For a real assessment of the life of Frederick Barbarossa we must leave the realms of legend and myth, and return to history. At Barbarossa’s coronation in 1152, his empire was weak, his princes divided, and Germany under the thumb of the Holy See. In Italy, the authority of the empire was fast vanishing and the imperial principle had ceased to govern the political organization of society. But by the time Frederick had done, the power of the monarchy was fully restored in Germany, the Welfs were on the run and most princes anxious to show their loyalty to the crown. In Italy, cities and nobles alike had come to accept the authority of Frederick’s agents and officials; the Pope’s sphere of influence and authority had been greatly reduced and his property rights circumscribed, and Sicily was ruled by Frederick’s son Henry VI.

In short, within less than forty years, the empire had recovered “all its splendor”; never before had its “honor” shone so brightly; never before had it been so venerated and feared. No emperor, since Charlemagne and Otto the Great, had been so brilliantly successful, none so admired and revered. For although Otto had consolidated the power of the crown and of his own House in Germany, he had been quite unable to make his presence felt in Italy. Charlemagne’s achievements, too, although on a grander scale, had proved far more transitory than Barbarossa’s – his sons, unlike Frederick’s were unfit to step into their father’s shoes.

The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa (Records of Western Civilization Series)

But then Barbarossa, unlike his glorious predecessor, did not seek control of the entire West. Thus, on the highest level, Charlemagne may, perhaps, be said to have been the greater of the two, one who by spreading and deepening the Christian faith, by lending new vigor to the concept of the state, and by resurrecting the Roman Empire, had helped to found those very institutions which, although changed by time, still form the basis of Western civilization. For all that, his work was dwarfed by the very size of the stage on which it was set – Charlemagne lacked a clear “geographical perspective” of the great area over which he ruled.

Barbarossa the Realist

Barbarossa, by contrast, had a clear vision of his empire. His realism was the fundamental trait of his genius, though at times, in Lombardy for example, he was slow to face up to the facts. Realism explains his increasing caution towards Southern Italy, the relinquishment of all direct designs on the Kingdom of Sicily, his disinterest in the east, and his early tolerance of, and later sternness to, King Henry the Lion [of England]. The area to which he restricted his activities was one he knew well – it extended in the north to just beyond the Lahn; in the east to Lusatia and Austria; in the west it took in the Moselle Valley, modern Lorraine, Alsace and Franch-Comte, and in the south it ran as far as the southern borders of the Duchy of Spoleto and the March, that is to the confines of Rome. He was able to leave his mark on all these parts, and to bind them closely to the empire. And it is precisely because Charlemagne overstepped these narrow limits that Barbarossa must be considered the most illustrious ruler to have come out of medieval Germany.

The Crusade of Frederick Barbarossa (Crusade Texts in Translation)

But despite all his successes, and the glory that attached to his name, Barbarossa’s reign fell far short of perfection. Thus more than any other German he fostered the feudalization of social and political life, by greatly increasing the power of the princes. Possibly he could see no alternative, perhaps none even existed. But maintaining the authority of the crown by relying on the support of increasingly powerful princes called for enormous personal exertion, indefatigable energy, and above all, for peace, both at home and abroad. Only by renouncing his major ambitions in Italy could Frederick have hoped to prevent abuses at home. As it was, the nobility raised ever new territorial demands, and insisted that Barbarossa apply his own principle of obligatory reinforcement; nor had the breach between the Welfs and the Hohenstaufen [feuding princely families] ever been completely healed. And, in the game of feudal power politics, local interests tended quite naturally to take precedence over the good of the nation.

In Italy, though Barbarossa, after more than twenty years of fighting, eventually came to terms with the urban phenomenon, the Lombard cities continued to oppose his plans of empire. Moreover, he realized that if he pursued his “conservative” policy in Central Italy, the Tuscans, at least, would rise up against him just as the Lombards had done in 1167. And so Frederick was increasingly forced to reduce his sovereign claims, to refrain from running every city and county with the help of his own men or of loyal supporters – from 1183 onwards, he readily granted rights and privileges to anyone who would help him. From Head of State, the emperor had shrunk to the head of a party: the leader of the Ghibellines, who opposed the Guelphs out of personal conviction no less than for private advantage. German might thus introduced a deep and lasting split into Italy.

Successes and Failures

When all is said and done, therefore, we are left with Barbarossa’s glory and undeniable qualities, with the unflinching resolve with which he tackled his life’s work, but also with his profound failure to grasp certain essentials, and a number of decisions that, however skillful and realistic they may have appeared to be at the time, in the long run helped to blight h8is dreams of empire. On balance, Frederick’s was no mean achievement; a memorial great enough for any man – in the rough and tumble of human history there is no one who is entirely without flaw, no one who is without error. This truism, which helps us to set limits upon the actions of all individuals, is no mere platitude in Barbarossa’s case. For here we find an intelligent, energetic, and respected leader grappling with overpowering political, social and psychological situations – among them the urban phenomenon in Italy and the feudal phenomenon in Germany. His very greatness was that he tried to come to terms with them, perhaps against his will; that he tried not to swim against the stream, while yet making resolutely for the shore he had set out to reach.

Frederick Barbarossa was a great man in his day, but one whose ambitions were strictly circumscribed by the limitations of his age.

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