Longobards, Gepids and Avars
Alboin was one of the greatest kings of the Longobards and the founder of the Longobard Kingdom. The state he founded occupied most of the Italian Peninsula and endured for two centuries (568 – 774). When Alboin was elected king (cca. 560), the Longobards were living in Pannonia, far from their Scandinavian homeland. They were possibly invited or settled there by the Byzantines in order to defend the region against the Gepids, another Germanic people who founded their own kingdom – Gepidia – in the Carpathian Basin. The Kingdom of the Gepids was formed in the aftermath of Attila’s death and the disintegration of the so-called Hunnic Empire. Alboin made it his priority to destroy Gepidia entirely, and in order to achieve this, he allied himself with Bayan I, the Khagan of the Avars who had recently arrived in Pannonia from Central Asia.
The details of this Longobard-Avar alliance are murky at best and it is unclear who proposed it. While some sources report that Alboin negotiated the alliance, others claim that it was Bayan who approached the Longobard king. Regardless, in 566 the two rulers agreed to join forces against the Gepids who were led by their king, Cunimund. Bayan seems to have managed to outsmart his ally Alboin, because the Avars were promised all the lands of the Gepids if they would succeed in defeating them. The following year (567), Gepidia was invaded and overrun: the Longobards invaded from the northwest and the Avars from the northeast. Cunimund rallied his troops, but could offer little resistance to such a force. He was killed in battle, and Gepidia was shattered by the invaders.
Alboin appears to have been the one who killed Cunimund in single combat: he took Cunimund’s head as a trophy and later turned into a skull cup (from which he drank wine). However, the details are (again) uncertain, and there is a strong possibility that Bayan was the one who killed Cunimund and later gave his skull to Alboin as a sign of “good faith” when the two celebrated their victory. What can be said with certainty is that Gepidia ceased to exist as a political entity and the Gepids as an independent people. Their lands were ravaged and then seized by the Avars, who soon emerged as the dominant faction in the region as a result. In fact, the Avars exerted more power than the Gepids had ever commanded.
A New Power Rises
After the fall of Gepidia and the dispersion of its population, the Avars took over all its lands, as promised by Alboin. Some of the surviving Gepids submitted to Bayan and accepted his rule, while others fled to the Byzantine Empire. The Avars not only filled the power vacuum created by the complete destruction of Gepidia, but forged an even greater, more dominant state than that of the Gepids. The Longobards who witnessed these events started fearing the Avars, despite their official friendship. The reluctance of the Byzantines to intervene must have also contributed to their anxiety.
Up until that point, the Byzantines intervened frequently in the affairs of both the Longobards and the Gepids, offering support to one and then to the other in order to maintain the regional balance of power. This time, however, the Byzantines refused to get involved, which left the Avars unchecked to expand their might. It is very likely that Alboin only agreed to ally himself with Bayan because he thought that the Byzantines would send military aid to expel the Avars from the region once the Gepids had been dealt with. This would explain why he agreed to such unfavorable terms for his people. If Alboin ever made such a gamble remains unknown, but it is a plausible explanation for what seems to be a blunder.
Emperor Justin II, who came to power in 565, was hostile to both the Longobards and the Gepids. He first sent an army against Alboin (in 565 or 566) and then, after the Avars arrived in Pannonia, he refused to aid Cunimund against them, despite the latter’s repeated pleas. Unlike his predecessor Justinian, Justin II was more adamant in his dealings with the barbarians who lived at the Empire’s doorstep. He allowed Gepidia to fall and the Avars to do as they pleased, perhaps thinking of using Bayan to destroy the Longobards next. When this became clear enough for Alboin to understand, he reevaluated his position.
Exodus of the Longobards
Growing more anxious, King Alboin decided to unite the remainder of the Gepids under his banner. He even took Cunimund’s daughter, Rosamund, as his wife in order to bring the two Germanic nations together. The Gepids, however, were far too weakened and the Avars far too powerful, so Alboin decided it was best to abandon Pannonia and lead his people to Italy.
The country was known to the Longobards; thousands of them had seen it in the 550s, when they were hired as mercenaries by the Byzantines in the Gothic War. At the time, Italy was also – for the most part – deserted, and there is a possibility that the Longobards were invited to settle it. The Gothic War and the Plague of Justinian ravaged Italy and depopulated entire regions. Religious strife and endemic conflicts crippled the administration. Yet, the Longobards regarded Italy as a good country to live in.
Alboin strengthened his alliance with Bayan to make sure that there would not be any conflicts between their people. The Avars were to take possession of Pannonia and offer the Longobards military support should they need it. The new treaty of friendship also stipulated that if the Longobards would fail in their attempt to take Italy, they could reclaim their former lands in Pannonia within a period of 200 years. After taking these precautionary measures, Alboin made the final preparations for the long journey ahead.
On Easter Monday, 568, one year after the fall of Gepidia, the Longobards started their exodus. This unusual date was chosen by Alboin due to his recent conversion to Arian Christianity. What made the date unusual, however, was not that it was Easter, but that it was in April. The Germanic tribes usually waited until autumn before starting a migration in order to gather enough supplies for the road. Perhaps it was the fear of the Avars which “motivated” Alboin to move so early.
