To the Anglosphere, the name Charlemagne recalls a Germanic warlord of the Dark Ages whose conquests entrenched Roman Catholicism and restored political order to post-Roman Western Europe—of consequence to Western civilization, naturally, but far removed from its classical substance. To the western Europeans, however, he amounts to something far greater than an Alaric or Atilla; he is, to them, the father of Europe, whose civilizational vision initiated the march to Western enlightenment.
How could it be that, within countries of the European Union, the name Charlemagne is elevated to, and often above, the tier of personalities that includes Aristotle, Cleopatra, Cicero, Augustus, Moses and Alexander of Macedon? Within England and America, it is this latter collection of names that occupy the sprawling pantheon of Western heritage. Charlemagne does not feature prominently in the imagination of the New World, and his Holy Roman Empire was no successor of, nor bore any equivalence to, the influence of the classical Roman Empire. The cultural order that he established in Europe was only dimly congruent with the Roman legacy and collapsed altogether when southern Europe abandoned medievalism and restored its civilizational heritage of millenia past. The sole element binding Charlemagne to Rome was Christianity––specifically that the seat of Roman Catholic power persisted in Rome even after the fall of the classical order which surrounded it. There is thus profound authority in the eternal adage that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor eventually an empire at all.
A perennial dispute threatens to corrupt the heart of Europe. The continent confidently regards itself as the heartland of Western civilization, yet it cannot determine whether this was born of Charlemagne or the Mycenaeans. There is little question among Americans, whose capital architecture is Hellenistic and whose institutional philosophies were born of Rome and post-medieval Europe, that the answer is the latter, and perhaps even originating in our oldest civilizational ancestors of Egypt and Sumer. To Europe, the American interpretation is unacceptable because European notions of grandiosity and continental unity are built upon the absurd myth that Western civilization is indistinguishable from European civilization, and Charlemagne himself constitutes the earliest unifier of this supposed European civilization.
What factors necessitate this myth? In briefest terms, it is the estrangement between northern and southern Europe. Brussels knows it cannot be whole unless the likes of Poland and Germany are civilizationally connected to Italy and Greece in order to culturally substantiate the geographic continent which these two regions share. This cannot be accomplished with a classical origin, as classical antiquity never fully extended over any modern nation of northern Europe, except England and Belgium. This demonstrates the purpose of Charlemagne, whose Frankish empire extended from Rome to Schleswig, but which reinforced only the logistical tunnels through which the light of the Renaissance could spread northward five centuries later. In order for Europe to project the legacy of classical civilization throughout the world, his medieval order required dissolution. Charlemagne, whose Germanic origin was a world away from classical civilization and its Mediterranean home, deserves no ambassadorship on behalf of the West.
The European continent is no unified civilization. Romance Europe belongs to an altogether distinctive sphere of cultures, and nations such as Italy and Greece are closer in their heritage to Alexandria, Cairo, Palmyra and Aleppo than to Frankfurt or Copenhagen. The West derives its origin from the Mediterranean through an unfurling lineage which leads from the Near East to Rome to Paris to London and over the ocean. This lineage does not stumble into northern Europe, and insofar as it fails to encompass the whole of Europe, there can be no claim by Brussels that Charlemagne or the ever-nebulous “European civilization” constitutes the grand approximation of the Western mythology. If Europe has a father, he was no Westerner.
There is ultimately one force that delivered the Western world, and it is Mediterranean in its disposition. While Charlemagne was no descendant of classical antiquity, there remains still a civilization that the Renaissance consolidated over Europe, in which a rebirth in philosophy, knowledge, artistry and discovery attracted contributors from northern Europe and beyond. This civilization is not “European,” nor is it exclusively Christian, yet it designates the substance of the Western world. Europe only remains Western while affected by the legacy of the Renaissance, and therefore it must choose whether its foundation extends to the Franks or to the Greco-Romans. If it considers itself Western and desires accordingly to contrive for itself a Western origin story, it must attribute its civilizational core to Minos and Pericles rather than Charlemagne, even if this threatens the integrity of European identity. Should it fail and continue to cling to the Western mantle while refusing to recognize its truest forebears, it will lose its claims to both.