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Otto III
Otto III from the Gospels of Otto III.
King of Germany
Reign 25 December 983 – 24 January 1002
Coronation 25 December 983
Predecessor Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
Successor Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor
Regent Henry II, Duke of Bavaria
Adelaide of Italy
Holy Roman Emperor
Reign 21 May 996 – 24 January 1002
Coronation 21 May 996
Predecessor Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
Successor Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor
Full name
Otto of Saxony
German: Otto von Sachsen
Italian: Ottone di Sassonia
House Ottonian
Father Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
Mother Theophanu
Born 980
Kessel, North Rhine-Westphalia
Died 23/24 January 1002
Civita Castellana
Burial Aachen Cathedral
Religion Roman Catholic

Otto III (980 – 23 January 1002) was the fourth ruler of the Saxon or Ottonian dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire. He was elected king of Germany in 983 on the death of his father Otto II.


Early years

Otto was born in Kessel, near Goch, in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia.

He was acclaimed King of Germany in Verona in June 983, at the age of three, and crowned in Aachen on 25 December the same year. His father had died four days before the ceremony, but the news did not reach Germany until after the coronation.

In early 984 Henry the Quarrelsome, who had been deposed as Duke of Bavaria by Otto II, seized Otto and claimed the regency as a member of the reigning house. To further his object he made an alliance with Lothair of France. Willigis, Archbishop of Mainz, the leader of Otto's party, induced Henry to release the imprisoned king, for which his Duchy of Bavaria was restored. Otto was thus returned to his mother, the Byzantine princess Theophanu, who served as regent thenceforth. She abandoned her husband's imperialistic policy and devoted herself entirely to furthering an alliance between Church and Empire. She was unable, however, to prevent France from speedily freeing herself from German influence. The regent endeavoured to watch over the national questions of the Eastern Empire. One of the greatest achievements of this empress was her success in maintaining feudal supremacy over Bohemia.

After Theophanu's death in 991, Otto's grandmother, Adelaide of Italy, then served as regent together with Willigis until Otto III reached his majority in 994.

Otto's mental gifts were considerable, and were carefully cultivated by Bernward, afterwards bishop of Hildesheim, and by Gerbert of Aurillac, archbishop of Reims, so that he was called "the wonder of the world."

Imperial views

Otto attempted to revive the glory and power of ancient Rome with himself at the head of a theocratic state. In 996, he came to the aid of Pope John XV at the pope's request to put down the rebellion of the Roman nobleman Crescentius II. He was declared King of the Lombards at Pavia, but failed to reach Rome before the Pope died. Once in Rome, he engineered the election of his cousin Bruno of Carinthia as Pope Gregory V, the first German pope. The new pontiff crowned Otto emperor on 21 May 996, in Rome. Here his main advisors were two of the main characters of this age, his tutor Gerbert of Aurillac and the bishop Adalbert of Prague. Together with these two visionary men, influenced by the Roman ruins and perhaps by his Byzantine mother, Otto devised a dream of restoration of a universal Empire formed by the union of the Papacy, Byzantium and Rome. He also introduced some court customs in Greek.

However, as soon as Otto had left Rome one year later, the city magnate Crescentius II deposed Gregory and installed John XVI as pope. Leaving his aunt, Matilda of Quedlinburg, as regent in Germany, Otto returned to Italy and retook the city in February 998, storming Castel Sant'Angelo. Crescentius was executed in the Castel Sant'Angelo, the antipope mutilated and blinded, and Gregory reinstated.

Otto made Rome the administrative center of his empire and revived elaborate Roman customs and Byzantine court ceremonies. He took the titles "the servant of Jesus Christ," "the servant of the apostles", "consul of the Roman senate and people" and "emperor of the world". When Gregory V mysteriously died in 999, Otto arranged for Gerbert to be elected pope as Sylvester II. The use of this papal name was not casual: it recalled the first pope of this name, who had allegedly created the "Christian empire" together with Constantine the Great. Otto therefore was to be seen as the ideal successor to Constantine in the task of reunifying the Roman Empire.

