The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization
9. The Slavs at the Crossroads. Federation in Otto III’s Roman Empire or the Formation of a Great Slav State?
1. Otto III’s new conception of the Roman Empire
2. St. Adalbert of Prague
3. Otto III, Boleslas the Great, Hungary and Dalmatia
4. The importance of Otto’s plan for a European community
5. Henry II jettisons Otto’s plan
6. The attempt of Boleslas the Great of Poland to form a great Slav state; debasement of the imperial idea
7. The Czech failure to secure Slav leadership
There is yet another reason why Kievan Russia was denied the opportunity of playing the role of an intermediary between Byzantium and Western Europe: the failure of the attempts made by the Poles and the Czechs to form a great Slav state in Central Europe. Such a political formation would have been a great help to Russia, the more so as, at the time when these attempts were made, Bohemia and Poland were still to some extent in possession of the Greco-Slavic cultural inheritance bequeathed by SS. Cyril and Methodius.
As has been shown, the Slavs of Central Europe were being drawn more and more into the orbit of the new German Kingdom. When the German King became the Roman Emperor, it was to be expected that his interest in the Slavic East, then only partially Christianized, would become even more pronounced than in the past. Otto Is daring plans were, however, dashed by the revolt of the Slavs and the death of his son, Otto II, in Calabria (983). Otto II was one of the first of a long line of German kings, dukes and knights who paid with their lives for the realization of the medieval German dream — a universal empire, including Rome
and Italy and the rest of Christian Europe, and having as one of its objects the diffusion of Latin culture, in German garb, to the lands through eastern Europe and across the fertile plains inhabited by the Slavs. Otto II’s marriage to the Byzantine princess, the courageous and intelligent Theophano, was regarded by the Byzantines as a mild form of surrender to the Byzantine Emperor and an action which changed the so-called Western Emperor from a rival into an ally. In this way, the Byzantines thought, the unity of the Roman Empire, of which they regarded themselves as the only lawful heirs, would be saved. Although Otto I, who had asked for a Byzantine bride for his son, did not view the marriage in quite the same light, it still looked as if a new era had begun in the relations between East and West, thanks to Theophano and to her son, the young Otto III, who was half-Saxon and half-Greek. His education was largely in his mother’s hands, and from her he learned not only Greek but also much classical lore.
This grounding in the classics was further developed by Gerbert of Aurillac, the greatest contemporary Western scholar, who had obtained his early education in Catalonia. He was an enthusiastic admirer of all the institutions of the old Roman Republic and Empire. Combining his knowledge of classical lore with Christian traditions, Gerbert dreamed of a new Charlemagne — or rather, a new Constantine the Great — who would revive the Roman Empire, founding it, however, on Christian principles. Perfect collaboration between the Emperor and the Church in all matters should be the lodestar of the reborn Empire.
Gerbert filled the mind of his sensitive pupil with these lofty ideas. He conceived of an Empire extending not only over the West, but including also all the Slav lands. He expressed his views in an enthusiastic outburst in one of his letters: Nostrum, nostrum est Romanum imperium. Dabit vires ferax frugum Italia, ferax militum Gallia et Germania, nec Scithia desunt nobis fortissimo regna — which may be interpreted as follows: “The Roman Empire is ours, ours. Its strength comes from Italy bearing abundant fruits, from Gaul and Germany supplying it with
military might; but to our Empire belong also the most valiant kingdoms of the Slavs.”
Thanks to the intelligent way in which she managed affairs as regent (983-991), Theophano succeeded, with the help of her son’s grandmother and the Archbishop of Mainz, in salvaging as much as possible after the disastrous Slavic upheaval, and she was able to hand over to her son a realm which was both consolidated and well administered. This enabled Otto III to make an immediate start towards realizing his own and his teacher’s dream of a reborn Roman Empire. Therefore, in 998, the young King crushed the powerful, aristocratic Roman family of the Crescentii, who had monopolized the Papacy for themselves, and he placed upon the papal throne his own teacher, Gerbert, known from thence forward as Sylvester II (999-1003). Gerbert deliberately chose the name Sylvester as being reminiscent of Sylvester 1, who — according to a legend which was already popular in the West — had been the inspirer and influential partner of Constantine the Great. Otto III was the new Constantine, and from then onwards the government of the Christian world was to be in the hands of the Emperor and the Pope, acting in mutual accord.
