Crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope John XII in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 962, Otto I (a.k.a. “Otto the Great”) was the first emperor of what would eventually be called “the Holy Roman Empire,” but which was at first less comprehensively and less majestically styled “the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” The latter tittle signified that while it was thought to be a restoration of the Western Roman Empire, which had fallen in 476 A.D., this empire bore an essentially German character.
The circumstance of Otto being crowned by the Pope of Rome would be very important to later generations of polemicists embroiled in controversies about the correct relationship of the distinct spiritual and temporal powers in one <em>societas Christiana</em>. Particularly in the fifteenth century te Papal Monarchy desiring to maintain its weakening hold on a dangerously fragmenting Western Christendom, would attempt to hold the Holy Roman Emperors in check by blustering that it was only by the sovereign Petrine power of the popes that the Germans even possessed the Empire, for the popes, exercising the “rights” given them by the (fraudulent) Donation of Constantine and the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, had literally transferred the Empire from the “heretical” Greeks and given it to the Germans.
But all of this was in the future and could not have been anticipated by Otto and the men of his generation. Having beaten back the marauding Danes, conquered the Hungarians, defeated the fierce Magyars at the Battle of Lecht in 955, and obtained the feudal allegiance of most of the nobles of the German territories, Otto played a pivotal role in the restoration of order in the <em>societas Christiana</em>. It was Otto the Great who rescued the papacy from its decades-long, debilitating and demoralizing captivity to secular powers–a captivity which had culminated in the scandalous “Pornocracy.” It was also Otto the Great whose rescuing and reforming actions toward the papacy would become bitterly contested principles in the Investiture Contest of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries.
Ionically, given later controversies, Otto helped the papacy to recover its temporal ambitions by promising to return to the popes all the territories granted them by Pepin the Short and his son Charlemagne, and he himself swore an oath to protect the Roman See from its temporal enemies. This oath would come back to haunt him, because despite being himself crowned by Pope John XII, Otto “dared” in the very next year (963) to declare John deposed from the papal throne on the grounds that he was a most notorious and immoral criminal. Further exacerbating the sitution, Otto elected, on imperial authority alone, a new pope, Leo VIII (r. 963-965). Ten years later, after Otto’s death, the papacy crowned Otto II (r. 973-983) emperor–and was this time rewarded by loyalty. Otto II restored Pope John XIII (r. 965-972) to the Roman See after he had been banished by the Roman people themselves.
Nevertheless, Otto II, like his predecessor, appears to have considered the Roman Pope to be his temporal subject, owing to the Empire the same temporal allegiances as any other imperial domains. In practice, then, the papacy was morally saved by the Ottonian emperors, but politically subjugated by them. Its “local” bondage (during the period of the Pornocracy) had merely been supplanted by a wider-ranging “foreign” bondage–which the popes of the Investiture Contest era would make a key part of their zealous reforming campaign against the deadly heresy of simony. The genesis of this world-shaking reform crusade must certainly be sought in broader social and doctrinal conditions covering several centuries of development, but it is no exaggeration to locate one significant contributor to the revolution in the largely salutary reign of Otto I, first emperor of the restored Holy Roman Empire.