Between 998 and 1000 Otto, being a fervent Christian, made several pilgrimages. He travelled to the Gargano Peninsula in Southern Italy and to Gaeta, where he met Saint Nilus the Younger, then a highly venerated religious figure. Later he left Italy, taking the pro-Byzantine Duke of Naples, John IV, captive with him, for the tomb of Adalbert of Prague (who in the meantime had been martyred by the pagan Prussians) at Gniezno, and during the meeting with Bolesław I the Brave in the Congress of Gniezno he founded the archbishopric of Poland. In Eastern Europe Otto and his entourage strengthened relationships with the Polish Duchy and with Stephen of Hungary, who had requested and been granted a crown by Sylvester. Otto was advised by Saint Romuald, the fervent reforming hermit idealized by Saint Peter Damian in the "Vita beati Romualdi". Romuald urged Otto to become a monk.

Another model to which Otto strongly aspired was Charlemagne. In the year 1000 he visited Charlemagne's tomb in Aachen, removing relics from it. He had also carried back parts of the body of Adalbert, which he placed in a splendid new church he had built in the Isola Tiberina in Rome, now San Bartolomeo all'Isola. Otto also added the skin of Saint Bartholomew to the relics housed there.

The Holy Roman Empire around the year 1000

A minor rebellion by the town of Tibur (Tivoli) in 1001 ended up as his undoing. He retook the town, but spared the inhabitants, which angered the people of Rome, as Tibur was a rival they wanted destroyed. This led to a rebellion by the Roman people, headed by Gregory, Count of Tusculum; Otto was besieged in his palace and then driven from the city. He withdrew to Ravenna to do penance in the monastery of Sant'Apollinare in Classe. After having summoned his army, Otto headed southwards to reconquer Rome, but died in the castle of Paterno, near Civita Castellana, on 24 January 1002. A Byzantine princess (probably Zoe, second daughter of Emperor Constantine VIII) had just disembarked in Puglia, on her way to marry him.

Causes of death

Otto's death has been attributed to various causes; medieval sources speak of malaria, which he had caught in the unhealthy marshes that surrounded Ravenna. The Romans suggested instead that Stefania, the widow of Crescentius, had made him fall in love with her and then poisoned him. Otto's body was carried back to Germany by his loyal soldiers, and buried in Aachen Cathedral together with that of Charlemagne. His tomb, however, has been lost.

Henry succeeded him as king of Germany (and later as emperor) as Henry II.


  • Thietmar's Chronicle. Between 1012 and 1018 Thietmar of Merseburg wrote a Chronicon, or Chronicle, in eight books, which deals with the period between 908 and 1018. For the earlier part he used Widukind's Res gestae Saxonicae, the Annales Quedlinburgenses and other sources; the latter part is the result of personal knowledge. The chronicle is nevertheless an excellent authority for the history of Saxony during the reigns of the emperors Otto III and Henry II. No kind of information is excluded, but the fullest details refer to the bishopric of Merseburg, and to the wars against the Wends and the Poles.


See also


This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor
Born: 980 Died: 1002
German royalty
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Otto II
King of Germany
Succeeded by
Henry II
Holy Roman Emperor and King of Italy
Preceded by
Consul of the Roman Empire
Succeeded by

