The Lombards: The “Barbaric” Germanic Warriors Who Changed Italy
As the Roman Empire crumbled, the history of the ancient world was undoubtedly marked and shaped by more than one powerful Germanic tribe. From their oldest roots, they developed into iconic ethnic groups that were instrumental in the future of the world as we know it. From the seafaring Vikings to the militaristic Saxons, and all the way to the Cherusci and their allies who stood in the path of Rome, the Germanic peoples were many and always proud. The Lombards were no exception. One of the smaller tribes from the Migration Period, the Lombards fought their way across Europe before settling on the northern part of the Italian Peninsula, where they would establish a powerful kingdom that grew rapidly. In the process, the Lombards became a major thorn in the side of the Byzantine Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire and its capital Constantinople.
The Scandinavian gods Wodan and Frigga of the early Lombards looking down from the heavens to the Winnili women below, from a 1905 AD painting by Emil Doepler. (Emil Doepler / Public domain )
What is the Earliest Mention of the Lombards?
The Lombard name might sound familiar as many know of the Lombardy region of Italy and its capital, Milan. This is just one of the many geographical and cultural remnants that the Germanic Lombards left on the Italian Peninsula .
The name “Lombard” is a derivation from two Proto-Germanic words: langaz (long) and bardaz (beard). It is reportedly a name that these men gave to themselves, which was “longbeards.” A more probable version is that the name was given to them by their enemies and neighbors, chiefly due to their distinctive long beards. Ancient sources mention that the Lombards called themselves the Winnili at first, which could possibly be a Proto-Germanic variant of the word “wolves.” However, after their migrations and conflicts with other tribes, they quickly became known as the Longobards (from which Lombard stems), and they remained known as such.
The Lombards’ origins of prominence undoubtedly lie in the Migration Period . This is a time when Europe saw the decline of the Western Roman Empire . And in the Migration Period a large influx of “barbarian” tribes populated devastated Roman areas and moved across the borders of former Roman territories.
It is mentioned in ancient historical records that the Lombards originally dwelt in southern Scandinavia, where they were a small tribe called the Winnili. They were settled in southern Scandinavia until around the 4th century AD. Around this time, they begin their southerly migrations, in search of new and better lands to live in. They eventually come into contact and conflict with other Germanic tribes they met on the way but always manage to come out on top.
As Longobards, the Lombards are first mentioned around the 1st century AD. The Roman historian Tacitus writes of them as living on the banks of the river Elbe and describes them as being “remote” and very aggressive. He further states that they were a small tribe but that they had a great reputation for being fierce and warlike. Some sources state that they chose to change their name to Longobards only after their victory against the neighboring Vandals. This could be linked to one of the many names of their chief god Odin , Langbarðr (Langbard), whose protection they probably claimed to possess.
Map of Lombard Kingdom after Aistulf's conquests (751 AD), according to Paulus the Deacon's Historia Langobardorum. (InvaderCito / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Fierce Longbeard Germanic Warriors Descend Upon Europe
Amongst the first major clashes that involved the Lombards was the one with the Heruli, a Germanic tribe dwelling in a region coinciding with modern-day Austria and Slovakia. The Lombards managed to subdue them, and at the time were often mentioned as the fiercest and most brutal Germanic tribe.
After securing their passage through Heruli lands, the Lombards continued towards the south-east towards the Pannonian lands , modern-day Hungary, northern Serbia, and western Romania, where a new and powerful enemy awaited them, the Gepids. This was a powerful East Germanic tribe of the Pannonian plain, and another enemy of the Byzantines.
Thus, the arrival of the Lombards into the area came as a welcome advantage for the Byzantines. Emperor Justinian , who ruled from Constantinople, gave the Lombards imperial subsidies and encouraged them to wage war against the Gepids, thus utilizing one Germanic tribe against another, sparing his own troops in the process.