The imperial court in Rome was reorganized, and many of the old Roman and Byzantine titles were reintroduced into the imperial ceremonial. But there remained the problem of the Slavic world. It was evident to the Pope and the young Emperor that the practice of conversion and subjugation introduced by Otto I had not succeeded. A new method had to be devised which would not only produce better results but would also be more in keeping with the new Roman imperial idea.
In this Otto was lucky enough to find another trusted friend and sound adviser in the person of St. Adalbert, Bishop of Prague. St. Adalbert (Vojtěch) visited Rome after a breach in his relations with Duke Boleslas II of Bohemia and lived in the
16. Poland ca. 990
Abbey of SS. Alexius and Boniface. It was there that Otto III found him. Adalbert was a distant cousin of his, and, being somewhat inclined to mysticism, probably through his Greek mother, Otto saw Adalbert frequently and discoursed with him on religious matters. It was in Rome also that Adalbert received the news of the catastrophe which had befallen his family. But when the Archbishop of Mainz insisted that Adalbert should try once more to return to his diocese and the Pope endorsed the Archbishop s demands, Adalbert promised to do so. He asked the Pope’s permission, however, to preach the Gospel to the pagans, should the Czechs refuse to accept him. Adalbert met the Emperor again in Mainz, where he was awaiting the return of the messenger with the expected refusal from Boleslas II.
Adalbert had considerable experience of missionary work. When he succeeded in uniting the whole of the Přemyslide Empire under his authority after the suppression of the bishopric of Moravia, he started missionary activities among the Magyars. Today the Magyars venerate Adalbert as one of their patron saints, and it may be that it was he who administered the sacrament of confirmation to their first Christian King, Stephen I.
During their meetings, Otto III learned from Adalbert that the best method of converting the Polabian and Baltic Slavs was peaceful evangelization and not forceful subjugation. Adalbert himself intended to put this true Christian missionary method into practice, and when he learned that Boleslas II definitely refused to accept him again as Bishop of Prague, he set off for Poland with the idea of going from there to preach the Gospel to the Veletians. But at the request of Boleslas the Great, he went instead to the Prussians, at whose hands he met a martyr’s death in 997. His body was buried with great pomp by Boleslas the Great in Gniezno (Gnesen).
The news of Adalbert’s martyrdom spread like wildfire over the whole of Europe. Otto III rejoiced at the news, because he had, from now on, a trusted friend in heaven, but all who knew Adalbert wanted to follow his example and preach the Gospel to the pagans on the Elbe and the Baltic. Indeed, several missionary
centers were formed for this very purpose, where Italian, German, Czech and Polish monks began to prepare themselves for work in this field. In addition to the Abbey of SS. Alexius and Boniface in Rome, Ravenna and Gniezno provided two such centers. Otto III and Boleslas the Great gave every support to the movement, and it looked as though a new era was beginning for the Polabian and Baltic Slavs, an era of peaceful collaboration with their Christian neighbors. The new Emperor had found a true definition of his imperial duties towards non-Christian nations.
But there were also Christian nations which had to be included in the reborn Roman Empire. Such, for example, was Poland, which had become under Mieszko I an important neighbor, independent, but willing to cooperate with the German King and Roman Emperor. Hungary under its Duke Stephen I was also entering the Christian community. The old aspirations of the Carolingians to the Slavic lands in the South between the rivers Drava and Danube and the Adriatic were not forgotten. And in the distant East there was also Russia. The reborn Roman and Christian Empire was destined to embrace all these new countries, but in order to interest them in the new idea of a Christian commonwealth, built on the old Roman classical and imperial traditions, new ways had to be found of respecting the independent position of the young states yet, at the same time, of uniting them under the leadership of one emperor.
