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The Lombards (Latin Langobardi, from which the alternative name Longobards found in older English texts), were a Germanic people originally from Scandinavia that entered the late Roman Empire.


Origins and conquest of Italy

Their own tradition describes how they left Scandinavia under leaders such as Ibor and settled in Continental Europe, in the lower course of the Elbe river, where they were recorded by Tacitus as early as A.D. 98:

What, on the contrary, ennobles the Langobards is the smallness of their number, for that they, who are surrounded with very many and very powerful nations, derive their security from no obsequiousness or plying, but from the dint of battle and adventurous deeds. After the Langobardi come the Reudigni, Auiones, Angli, Varni, Eudoses, Suarines, and Nuithones, all well guarded by rivers and forests. There is nothing remarkable about any of these tribes unless it be the common worship of Nerthus (i.e., Earth Mother). (Germania by Tacitus)

Lombards were one of the tribes forming the Suebi, and the 1st century AD they lived in northwest Germany. They occasionaly clashed with the Romans, but it seems they were mainly shepherds and farmers until, in the 4th century, the great migrations of peoples coming from East changed the situation. At the end of the 5th century Lombards settled in the area of what is now Austria, and at the beginning of the 6th century they were settled in Pannonia (now Western Hungary and the Czech Republic) by the Emperor Justinian, in quality of foederati. The Lombards at this time had already begun to change their tribal organisation to a one led by a group of dukes and counts who commanded bands of warriors of related or kin people.

In 560 a new, energetic king emerged: Alboin, who defeated and the neighbouring people of the Gepidae, made them his subjects, and, in 566, married the daughter of their king Cunimond, Rosmunda. In the spring of 568, Alboin led the Lombards to cross Julian Alps and to invade northern Italy, together with other Germanic tribes living with them (Bavarians, Gepidae, Saxons) and Bulgars. The first important city to fall was Forum Iulii (Cividale del Friuli), in North-Eastern Italy, in 569: there, Alboin created the first Lombard duchy, which he entrusted to his nephew Gisulf. Soon Vicenza, Verona, and Brescia fell in Germanic hands. In the summer of 569, the Lombards conquered the main Roman centre of Northern Italy, Milan. The area was then recovering from the terrible Gothic Wars, and the small Byzantine troops left at its defence could do almost nothing: the Exarch sent to Italy by Emperor Justinian II, Longinus, could only defend coastal cities that could be supplied by the powerful Byzantine fleet. Pavia fell after a siege of three years, in 572, becoming the first capital city of the new Lombard kingdom of Italy. In the following years, the Lombards penetrated further south, conquering Tuscany and establishing two duchies, in Spoleto and Benevento, which soon became semi-independent and even outlasted the northern kingdom, surviving well into the 12th century. The Byzantines managed to retain control of the area of Ravenna and Rome, linked by a thin link running through Perugia.

The whole Lombard territory was divided into 36 duchies, whose leader settled in the main cities. The king controlled them and administrated the land through emissaries called gastaldi. This subdivision, however, together with the independence indocility of the duchies, deprived the kingdom of its unity, making it weak even with the Byzantines when they partly recovered after the initial disaster, and even more so when the Lombards had to face the increasing power of the Franks. As an answer to this problem, the kings tried to centralize powers over time; but, in this attempt, they definitively lost control over Spoleto and Benevento.

When they entered Italy, some Lombards were and remained pagan, while some were Arian Christians. Hence they did not enjoy good relations with the Catholic Church. Gradually, as they remained in Italy, they adopted Roman titles, names, and traditions, and partially converted to orthodoxy (7th century), not without a long series of religious and ethnic strifes.

Alboin was murdered in Verona by a plot led by his wife, who took shelter in Ravenna. His successor, Cleph, was also killed in a conspiracy after a ruthless reign of 18 months: his death began an interregnum of years during which the dukes did not elect any king, and which is regarded as a period of violence and disorder. In 584, threatened by a Frankish invasion, the dukes elected king Cleph's son, Authari: in 589, he married Theodelinda, daughter of the duke of the Bavarians, Garibald I (Bavaria). The Catholic Theodelinda was a friend of Pope Gregorius I and pushed for the Christianization of his people. In the meantime Authari embarked on a policy of internal reconciliation and tried to reorganize the administration: the dukes yielded half of their estates for the mantenaince of the king and his court in Pavia. On the foreign affairs side, Authari managed to thwart the dangerous alliance between the Byzantines and the Franks.

