In the year 590, Frankish King Childebert II of Austrasia (r. 575-595) launched his largest invasion of Lombard-controlled Italy. He had been sporadically attacking the Lombards since 584, after being paid to do so by Emperor Maurice of Constantinople (r. 582-602). Childebert’s previous major pushes into Lombard territory, occurring around 584 and 588, had been met with stalemate and military defeat, especially the latter of the two campaigns, in which the Lombards inflicted a heavy slaughter on the invading Franks. Hoping for a better result in his 590 campaign, King Childebert mustered a larger army and attempted to increase his coordination with his ally, Emperor Maurice. Just how many troops Childebert sent into Italy is not known, but he reportedly tasked twenty of his subservient dukes to be involved in the campaign. After invading, the Franks quickly pressed deep into Lombard territory, threatening the important cities of Milan and Pavia. Meanwhile, the forces of Emperor Maurice advanced from central Italy, taking cities such as Modena and Mantua. It was a tough position for the Lombards to be in, but they were, by now, experienced at fighting the Franks and the Eastern Romans.
King Authari was the ruler of the Lombards at the time of this invasion, and he had been in charge since 584. His plan in this instance was apparently to wage the war from a defensive mindset—sacrificing certain forts and not engaging in hopeless pitched battles, while also keeping control of major cities. It was a gamble of attrition in which King Authari hoped his Lombard forces could outlast the Franks and the imperial troops until winter and lack of supplies drove the invaders back to their homes. This plan, according to an interesting legend, might have been thwarted if not for the presence of a certain sentry who was serving in one of the Lombard armies.
As the story goes, the Frankish invaders suspected that a large force of Lombards was camped in the vicinity of Lakes Maggiore and Lugano, near Milan. This particular band of Lombards had been killing Frankish looters and had even ambushed one of the Frankish dukes, ending his life. King Childebert’s forces scoured the land between the lakes, trying to spot the hiding Lombards. The two opposing forces apparently almost clashed near Lake Lugano. Yet, according to the tale, it was the Lombards who spotted the Franks first. Instead of waiting and watching, one of the sentries in the Lombard force made himself known to the Franks, showing himself at the bank of a river that divided the land between him and the invaders. A contemporaneous bishop of that time, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), recorded the tale of what happened next:
“The Franks learned that the Longobards [aka Lombards] were encamped on the bank of this stream. They marched towards it, but, before they could cross the water-course which I have described to you, a Longobard stood up on the opposite bank, wearing a cuirass and with his helmet on his head, and waved a spear at them. He issued a challenge to the Frankish army…A few of the Franks managed to cross. They fought with this Longobard and killed him” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.3).
Although the demise of the Lombard sentry was stated with brevity by Gregory of Tours, he must have delayed the Franks for a long while. It was vital that he occupied the Frankish forces for as long as possible, as—according to the story—the unnamed sentry was playing a pivotal role for his comrades. While the sentry taunted the Franks and challenged them to duels, the nearby Lombard army was allegedly packing up their gear to head for safer land. In the end, the sentry’s mission was apparently a great success. According to the aforementioned Gregory of Tours, “the main force of the Franks crossed over, but not a single Longobard could they discover. All they found were the traces of their encampment, where their fires had been lit and where they had pitched their tents. The Franks returned to their camp, having failed to take a single prisoner” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.3).
Through escapes such as this, the Lombards were able to keep their military intact. King Authari was able to manage the defense of the Lombard realm from the relative safety provided by the walls of Pavia. Before the year 590 was over, the Franks lost the will to continue the fight and withdrew from Italy. Lombard diplomats entered the lands of the Franks to arrange a peace deal, but King Authari died before the arrangement could be reached.
Written by C. Keth Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Two Knights from a 13th or 14th century manuscript of the ‘Smithfield Decretals’ (labeled BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 105 at the British Library), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.