Profile of an Emperor: Reading Vita Karoli Magni in Light of Its Sources and Composition
By Minjie Su
Ceræ: An Australasian Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 5 (2018)
Abstract: In composing Vita Karoli Magni, Einhard borrows heavily from Suetonius’s De vita Caesarum – Vita divi Augusti in particular – and Annales regni Francorum. A close reading, however, reveals that the distribution of the source materials within Vita Karoli Magni is quite uneven: when it comes to historical events, Einhard relies on the Annales; when it comes to more private matters such as appearance and habits, he turns to Suetonius for specific phrases and words. Moreover, while neither Annales nor Vita divi Augusti shies away from colourful accounts of miracles that foreground the subject’s greatness, Einhard only includes ill omens in the very last part of Vita Karoli Magni, around the time of Charlemagne’s death, as if to warn the readers/audience of the dark time to come.
But why is Vita Karoli Magni thus composed? The reason behind, I argue, first lies in Einhard’s recognition of the similarity between Augustus and Charlemagne: both belong to the second generation of a ruling house that had no legal claim to the throne; and, by placing Charlemagne alongside Augustus, Einhard reconciles two different ideas of kingship, one derived from the Frankish tradition, the other attached to the Roman Empire.
Second, Vita Karoli Magni is a text about the past as much as about the present and the future: on the one hand, Einhard’s choice and arrangement of the sources reflect his anxiety caused by the unsettling events under Louis the Pious and his criticism towards the new Emperor. On the other hand, it helps to draw Louis’s attention and impose Einhard’s own ideology of a good ruler on him.