Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor: Wikis


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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

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