It was the Lombard ruler Audoin (reigned 546-560 AD) who began these wars against the Gepids, and his son and successor, Alboin (reigned c. 560-572 AD) who finally defeated them for good. But even after he made the Gepids his subjects, King Alboin was not keen on settling in their lands. The untrusty and powerful Avars were at his doorstep there, and he feared for the prosperity and safety of his people. Thus, he set his sights on a new land, which lay unprotected and ready for settlement: Italy.
At the time, the Italian Peninsula lay ravaged and depopulated, which was a consequence of the Gothic Wars that raged across Italy during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Only the small and weary contingents of the Byzantine army remained in Italy, and they were powerless to resist the oncoming horde of Lombards and their allies.
Italy soon fell into Lombard hands. One city after another was occupied with almost no resistance, and the outlines of a new Lombard Kingdom were quickly taking shape. In 569 AD, the first major city, Forum Iulii, was occupied. It was followed by Brescia, Vicenza, and Verona, and the capital of northern Italy, Milan. They all fell in the year 569 AD.
Needless to say, after entering into Italy and conquering all these cities, they lost the support of the Byzantine emperor and became his newest enemies instead. The Lombards simply changed place with the defeated Ostrogoths, continuing the tumultuous fate of the Italian Peninsula after the collapse of Rome.
Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, marries Agilulf, duke of Turin, in a painting by Fratelli Zavattari. (Fratelli Zavattari / Public domain )
The Makings of a Kingdom Carved From Roman Ruins
The first capital city of the Lombards was Pavia, a powerful city which they didn’t conquer as easily as they did the rest of the towns. Pavia managed to withstand a three-year long siege, after which it fell to the Lombards and became their foremost town.
As time went on and they solidified their control over the Italian peninsula, the Lombards began to establish the formal outlines of a kingdom. Boundaries were established by the extent of their rule and habitation, and Italy was split into sub-regions of duchies, which ultimately numbered thirty-six.
The King of the Lombards appointed his trusted men as leaders of the duchies. The foremost of these were the duchies of Benevento and Spoleto, and those of Tuscia, Trent and Friuli. The Lombard king ruled over the duchies, but only in theory. In actuality, such a division caused instability in the emerging Lombard Kingdom, with Benevento and Spoleto becoming almost independent.
Over time, as they settled for good in Italy, the Lombards began to give up their warlike Germanic heathen ways. Going along with the trends of the time, they gradually took on Roman (Byzantine) customs and cultural traits, especially in their style of dress. Their name seemingly changed as well. The “Longobard” became shortened to “Lombard,” the name used by historians today.
In time, their pagan religion was also abandoned. The Lombards accepted an orthodox form of Christianity as their new religion, but nevertheless remained fierce enemies of Catholicism. Their enmity with the Pope was enormous, and they made constant attempts to conquer the papal lands in Italy. The Exarchate of Ravenna, controlled by and loyal to the Pope, was the foremost opponent of the Lombards in Italy.
The famous Lombard king, Alboin, the one that led his people into Italy, was assassinated in 572 AD in Verona. He was murdered likely by his wife who was helped in secret by the Byzantines. This event brought more instability to the emerging kingdom and precipitated a period of great strife.
Alboin was succeeded by Cleph, a ruler that would be remembered in history for his brutality and violence against the citizens of Italy. His reign of terror lasted for only eighteen months, when he too was assassinated. But interestingly, Cleph was not followed by another Lombard king. Instead, the Lombard Kingdom entered into a period known today as the “Rule of the Dukes.” During this time, the regional leaders, the dukes, each ruled over their own city (regional center) and its surrounding territory. This lack of unity was quite unstable and as violent as the rule of Cleph.
The so-called "Pilatus' basin," standing in the middle of the so-called "Pilatus' Courtyard," is a Lombard sculpture dating from the 8th century. It bears the names of the Lombard kings Liutprand and Ilprand. (M.Violante / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Lombards’ Golden Era Under King Liutprand
The fragmented nature of the Lombard dukes was an open invitation to the Byzantines to attack them. To do so the Byzantines allied themselves with the Franks to the west, and together they invaded Lombard Italy. The Lombard dukes were taken by surprise, and quickly scrambled in the hope of unifying and defending the territories they gained in Italy. To do so, they once more needed a king, so they set the son of Cleph, Authari, on the throne.