Autari died in Pavia in 590: his successor was Agilulf, the duke of Turin, who, in 591, also married Teodelinda. He successfully fought the rebel dukes of Northern Italy, conquering Padova (601), Cremona, and Mantua (603), and obliging the Exarch of Ravenna to a cospicuous tribute. Teodolinda reigned alone until 651, and was successed by Adaloald. Arioald, who had married Teodolinda's daughter Gundeberga, deposed Adaloald at the head of the Arian party opposing the former king.

Rothari and his successors

His successor was Rothari, regarded by many authorities as the most energic of all Lombard kings. He extended his dominions conquering Liguria in 643 and the remaining part of Byzantine inner Veneto territories, including the Roman city of Opitergium (Oderzo). Rothari also emanated the famous Edict with his name, which established the laws and the habits of his people in Latin language: the edict was not directed to the subjects of the Lombards, which could retain their laws. Rothari's son Rodoald succeeded him in [[652] still very young, and was killed by the Catholic party.

At the death of king Aripert in 661, the reign was split among its children Perctarit, who set its capital in Milan, and Godepert, who reigned from Pavia. Perctarit was thrown off by Grimoald, son of Gisulf, duke of Friuli and duke of Benevento since 647. Perctarit fled to the Avars and then to the Franks. Grimoald managed to regain control over the duchies and pushed off the late attempt of the Byzantine emperor Constans II to conquer southern Italy. He also defeated the Franks. At Grimoald's death in 671 Perctarit returned and promoted the tolerance between Arians and Catholics, but he could not defeat the Arian party led by Arachi, duke of Trento, who subdued only to his son, the filo-Catholic Cunipert.

The end of the Lombard kingdom of Italy

Religious strife remained a source of struggles in the following years. The Lombard reign began to recover only with Liutprand (king since 712), son of Ansprand and successor of the brutal Aripert II. He managed to regain a certain control over Spoleto and Benevento, and, taking advantage of the disagreements between the Pope and Byzantium concerning the cult of images, he annexed the Exarchate of Ravenna and the duchy of Rome. He also helped the Frank marshall Charles Martel to drive back the Arabs. His son Aistulf conquered Ravenna for the Lombards for the first time, but was subsequently defeated by the king of the Franks Pippin III, called by the Pope, and had to leave it.

The last Lombard to rule as king of the Lombards was Desiderius, duke of Toscana, who managed to conquer in a definitive way Ravenna, ending the Byzantine presence in Central Italy. He decided the reopen struggles against the Pope, who was supporting the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento against him, and entered Rome in 772, the first Lombard king to do so. But when Pope Hadrian I called for help from the powerful king Charlemagne, he was defeated at Susa and sieged in Pavia, while his son Adelchi had also to open the gates of Verona to Frank troops. Desiderius surrendered in 774 and Charlemagne, in an utterly novel decision took the title "King of the Lombards" as well. Before then the Germanic kingdoms had frequently conquered each other, but none had adopted the title of King of another people. Charlemagne took part of the Lombard territory to create the Papal States.

The Lombardy region in Italy, which includes the cities of Brescia,Bergamo and Milan, is a reminder of the presence of the Lombards.


Much of our knowledge of the mythological and semi-mythological early history of the Lombard people comes from Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards (Historia Langobardorum) written in the late 8th century.

According to the Lombards themselves, a legend documented by Paul the Deacon, their name was derived from a joke played on Odin (Godan) by his wife Frige (Frea). She told the Lombard women to tie their hair in front of their faces and when Odin saw them he asked about the longbeards. Then Frigg said that since Odin had named them longbeards, Langobards was to be their name. The name has also been tentatively considered as being derived from the name of a preferred weapon of the Lombards in war: the lang barte ("long halberd" or "long-bladed axe"). However, neither of these possibilities is considered by scholars at this time to be plausible. The translation of Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards (Historia Langobardorum) published in 1907 by W. D. Foulke mentions these as well as other possibilities, but his speculation in that respect is now thought to be based on highly tenuous etymological links.

Historic kings of the Lombards

Rule of the Dukes (Ten year interregnum)

See also