A clash between the Lombards and the Heruli occurred sometime between the years 494 and 508 in the middle Danube region. The conflict was noticed by scholarly circles in Constantinople, and the historian Procopius (c. 490-565) made mention of it in his History of the Wars. In addition to Procopius, the Lombard traditional account of the war would later be preserved by Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) in his History of the Lombards. Both sources detailed the same general outline and outcome in describing the conflict, yet their proposed reasoning for the war and their accounts of the resulting battle differed widely.
In the folkloric account of Paul the Deacon—the more entertaining, but likely less historical version of the story—the conflict between the Lombards and Heruli began with an argument between a man and a woman. According to the tale, Rumetruda, an outspoken daughter of King Tato of the Lombards, decided to invite the brother of King Rodolf of the Heruli over for a drinking party. At the time, the Heruli were a populous and powerful people, known for their military prowess. This reputation for power and might apparently gave Rumetruda a faulty preconception of what a Heruli man looked like. Therefore, when her guest turned out to be quite a short and scrawny fellow, the talkative Rumetruda openly began to belittle the Heruli nobleman. In turn, the outraged guest returned fire at the Lombard princess by criticizing her own looks and behavior. As might be guessed, the drinking party did not turn out well, and, before the end of the event, the Heruli king’s brother was eventually murdered at the instigation of the wrathful Rumetruda. Paul the Deacon claimed that this alleged murder was the cause of the war between the Heruli and the Lombards between 494 and 508, as King Rodolf supposedly attacked the Lombards as soon as he discovered that his brother had been killed.
Paul the Deacon’s account of the war, itself, was as quirky as his account of the war’s origin. In the History of the Lombards, King Rodolf of the Heruli was presented as an incredibly lazy and arrogant king. As had happened with Princess Rumetruda, he placed too much stock on the reputation of might and power that the Heruli people had cultivated. Therefore, when the forces of the Heruli and the Lombards finally clashed in a full-scale battle, King Rodolf was said to have let his army go off without its leader, as it was inconceivable that the renowned Heruli would lose the battle. Instead, according to the tale, King Rodolf chose to stay at his camp and play games with his aides. He did, however, place one observer in a tree, where the person could watch the ongoing battle. Yet, this scout was commanded to only report good news about the fight—negative news, according to the tale, was punishable by death.
As readers may be expecting, this blind confidence and obliviousness did not turn out well for King Rodolf. While the leader of the Heruli supposedly played games in his camp, King Tato of the Lombards personally led his troops on the battlefield and managed the ebb and flow of the fighting masterfully. As the Heruli lines began to bend and break, the scout in the tree continued to call down for his liege a fictitious and glowing account of how the Heruli army was performing. It was only when the Heruli forces were shattered and the Lombards were charging for King Rodolf’s camp that the scout brought himself to tell the king that the battle had been lost. Through indecision or last-minute bravery, King Rodolf reportedly decided to stand his ground in the camp, dying in battle against the victorious Lombards.
In contrast to Lombard tradition, the historian Procopius toned down the drama in his own account of the war between the Lombards and the Heruli. Like Paul the Deacon, Procopius agreed that the Heruli declared war on the Lombards—yet, instead of a scandalous murder being the cause of the conflict, Procopius claimed that King Rodolf simply declared the war to appease his warmongering warriors and to prove his own mettle in battle. The King Rodolf of Procopius’ account did not wait until the end of the battle to stand his ground against the Lombards; instead, Procopius claimed that Rodolf led his forces from the very beginning. Nevertheless, the two accounts end the same way, with the Heruli defeated and King Rodolf lying dead on the battlefield.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Battle of Stamford Bridge painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- History of the Wars by Procopius, translated by H. B. Dewing. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1919.