A Lombard historian, known as Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), wrote a history about his people, starting from early legends and folklore about their origins, to their invasion of Italy in 568, and all the way to the reign of King Liutprand of the Lombards (r. 712-744). At times, Paul’s Historia Langobardorum (History of the Lombards) diverges into a family history, for the historian’s family was prominent, and Paul’s ancestors and kinsmen were sometimes involved in important historical events. Paul the Deacon traced his lineage back to his great-great-grandfather, Leupchis, who reportedly took part in the Lombard invasion of Italy in 568. Paul recorded little about this ancestor except that he fathered five sons, one of which was Lopichis (Paul’s great-grandfather) and that the family settled around Cividale del Friuli, in the realm of Duke Gisulf and Duchess Romilda of Friuli.
Cividale, as time would later show, was an unfortunate place for Leupchis to settle his clan. Around the year 611, the Avars launched an invasion of Lombard Italy, and Friuli was their first target. Duke Gisulf mobilized an army and marched out to meet the invaders. Yet, the duke, by himself, did not have the manpower to turn back the Avars. Instead, the army of Friuli suffered a crushing defeat in battle and Duke Gisulf was killed. When Duchess Romilda heard the news, she gathered what was left of her realm’s depleted military and entrenched herself in Cividale del Friuli, where Paul the Deacon’s ancestors were still living at that time.
Cividale del Friuli was not spared. The Avars committed themselves to besieging the city, and when no help from other Lombard dukes or the king arrived in time, the duchess surrendered her city to the besieging army. What happened next was reportedly quite brutal. Duchess Romilda was allegedly ravaged and executed; the older population of the city and many other men were supposedly massacred; and the remaining women and youths were enslaved. Among the slaves and prisoners taken by the Avars were the duchesses’ children, as well as the five sons of Leupchis.
Paul the Deacon’s ancestors and other captives were dragged off to Avar territory, where the fates of the prisoners varied. Duchess Romilda’s daughters were never seen again, and all that was recorded of them were hopeful folktales that they might have been married to kind chieftains or petty kings. The duchess’ sons, however, had better luck escaping from the Avars. These boys were Taso, Cacco, Raduald, and Grimoald, who all successfully ran away from their captors and returned to the lands of the Lombards. In a remarkable twist of fate, the last son, Grimoald, would later become king of the Lombards, ruling from 662 to 671. Yet, that is a different story for a different article. Back in Avar territory, the other prisoners taken from Cividale del Friuli continued to be held in various degrees of servitude. After a few years in captivity, Paul the Deacon’s great-grandfather, Lopichis, decided to attempt an escape back to his homeland. Unlike the duchess’ sons, however, Lopichis was not able to bring his brothers along with him. On this, Paul the Deacon wrote:
“After they had borne in that region for many years the misery of bondage, and had already come to the age of manhood, although the four others, whose names we do not retain, remained in the constraint of captivity, the fifth brother, Lopichis by name, who was afterwards our great-grandfather, determined (at the inspiration as we believe of the Author of Mercy) to cast off the yoke of bondage, and to direct his course to Italy, where he remembered that the race of the Langobards was settled, and he made an effort to regain the rights of freedom” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, IV.37).
Paul the Deacon’s story about his ancestor’s escape, likely shaped by generations of family storytelling, is quite a strange tale, featuring animal guides, dream visions, and a fortuitous meeting with a kindly old lady. As the story goes, Lopichis began his escape at an opportune time of day (or night) when he was able to commandeer a bow, arrows, and a small supply of food from his Avar captors. With these stolen items in his possession, Lopichis made a run for it, going wherever instinct led him.
Although the fugitive successfully broke away from his captors without being seen or pursued, he soon had to admit that he was quite lost. It was at that moment of indecision and doubt that Lopichis supposedly had a chance encounter with a friendly wolf. This creature, according to the family legend, slowly led lost Lopichis in the direction of Italy for several days. They continued traveling together until the stolen food supplies ran out. When the hungry fugitive found he could not feed himself by scavenging from the surrounding landscape, ungrateful Lopichis decided to betray his furry guide. He grabbed the bow and arrows he possessed, and tried to shoot the wolf. Lopichis missed, and the wolf scampered off, leaving the man still hungry and now once more lost in an unfamiliar land.
Starving and alone, Lopichis reportedly collapsed to the ground and slipped off into sleep, thinking his life was over. Yet, while the depressed man slumbered, he received the boost of confidence and direction that he needed. At that pivotal time, Lopichis was graced with a vivid dream, in which a mysterious figure told the man to get up immediately and walk in the direction opposite of where his feet were currently pointing. After being jolted awake, Lopichis followed the orders of the entity in his dreams and he quickly found a settlement. It was not Italy, but a Slavic community. As a former resident of the borderlands of Friuli, Lopichis could communicate with the people he encountered at the village. He got along well with the population and was greatly helped by them, especially by a kind elderly woman who fed, clothed, and lodged the stranger to the best of her ability. When Lopichis had regained his strength that had been depleted by those days of hunger and exposure to foul weather, he set off from the Slavic village, but not before receiving directions from the locals about the whereabouts of Italy. Following their guidance, he successfully crossed back into Italy and found his way to the recovering city of Cividale del Friuli.
Reaching Cividale, Lopichis quickly discovered he would have to rebuild his life from scratch. His old family home had been destroyed, and all the possessions there looted by Avars, thieves, or otherwise seized by distant relatives. Paul the Deacon wrote of his ancestor’s process of rebuilding and reconnecting with family and the community, stating, “He was afterwards provided with gifts by his relatives and friends, and rebuilt his house and took a wife. But he could obtain nothing of the property his father had had, being now excluded by those who had appropriated it through long and continuous possession” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, IV.37). Despite having to rebuild, Lopichis’ family regained and grew its prominence. They also remained in the Cividale del Friuli region, for that was where Lopichis’ descendant, Paul the Deacon, was born.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Herulen, Cornelis Visscher (II), 1650, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.