At home with the Langobards

In tracing the history of the Dukes of Spoleto, we had reached the mid-8th century.

Let us take a step backwards and remember how, during the rule of Liutprand (712-744), the Longobard kingdom had become an economically growing, firmly structured reality. Liutprand was a strong ruler who took advantage of the Byzantine weakness, accentuated by the iconoclastic crisis that had torn the Exarchate apart, to expand his kingdom.

On the death of Liutprand in 744, Ildeprand was elected king. He ruled for only a few months and in August of the same year was replaced by Ratchis. To legitimise his appointment, Ratchis presented himself as the heir and continuer of Liutprand’s policies. Despite the military prestige he had previously gained as duke of Friuli, he found himself having to balance a difficult mediation between opposing demands, without, however, possessing Liutprand’s political and diplomatic skills.

The Eastern Roman Empire neighbouring on Barbarian Kingdoms

Deep internal contrasts soon showed his political weakness. In order to strengthen his position, poorly supported by the great Longobard warrior aristocracy, he supported the small nobility of the Gasindi and the mass of the Roman population. He himself married a Roman woman, Tassia, and did so following the Roman rather than the traditional Longobard rite. From 746, instead of the traditional title of king of the Langobards, he gave himself the title of princeps, a clear manifestation of his desire to place himself, in the wake of the Roman emperors, above the different ethnic groups living in his kingdom.

These pro-Roman political choices aroused the reaction of the Longobard traditionalists and so, in 749, Ratchis reversed the course of his policy, invading the Pentapolis and laying siege to Perugia, a crucial junction on the route between Rome and the Exarchate. An intervention by Pope Zacharias, however, convinced him to lift the siege; Ratchis’ prestige among his men thus suffered a decisive blow.

Langobards and Byzantines in 8th-cen. Italy

In July of that year the Longobard assembly in Milan deposed him and installed his brother Aistulf in his place. Ratchis tried to oppose the deposition, but was soon forced to take refuge in Rome, where he and his entire family took the vows, perhaps as the only alternative to physical elimination.

According to some, however, like other Longobard rulers (including his brother and successor Aistulf) Ratchis may have experienced a certain inner conflict: the irreconcilable contrast between his Catholic conscience and the demands of opposition to the Papacy dictated by the policy of unification of Italy.

A legend attributes to Ratchis the foundation of the Abbey of the Santissimo Salvatore, on the eastern slopes of Mount Amiata, in the place where the Trinity had appeared to him.

The Longobard Kingdom in 751

Aistulf was a much more charismatic figure and reversed the attitude of his brother, who had done his best to favour the Roman element, to guarantee greater cohesion and stability to the kingdom, and defined himself once again as rex gentis Langobardorum.

In order to bring the whole of Italy under his rule, he dedicated himself from the outset to reorganising and strengthening the army. All free men in the kingdom were subject to military service: wealthy landowners and merchants were required to serve with armour and horseback; medium-sized landowners and merchants had to present themselves with horseback, shield and lance; the poorest had to be equipped with shield, bow and arrows.

Having reorganised and strengthened his army, Aistulf immediately went on the offensive against the Italian territories still subject to the Byzantine Empire.

In 750 he invaded the Exarchate from the north, occupying Comacchio and Ferrara; in the summer of 751 he succeeded in conquering Istria and then Ravenna itself, the capital and symbol of Byzantine power in Italy. However, understanding like his predecessors the importance of appearing to be a Catholic king, he hesitated to attack Rome directly. The threat to the Roman Duchy was strengthened by the control he also acquired over the duchies of central and southern Italy, Spoleto and Benevento.

In 751 in Spoleto, according to some scholars, duke Lupus was succeeded by Unnulf. According to most, however, since all public acts of the Duchy of Spoleto after 751 only mention the name of King Aistulf, he deposed duke Lupus, who was loyal to the previous king Ratchis, and took direct control of the duchy.

Aistulf governed the duchy of Spoleto from 751 to 756 using only Gastaldi. By directly appointing the royal administrators who operated in the civil, military and judicial spheres, he guaranteed himself full power over the duchy.

By the mid-8th century Aistulf had achieved a position of power in Italy equal to, if not greater than, that of his great predecessors, so much so that he came close to fully unifying the peninsula.

Happy Monday with the Langobards!

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