Pope Leo III writing to Charlemagne on North African Affairs

This is a letter written by Pope Leo III (795-816) to Charlemagne (768-814) on 11 November 813. The message was prompted by a missive the Pope had received from the patrician Gregory, who was the Byzantine governor of Sicily. Gregory had asked Leo to forward the letter on to Charlemagne, which the Pope did, although not without including his own thoughts and news gleaned from his own man on the scene in Sicily.

Leo III, Epistolae, ed. K. Hampe, MGH Epp 5 (Berlin, 1899), no. 7, pp. 97-99.

To the most serene and pious lord, victorious and triumphant, a son and lover of God and our lord Jesus Christ, the august Charles, Bishop Leo, servant of the servants of God.

We received on the third ides of November the letter of Gregory, patrician of Sicily, to wit, a response to the letter of Your Serenity, which We sent to him through Our man. He did not, for reasons We know not, send the letter – which had your name on it – to you. The letter which he sent to us – which he asked us to send Your Imperial Power either a copy of; or after We had read it, the letter itself signed with Our seal – We have, in order to satisfy you, neither opened to read it nor do We know what is contained in it, except what the envoy sent to Us told Us in words. It is about Saracen envoys, with whom this Patrician [Gregory] has confirmed a pact for ten years.

He said to the aforesaid Saracen envoys ‘What kind of treaty do you want to make with us, when eighty-five years ago you made a treaty with us and did not keep it? Yes, and Patrician Constantine, who was here before me, he made a pact with you to last ten years until the eighth future indiction (Sept 814); but you held firm to neither pact. Now, the value of us making a pact with you is unclear’.

To this the Saracen envoys responded, saying: ‘The father of this Amiralmumin, who now is seen to reign over us, died, and left this one a child. And he that was the slave was made free; and he who was free was a lord; and none gave thought to the king. But now, after everything his father had has been made subject to his unshaken will, we ask for a pact with each other. For Spain we can make no guarantee because they are not under the dominion of our kingdom. But insofar as we can overcome them, we promise to fight against them at sea like you do, although we cannot do so alone. We on our part, and you on yours, will keep them away from the coasts of the Christians.’

After this it was agreed; and they confirmed in writing between them a pact for ten years. And he [Gregory] sent them an envoy named Theophistus the Notary. And he restored those they had captured from the Saracens, so that the Christians who had been taken from our shores would be returned.

And after they had concluded the pact between them and our envoy had departed with the Patrician’s leave, he came across a man in Catania who was hurrying with all speed to the Patrician to report that seven Moorish ships had been plundering a town in Reggio and that two ships of theirs sent after them had returned to shore empty-handed.

That envoy of ours also told us that he had heard from the envoy of the Saracen men that in June 813 they had intended to go to Sardinia with a hundred other ships; and when they had nearly reached Sardinia the sea suddenly opened up and swallowed those hundred ships; and in consequence, in great dread, they had shortly afterwards returned home and told the people in Africa what had happened and reported the news to the households of those who had been drowned; and there had been such grief as had never been known before. After hearing this, our envoy asked the notary who was looking after him whether what he had heard from the Saracens was true. And the notary told him that it was and that he had personally read out to the Patrician a letter which a Christian friend of his had sent him from Africa and which mentioned the submersion of the aforesaid hundred ships. And this happened in the month of June, when many saw a fiery sign in the sky, like a torch.

Those envoys of the Saracens came in Beneventian ships which, while travelling, burned two ships coming from Spain with fire.

This is what we have heard from our man, which is what we have taken care to make known to your serenity…

The (alleged?) tomb of Idris I at Moulay Idris (source)

I find this passage fascinating for a wide variety of reasons. For a start, it indicates Charlemagne’s interest in North African affairs. Leo was uncertain why Gregory was getting in touch with the Carolingian Emperor and its possible that the governor’s letter extended to other matters, but clearly both Leo and Gregory thought Charlemagne would want to know this information. The most obvious explanation for this interest in North Africa was piracy. Both the governor of Sicily and the Pope in Rome were obviously frustrated and worried by it and with reason. One of or both of Corsica and Sardinia were raided in 806, 807, 809, 810, 811 and 812, while the Italian mainland was hit in 808 and 813. Interestingly, 813 marks the end of this period of piracy, although how much that can be attributed to Gregory’s pact is unclear (it probably also owes something to events in al-Andalus).

