Lombard Conquest of Italy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The conquest of Italy by the Lombards made the Byzantine reconquest ephemeral and underlined the permanent political separation of the eastern and western halves of what had once been the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

From 535 to 552, Italy had been ravaged by the war between the Byzantine (East Roman) army, which was trying to reconquer the Italy lost by the Roman Empire in 476, and the Ostrogothic tribal leadership, which had dominated Italy for the previous sixty years. The Byzantine army, commanded by the aged Armenian eunuch Narses Narses (Byzantine general) , had been ultimately victorious. Both the army and the finances of the Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire itself, however, were exhausted, leaving Italy easy prey for future invaders. [kw]Lombard Conquest of Italy (568-571) [kw]Italy, Lombard Conquest of (568-571) Lombards Italy;Lombard conquest of Italy;568-571: Lombard Conquest of Italy[0140] Expansion and land acquisition;568-571: Lombard Conquest of Italy[0140] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;568-571: Lombard Conquest of Italy[0140] Narses Alboin Cunimund Rosamund Justin II Sophia Longinus

The Lombards were one of numerous Germanic tribes of obscure origin and even more obscure subsequent migrations that played an unexpected political role in Europe in the wake of the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The Lombards called themselves the Longobards or “long-beards”; they are called the Lombards by modern-day historians because they settled in a part of Italy later known as Lombardy. In Italian, their name is “I Langobardi.” Although the Lombards Migrations;Lombards to Italy were among the last to make their historical mark, they had lived for centuries on the northeastern borders of the empire, most lately in the area of Pannonia (modern Hungary). By the mid-sixth century, they were serving as Byzantine allies against the Ostrogoths Ostrogoths . Most of their military energies, though, were devoted to a bitter and protracted struggle against their fellow Germanic tribesmen and eastern neighbors, the Gepids Gepids . This struggle, taking place in a wooded region that later passed into Germanic legend as “Mirkwood,” culminated when Alboin Alboin , the Lombard chieftain, slew his hated rival, the Gepid leader Cunimund Cunimund , in 567. Alboin forced Rosamund Rosamund , the daughter of Cunimund, to marry him; reportedly, he fashioned a drinking cup out of the skull of Cunimund and made Rosamund drink from it on the day of their wedding.

This anecdote and many others relating to the Lombard invasion may or may not be historically reliable: The problem is that the only real written source for Lombard history is the work of Paul the Deacon Paul the Deacon , which was written more than two hundred years after the events in question. Archaeological evidence, though, has proven much of Paul’s account to be reasonably accurate. It is known from other sources that the Lombards were not able to rest easy in Pannonia after the defeat of the Gepids, as the area was shortly invaded by the powerful Asiatic tribe, the Avars Avars . The Lombards had previously allied with the Avars to assure the defeat of the Gepids, but they now found themselves confronted by the far stronger Avaric power. From their longtime status as allies of the Byzantine Empire, Alboin knew that, despite the recent imperial successes in Italy, the Byzantine army was far weaker than it appeared. The combination of Lombard self-confidence, the Avar threat, and Byzantine vulnerability made the Lombards decide to invade Italy in 568.

A nineteenth century depiction of Alboin’s entrance into Pavia.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The situation in Byzantine-occupied Italy was unstable because of the recent retirement of Narses, the eighty-five-year-old eunuch who had proved an improbably brilliant general, conquering much of Italy from the fierce Ostrogoths. Several historical accounts (of unsure reliability) report that this was because Narses was disliked by Sophia, the wife of Justin II Justin II , the new Byzantine emperor. Justin, who had succeeded his uncle, Justinian I Justinian I , on the throne in Constantinople in 565, was an incompetent ruler, and Sophia Sophia made many of the decisions during his regime. Reportedly, Sophia had said that Narses, as a eunuch, was not entitled to be a general; instead, she believed he should have been stationed in the women’s quarters of the palace at Constantinople. Behind this perhaps apocryphal story lies the very real suspicion that the new emperor and his wife were wary of Narses’s power and prestige; there also exists evidence that they thought he had taken too many of the revenues of the Italian province for himself. Narses is then supposed to have invited the Lombards to invade Italy as a final form of retaliation against Constantinople.