This new way was envisaged in Rome by the young Emperor and his teacher Sylvester II, through a perfect collaboration between the Sacerdotium — or priesthood — and Imperium — or political power. The first prince who was to be won to this idea was Boleslas the Great of Poland. Here again, the memory of the glorious martyr, St. Adalbert, played a great part, for Boleslas s representative in Rome, who conducted the negotiations with the Emperor and the Pope, was Adalberts half-brother Gaudentius. As a result of their talks, Boleslas of Poland eagerly accepted
the new scheme. In order to stress before all Europe the importance of the fact that Poland was the first country to join the Roman Empire in its revived form as a federation of Christian princes under two leaders — the Emperor and the Pope — Otto III went in person to Gniezno. He assumed the title of “Servant of Jesus Christ” in order to make known to all Christians that he was carrying out a decision taken by the two heads of Christendom for the promotion of Christianity in the East. Boleslas the Great received the Emperor with great pomp, and a memorable ceremony took place at the grave of St. Adalbert which is still recorded in the annals of Polish history as the “Act of Gniezno.” Duke Boleslas the Great was promoted to the rank of a Roman Particius and friend of the Emperor, and to him, as his representative in Poland, Otto surrendered all the rights over the Church there which he himself exercised in the Empire. The foundation of the archbishopric of Gniezno was solemnly made public and Gaudentius installed as its first titulary, the new metropolis comprising three bishoprics — that of Cracow, Kolberg (Kołobrzeg) on the Baltic, and Vratislava (Breslau). This organization may have been later completed by Boleslas, who seems to have founded a metropolitan see in Sandomierz for the eastern part of his realm. 
The second country to fall into line was Hungary. A special embassy sent by the Emperor and the Pope presented Stephen I with a royal crown, and from the two heads of Christendom the new King received the right to organize the hierarchy in his land. The first Archbishop of the Hungarians to be appointed was a friend and companion of St. Adalbert, Radla-Asteriscus.
From a letter sent by the Pope to Peter Orseolo, the Doge of Venice, who assumed the title of Dux Dalmatiae after his victories over the Croats, it can be concluded that both the Emperor and the Pope had planned to include this land in the new Roman Empire. The Emperor recognized the new title, and the Venetian
1. H. Paszkiewicz, The Origin of Russia, pp. 380 ff., thinks that this metropolitan see was of Slavonic rite. This theory, however, has not yet been fully substantiated.
chronicler Dandolo exalts the friendly relations which existed between the Emperor and the Doge.
There were some signs that Otto III also intended to approach the Duke of Kiev and invite him to join the new Roman Commonwealth. At least, the Russian Primary Chronicle refers to an embassy sent by the Emperor to Kiev in the year 1001.
Historians still disagree about Otto’s motives and plans, and many German scholars have deplored his weakness in handling the lesser nations; but they forget one thing. Now that the close collaboration between the Emperor and Pope Sylvester II, his mentor and the fount of his inspiration, is established as a fact, it is fairly certain that what they were engaged on was an interesting attempt to realize the medieval dream of a world dominion under the supreme temporal authority of the Emperor in association with the supreme spiritual authority of the Pope. It was also the only scheme emanating from a German source which could have been acceptable to both Germany and the other nations of Central Europe.
But Otto’s plan can be viewed also from another angle. Under his rule, the Germans had their great chance to make a valuable contribution towards the cultural growth of Europe and towards bridging the ever growing gulf between East and West. Thanks to Theophano, the Byzantine Princess and German Queen, the contacts between Byzantium and Western Europe were renewed. Henceforward, it would have been possible for Byzantine cultural influences to penetrate to the very heart of Central Europe by way of southern Italy, where Byzantine power was firmly established , and the western Roman Empire, which Otto Ill’s father and grandfather had tried to link to Byzantium’s Italian possessions. The ties between the Byzantine imperial house and the German Saxon dynasty were about to be strengthened even more when Otto III asked for the hand of a Byzantine bride. A new era seemed to be dawning for Europe as Byzantium’s cultural
inheritance came within its grasp. For at that time the differences between East and West were not such as to preclude this friendly exchange. Had it endured, East and West would have been perhaps no more than geographical distinctions, and their cultural differences would have dwindled into insignificance. Working together, the German and Byzantine Emperors would have eliminated the Arab menace — from Sicily, at least — and they would have gained control over the trade between Byzantium and the Christian countries of the western Mediterranean.
