Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Conquest of Italy by the Langobards

originally published in Slingshot, Issue 263, March 2009 / the bi-monthly magazine of the Society of Ancients

The Migration Period

After the Ostrogoths, the Langobards (Longobardi, Lombards or simply just „Longbeards“), were the first wave of early modern Italians who left a long-lasting footprint in their new home country.  Today, one of Italy's northern regions with Milan as a capital is still called Lombardy.  
Though we do not tend to associate the Langobards with anything else but Italy, they originally had their roots around Hamburg, near the estuary of the river Elbe in northern Germany.  The Langobards are a typical example of the many Germanic tribes that wandered south, settling regions now known as France (Burgundians, Franks), Spain and Portugal (Suebi, Visigoths), northern Africa (Vandals, Ostrogoths) or Italy (Franks, Ostrogoths and Langobards).
The reasons for this great move to the south have still not officially been established.  It is generally assumed that overpopulation and climatic changes were the main grounds.  As the Roman Empire had created a large and coherent economic region with a convenient infrastructure, it is logical that this large economic area was an attractive target for wandering tribes on the look-out for a better future.

Long before the Migration Period and the final Fall of Rome many foreign tribesmen had already been living inside the Imperial borders as a result of Rome's aggressive expansion policy.  The larger the Empire grew, the smaller the number of “pure Romans” became in relation to the foreigners.  Rome simply needed these foreigners as workers, soldiers, slaves and, very importantly, as tax-payers to make the system run efficiently.  As Michael Grant puts it in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”:  “From the very beginning of the Empire, one Roman ruler after another had imported (the Germans) in large numbers, so that there should be less trouble-makers beyond the frontiers, and more soldiers and agricultural workers within (….).  Entire regiments of the Imperial field force were made up of these Germans.” 

Whereas during the days of the Emperor Augustus 68% of the Roman legionaries were of Italian origin, in the 2nd century this percentage had dropped to only 2%.  By the same token, the internal balance of power between Romans and Germans had already shifted irrevocably towards the Germans, long before the Suebian-Visigoth Ricimer (405-472 AD) was the power behind the throne of the Western Roman Empire as Magister Militum.
When the Empire eventually collapsed, the vacuum it left behind was filled up by powers that were looking for new opportunities.

The Winniler 

According to the Origo gentis Langobardorum (The Origin of the Langobard People), an anonymous manuscript from the 7th century AD, the Langobards were originally called Winniler.  The Origo reports that around 300 BC the Winniler left Scadanan, probably Skåne (Scania) in the south of Sweden, under the leadership of their kings Ybor and Aio with their mother Gambara, and migrated to Scoringa, possibly the current isle of Rügen situated between Sweden and northern Germany.  According to the author(s) of this manuscript, the Winniler received their name Longbeards after a victory over the Vandals (allegedly also inhabitants of southern Sweden in those days), which they apparently owed to their women.

In a conflict with the Vandals, the Winniler consulted their god Godan (also Odin or Wodan), who answered that he would give the victory to those whom he would see first at sunrise. The Winniler were fewer in number and Gambara sought help from Frea (Frigg) who advised that all Winniler women should tie their hair in front of their faces like beards and should march in line with their husbands.  So it came that Godan spotted the Winniler first, and asked, "Who are these longbeards?" and Frea replied, "My lord, thou hast given them the name, now give them also the victory."  From that moment onwards, the Winniler were known as the Langobards (Italianised as Longobardi).

A more plausible explanation is that their later name "Langobards" comes from Langbarðr (long-bearded), a name of Odin/Godan/Wodan, who wore the epithet "the Long-bearded" or "the Grey-bearded".  In resemblance of their main god the Langobards grew their beards and thus also inherited his epithet.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of these Scandinavian origins.  Indisputable, however, is their presence in Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg and Lower Saxony, the area surrounding Hamburg.  This presence is corroborated by a large number of burial grounds.  The Langobards were already mentioned by Strabo, who died in 22 AD, as a sub-tribe of the Suebi who populated the north of Germany.  Strabo's information is probably based on the campaigns of Tiberius (the later emperor), who was victorious against „tribes of almost unknown names“, amongst whom the Langobards, in the words of Velleius Paterculus: „a people who are more ferocious than the German ferocity“.  Also Tacitus calls the Langobards particularly determined warriors in his Germania and in his Annales he states that they are only a small tribe, who were small in number and hemmed in by more powerful tribes, but that “they find safety not in submission but in battle”

The Migration to the South

Groups of Langobards seem to have wandered south to Lower Austria already in the first century AD and written sources mention the presence of Langobards in the second half of the 2nd century AD in this region on the eve of the Marcomannic Wars against the Romans.  Cassius Dio describes how 6,000 Langobards and Obii warriors crossed the Danube to join the Quadi and the Marcomanni in their unsuccessul attacks against the Romans under Marcus Aurelius.  However, the Langobards played little or no part in the overthrow of the Western Roman Empire and only moved (now in great numbers) into northern Austria in about 486 AD, long after the Romans had departed.