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

OTTO III. (980-1002), Roman emperor, son of the emperor Otto II. and Theophano,daughter of the eastern emperor Romanus II., was born in July 980, chosen as his father's successor at Verona in June 983 and crowned German king at Aix-la-Chapelle on the 25th of the following December. Otto II. had died a few days before this ceremony, but the news did not reach Germany until after the coronation. Early in 984 the king was seized by Henry II., the Quarrelsome, the deposed duke of Bavaria, who claimed the regency as a member of the reigning house, and probably entertained the idea of obtaining the kingly dignity himself. A strong opposition was quickly aroused, and when Theophano and Adelaide, widow of the emperor Otto the Great, appeared in Germany, Henry was compelled to hand over the young king to his mother. Otto's mental gifts were considerable, and were so carefully cultivated by Bernward, afterwards bishop of Hildesheim, and by Gerbert of Aurillac, archbishop of Reims, that he was called "the wonder of the world." The government of Germany during his minority was in the hands of Theophano, and after her death in June 99 1 passed to a council in which the chief influence was exercised by Adelaide and Willigis, archbishop of Mainz. Having accompanied his troops in expeditions against the Bohemians and the Wends, Otto was declared of age in 995. In 996 he crossed the Alps and was recognized as king of the Lombards at Pavia. Before he reached Rome, Pope John XV., who had invited him to Italy, had died, whereupon he raised his own cousin Bruno, son of Otto duke of Carinthia, to the papal chair as Pope Gregory V., and by this pontiff Otto was crowned emperor on the 21st of May 996. On his return to Germany, the emperor learned that Gregory had been driven from Rome, which was again in the power of John Crescentius, patrician of the Romans, and that a new pope, John XVI., had been elected. Leaving his aunt, Matilda, abbess of Quedlinburg, as regent of Germany, Otto, in February 99 8, led Gregory back to Rome, took the castle of St Angelo by storm and put Crescentius to death. A visit to southern Italy, where many of the princes did homage to the emperor, was cut short by the death of the pope, to whose chair Otto then appointed his former tutor Gerbert, who took the name of Sylvester II. In the palace which he built on the Aventine, Otto sought to surround himself with the splendour and ceremonial of the older emperors of Rome, and dreamed of making Rome once more the centre of a universal empire. Many names and customs were introduced into his court from that of Constantinople; he proposed to restore the Roman senate and consulate, revived the office of patrician, called himself "consul of the Roman senate and people" and issued a seal with the inscription, "restoration of the Roman empire." Passing from pride to humility he added "servant of the apostle," and "servant of Jesus Christ" to the imperial title, spent a fortnight in prayer in the grotto of St Clement and did penance in various Italian monasteries. Leaving Italy in the summer preceding the year 1000, when it was popularly believed that the end of the world was to come, Otto made a pilgrimage to the tomb of his old friend Adalbert, bishop of Prague, at Gnesen, and raised the city to the dignity of an archbishopric. He then went to Aix, and opened the tomb of Charlemagne, where, according to a legendary tale, he found the body of the great emperor sitting upright upon a throne, wearing the crown and holding the sceptre. Returning to Rome, trouble soon arose between Otto and the citizens, and for three days the emperor was besieged in his palace. After a temporary peace, he fled to the monastery of Classe near Ravenna. Troops were collected, but whilst conducting a campaign against the Romans, Otto died at Paterno near Viterbo on the 23rd of January 1002, and was buried in the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle. Tradition says he was ensnared and poisoned by Stephania, the widow of Crescentius. The mystic erratic temperament of Otto, alternating between the most magnificent schemes of empire and the lowest depths of self-debasement, was not conducive to the welfare of his dominions, and during his reign the conditions of Germany deteriorated. He was liberal to the papacy, and was greatly influenced by the eminent clerics with whom he eagerly associated.

See Thangmar, Vita Bernwardi episcopi Hildesheimensis in the Monumenta Germaniae historica. Scriptores, Band iv. (Hanover and Berlin, 1826 fol.); Lettres de Gerbert, edited by J. Havet (P. ris, 1889); Die Urkunden Kaisers Ottos III., edited by Th. on Sickel in the Monumenta Germaniae historica. Diplomata (Hano er, 1879); R. Wilmans, Jahrbiicher des deutschen Reichs unter K. 'ser Otto III. (Berlin, 1837-1840); P. Kehr, Die Urkunden Otto ' II. (Innsbruck, 1890).

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