Such were the possibilities which lay open for Europe at the beginning of the eleventh century; but they were dashed to the ground by the premature death of the young Emperor. The end of Otto III was sudden and unexpected. It happened at the moment when the Romans had revolted against him and he was about to crush them with the help of his cousin, Henry, Duke of Bavaria. The latter, who succeeded him as Henry II (10021024), was too narrowly German and he lacked Otto’s wider and more far-reaching ideals.
First of all, he had no feeling for the classical memories of ancient Rome which were so dear to Otto. Instead of speaking of the rebirth of the Roman Empire, he concentrated on a renovation of the Frankish Empire (Renovatio Regni Francorum). He let himself be crowned in Pavia as King of Italy, thus setting a precedent completely at variance with the old imperial tradition, which had never known a king of Italy, but only a Roman emperor.
Boleslas the Great continued to regard himself as Germany’s ally and a member of the Empire, exactly as Otto III had visualised it, in spite of some disappointments at the outset of Henry’s reign. Soon, the Polish Duke was given the opportunity of intervening in Bohemia in favor of the last of the Slavniks, who had taken refuge at his court after the massacre of his family. When Boleslas II of Bohemia, who was responsible for this bloody deed,
died, troubles broke out among his heirs; and Boleslas the Great, upon being approached by certain Czechs with a request that he should arbitrate, appointed the candidate who had taken refuge with him. This, however, proved a failure, as his protégé turned out to be quite incapable of ruling, and the Czechs complained that he was seldom sober. Boleslas the Great therefore removed him and proclaimed himself Duke of Bohemia. He occupied Moravia with Slovakia, the greater part of Bohemia, and soon, accompanied by the Slavnik Soběslav, he stood before the Castle of Prague.
The Emperor did not approve of what had happened, but he was prepared to recognize this conquest, if Boleslas was willing to declare Bohemia a fief of Germany. This the Pole refused to do, and so Henry proclaimed himself the avenger of the two surviving Přemyslides, who had taken refuge at his court. Boleslas had some reason not to trust the Emperor, yet his flat refusal was a tactical mistake. Henry II soon appeared in Bohemia with his protégés, and during the evacuation of Prague the last of the Slavniks was killed in the melee, and Boleslas the Great was forced to retire from the country.
This began a long war between Poland and the German King and Emperor. Boleslas jettisoned the whole imperial idea for which he had shown so much enthusiasm under Otto III and bent all his energies to create an independent Slavic empire including Poland, the Czech lands and a great part of the country inhabited by the Polabian and Baltic Slavs.
But when this great idea began to take shape, the Germans saw the danger signal; for Henry II did not favor the creation in Central Europe of a Polish-Czech empire, which would claim the allegiance of the Slavic tribes between the Elbe and the Oder and possibly of the Hungarians as well. He sensed that an obstacle was being erected in the way of Germany’s drive towards the East. He was right, for the linguistic differences between the
Czechs and the Poles were at this time very slight, and if the two nations had been able to live together for a generation or two, they would have coalesced into a single political formation, united by a common language. The possibilities in the cultural field were equally significant. Bohemia was still bi-liturgical, and Slavonic letters flourished in Prague. Traces of Slavonic liturgy were to be found in Poland at that time and, in spite of the rivalry between Poland and Kievan Russia over part of Galicia, there was a prospect of new contacts with Byzantium through Russia.
But again, all these possibilities were jeopardized by the Germans. Though Boleslas the Great kept Moravia and Slovakia and mauled the German armies in many bloody battles, he could not recover Bohemia. This key position, left in the hands of the Germans, gave them entry into Central Europe, and this Henry II saw clearly. He regarded Bohemia as a German fief, and the Přemyslide dukes were subjected, from now on, to the greatest humiliation, for Henry and his successors disposed of the Bohemian throne as they pleased.
