in 962. Otto III was three at his accession and took up sole rule when still only 14.He went to Rome to be crowned emperor in 996. Like Otto I he took the opportunity to choose a new pope and chose his cousin as Gregory V, the first pope ever from north of the Alps. Otto left Rome again for the north and Gregory was expelled shortly after. Otto returned in anger in 998, re-established Gregory and killed or mutilated his opponents, including the rival pope, John XVI.

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