Let's start with the elephant in the room. In the summer of 802, an elephant called Abul-Azaz appeared at Aachen, at the court of Charles, king of the Franks and recently crowned Roman Emperor. The creature had been sent from Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and it was received with delight by the court that saw here a sign of their ruler's now world-wide status. In fact, Abul-Azaz was a snub: as the Franks were most likely unaware, the Caliph was in the habit of giving elephants to those whom he regarded as client kings. Western ignorance of Baghdad convention ensured that a potential diplomatic face-off became a "win-win" situation for all concerned: the Caliph's sense of the right order of the world was confirmed, while in the West, the Emperor's publicists went to work on the gift with excitement. Charles's elephant duly entered Latin political folklore as an icon of his greatness.
Emperor and myth: The coronation of Charlemagne, from a ninth-century illumination
The making of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (from Carolus magnus in Latin), is the central theme of Hywel Williams's fine study, Emperor of the West (although the irony of the misunderstood elephant is a rare missed trick). Readers after a romping good tale of conquest and plunder will, after the first 100 pages or so, lose interest. What we get instead is a more interesting medieval "Just So Story": how the Germanic king became a Roman emperor, how a war leader became a myth. In a series of well-read and elegantly-turned chapters, Williams considers how Charlemagne's family, the Carolingians, took over as kings of the Franks, how Charlemagne received imperial coronation from the Pope in Rome, and above all, how imperial rule was sustained in such a way as to reframe the political culture of the Latin West.
The key here is to look away from the figure of Charlemagne himself, to those around him who were complicit in his creation. Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler comes to mind. In approaching his task, Kershaw found that if he included Hitler's audience, who saw themselves as "working towards the Führer along the lines he would have wished", then the possibility of Hitler's own story started to make sense. Mutatis mutandis, Williams here explains how and why the Frankish aristocracy subscribed to the Carolingian project and in particular to the monumentalisation of Charles. For over a century, Frankish elites bought into an over-elaborate apparatus of government and a "twitchy, claustrophobic" programme of what was known at court as cultural "renewal" or "correction".
What was in it for them? Apart from the material rewards — the cascades of plunder, the burgeoning profits of agriculture — there was the promise of participation in a Grand Narrative. The making of Charlemagne was also the making of his people, the Franks. Thanks to their "psychological bounciness", the Franks had already proven themselves the most successful of the Germanic peoples to set up shop after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Charlemagne's capacity to evoke the Roman Empire — through the reach of his conquests and the scale of his renown — meant that the Franks effectively replaced the Romans in the Latin political imaginary. Indeed, thanks to papal consecration and the support of their own churchmen, the Carolingians could present their assumption of power as an event in sacred history. Rome was now joined with Jerusalem: the Franks were not only the new Romans, but also the new Israelites. Although the Empire itself lasted barely a century, it was enough to establish a new template for political identity in the West. As Williams emphasises in his final pages, European nationhood, and the shape of the wider polity that was Europe took shape within the Carolingian matrix. As an example of how to rule one's own destiny, this family is hard to beat.