The information we possess today regarding the earliest history of the Longobards comes from a single source, known as the Origo gentis Langobardorum (mid-7th century), the introduction to a collection of laws entitled the Edict of Rothari. Paul the Deacon drew on this when he wrote his Historia Langobardorum at the end of the 8th century.
These sources place the origin of the Winnili in Scania, in modern Scandinavia. A steady increase in numbers compelled them to emigrate in search of new territories. Tradition has it that the population was divided into three groups and lots were drawn to decide which had to leave the homeland. That chosen was led by the brothers Ibor and Aio, and under their guidance it settled in the region of Scoringa, in what is now northern Germany (Historia Langobardorum,I,2-3).
Following the departure from their native land and a legendary conflict with the Vandals – won thanks to the assistance of the god Odin – their name was changed from Winnili to Langobards (from lang ‘long’ + ‘bart‘ beard), or ‘Longbeards’ , for the customary long and uncultivated facial hair of their menfolk (Paolo Diacono, Historia Langobardorum,I,9).
The earliest historical reference to the Longobards dates to between the late 1st century BC and the first half of the 1st century AD. They number amongst the peoples encountered by Augustus and Tiberius during campaigns on the Rhine and the Elbe (Strabo and Claudius Ptolemy Geographica, II, 11.9 and 17); the Roman historian Tacitus (1st century AD) emphasizes that they were few in number compared to the other peoples surrounding the Roman Empire.
Further reference is found in AD 167 with respect to the wars against the Marcomanni, when the Longobards were repulsed by Roman troops when they tried to cross the Danube (Cassiodorus, Chronica; Cassius Dio, Historia Romana, LXXII, 1). They subsequently settled in the regions of Anthaib, Bainab and Burgundaib, perhaps situated between the middle part of the Elbe Valley and modern northern Bohemia.
The sources that followed the Origo, Jordanes and Procopius, record the Longobards’ 489 entrance into Rugiland (Noricum), which Odoacer’s troops had just vacated after crushing the Rugii. Up until this time, the Longobard group had absorbed and blended with various ethnic components of the Germanic peoples, making it difficult to trace the stages of their migratory trajectory. From the end of the fifth century onwards a new cultural entity began to appear and distinguishing elements of its customs and culture took shape, which may be recognized in the first phase of settlement in Italy, immediately after 568.
According to written sources, in the early 6th century the Longobards migrated to Feld (between Tulln and Vienna), vanquished the Heruli (508) and took their place as the dominant power of the middle Danube region. As such, they were enrolled as allies firstly by Emperor Justinian against the Gepids, defeated in 552, and then by Narses, commander-in-chief in Italy at the time, against the Ostrogoths.