In 568 the Longobards led by Alboin left Pannonia and settled in Italy. They were accompanied by other peoples encountered during their journey: Saxons, Gepids, Swabians, Bulgarians, Sarmatians and part of the Roman population of Pannonia.
After occupying Friuli, they progressively extended their control over much of the country, giving rise to an independent kingdom capable of opposing Byzantine rule. The entire north of the peninsula except the Ligurian and Venetian coasts belonged to the Longobards; the duchies of Spoleto and Benevento were formed in the centre and south. The Byzantines retained the territories of the Exarchate of Ravenna and the so-called "Byzantine corridor" that linked Ravenna to Rome and divided the Longobard kingdom in two parts: the northern Langobardia Major and southern Langobardia Minor. In 572 the capital of the kingdom was established in Pavia, but during the following decade (from 574 to 584, the ‘Period of the Dukes’) Longobard power was wielded by the numerous duchies, which enjoyed considerable autonomy.
Subsequently, great sovereigns such as Authari and Agilulf (6th century), Rothari and Grimoald (7th century), Liutprand, Aistulf and Desiderius (8th century) progressively extended royal authority, strengthening the kingdom’s internal unity. The apex of Longobard political power came with Liutprand (712-744), who increased the possessions of the realm, reaching the outskirts of Rome, and subjugated the still independent duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. He was also able to contain the Papacy and conducted a European-wide foreign policy, establishing relations with the Franks and Avars.
Alas, with the conquest of Ravenna in 750, Longobard expansionism upset the country’s delicate political equilibrium. The Papacy enlisted the help of the Franks, who in 774 defeated the Longobards, maintaining the duchies but incorporating them into the Carolingian Empire. Only Benevento, raised to the rank of principality, retained its autonomy until the Norman conquest (1076).
When they arrived in Italy, the Longobards were a people in arms led by an aristocracy of knights and a warrior king elected from the ranks of the army. The social structure was based on farae, aristocratic military clans; the head of each was a duke who commanded the arimanni, freemen belonging to the aristocratic class and bound to him by ties of kinship. At the bottom of the social ladder were the servants who lived in conditions of slavery, while at an intermediate level were the aldii, semi-free men who performed military service as foot soldiers, archers and squires.
In Italy the farae settled on the land, refusing any intermixture with the extant population, and the characteristics that set them apart from both the Byzantines and the Romans remained unaltered (their language, pagan religion and heavily militarized social structure); this is well documented by the grave-goods of early cemeteries.
The relationship with the natives was initially difficult and violent, but with time manifested signs of change, especially after the Longobards converted to Catholicism. They began to integrate with the old Roman elites, which gradually accepted their presence. The last Longobard kings, Liutprand and Ratchis, intensified efforts to integrate and increasingly presented themselves as kings of Italy rather just of the Longobards.
The cities, seats of the dukes, became primarily centres of territorial military control. The countryside was organized into arimannie, rural areas managed by arimanni who, in addition to military aspects, looked after economic resources and production using indigenous peasant labour.
With the gradual consolidation of Longobard power, the political structure based on the duchy system grew stronger; every duchy was ruled by a duke – no longer just the head of a fara but the king’s representative, with public powers, assisted by lesser figures such as gastalds (administrators, judges, notaries) and, in the 8th century, gasindii (retainers).
Originally a military leader, the king gradually became a sovereign capable of institutionally representing the entire population against the Byzantine Empire, the Papacy and the Franks. The Longobard kingdom was transformed from a military occupation into a state with a differentiated society and a hierarchy linked to land ownership. The conversion to Catholicism and establishment of a body of law written in Latin (the Edict of Rothari) marked the end of barbarian customs and laid the foundations for the formation of a society based on land ownership, matrimonial union and hereditary rights.
List of Longobard duchies with foundation dates
Duchy of Friuli - 569
Duchy of Ceneda – 568/667
Duchy of Treviso - 568
Duchy of Vicenza - 569
Duchy of Verona - 568
Duchy of Trento - 568
Duchy of Parma – 579/593
Duchy of Reggio – 584/593
Duchy of Piacenza – c.593
Duchy of Brescia – 568/569
Duchy of Bergamo – 570/575
Duchy of San Giulio Isola, Lake Orta – c.575
Duchy of Pavia – capital of the kingdom from 572 to 774
Duchy of Turin – 568/569
Duchy of Asti - 569
Duchy of Tuscia – 574
Duchy of Spoleto - 571/576
Duchy of Benevento – 570/576
Longobard law was based on the legislative works of Rothari (636-652) and Liutprand (712-744).
The former, in his famous edict, set down in written form the Longobard legal code which had hitherto been passed down orally. This marked the transition from tribal law to a more advanced legal system, involving for example the replacement of the feud – private revenge – with wergild, monetary compensation commensurate with the social status of the wronged party.
Liutprand put an end to the distinction between Longobards and Romans and introduced a new aspect related to Catholicism: a crime was seen first and foremost as a transgression of divine law and a violation of social rights that called for state, rather than private, intervention.
|The Edict of Rothari, issued in 643 by King Rothari, was the first written collection of Longobard laws.
Drafted in Latin, but with frequent words of Longobard origin, it is one of the main sources regarding the evolution of the language and the social and political organization of Italy in the 7th century. It guaranteed respect for the civil rights of the king’s subjects against all domineering behaviour and was only valid for the Italian population of Longobard origin; those of Roman extraction remained subject to Roman law issued by Justinian.
Some scholars believe that the Edict was composed in the scriptorium of Bobbio Abbey (Province of Piacenza); the only existing copy is kept in the Vercelli Chapter Library and is not on public display due to its extreme fragility.