After 300 AD the Langobards seem to disappear from the contemporary radar-screens for a period of almost 200 years. The annals of that period are full of reports on the Alamannic tribes, Burgundians, Saxons, Goths and Herulians. Not until the 6th century AD the Langobards resurface again in reports of writers like Jordanes and Procopius.  The latter mentions that, led by their king Tato, the Langobards put up a battle against the aggressive and superior Herulians in 508 AD.  After the retreat of the Huns these had incorporated the Langobards in their kingdom that covered South Moravia, West Slovakia and parts of Pannonia.  Unexpectedly, the Langobards were victorious.  As a result, they were suddenly on the radar of the diplomatic circles in Constantinople and as a consequence in the international press, as the Herulians were allies of the Ostrogoth king Theoderich.  Theoderich had just managed to topple Odoaker, who had become ruler of Italy by deposing the last Roman Emperor 12 years earlier. 

Langobard Dux, northern Italy, 8th C. AD, 90 mm model by EMI
After the defeat of the Herulians, the Langobard king Tato was shoved aside by Wacho, who stayed in power for about 30 years.  During his long reign Wacho allied himself with the Thuringians and Gepids, and married two of his daughters into the kingdom of the Franks.

When the Byzantine Empire was at war with the Ostrogoths, the latter tried to gain Wacho as an ally in 539 AD.  Wacho politely declined, as he was already allied with the Byzantine Emperor.  After Wacho’s death in 540 AD, his successor Audoin started to work on a more aggressive expansion policy.  
In a deal with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Audoin obtained Pannonia and Noricum in 547 ADIn return the Langobards provided troops in Justinian’s wars against the Italian Ostrogoths and the Franks.  They formed the core of the Byzantine general Narses’ centre at the decisive Battle of Taginae (552 AD) against the Ostrogoths.  After the battle the Langobards apparently pillaged and plundered their future homeland so excessively, that they were quickly escorted back home to Pannonia.  
Under Wacho’s successor, Audoin, they became federates (foederati) of the Byzantine Empire. 

It was at this time that the Langobards converted to (Arian) Christianity.
Audoin was succeeded by his son Alboin, who had married the daugther of the Frankish king Chlothar I.  
There were regular tensions between the Langobards and the Gepids. The Langobards were able to defeat the Gepids in 567 AD and – in true Germanic tradition Alboin managed to kill the Gepid king Cunimund with his own hands, after which he forcibly married Cunimund's daughter Rosamund.
The victorious Langobards did not show any interest in the Gepid kingdom, which they left to the Avars and Byzantines, but decided to invade Italy, having become familiar with the Po Valley and its incomparable fertility during their campaigns for Emperor Justinian against the Ostrogoths.  Entering Italy in 568 AD, they were followed by a part of the Gepids, Pannonian Suebi, Sarmatians, remnants of the provincial Roman population from Noricum and Pannonia as well as a group of Bulgars.  An estimated 20,000 Saxons wanted to join their train as well, but after quarrels with Alboin, the Saxons decided to leave and returned to where they came from.

It is difficult to assess how large the band was that Alboin invaded Italy with.  The largest armies in those days usually comprised no more than 30,000 soldiers.  Civilians included, Alboin's group probably numbered 80,000 to 100,000 people.  A number of 20,000 soldiers and a total of 150,000 people is mentioned in other sources as well. 

The Conquest of Italy

The moment for the invasion was well chosen, as Italy was in a mess.  The Byzantines under Narses had not been able to cash in on their victory over the Ostrogoths.  After 20 years of war with the Goths and a Franco-Allamanic invasion, Italy's infrastructure was severely damaged and the population had dwindled due to the plague and famines.  Alboin quickly seized the city of Aquileia in the north-east of the country and much of the Venetian plain. Within a year he had moved 350 km west and taken Milan.
Now he was largely in control of the Po Valley.  The only city which put up significant resistance was Pavia, 40 km south of Milan, which withstood a siege of 3 years before it surrendered and was later to become the Langobard capital. 

