Bernard S. Bachrach
Charlemagne’s Early Campaigns (768-777)
(Brill: 2013) 768pp. $297
It is difficult to believe that this book is the first full-length treatment of Charlemagne at war, given the fact that the examination of merely 9 years at the beginning of his reign takes up more than 650 pages of text before the requisite indices and bibliographical material. For those students of medieval history who have at least some grasp of Latin as well as an appreciation of the complex interplay between the infrastructure, economic resources, politics, diplomacy, religion, literature, and military leadership will find much to appreciate in this book. Writing a book like this must have been a substantial endeavor in terms of research and time (much like the endeavor that was Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony, if the comparison may be made), but it is an effort that will greatly enrich the learning of those who wish to put Charlemagne and the early Carloginians in general in a context of late-Roman leadership as opposed to “barbarian” approaches.
Given the debate over the legacy of Roman culture and civilization in the Medieval world, it is refreshing that this book both takes a principled and firm and well-supported stance that Charlemagne was interested in preserving as much of Rome’s culture and restoring as much of its glory as possible. As the author says in the introduction, “It is important to make clear that in so many areas, including the imposition of oaths universally throughout the lands of his regnum, imitatio imperii was an aspect of Charlemagne’s rule that he cultivated with great care.” (34) The author makes this claim at the start of the book, and then spends the book backing it up with copious references to surviving Roman works that have survived from antiquity and showing how Charlemagne and his advisers and those who chronicled his reign would have seen his deeds as a conscious imitation of what was known to them from Augustus and other Roman emperors.
As this is a book primarily dedicated to military and diplomatic history (and their relationship in the first decade of Charlemagne’s reign), it is little surprise that the book features numerous references to principles that can be found in Tacitus, Livy, Vegetius, Suetonius, and more obscure Roman authors like Velleius. Additionally, the author engages thoughtfully in a scholarly discussion of such matters as army size and the logistical capability of the Frankish realm by a cross-cultural comparison with Alfred’s Wessex. The basic thrust of the author’s argument is that given the biases of contemporary sources to show small numbers, the fact that chronicles consistently show large numbers for Charlemagne’s army suggests that Charlemagne sought to use the (Roman and contemporary) doctrine of overwhelming force in order to overawe opponents into surrender. Over and over again in this book, in an early rebellion in Aquitaine, in dealing with the Lombards of Pavia, or in dealing with the Saxons in three campaigns, we see Charlemagne show up at a siege or a battlefield with such a massive and powerful force that opponents are cowed into surrender and treated with graciousness.
One of the intriguing elements of this book is the way it shows the competing interests of different players in Western Europe. One sees glimpses of the shifting politics of different popes, the Lombards, the Bavarians, two Frankish kings (Charlemagne and Carloman at first, before Carloman’s early death), and their neighbors, and even the Byzantines and Avars. While this work is organized according in a chronological fashion by military campaign, there is a great deal of attention paid to the diplomatic success of the Frankish kingdom, as well as the role of the Franks as the protectors of the papacy and their interests, just as the papacy was key in providing legitimacy to the Frankish monarchy in the face of competitors and even serious efforts at rebellion by their relatives in Bavaria who sought their own papal recognition of their own kingdom. The soft power of the papacy, along with the Frankish conception of realpolitik, is something that receives a great deal of attention here, showing in particular how the papacy was able to provide reinforcements and logistical support for Frankish efforts in Italy, which led to the increase of the temporal power of the pope and other religious figures, such as some early count-bishops on the border regions of Charlemagne’s empire.
Given the chronological order of Charlemagne’s campaigns, which start with an abortive internal revolt during the time when the Frankish kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his brother Carloman, with whom he did not have a good relationship in Aquitaine, some clear conclusions can be drawn. For one, the complicated three-way diplomacy of Charlemagne, the Lombard kingdom, and the pope drew the Franks into an unwanted conflict when they had already embarked on an effort to conquer Saxony. Likewise, their involvement in Italy emboldened the Saxons to resist the Franks with considerable strength including the assistance of siege weapons from an unknown third party. Through the whole course of this masterful tour de force the author shows a skillful use of archeological evidence and textual evidence and an avoidance of speculation and dismissive bias against such information as we possess to reconstruct and understand the past.
Bachrach’s book is a work that ought to appeal to those students of medieval military history who wish to take a deep look at a short but dramatic period in history that covers basically the first decade of Charlemagne’s rule and the centrality of military efforts to the maintenance and expansion of the Frankish realm. The whole picture demonstrates the interest that the Frankish rulers had in consolidating rule over territories for purposes of trade and taxation and legitimacy and the avoidance of raids taken for mere booty. The strength of Carloginian authority and power appears to have been far greater than they have been given credit for, and those who are willing to see Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom as being one of imperial continuity and restoration will find much in here to encourage a larger view of the pivotal influence of the Roman model on the successor kingdoms of the Middle Ages.