Gregory himself is mostly known through papal letters like this one. His correspondence with Charlemagne is intriguing. Later in the letter Pope Leo assumes that his actions must be sanctioned by the new Byzantine Emperor Leo V (813-820), but Charlemagne had form in plotting with governors of Sicily. In 799 he had received envoys from Michael, the then governor, and in Constantinople in 800 there were concerns that the Frankish ruler was going to invade Sicily. This letter indicates that Charlemagne still had importance in Sicilian affairs.

Pope Leo emerges as someone keen to burnish his value as an information broker. In a postscript to the letter he notes that ‘Gregory the Patrician said to our envoy, that the Emperor Michael was made into a monk with his wife and children.’ This reference to the former Emperor Michael I (811-813), who had been overthrown by Leo V in July, perhaps suggests the slowness with which news of affairs in Constantinople circulated.

The story of the unlucky pirates/lucky Sardinians reminds us that a majority of the North Africans in this period were Christian, and that they provided an important point of contact and information for their fellow-believers across the sea. Einhard tells us that Charlemagne was concerned for their wellbeing and sent them alms, providing another reason for him to be interested in North Africa.

As someone interested in Christian-Muslim diplomacy, the description of Gregory’s negotiation is fascinating. The fundamental problem that the Byzantine governor faced of whether agreeing to a bargain would actually mean anything was common throughout the period, resembling some of the difficulties other Christian leaders would have with trying to make Danish rulers curb Viking attacks. Pirates and other non-state actors could provide a convenient and plausibly deniable cover for acts of opportunistic aggression. Alternatively, rulers who were in a weak position risked being blamed for the activities of people they couldn’t control, who were often opposed to them. (Those of us who grew up interested in foreign policy in the age of the War on Terror may also recognise this dynamic).

Caution about the value of pacts made was entirely justified. The Umayyads of the Iberian Peninsula seem to have cheerfully broken such agreements quite regularly. The speed with which Charlemagne’s grandsons would turn on each other after signing treaties suggests this behaviour was not confined to Muslims. Al-Tabari complains about the Byzantines breaking a truce with the Abbasids in 785.

The identity of the Saracen envoy’s master is unclear, but the most likely candidate is Idris II (791-828). His father, Idris I (788-791) had conquered most of what is now Morocco, before being assassinated. Idris II was born two months after his father’s death and much of Morocco splintered back into numerous lordships which Idris had to slowly reconquer. This seems to fit the envoy’s account of a child ruler who had struggled to control pirate activity, but by 813 was in a much stronger position to do so. The following year saw Idris take the important city of Tlemcen. This might explain why Gregory was willing to believe the envoy and sign the pact. The reference to tension with Umayyad al-Andalus would make sense given that Idris later settled vanquished Andalusi rebels in Fes. The eleventh-century Andalusi historian Ibn Hayyan makes a garbled reference to Charlemagne and Idris I which may reflect contact between the Carolingians and the Idrisids.

The biggest flaw with such an identification is the reference to the Saracen ruler as Amir al-Mu’minin, ‘Commander of the Believers’, a title normally used in the period by Caliphs. To the best of my knowledge the Idrisids did not claim this title. This is a problem I’m going to have to think about.

The reference to treaties lasting ten years is also interesting. Muslim jurists of the time specify that ten years was the maximum time a member of the faithful could make peace with non-Muslims. The information from this letter suggests that this was not just a theoretical notion, but had some purchase on real practice.

Finally, the reference to the Muslim envoys travelling on a Venetian ship points to their ubiquity even at this early stage in the Middle Ages, and the way in which Christians and Muslims used each other’s transport infrastructure. Christian pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land often used ships captained by Muslims, sometimes containing a cargo of Christian slaves. What the envoys made of the torching of the two pirate ships is unclear, but given that they were from al-Andalus, they may not have been too concerned.

This relatively short passage thus gives us a huge amount of information, which can be very profitably contextualised. Most of all, it reveals an early ninth-century western Mediterranean crowded with pirates, diplomats and merchants, in which rulers from as far away as Fes, Aachen and Constantinople attempted to gather information through contacts and nodes.


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