Plate from the helmet of King Agilulf
(“triumph of Agilulf”)

In Milan Alboin was proclaimed king of entire Italy in 570 AD, which was rather wishful thinking, as by then the Langobards had only occupied the land north of the river Po.  This proclamation may have been inspired by Constantinople, as the brunt of the Langobard invasion was perceived to be an attack against the Burgundian Franks, rather than against Roman Ravenna and Rome.
Alboin did not seem to have a structured plan for the conquest of the rest of Italy.  Any activities in this direction were left to the initiative of his duces.  From Italy Langobard duces made some attacks on Eastern Gaul and plundered the Rhone valley.  Others wandered south and founded the Langobard Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento, which pretty much defied central control. Only the Duchy of Tuscany with Lucca as its centre stayed tied to the crown.
Partly due to their small numbers the Langobards did not succeed in establishing a centrally governed Langobard state in Italy, nor was Emperor Justin II interested in signing a treaty with a people that he considered barbarians.
Unfortunately, the Langobards did not really work on their public relations, as for a whole generation they behaved in the worst traditions of typical 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 Byzantine 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 anarchy.

Alboin was murdered in Verona in 572 AD.  The story goes that, because he had forcibly married the Gepid princess, Rosamund, daughter of King Cunimund, it was she who had him killed, after he had made her drink from her father’s skull. Alboin's planned successor, Helmichis and actual successor Cleph, were also murdered soon afterwards and for the next decade the Langobards were ruled as a federation by a traditional alliance of thirty-five duces under the overall command of one Zaban, who ruled from Pavia.  When the Franks threatened to mingle in Langobard affairs in 584 AD, the duces chose to appoint a new king called Authari.
Langobard late cavalry, 54mm Model by Tergeste
Between Constantinople and the Langobards a truce was signed in 585 AD, but it took until 681 AD before the Roman Emperor in Constantinople recognised the Langobards as official rulers of Italy.  
The Langobard Kingdom never was a very homogeneous state, nor was it very stable.  Especially the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento tried to gain independence from the king and were ruled as semi-autonomous principalities.  These were also the first to romanize, i.e. to drop their Germanic traditions.  During the war with Charlemagne, the Langobards of Spoleto presented themselves to the Pope in Rome to declare themselves “Romans”.  The Langobards of Benevento did not stir until the Franks had conquered Italy.  It was then that Benevento declared itself an independent Langobard principality

The Langobard Kingdom 

Langobard kings can be traced back to 380 AD, the beginning of the Migration. The first king that played a significant role in the preparations leading up to the foundation of a Langobard kingdom in Italy was Tato.  He was followed by 25 others before the last Langobard king Desiderius (756-774 AD) was finally replaced by Charlemagne and other Frankish kings.
In 580 AD, after the Langobards had made a couple of abortive attacks on eastern Gaul, the Byzantines armies in Italy began to recover.  Due to this threat as wel as the presence of hostile Slavs and Avars in Istria, the Langobards established a unified monarchy.

Under Authari and his successor Agilulf, an embryonic Langobard 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.  Agilulf managed to stay in power until 616 AD, during which period the Langobard kingdom was more or less consolidated.  He built the Basilica of Monza, where the iron Crown of the King of the Langobards is still preserved together with Agilulf's crown, dedicated to St John. It bears the inscription rex totius Italiae ("king of all Italy").
His long reign was marked by the cessation of war with the Franks.  These had descended into civil war which prevented a united assault on Lombardy throughout Agilulf's rule.  Several years of fighting followed with the Byzantine Empire
for the cities of Emilia, such as Parma and Piacenza, during which period they conquered Genua and the Ligurian coast in the 640s.  Ravenna and its surroundings remained Byzantine until the middle of the 8th century.  The Langobards never succeeded in establishing themselves in Rome, where the Church took over the administration, nor in Naples, Sicily and Sardinia.  Around 680 AD Catholicism was well-established amongst the Langobards, which helped the Byzantine Empire to accept an enduring peace.

Langobard power reached its peak during the reign of King Liutprand (712-744 AD).  After his death the Popes, who were afraid that the developing Papal State might eventually be absorbed by the Langobard kingdom, began to enlist the help of the Franks in overthrowing them.  In 755 AD Pepin the Short invaded Italy at the direct invitation of the Pope and defeated the Langobard King Aistulf.  Langobard rule was finally destroyed in 773AD by Pippin’s son, Charlemagne.  