In any case, Alboin led the Longobards and others who joined him – Suebi, Ostrogoths, Thuringii, Herules, Saxons, Sarmatians and even a few Romans – out of Pannonia and into northern Italy. The exact size of the migratory group remains unknown, but modern estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000.
Founding a Kingdom
The Longobards entered Italy in September (of the same year, 568), finding most of the country desolate. They met virtually no resistance from the scant imperial troops stationed there, and some of the milites limitanei (border guards) even joined their ranks. City after city was taken without any opposition. Most of the Italian population fled into Byzantine controlled lands, headed by their priests. Some stayed behind and started a new life with the Longobards.
The first settlement taken by Alboin was the walled city of Forum Iulii, which was close to the border. Aqueileia was next, followed by Treviso, Vincenza, Verona, Brescia and Bergamo. Cities like Padova and Cremona were left untouched. Drawing inspiration from the administrative models of the Late Romans and the Ostrogoths, Alboin quickly organized these lands into a duchy – the Duchy of Friuli – setting the capital at Forum Iulii. Once the newly established domain had been fortified to protect the Longobards from any potential Byzantine or Avar attacks from the east, Alboin turned west.
In 569, he invaded Liguria and by September 3, the region’s capital, Milan, was taken without any opposition. The taking of Milan marks the “foundation” of the Longobard Kingdom in Italy, as Alboin assumed the title of Dominus Italiae (Lord of Italy) after seizing the city, and started counting the years of his reign from this event. However, Alboin established his capital at Verona, not at Milan, as he continued his conquest of the peninsula.
Moving south, Alboin came upon Pavia, but unlike the other Italian cities, Pavia refused to surrender. This was the first recorded instance of strong resistance to the Longobard invasion. Alboin immediately laid siege to the city, but it took three years to break the defenders’ resistance. Pavia was finally taken in May 572. By then, Alboin brought much of northern Italy under his rule, with the exception of the coastal areas of Venetia and Liguria, and a handful of isolated inland centers. After Pavia was finally taken, Alboin moved his capital there, but his authority started to disintegrate.
It is believed that the Longobard conquest of central and southern Italy (Spoleto, Benevento, etc.) took place without Alboin’s consent. In other words, individual warlords who were supposed to be his subordinates started acting on their own, pursuing personal ambitions instead of following orders. Other groups of Longobards did the same and started invading Frankish lands to the north (as early as 569). Although Alboin played no role in these incursions, they had long-lasting political consequences and irremediably deteriorated the previously cordial Frankish-Longobard relations.
In response to the Longobard invasion of Burgundy, the Franks entered an alliance with the Byzantines and started to encroach upon the borders of the Longobard Kingdom. The Byzantines were waiting for such an opportunity, since it was in all their interests to expel the Longobards from Italy. Before Alboin’s invasion, the Byzantines had just retaken Italy from the Ostrogoths after a conflict – the Gothic War –which lasted 20 years (535–554). Furthermore, the Byzantines employed the Longobards against the Ostrogoths, so it was an outrage to have their former allies taking over the lands they had fought so hard to reclaim.
The Byzantines had tried to halt Alboin’s expansion since he first set foot in Italy, but lacked the manpower and resources to organize any resistance. The scant imperial troops stationed in Italy at the time of the Longobard’s arrival were mostly comprised of Gothic auxiliaries whose loyalty was dubious at best. Most of them even joined Alboin and it is very likely that they played a key role in the Longobards’ initial success. For example, the Gothic soldiers garrisoned in the Italian cities might have simply opened the gates for the Longobards. Even some of the Italian citizens might have sympathized with the invaders, growing tired of the heavy taxes imposed by the imperial authorities.
By 572, however, Alboin and his kingdom faced serious challenges. The Franks threatened the borders, being backed by the Byzantines, while Alboin’s authority over his subjects disintegrated. One month after taking Pavia, Alboin was assassinated in his palace, falling victim to a conspiracy orchestrated by his wife Rosamund. It appears that the Gepid princess had never forgiven Alboin for killing her father, and managed to convince Helmichis, Alboin’s foster brother, to commit fratricide. Rosamund and Helmichis were also romantically involved, and the two agreed to murder Alboin and usurp his throne. According to Historia Langobardorum, Rosamund decided to kill Alboin after he forced her to drink wine with him from Cunimund’s skull, inviting her to “drink happily with her father.”
In reality, Alboin’s assassination was a coup d’etat instigated by the Byzantines who were hoping to destabilize the “newborn” Longobard Kingdom, or to transform it into a client state. Of course, this does not exclude Rosamund’s desire to avenge her father; neither does it infirm the skull cup account. After murdering Alboin, Helmichis married Rosamund as they had previously arranged. The union was not just an expression of their love, but also a political movement: Rosamund was now the king’s widow and the most prominent of the Gepids.
However, the coup failed as most of the Longobard warlords refused to recognize Helmichis as king. They elected Cleph, one of the dukes, instead and forced the assassins into exile. Rosamund and Helmichis fled to Ravenna, which was under Byzantine control, taking with them Alboin’s treasure and part of the troops who were loyal to them. Having failed in their attempt to seize the Longobard Kingdom, the two lovers grew apart and eventually killed each other.
Consulted Works and Sources:
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