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Charlemagne in Italy

The celebrated King of the Franks may have become the first Holy Roman Emperor, but what other impact and legacies did he leave Dark Age Italy? Ross Balzaretti investigates.

Charlemagne's conduct towards the vanquished Lombards was, on the whole, generous and statesmanlike. By assuming the title of king of the Lombards he showed that it was not his object to destroy the nationality of the countrymen of Alboin, nor to force them into one people with the Franks. Had his own son Pippin lived and transmitted his sceptre to his descendants, there ought possibly have been founded a kingdom of Italy, strong, patriotic and enduring.

Thomas Hodgkin (1831-1913), who published this assessment of Charlemagne's Italian legacy in 1897, was of that British generation which lived excitedly through the creation of an Italian national state. Indeed, he was writing his most celebrated work, Italy and Her Invaders - a monumental eight volume history of Ostrogothic, Lombard and Frankish involvement with Italy -whilst it was taking shape, and his reaction to political events coloured many passages besides the one above. It may strike us today as strange, when most modern scholars place Carlomagno a very poor third behind Charlemagne and Karl der Grosse, that he should have portrayed Charles as the man who nearly founded Italy almost exactly eleven hundred years before. Perhaps by exploring the views of ninth-century historians it is possible to test his old hypothesis.

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