Nevertheless, in the conflict many Lombard territories were lost to the Franks. Only with the death of Authari in 590 AD, who was likely poisoned, and the arrival of Duke Agilulf on the throne, did the Lombards succeed in recapturing their lost territories and in the process regaining their power in the region.
Over the following century, Lombard Italy was able to enjoy a period of relative peace. This time gave them the chance to adapt to the times, and they began adopting the Roman way of life. But that period would be briefly interrupted around 700 AD, when King Aripert II came to the throne. He reigned for twelve years, in a time filled with intrigue, strife, war, and cruelty. But when he was finally replaced on the throne by Liutprand, stability once more returned to the Lombard lands.
Liutprand is one of the best remembered and most successful of all the Lombard kings. He was noted for his laws, the stabilization of his territories, and his lengthy and prosperous rule. Initially, he was focused solely on protecting his boundaries, and building up the strength of his kingdom. Only when this was secured did Liutprand begin to expand his territories further, reducing the Byzantine territories in Italy.
By the time of kings Aistulf (c. 749-756 AD), and Desiderius (756-774 AD), the Lombards were attempting to expand even further. They began invading papal territories with success, but that would soon prove to be fatal. The pope at the time, Adrian I, asked his staunch ally, Charlemagne, to assist him.
The King of Franks, who was powerful and already the stuff of legend, descended upon Italy and destroyed the Lombards swiftly and decisively. Just like that, in roughly a year, the Lombard Kingdom and its people were no more. They were conquered and integrated into the Frankish Kingdom. From that point on, Charlemagne was called King of the Franks and the Lombards. Of course, ethnically, the Lombards were not wiped out but lost all their independence and, over the centuries, their identity as well.
However, at the southern end of the Italian Peninsula, some Lombard areas were never fully conquered by Charlemagne. The biggest of these was the Duchy of Benevento, which continued to rule its territory well into the 11th century AD, but never with as much success or importance as the Lombard Kingdom before it. It too finally fell in the early 1000’s, when Italy was conquered by the Normans.
The Iron Crown of the Lombards was used in subsequent centuries to crown the King of Italy. (James Steakley / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Kingdom Gained and Lost Through Bloodshed
Throughout their existence, the Lombards were known as powerful warriors and fierce rulers. In Italy, their heathen Germanic background slowly dissipated, and this gave rise to the unique Romano-Germanic tradition of art and cultural style. Today, we can admire the lavish Lombard weapons and jewelry, much of it wrought in gold and studded with jewels. The Lombards loved wealth and were keen to show it off.
But most importantly, the history of the Lombards gives us a perfect insight into the mechanisms of a nation in the Early Medieval Period. The Lombards migrated south across Europe from Scandinavia and reached their final destination, Italy in 200 years! In that time, they migrated more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) coming into contact with various tribes and peoples, as they fought and pillaged their way south. From subjects to kings, these fierce Germanic tribesmen fought for their own place in the world. And they certainly made the most of it.
They started in Scandinavia but ended in Italy. They started as Pagans yet ended as Christians. They began small and poor but ended big and rich. And still, throughout all this time, they could not shed the key characteristic of their Germanic heritage: their fierce desire to fight and conquer!
Top image: Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, marries Agilulf, duke of Turin, in a painting by Fratelli Zavattari. Source: Fratelli Zavattari / Public domain
By Aleksa Vučković
Drew, K. 2010. The Lombard Laws. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Foulke, W. D. 1974. Paul the Deacon: History of the Lombards. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Mark, J. 2014. Lombards. World History Encyclopedia. [Online] Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Lombards/
Pretta, I. F. 2020. Paul the Deacon: Historia Langobardorum. Tektime.
Snell, M. 2020. The Lombards: A Germanic Tribe in Northern Italy. ThoughtCo. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-lombards-defintion-1789086
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