The Lombards in Italy – The History of a Kingdom

The Lombards are the people who gave their name to the italian region of Lombardy. Germanic by origin, the tribe subsequently enjoyed a 200-year tenure in Italy. They were settled until around the 4th century AD and then began a large southward migration from northwestern Germany southwards into northern Italy. On the way, the Longobards engaged in the usual wars and land invasions common at the time.

Their origins lie in Scandinavia, according to sources quoted by the historian Paul the Deacon. Mythically, when the tribe (then called the Winnili) split up in search of new lands for some of their number, they came into contact with the Vandals, who offered them a choice of either tribute or war. Their leaders decided that tribute was for sissies, and so the tribe set forth to war the next morning after consulting their deities. The deities had advised that the women should march with their men, tying their long hair around under their chins to look like beards. Their victory that day led to their new name: Longobards, or “longbeards”. In fact, it could equally have derived from one of the names of Odin, namely Langbarðr. There are several other alternative reasons for the change of name, often associated with Odin and suggesting that the name change came with the assumption of Odin as their special deity and patron.

The Longobard tribe was first mentioned under that name sometime in the first century AD. They were known to be resident on the banks of the Elbe at that time, when the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that they were remote and aggressive, and although a relatively small tribe, it appears that their ferocity was well known. By the middle of the second century AD, the great southward migration of this tribe had begun, and they had moved at least as far as the Rhineland area. The Longobards continued to creep ever southwards during the next two hundred years, enduring periods of slavery in between conquering their various overlords.

By the middle of the 500s, the tribe had encountered the Gepidae, as they continued their move southwards. With the backing of emperor Justinian, and serving as mercenaries in his army, the Longobards waged around 20 years of persistent but intermittent war with this tribe, before finally being able to move into the area of northern Italy which now bears their name, thus losing the support of the Byzantines. It is easy to see why the Lombards chose to migrate further, as that part of Italy had been badly affected by the Gothic wars and there was not much resistance to their arrival.

One of the first cities to fall to the Lombards, Forum Iulii (Cividale del Friuli), remained a strategic place for the tribe for the duration of their time in Italy. It was the site of the first duchy, and also the northernmost point of their italian defences. It took another three years before further gains were made in the acquisition of Pavia, which the Lombards designated their first capital.

Subsequently, the Lombards gradually split the parts of Italy they controlled into the familiar pattern of duchies and city rulers which characterized its rule for centuries to come, ending up with 36 duchies. Meantime, they slowly adopted Roman customs and dress, while expanding their kingdom to encompass around three quarters of Italy. At first they were opposed to Catholicism, but gradually converted to an orthodox form of Christianity. They still stood in opposition to the Pope, however, and continued to attempt to take over papal lands. The Exarchate of Ravenna was a constant thorn in the Lombards’ side at this point, controlled by and loyal to the Pope, in contrast to the Lombards’ opposition. This opposition was the catalyst in the eventual fall of their kingdom, which was conquered by Charlemagne, the Frankish king, in the last quarter of the 8th century.

The Longobards migrated around 900 miles in less than 200 years, leaving northern Europe behind and entrenching themselves firmly in the south. They endured many wars and changes of allegiance during that time, especially working with the Byzantines in and around Italy until they were able to overthrow them. They started out as pagans and ended as Christians, with their monk Paul the Deacon writing a history of his people in the 8th century. The rise of Christian belief can be traced to Theodelinda, consort and queen in the last part of the 6th century. During their time they were subjugated and conqueror by turns, eventually falling to the might of Charlemagne. The tribe was generally known as the Longobards until their successes in Italy in the 6th century, when “Lombard” becomes the preferred term for many historians.

It is noticeable that there was constant battling among the leaders once the tribe settled in Italy, with very few kings lasting more than a decade at most. Liutprand (712-744) was the one exception to this trend, and after this period of stability, it is perhaps telling that the next king, Hildeprand was nicknamed “the Useless” and deposed in less than a year due to his incompetence. The Lombard rule was to last less than forty years after this point, and in 781, Charlemagne’s son Pepin takes over both the former Lombard territories and the title of king of the Lombards on behalf of the Frankish kings.