During the German-Polish wars, the imperial idea as conceived by Otto I and the noble Otto III and his partner, Sylvester II, suffered a most serious setback. Henry’s forces were not sufficient to check Boleslas the Great, and he therefore negotiated an alliance with the Veletians, promising in return to tolerate their paganism. So for the first time in history, a Christian king and a Roman emperor fought a Christian prince with the aid of pagans. This caused great bewilderment among the eleventh century Christians, and the sentiments of Christian idealists were expressed in a very forceful way by a German, St. Bruno, a disciple and admirer of St. Adalbert, and one of the missionaries who had prepared to convert the pagan Slavs and Prussians. Although of Germanic race, Bruno sympathized with his Slavic protector. Boleslas the Great, and in a very eloquent letter tried to bring the Emperor Henry II back to the imperial conception of Otto III:
"Is it right to persecute a Christian nation — he asks — and to admit a pagan nation to friendship? How can Christ have
dealings with Belial? How can we compare light with darkness? Would it not be far better for you to earn the loyalty of a man with whose aid and counsel you could levy tribute from a pagan nation and turn it into a saintly and godly people? .... Is it not better to fight the pagans for the benefit of Christendom than to wrong Christians for worldly honors? . . . Would it not be more honorable and salutary to yourself to promote the growth of the Church, to work for the baptism of the heathen, thereby deserving in the eyes of God the title of apostle and to leave in peace a Christian prince who is offering you his help?”
Nothing can illustrate better than these words the debasement of the imperial ideal under Henry II.
But there was even more to follow. Henry had to solicit the help of another Christian ruler — King Stephen I of Hungary — against Boleslas the Great. In vain did St. Bruno try to prevent this further humiliation of the imperial ideal. His efforts did not succeed, and Slovakia was conquered by the Magyars in two phases, the whole country being annexed by them after the death of Boleslas in 1025, and from that time down to the year 1918 Slovakia remained a part of Hungary.
Yet another incident which occurred during the reign of Boleslas influenced the relationship between Poland and Russia through the centuries which followed down to the present day. Boleslas intervened twice in Kiev in support of his son-in-law Svjatopolk. The first intervention occurred when Reinbem, Bishop of Kolberg, who accompanied Boleslas s daughter to Kiev on the occasion of her marriage, was thrown into prison together with the bride, because he intrigued against Vladimir. Then after Vladimir’s death, he intervened again to assure his son-in-law’s succession to the throne of Kiev. The description of Kiev by Thietmar of Merseburg is due to some German mercenaries who accompanied Boleslas on this expedition. Boleslas was successful in putting his son-in-law back on the throne; but the latter proved unworthy of the effort. The Pole left him to his fate, and he was defeated and driven out of the country by his brother Jaroslav the Wise. Nevertheless, as a reward for his intervention,
Boleslas kept the Red cities including Přemysl, i.e. modern eastern Galicia, this being only another incident in the rivalry between Russia and Poland for the possession of that country. The territory, however, returned to Russia during the reign of Boleslas’s successor, Mieszko II. It became again a bone of contention under Boleslas the Bold, but reverted to Poland from the period of the Tatar invasions down to the time of the partitions of Poland, and became Russian again only in 1939 and 1945.
Boleslas the Great was also the first King of Poland. Under Otto III he contented himself with the title of a Roman Patricius, but it is probable that Otto intended to give him a royal title later. There was, of course, no hope of his obtaining a royal crown from Otto’s successor; but there is some evidence that Boleslas approached the Pope on this matter. Finally, about 1025, he assumed the royal title on his own initiative and was crowned by the Archbishop of Gniezno. This was intended to be a final demonstration that he had severed all connections with the idea of the Roman Empire as conceived by Henry II.
