Otto the Great, Conquests of (942–972)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Otto I vs. various rebels within
Germany; Otto vs. the Slavs of middle Europe; Otto vs.
the Magyars; Germany vs. France; Germany vs. Italy
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Central Europe and northern Italy
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Otto I sought to centralize
German-speaking Europe and expand his kingdom.
OUTCOME: Otto consolidated the German Reich and
gained hegemony over much of Europe.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: At
Lechfeld, Otto led an army of 10,000.
The son of Germany’s Henry I (c. 876–936), Otto I (the
Great; 912–73) consolidated the German Reich by suppressing
rebellious vassals (led by Thanknar, his half
brother, and Henry, his younger brother) in the GERMAN
CIVIL WARS (938–941) and ultimately by winning a decisive
victory against the Hungarians at the battle of
Lechfeld in 955 (see MAGYAR RAID, GREAT). But Otto’s
ambition stretched beyond Germany, and even as he
was quelling the early rebellions against his reign, he
took the time to strengthen and expand his kingdom’s
In the East, he attacked and defeated the Slavs, consolidating
his gains by founding a monastery in Magdeburg in
941 and establishing two bishoprics in 948. In the North,
he extended Christendom into Denmark, establishing four
bishoprics there by 968. However, an early campaign in
Bohemia failed, and it took Otto till 950 to force its prince,
Boleslav I (d. 967), to submit and pay tribute.
Otto was then in a position to deny any French claims
to Lorraine, which he had taken when be put down the
French-backed rebellion of 939 to 941. He also assumed
the role of mediator in France’s internal struggles. He held
a similar sway over Burgundy. In fact, when Burgundian
princess Adelaide, the widowed queen of Italy, appealed to
him after being taken prisoner by the Lombard prince
Berengar (c. 900–966), Otto marched into Italy in 951,
declared himself king of the Lombards, and married Adelaide
(his first wife having died). Berengar became his vassal
for the kingdom of Italy.
Otto was forced to cut his first Italian campaign
short when a revolt broke out in Germany in 953. Led by
his son Liudolf (930–957), and backed by Conrad (d.
955), duke of Lorraine, and Frederick, bishop of Mainz,
the rebellion at first succeeded, forcing Otto to withdraw
to Saxony. But the rebellion began to fail when the Magyar
invasion allowed Otto to paint the rebels as traitors
and enemies of the Reich in league with the invaders. In
955, not only did Otto defeat the Magyars so decisively at
Lechfeld that they never invaded again, he also captured
the rebel stronghold at Regensburg, ending the rebellion.
That year, too, Otto also won another major victory over
the Slavs, which he followed with a series of campaigns
that, by 960, had forced the utter subjugation of all the
Slavs between the middle Elbe and the middle Oder
rivers. By 968, even Mieszko (Mieczyslaw I) (c.
930–992), prince of Poland, was paying tribute to the
Meanwhile, Otto’s old enemy and former vassal Berengar,
free of German interference, was now threatening
Rome. Pope John XII (d. 964) appealed to the German
king for help. Otto’s price was the Holy Roman Empire.
When Otto arrived in Rome on February 2, 962, he was
crowned emperor, and 11 days later, he and the pope
reached an agreement called the Privilegium Ottoianum,
which regulated relations between emperor and pope and
gave the emperor the right to ratify papal elections. Some
say this provision was added later by Otto after he
deposed John XII in December for treating with Berengar.
In any case, Otto replaced John with Leo VIII (d. 965) as
pope, then captured Berengar and dragged him back to
Germany. In 966, Otto was back in Italy for a third campaign,
this time to suppress a revolt by the Romans against
his puppet pontiff, Leo VIII. Since Leo had been deposed
by Benedict V (d. 966), and had since died, in 972 Otto
appointed a new pope, John XIII (d. 972).
Otto consolidated the German Reich and gave it peace
and security from foreign attack. Enjoying something
approaching hegemony over Europe, Germany under his
rule experienced a cultural flowering that some scholars
call the “Ottonian renaissance.”
See also MAGYAR RAIDS IN FRANCE; MAGYAR RAIDS IN
THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE; MAGYAR RAID INTO EUROPE,
Further reading: G. Barraclough, The Origins of Modern
Germany (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1947); K. J. Leyser,
Rule and Conflict in Early Medieval Society: Ottonian Saxony
(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1984).