According to early Lombard tradition and ancient Roman scholarly observations, the Lombards were few in number compared to many of their neighbors in Germania. The Romans apparently attributed the survival of the vulnerable Lombards to sheer aggression. Tacitus (c. 56-117+) wrote that the Lombard population was “distinguished by the fewness of their numbers. Ringed round as they are by many mighty peoples, they find safety not in obsequiousness, but in battle and its perils” (Germania, section 40). When the Lombards began writing down their own history, they agreed with the Romans that their tribe had originally been small in manpower, but aggressive in foreign policy. The Lombard sources, however, also claimed that they had a talent that helped them survive in their early days—psychological warfare.
The Lombard people, according to their tradition, migrated from Scandinavia to the Elbe River sometime before Roman scholars took interest in Germania. When the Lombards entered their new homeland, powerful tribes in the region reportedly attempted to extort tribute from the newcomers. Aggression and war, as the Romans observed, was the usual Lombard response to such foreign threats. Yet, as the Lombards were at a disadvantage in numbers, they had to be smart in planning how they fought.
According to the Origo Gentis Langobardorum and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards, the tribe resorted to trickery and illusion in their very first conflict with a more populous neighbor on the Elbe. In the mythology-infused tale, the Lombard army was saved from certain defeat when they heeded the advice of the Norse-Germanic goddess, Freyja, who insisted that Lombard women accompany their men into battle. The women reportedly arranged their hair around their chins to look like long beards, and their appearance in the army made the force look much more populous. In the tale, the god, Odin, was greatly shocked by these “Long-beards” (supposedly the origin of the Lombard name), and if the All-Father of the Norse-Germanic pantheon was amazed, there is no knowing how disheartened the foes of the Lombards became when the disguised women marched into battle. Whether from divine favor or through the psychological effect of the women joining the army, the Lombards were said to have emerged victorious in that battle.
Later, when the Lombards were roaming toward a different section of the Elbe, a tribe reportedly called the Assipitti was said to have mobilized its forces to stop the migrants. As in the earlier conflict, the Lombards were again outnumbered and would need to be clever in order to survive. They resorted once again to psychological warfare, this time focusing on spreading disinformation and causing fear. As before, one step of the plan was to make the enemy think that the Lombard forces were much more numerous than was actually true. To do this, the Lombards reportedly spread out their tents wider than usual and also kindled a great number of cooking fires in their camp. Next, information was fed to the Assipitti that the Lombards had monstrous dog-headed creatures fighting on their side. Paul the Deacon described this interesting scheme:
“They pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs’ heads. They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe” (History of the Lombards, Book I, chapter 11).
As the story goes, the Assipitti hesitated after hearing rumors about the monstrous dog-men and seeing the Lombard camp with its many fires. In the end, the numerically-superior Assipitti reportedly decided to avoid the Lombard forces, and let them pass by unobstructed. This early Lombard talent of overcoming powerful foes through persistence and clever tricks no doubt helped them survive until they could strengthen themselves by growing their own numbers, making allies, and absorbing conquered tribes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (14th-century image of Cynocephali from the Kievan Psalter, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.