Whatever the reasons, Narses was recalled (though he never left Italy, dying there in retirement in 574), and a man named Longinus Longinus was appointed to take his place. Before Longinus even reached the Italian administrative capital of Ravenna, however, the Lombards had marched into Italy. Alboin and his men had begun the march two days after Easter. The Lombard retinue included not only the Lombards but also the recently defeated Gepids, a few Alamanni, and a group of thousands of Saxons whom Alboin had invited along to share the booty. The Lombards were not a tightly organized army but rather an unsystematic group of warriors; however, they were militarily effective. The Lombards encountered little opposition as they entered Italy because the province was exhausted from the Gothic war as well as from a severe plague that had occurred in 565. The Lombards quickly occupied such key northern Italian cities as Milan, Modena, and, after a lengthy siege, Pavia. The only cities that stood successfully against the Lombards were the imperial capital of Ravenna, which was practically impregnable, and the city of Rome itself, protected by the authority of the pope.

The Lombards received a mixed welcome from their new subjects. The Italians were unenthusiastic about Byzantine overlordship and welcomed a strong government that would offer them a respite from constant war. However, the Italians were overwhelmingly Catholic Christians (except for a few residual Ostrogoths), and the Lombard conquerors were predominantly Arian heretics, although there were Catholic and even pagan factions within Alboin’s people. The Lombards were eventually to convert to Catholicism a century and a half later under the leadership of King Liutprand (r. 712-744), but until then, religion was a constant source of tension between them and their subjects.

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The new Byzantine governor, Longinus, arrived soon enough to protect Ravenna and the area around it, which bordered the Adriatic Sea and was called the Pentapolis. Rome remained loosely associated with the Byzantine dominions, and the Byzantines also preserved Naples and some areas near the extreme south of Italy that were to remain under Byzantine rule until the eleventh century. The Lombards, though, ended up occupying the majority of the peninsula, and the Byzantines could do nothing to dislodge them, though they tried by intrigue, armed assaults (one of them led by Justin’s son-in-law), and attempted cooperation with the Frankish rulers of Gaul in order to catch the Lombards in a kind of pincer movement.

Significance

The Lombard invasion had permanently punctured the dream of restoring the Roman Empire in the west; from this point on, the Byzantine Empire was to be only a weak and limited force in Italy. The Lombards established a strong realm in the north with its capital at Pavia. They also ruled two separate duchies to the south of the thin Byzantine corridor stretching between Ravenna and Rome. These duchies, centered at Spoleto in Umbria and Benevento in the southeast respectively, were subject to the Lombard king in Pavia but not under his total control. This arrangement lasted for more than two centuries.

Alboin, however, was not to enjoy the fruits of his victory. He was assassinated at Verona in 572 in a conspiracy launched by Rosamund, still intent on avenging Alboin’s cruelty to her and his murder of Cunimund, her father. Rosamund was aided by a henchman, Helmechis, and was also subsidized by the Byzantine governor, Longinus, who hoped to marry Rosamund. Rosamund was murdered shortly after, however, and Lombard rule was consolidated under the leadership of the kings Authari and Agilulf.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christie, Neil. The Lombards: The Ancient Langobards. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. An accessible survey of the history of the Lombard peoples, both before and after their settlement in Italy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fauber, Lawrence. Narses: Hammer of the Goths. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. This entertaining biography of the aged Byzantine general gives needed background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goffart, Walter. The Narrators of Barbarian History: A.D. 550-800. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. In discussing Paul the Deacon’s account of Lombard history, Goffart also discusses that history itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul the Deacon. History of the Langobards. Translated by William Dudley Foulke. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974. Valuable primary source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schutz, Herbert. The Germanic Realms in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe, 400-750. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. An examination of the Germanic peoples who lived in Europe and invaded Rome and other areas. Provides insights into the interactions between the Lombards and other groups. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tabacco, Giovanni. The Struggle for Power in Medieval Italy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Places the invasion in the context of the sweep of medieval Italian history.

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