Otto III was born in July 980 to Holy Roman Emperor Otto II and Empress Theophano. Otto’s grandfather, Emperor Otto I, had established the Ottonian dynasty after his coronation in 962. As the emperor’s only son, the young Otto was groomed as his father’s heir. Three years after Otto’s birth, the emperor had his son elected German king. When Otto II died in Italy in December 983, his son would be crowned king shortly after.
The 28-year-old emperor’s early death created a power vacuum in the empire. Due to his youth, Otto needed a regent to rule on his behalf. In the ensuing power struggle, the king’s mother and grandmother fought against Otto’s second cousin, Henry of Bavaria, for control. Henry had formerly been the duke of Bavaria before Otto II deposed him. In turn, the duke spent the last six years of his cousin’s reign imprisoned before being released after Otto’s death. With nothing else to lose, Henry made a bid to regain his former political power.
At the time of Otto II’s death, his mother and wife were away from the empire in Italy. However, his son remained in Germany. Capitalizing on their absence, Henry seized his cousin and had himself proclaimed regent. The duke quickly began attempting to gain support amongst the German nobility and clergy. Despite his attempts, the nobility refused to support him over Otto. When Theophano and Adelaide eventually returned in 985, Henry surrendered and regained Bavaria to satisfy him.
Upon Otto’s return to his grandmother and mother, the two women made a regency arrangement. The king’s grandmother, Adelaide, became regent first. The former empress had been married to Otto I and was a seasoned ruler in her own right. After she died in 991, Theophano succeeded her as regent. Similar to her mother-in-law, the dowager empress proved to be a wise and capable ruler. Although Otto came of age in 994, he continued to listen to his mother’s advice.
Holy Roman Emperor
In 996, Pope John XV asked for Otto’s aid in crushing a rebellion in Italy. The king accepted and subsequently led an army south. Although the pope died before Otto reached Rome, his death created a perfect opportunity for the king. During the papal election, the Romans turned to Otto when deciding who should be the next pope. In turn, the king nominated his cousin, Bruno of Carinthia. The Romans accepted Otto’s decision and elected Bruno as Pope Gregory V on May 3.
As thanks for his support, the new pope crowned his cousin Holy Roman Emperor on May 21. Satisfied, Otto III returned to Germany after his coronation. Despite having a powerful ally in Italy, Gregory’s position proved weak. The following year, a Roman noble, Cresentius II, overthrew the pope and installed his candidate, John XVI. In response, the emperor returned to Italy in late 997. By February 998, the imperial army retook Rome and captured Cresentius. Otto restored Gregory to the papal throne and ended Cresentius’ threat by executing him.
Once Gregory V’s position had been secured, Otto III sought to prove his greatness as his father and grandfather had done before him. To this end, Otto began his grand vision of reviving the former glory of the Roman Empire in a Christian state. As part of this plan, the imperial capital would be moved to Rome, where the pope would be secondary to the emperor. To this end, Otto began the process of moving his administration south. When Gregory died in 999, the emperor had his former tutor, Gilbert of Aurillac, elected Pope Sylvester II.
After the death of Gregory V, the grieving emperor went on a pilgrimage to Charlemagne‘s tomb. During the emperor’s absence, the Italian city of Tibur had revolted in January 1001. In turn, the imperial army crushed the rebellion, and Otto pardoned its citizens. Enraged at the emperor’s leniency, Roman citizens rebelled the following month. Overwhelmed by the rebels, Otto requested Henry of Bavaria’s help. Shortly before Henry arrived, the 21-year-old emperor succumbed to smallpox on January 23, 1002.
During Otto III’s short reign, he proved to be just as capable a ruler as his forefathers. The emperor successfully strengthen the Holy Roman Empire through military and political means. His ambition saw the creation of an empire combining the ideas of past and present. Despite his capabilities, Otto died before he could reach his full potential. Upon his death, the imperial throne passed to his equally ambitious cousin, Henry of Bavaria, who would be the last member of the Ottonian dynasty.
Otto III. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Otto-III
The Holy Roman Empire: A Captivating Guide to the Union of Smaller Kingdoms that Started During the Early Middle Ages and Dissolved During the Napleonic Wars. (2019).