The Lombards: A Germanic Tribe in Northern Italy

Last Banquet of Alboin king of the Lombards, 6th Century
Last Banquet of Alboin king of the Lombards, 6th Century. duncan1890 / Getty Images

The Lombards were a Germanic tribe best known for establishing a kingdom in Italy. They were also known as Langobard or Langobards ("long-beard"); in Latin, Langobardus, plural Langobardi.

Beginnings in Northwestern Germany

In the first century C.E., the Lombards made their home in northwestern Germany. They were one of the tribes that made up the Suebi, and though this occasionally brought them into conflict with other Germanic and Celtic tribes, as well as with the Romans, for the most part the greater number of Lombards led a fairly peaceful existence, both sedentary and agricultural. Then, in the fourth century C.E., the Lombards began a great southward migration that took them through present-day Germany and into what is now Austria. By the end of the fifth century C.E., they had established themselves fairly firmly in the region north of the Danube River.

A New Royal Dynasty

In the mid-sixth century, a Lombard leader by the name of Audoin took control of the tribe, beginning a new royal dynasty. Audoin apparently instituted a tribal organization similar to the military system used by other Germanic tribes, in which war bands formed of kinship groups were led by a hierarchy of dukes, counts, and other commanders. By this time, the Lombards were Christian, but they were Arian Christians.

Beginning in the mid 540s, the Lombards engaged in war with the Gepidae, a conflict that would last about 20 years. It was Audoin's successor, Alboin, who finally put an end to the war with the Gepidae. By allying himself with the eastern neighbors of the Gepidae, the Avars, Alboin was able to destroy his enemies and kill their king, Cunimund, in about 567. He then forced the king's daughter, Rosamund, into marriage.

Moving to Italy

Alboin realized that the Byzantine Empire's overthrow of the Ostrogothic kingdom in northern Italy had left the region nearly defenseless. He judged it an auspicious time to move into Italy and crossed the Alps in the spring of 568. The Lombards met very little resistance, and over the next year and a half they subdued Venice, Milan, Tuscany, and Benevento. While they spread into central and southern parts of the Italian peninsula, they also focused on Pavia, which fell to Alboin and his armies in 572 C.E., and which would later become the capital of the Lombard kingdom.

Not long after this, Alboin was murdered, probably by his unwilling bride and possibly with the help of Byzantines. The reign of his successor, Cleph, lasted only 18 months, and was notable for Cleph's ruthless dealings with Italian citizens, especially landowners.

Rule of the Dukes

When Cleph died, the Lombards decided not to choose another king. Instead, military commanders (mostly dukes) each took control of a city and the surrounding territory. However, this "rule of the dukes" was no less violent than life under Cleph had been, and by 584 the dukes had provoked an invasion by an alliance of Franks and Byzantines. The Lombards set Cleph's son Authari on the throne in hopes of unifying their forces and standing against the threat. In so doing, the dukes gave up half of their estates in order to maintain the king and his court. It was at this point that Pavia, where the royal palace was built, became the administrative center of the Lombard kingdom.

Upon the death of Authari in 590, Agilulf, duke of Turin, took the throne. It was Agilulf who was able to recapture most of the Italian territory that the Franks and Byzantines had conquered.

A Century of Peace

Relative peace prevailed for the next century or so, during which time the Lombards converted from Arianism to orthodox Christianity, probably late in the seventh century. Then, in 700 C.E., Aripert II took the throne and reigned cruelly for 12 years. The chaos that resulted was finally ended when Liudprand (or Liutprand) took the throne.

Possibly the greatest Lombard king ever, Liudprand focused largely on the peace and security of his kingdom, and did not look to expand until several decades into his reign. When he did look outward, he slowly but steadily pushed out most of the Byzantine governors left in Italy. He is generally considered a powerful and beneficial ruler.

Once again the Lombard kingdom saw several decades of relative peace. Then King Aistulf (reigned 749–756) and his successor, Desiderius (reigned 756–774), began invading papal territory. Pope Adrian I turned to Charlemagne for help. The Frankish king acted swiftly, invading Lombard territory and besieging Pavia; in about a year, he had conquered the Lombard people. Charlemagne styled himself "King of the Lombards" as well as "King of the Franks." By 774 the Lombard kingdom in Italy was no more, but the region in northern Italy where it had flourished is still known as Lombardy.

In the late 8th century an important history of the Lombards was written by a Lombard poet known as Paul the Deacon.


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Snell, Melissa. "The Lombards: A Germanic Tribe in Northern Italy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 27). The Lombards: A Germanic Tribe in Northern Italy. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "The Lombards: A Germanic Tribe in Northern Italy." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).