Droctulft was an intriguing figure from the 6th century. He was said to have been a man of Alamanni or Suebic birth who, in his youth, was somehow adopted into the culture of the Lombard people that invaded Italy in 568 and seized a large portion of the Italian peninsula from the Empire of Constantinople. Droctulft assimilated into the society of the Lombards, fashionably growing out a long beard and becoming an accomplished warrior. His many days on the battlefield evidently left a mark, possibly leaving Droctulft’s face mutilated. These descriptions were preserved in an inscribed epitaph (now lost) at the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Thankfully, the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) recorded the words of the epitaph for posterity. On Droctulft’s origins and appearance, the epitaph bluntly, but lovingly, stated:
“First with the Longobards he dwelt, for by race and by nature
Sprung from Suavian stock, suave to all people was he.
Terrible to be seen was his face, though in heart he was kindly,
Long was the beard that grew down on his vigorous breast.”
(Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 3.19)
Droctulft was a highly capable man, and he proved his worth in military and administrative duties. Due to the meritocratic nature of the early Lombard kingdom, Droctulft’s competence and accomplishments eventually led to him being named as a duke (or dux)—a title that gave Droctulft military, judicial, and law enforcement powers in his allotted region. Unfortunately, little is known about where Droctulft’s dukedom was situated. Nevertheless, he ruled his domain well and managed to hold his own during an interesting time period when the Lombard dukes were left unchecked in a prolonged, monarch-less intermission between the reigns of King Cleph (r. 572-574) and King Authari (r. 584-590). Although there was apparently no unifying king in that gap from 574 to 584, that did not mean that the Lombards were idle.
Droctulft and other prominent Lombard dukes, such as Faroald in Spoleto, Euin in Trento and Zotto in Benevento, continued militarily expanding their power in Italy during the kingless intermission period. One example occurred in 579, when Duke Faroald of Spoleto captured the port town of Classis, which was adjacent to Ravenna—the seat of power for Constantinople’s imperial governors in Italy. Like Duke Faroald, Droctulft was also actively battling against the regions of Italy that were still controlled by Constantinople at that time. Yet, in one of his campaigns, Droctulft was captured by the imperial forces. This was reportedly a pivotal moment in Droctulft’s life. He evidently held his fellow dukes to be in some way responsible for his captivity, either because he thought they betrayed him around the time of the battle, or he otherwise resented that the dukes did nothing to ransom or rescue him after his imprisonment. Whatever the case, after Droctulf negotiated his own release from prison, he curiously was more angry at his fellow Lombard dukes than at his actual imperial captors over the imprisonment ordeal. These growing negative emotions against his Lombard peers would eventually cause Droctulft to defect and join the imperial side of the conflict in Italy. Fortunately for the rebellious duke, fate would soon bring into Italy an ideal wave of chaos that could be quite advantageous to a defector such as Droctulf.
In 584, Emperor Maurice of Constantinople (r. 582-602) and the Frankish king, Childebert II (r. 575-595), negotiated a military alliance against the Lombards. Emperor Maurice reportedly paid 50,000 pieces of gold to King Childebert II in order to entice the Franks to launch a major invasion into the Lombard-controlled section of Italy. This possibility for a coordinated onslaught of Frankish and imperial attacks concerned the Lombard dukes enough that they decided to put their divided lands once more under a central monarchal government. During their deliberations, the dukes elected King Authari (r. 584-590) to the throne, and a majority of the Lombard dukes reportedly agreed to relinquish half of their possessions to the new king, for the upkeep of the monarch, his court, and the protection of the realm.
By the time that King Authari was elected as leader of the Lombards, Duke Droctulft was ready to make his move. It is difficult to ascertain exactly how and when he finally broke away from the Lombards, but Droctulft is known to have defected with his loyal followers to the imperial forces in Italy before the end of the very first year of King Authari’s reign in 584. After switching sides, Droctulft did not hide or retire. Instead, he offered his military knowledge and experience to the imperial forces and waged war openly against the new Lombard monarch. There would be plenty of fighting, for King Authari, as it turns out, proved himself to be a competent defender of the Lombard realm. After Authari and the Lombards survived the lackluster Frankish invasion of Italy in 584 with little trouble, Authari then redirected his military against the sections of Italy that were still controlled by Constantinople. Authari and Duke Droctulft were known to have clashed in a siege at Brexillus (Brescello), where the renegade duke aided the imperial defense of the city. In that showdown, Authari won the day and Droctulft had to flee the city before it fell to the Lombards. The beaten duke withdrew to Ravenna, where he plotted his revenge.
When Droctulft arrived at Ravenna (still in 584), he found the that the imperial forces were consolidating and building ships for an upcoming military operation. Still bitter about being forced to flee from Brexillus, Droctulft quickly insisted that he be a part of the campaign. The imperial officers consented to his joining, and, by most accounts, the defector duke became a leading commander of the operation that would soon ensue.
When the fleet at Ravenna was prepared, it sailed against the nearby port town of Classis, which had been conquered by the Lombards a few years earlier. The former Lombard nobleman played a major role in the attack’s planning and execution, and when the operation resulted in the recapture of the port, Droctulft was credited with orchestrating the victorious campaign. This evidently impressed Emperor Maurice, who decided to keep utilizing Droctulft as a general against the Lombards, and later, against the Avars. His battles against these foes were remembered in the epitaph at the Church of San Vitale, which stated:
“[Droctulf] Conquers and overcomes numberless Langobard bands,
Vanquishes also in lands of the East the impetuous Avar,
Seeking to win for his lords victory’s sovereign palm”
(Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 3.19).
Although Droctulft was sent abroad to places such as Sirmium (in what is now Serbia), he eventually returned to Italy and apparently settled at Ravenna. By the end of his life, he had won respect and renown for himself, and the people of Ravenna seemed to have genuinely appreciated him. This mutual bond between Droctulft and Ravenna can be felt in the often-mentioned epitaph:
“Loving the standards of Rome and the emblems of the republic,
Aid unto them he brought, crushing the power of his race.
Love unto us he bore, despising the claims of his kindred,
Deeming Ravenna his own fatherland, dear to his heart”
(Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 3.19).
Droctulft died in Ravenna sometime after the year 606. His body was placed in a sepulcher at the Church of San Vitale, in Ravenna. Besides the tomb’s epitaph and the writings of Paul the Deacon, Droctulft made an appearance in the work of the Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta (c. 7th century) and was also recommended in a letter by Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a Lombard, dated between 1712-1714, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum.jpg).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.