Cunincpert was a Lombard king who ruled from 688 until his death in the year 700. A curious quote about the king, attributed to Cunincpert’s greatest rival—Duke Alahis of Trent and Brescia—reveals a glimpse of the king’s reputation. Duke Alahis, as reported by the Lombard historian Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), allegedly said, “Cunincpert, although he is a drunkard and of a stupid heart, is nevertheless quite bold and of wonderful strength” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, V.40). