The Lombards

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Origins - The Conquest of Italy - The Lombard Kingdom

Origins

The Lombards, or Langobards, originated in the lower Elbe Valley. They are mentioned by Tacitus (Germania, 40) as one of the many tribes collectively known as the Suebi. He notes that they were small in number and hemmed in by more powerful tribes but that they found safety not in submission but in battle…

However, they played little or no part in the overthrow of the West Roman Empire, only moving into northern Austria in the wake of the Rugii in about 486, long after the Romans had departed.

Early in the Sixth Century, they moved into Pannonia (modern Hungary) where they established themselves as a powerful presence. They enjoyed friendly relations with the Eastern Empire under their king, Wacho (c.510-540).

It was at this time that they converted to (Arian) Christianity. Under Wacho’s successor, Audoin, they became federates (foederati) of the Empire some time after the year 540. Under the terms of this agreement, they assisted Justinian in his wars against the Ostrogoths and the Franks, forming the core of Narses’ centre at the Battle of Taginae (552).

The Conquest of Italy

It was during their campaigns for Justinian that they became familiar with the Po Valley and its incomparable fertility. When, in the 560s, Pannonia came under pressure from the Avars, their new king, Alboin, found support from Constantinople less then he had hoped for. He decided that the best hope for his people lay in Italy itself; the lands which they had recently helped the Empire to reconquer from the Ostrogoths.

In 568, Alboin led a host of Lombards, Gepids, Sarmatians and other peoples (including Hunnic Bulgars, according to the historian Paul the Deacon). Others, amongst them Bavarians, Saxons and Taifali, joined the invasion en route. As they advanced, the vacuum left behind them was filled by Avars, Bulgars and Slavs.

Alboin quickly seized Aquileia and much of the Venetian plain. Within a year he had taken Milan and was largely in control of the Po Valley. He swept southwards into Tuscany and by 575 had reached Rome itself, with only a few fortified cities and mountain strongholds remaining in Imperial hands.

Alboin was murdered in 572. He had forcibly married the Gepid princess, Rosamund, daughter of King Cunimund, and it was she who had him killed, after he had made her drink from her father’s skull. His successor, Cleph, was also murdered soon afterwards and for the next decade the Lombards were ruled by an alliance of, traditionally, thirty-five duces, as a federation under the overall command of one Zaban, who ruled from Pavia.

For a whole generation, the Lombards behaved in the worst traditions of barbarian conquerors; murdering landlords and seizing their lands, plundering the countryside and taking the cities for themselves. Italy had no government in the proper sense of the word and the Emperor was powerless to intervene. Justinian’s triumph in having reconquered Italy was exposed as a terrible error in judgment; all he had achieved was to replace the stable and relatively friendly Kingdom of the Ostrogoths with a barbarian anarchy.

Pope Gregory, writing of the Lombard occupation, said, "On all sides we see war, on all sides we hear groans. Our cities are destroyed, our strongholds razed, the countryside desolate. There is no one to till the fields; no one almost to keep the towns… Some have gone into slavery, some are left limbless, some slain."

The Lombard Kingdom

It was not until about 580, after the Lombards had made a couple of abortive attacks on eastern Gaul, that the Byzantines armies in Italy began to recover. Under this threat, and with the presence of hostile Slavs and Avars in Istria, the Lombards re-established a unified monarchy under Authari son of Cleph.

Under Authari and his son Agilulf (590-616), an embryonic Lombard kingdom began to take shape. The autonomous duces were replaced by an army-controlled system of territories, each still ruled by a Dux. The destruction of the old Roman landed classes necessitated their replacement with a new, more Germanic one.

Under the influence of the Bavarian princess, Theudelinde (already related to the Lombard royal house through her mother, and the wife first of Authari, then of her step-son, Agilulf), the Lombards gradually began to convert to Catholicism, although their kings initially resisted this.

Under Agilulf the Lombard Kingdom expanded into central Italy and was consolidated in the north. He reached a settlement with the Franks and put down a rebellion by some of the duces before resuming the struggle with Byzantium. Several years of fighting followed before, with the Empire accepting it could never recover the whole of Italy, the situation stabilised. By the 680s, Catholicism was well-established amongst the Lombards, which helped the Empire to swallow an enduring peace.

The Lombards’ power reached its peak during the reign of King Liutprand (712-744) but after his death, the Popes began to see the possibility of enlisting the help of the Franks in overthrowing them. In 755, Pepin the Short invaded Italy at the direct invitation of the Pope and defeated the Lombard King Aistulf. Lombard rule in Italy was all but over, being finally destroyed in 773 by Pippin’s son, Charlemagne. Nonetheless, the two-hundred-year occupation had left its inevitable mark, and the heartland of the kingdom in northern Italy is known, to this day, as Lombardy.

De Longobarden

Thanks to the efforts of Rien van de Wall, this page is now available in Dutch translation at http://users.pandora.be/vroege-middeleeuwen/longbard.htm (Or just click on the flag).

Mark Furnival, 1998

This page was last updated on 10 August, 2002