Like everyone else at millennium’s end, I keep thinking of how it all began in Europe. Does a day pass that one does not give at least a fleeting thought to the Emperor Otto III and to Pope Sylvester II? I should highly doubt it. After all, they are an attractive couple—a boy emperor and his old teacher, the intellectual pope. Together, at the start of our millennium, they decided to bring back the Christian empire that two centuries earlier Charlemagne had tried to re-create or—more precisely—to create among the warring tribes of Western Europe. If Charlemagne was the Jean Monnet of the 800s, Otto III is the Romano Prodi of the 900s. As you will recall, Otto was only fourteen when he became king of Germany. From boyhood, he took very seriously the idea of a united Christendom, a Holy Roman Empire. Like so many overactive, overeducated boys of that period he was a natural general, winning battles left and right in a Germany that rather resembled the China of Confucius’ era, a time known as that of “the warring duchies.”
By sixteen, King Otto was crowned Emperor of the West. An intellectual snob, he despised what he called “Saxon rusticity” and he favored what he termed Greek or Byzantine “subtlety.” He even dreamed of sailing to Byzantium to bring together all Christendom under his rule, which was, in turn, under that of God. In this sublime enterprise he was guided by his old tutor, a French scholar named Gerbert.
As a sign of solidarity—not to mention morbidity—Otto even opened up the tomb of Charlemagne and paid his great predecessor a visit. The dead emperor was seated on a throne. According to an eyewitness, only a bit of his nose had fallen off but his fingernails had grown through his gloves and so, reverently, Otto pared them and otherwise tidied him up. Can one imagine Prodi—or even Schroeder—doing as much for the corpse of Monnet?
Now we approach the fateful year 999. Otto is nineteen. He is obsessed with Italy. With Rome. With empire. In that year he sees to it that Gerbert is elected pope, taking the name Sylvester. Now Emperor and Pope move south to the decaying small town of Rome where Otto builds himself a palace on the Aventine—a bad luck hill, as Cicero could have testified.
Together, Otto and Sylvester lavished their love and their ambition upon the Romans, who hated both of them with a passion. In the year that our common millennium properly began, 1001, the Romans drove Emperor and Pope out of the city. Otto died at twenty-two, near Viterbo, of smallpox. A year later, Sylvester was dead, having first, it is said, invented the organ. Thus, the dream of a European Union ended in disaster for the two dreamers.
I will not go so far as to say that the thousand years since Otto’s death have been a total waste of …