It is a pity that Boleslas the Great did not succeed in founding a Polish-Czech empire in Central Europe, but his failure was mainly due to the rivalry and jealousies of the two Slav dynasties — the Polish Piasts and the Czech Přemyslides. Intent upon promoting their own political interests, the Přemyslides preferred a German alliance, but the Piasts, on the other hand, were at fault in their failure to appreciate Czech psychology. It is a pity that this great chance was missed; for at that time the Poles who had a succession of three able rulers — Mieszko I, Boleslas the Great and Mieszko II (1025-1034) — were the only nation in Central Europe which could have stemmed the German push towards the East and set up a state capable of dealing with them on an equal footing. It is true that Mieszko II ultimately failed, because the throne was usurped by his half-brother Bezprym (Vesprim) who was supported by the Russians and the Germans, and because the Czech Duke Oldřich refused to help him, but all the information available suggests that he was a very able ruler who would have been a match for all the difficulties he had to face.
The disorganization of Polish affairs which followed Mieszko Ifs death was exploited by the new Czech duke, Břetislav I, called the Restorer (1034-1055), a man of a daring and romantic nature. In popular books of Czech history, he is still depicted kidnapping his bride Judith from a convent school and using his sword to cut the chain with which the guards barred his way. Previously — about the year 1029 — Břetislav had conquered Moravia, but his attempts to win back Slovakia by helping the emperor Conrad II (1024-1039) against the Hungarians failed. Now he found compensation at the expense of Poland. His troops rapidly overran Silesia and Cracow in the autumn of 1038. Poznan was captured, and then Gniezno, the Polish capital, fell into his hands. A religious frenzy laid hold of the Czechs when the Duke’s army approached the place where St. Adalbert lay buried, and the Bishop of Prague profited by the occasion to wring from the Czechs a solemn promise to avoid the sins that had driven Adalbert from Bohemia. According to the Bishop, the martyred saint had laid down a condition that his body should not be transferred to Bohemian soil until this promise was given. As this was forthcoming, the Czech army returned in triumph to Prague with the precious relics, to which was added also the body of Adalbert’s brother, Gaudentius Radim, the first Archbishop of Gnesen, and the bodies of the first five Polish martyrs from Adalbert’s school.
It seemed that the Czech Duke was about to realize the idea of Boleslas the Great. Prague was to become the capital of a great Slavic empire and the religious center of all the Western Slavic nations. But Břetislav overestimated his power. Just as in somewhat similar circumstances, when the Poles occupied Prague, the last members of the Czech dynasty called upon Germany for help, so Casimir I of Poland (1032-1052) took refuge at the court of the Emperor Henry III (1039-1056). The Germans could not tolerate the formation of a great Slavic empire under a Czech dynasty any more than under a Polish one. Henry
invaded Bohemia, and after defeating the Czech army, forced the Duke to approach his throne barefoot and thus purchase his pardon. The Emperor permitted Břetislav to retain only Silesia and Moravia and reduced him to the status of a German vassal. In 1052, however, the Poles reconquered Silesia. The Emperor decided that this country should belong to Poland and that the Poles should pay the Czechs an annual tribute of 500 pounds of silver and 30 pounds of gold in return. From that time on, Silesia has remained a bone of contention between the two nations.
The embassy which Břetislav sent to Rome with the request that Prague should be promoted to an archbishopric also failed in its mission. The Romans were shocked by the forceful transfer of saintly relics which had taken place and horrified by the manner in which the Czechs had plundered Polish churches. By good fortune, Břetislav had provided his messengers with a substantial share of the looted Polish gold and silver, and it was only this which saved him from excommunication.
Břetislav’s attempt to form a Czecho-Polish empire ended in failure. It was an object which only a Polish dynasty could have achieved, because Poland was stronger than Bohemia and was also independent of Germany. The result of Břetislav’s failure was that Germany scored a second great victory in the battle for Central Europe. The German king and Roman emperor was now not only the recognized master of Bohemia, but of Poland also.
Casimir I did all he could to restore order in his land and is rightly called “the Restorer” by the Poles; but he had to abandon the royal title. Another result of Břetislav’s fruitless effort was an increase in the rivalry between the Poles and the Czechs for possession of Silesia. To this rivalry can be traced all the unhappy feuds between them in the period after the first World War which drove them into the bondage of their powerful neighbors.
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