By then, the two-hundred-year Langobard occupation had left an indelible mark, and the former heartland of the kingdom in northern Italy is still known to this day as Lombardy.

Italy during the reign of King Agilulf (590-616 AD)

Langobard Society

Langobard society was divided into classes comparable to those found in the other Germanic successor states of Rome, Frankish Gaul and Visigothic Spain.  Most basically, there was a noble class, a class of free persons beneath them, a class of unfree non-slaves (serfs), and finally slaves.  The aristocracy itself was poorer, more urbanised, less landed than elsewhere and more powerful politically, if not economically, than in contemporary Gaul and Spain.

Aside from the richest and most powerful of the dukes and the king himself, Langobard noblemen tended to live in cities (unlike their Frankish counterparts) and hold little more than twice as much in land as the merchant class. This was a far cry from the provincial Frankish aristocrat who held a vast swathe of land hundreds of times larger than the nearest man beneath him.

The aristocracy by the eighth century was highly dependent on the king for means of income, related especially to judicial duties.  Many Langobard nobles are referred in contemporary documents as iudices (judges) even when their offices had important military and legislative functions as well.

The freemen of the Langobard kingdom were far more numerous than in the realm of the Franks, especially in the eighth century, when they are almost invisible in the surviving documentary evidence.  Smallholders, owner-cultivators, and renters are the most numerous types of person mentioned in surviving documents.  They may have owned more than half of the land in Langobard Italy.  Freemen were exercitales (soldiers), arimanni (army-men) and viri devoti (a military term like "retainers"), who formed the levy of the Langobard army.  This small landed class lacked the political influence necessary with the king and the dukes to control the politics and legislation of the kingdom.

The Langobards divided Italy into civitates at the head of which was a dux, a military ruler.  The greater cities such as Pavia, Lucca, Siena, Arezzo, and Milan consisted of minute agglomerations of buildings (“islands”) within the old Roman city walls, a phenomenon known as the città ad isole (or "city as islands").

Since the cities of the Roman Empire had been partially destroyed in the series of wars during the fifth and sixth centuries, many sectors were left in ruins and ancient monuments became fields of grass used as pastures for animals. Ancient monuments became fields of grass, which were used as pastures for animals. Thus the Roman Forum became the campo vaccinio, the field of cows.
The portions of the cities that remained intact were small and modest and contained a cathedral or major church (often sumptuously decorated), a few public buildings and town homes of the aristocracy. Few buildings of importance were stone, most were wood.

Langobard Warriors

Early Langobard warriors were well-equipped with large oblong shields, sometimes a chainmail shirt, a lance, sword, spear and a long knife (scramasax).  Dress resembled that of the Saxons, except that their linen tunics were dyed in broad stripes.  Their lower legs were often wrapped in leg bindings.
Beards were worn extremely long, while their hair was cropped short at the back, but hung long at the front and the sides, parted in the centre.

Military dress was a mixture of Late Roman, Byzantine, Gothic and other “state-of-the-art” military wear of those days (see illustrations) with lamellar corselets and greaves (ocrea) and round shields.  The Byzantine kontos (long heavy lance) used by the cavalry was stout enough to lift an enemy from his saddle and hold him aloft.
Due to the contacts with the nomadic populations of the steppes during their stay in Pannonia, the later Longobard army was composed mainly of cavalry, while h
elmets tend to be laminated with a high crest and a chainmail neck-guard and very much show eastern (Avar) influences.  
The importance of the cavalry can also be derived from the fact that in the 7th century the size of the scramasax had increased from 50 to the 80 cms, thus making it a proper weapon for clashes with other cavalry. 

Every freeman
, called exercitalis or arimannus (literally „army-man“) was obliged to perform military service. Since the Langobards themselves constituted only a small group, many slaves and subject people were created freemen, so as to swell the number of available troops.
At the same time, curiously enough the Italian Romans tended to be treated as serfs, or at best as half-free and did not serve in the army. Up to end of the 8th century the affiliation to the army was exclusively reserved to Langobards, even though already in the second half the 7th century, when the tribal tradition was starting to disintegrate, more and more Longobards were looking to be exonerated from the military duties.

Langobard exercitalis, 7th C. AD,
54mm model by La Meridiana
At the age of 12 all physically and mentally normal males received a sword and began to train in the art of the war, leaving the subdued population to work the fields, raise the livestock and to provide them with their daily sustenance. Analyses of skeletal finds recovered in Langobard burial places show that warriors were endowed with a superior muscular structure.

