Duke Ariulf ruled the dukedom of Spoleto for just over a decade at the turn of the 6th and 7th centuries. He was the second Lombard duke of the region, succeeding the founder of the dukedom, Faroald I (ruled approximately 576-591). The conqueror, Faroald, was a tough act to follow, but Ariulf was evidently able to meet expectations. Either from personal belief or perhaps a political ploy for a divine mandate, he claimed that his success was due to the protection and guidance of a supernatural entity. According to legend, Duke Ariulf was actively protected by the militant spirit of Saint Sabinus.
Tales about Ariulf’s ghostly support began early on in the reign of the duke, originating around 592, when Ariulf launched a military campaign against Camerino and Rome. As the story goes, the duke kept seeing a mysterious shield-wielding figure again and again during this campaign. Anytime Ariulf allegedly found himself in danger during battle, this curious savior would miraculously show up with his shield and deflect the hostile blow. A Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), recorded an account of what Duke Ariulf supposedly told his confidants regarding this mysterious guardian: “Surely I saw another man there much and in every way better than I, and as often as any one of the opposite side attempted to strike me, that active man always protected me with his shield” (History of the Lombards, 4.16). Despite Duke Ariulf’s efforts to identify his protector, none of the confidants or officers who heard the tale could help him discover the identity of the man with the shield.
Duke Ariulf had still not discovered the identity of his savior when the war quieted down enough for him to go touring local churches. As the story goes, the duke entered a well-decorated house of worship, where he surprisingly saw a familiar face. It was not, however, a priest or a parishioner who caught his attention. Instead, the visage that shocked the duke was among the statues, carvings, and paintings that adorned the church’s interior. Nearby attendants identified the artwork that the duke stared at to be a painting of long-dead Saint Sabinus. Ariulf’s supposed reaction to this news was recorded by Paul the Deacon, who wrote, “when he beheld the painted figure of the blessed martyr Savinus [aka Sabinus] he straightway said and declared with an oath that that man who had protected him in battle had in every way such a form and bearing. Then it was understood that the blessed martyr Savinus had brought him help in battle” (History of the Lombards, 4.16). Such was the origin story for the legend of Duke Ariulf having the personal protection of Saint Sabinus. Nevertheless, the saint could not keep the duke alive forever. Ariulf died around the year 601 or 602.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Order of Saint Michael medal, dated 1701, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.