Based on the laws that King Aistulf promulgated in 750 AD we now know how the Langobard army was organised. Freemen were divided into three categories, of which the richest two categories formed the cavalry.  Cavalry carried swords, lances and a shield.  The elite cavalry troops also wore corselets. 
The third category constituted the infantry and was equipped with shields, bows and arrows.  It is plausible to assume that those who could not even afford a shield were automatically exonerated from the army, thereby factually losing the Longobard status.

The king was the supreme commander of the army.  His personal guard was formed by the gasindi (litt. "journey companions") headed by the mahrskalk („marshall“, litt. "stable-man"), in line with the Germanic custom that the nearest men to the king also occupied the principal positions of the court.  Another important position was that of the scildpor (squire).  Under the king came the dukes (from the Latin dux), then the sculdahi, followed by the decani and finally the simple arimanni.

When called up, each man followed his local lord, consisting of comes (counts), gastaldi (stewards) and centenarii (Zentgrafen in German). The levy of a whole province was led by a dux (there were 34 duces as early as 574 AD).  Within the levy the Langobards were organised in farae, clans or related family groups.  The fara was the basic social nucleus of Longobard societyHence, some scholars translate the term arimannus with "he who follows the shield of his own surname."

Langobard tactics

Not much is known about the military tactics employed by the Langobards.  Clearly they had adopted Byzantine strategies, with which they had become acquainted during their service as auxiliary troops against the Ostrogoths, as well as in their clashes with the Byzantine Empire itself.  Nevertheless, they had also preserved the warlike spirit typical of the Germanic tribes, which urged a soldier to look for man-to-man combats in order to gain glory for himself as well as his family.  
In this spirit, Langobards engaged the enemy with furor, trying to overwhelm the enemy lines more with terror than with weapons, also attacking at night as was the custom with the ancient Germans.

One of offensive tactics of the Langobards for which there is plausible evidence, is the "head of the wild boar" (cuneus or wedge-formation).  The nobles that surrounded their commander were followed by their arimanni forming the base of the wedge formation, which was also used by the cavalry.  T
he cavalry, perhaps following the Byzantine example, usually operated on both sides of the infantry so as to be able to protect the foot soldiers and to charge the enemy from the sides.

A secure defensive formation was the scildburg (shield-wall) which was used against cavalry or compact attack formations.  If necessary, cavalry dismounted to assist in a scildburg formation.

Rather than to storm a hostile city in an attempt to seize it, the Langobards preferred to lay siegeThe hunger and the unhygienic conditions resulting from a siege usually made cities capitulate fairly soon.
Langobard siege engines were simple constructions of limited effectiveness, when compared with the imperial siege engines.  The Langobards were apparently not particularly skilled in western techniques. 

When they were finally beaten by the Franks in 773 AD, they had already settled the larger part of the Italian peninsula. The coastal areas around Ravenna, Rome and Napels, as well as the isles, continued to remain under Byzantine rule for a long period of time.  

After the Carolingian dynasty ended in Italy in 888 AD, there was a revival of Langobard power.  However, this ended in a decisive Langobard defeat at Cannae in 1018 AD and cleared the way for Norman expansion in southern Italy.

Sources and further reading

  • Armies of the Dark Ages, Ian Heath, Wargame Research Group Publication, 1976
  • Count Belisarius, Robert Graves, Penguin Books 1954
  • Die Völkerwanderung, Klaus Rosen, Verlag C.H. Beck, München 2002
  • Die Langobarden, das Ende der Völkerwanderung, catalogue to the Exposition at the Rheinischen LandesMuseum Bonn 2008
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire, Michael Grant, Phoenix Giant Paperback, London 1997
  • Barbarians, an alternative Roman history, Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, BBC Books, Random House Group, 2006
  • Rom und die Barbaren, catalogue to the Exposition in the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublijk Deutschland, Bonn 2008

Winniler, Grupo storico Longobardo,

Picture credits:
Langobard dux, northern Italy, 8th C. AD, 90mm model by EMI
Langobard exercitalis, 7th C. AD, 54 mm model by La Meridiana,
Langobard late cavalry, Tergeste Model
Italy during the reign of King Agilulf,
Plate from the helmet of King Agilulf (“triumph of Agilulf”), picture-alliance, akg-images, Frankfurt am Main
Robert Heiligers

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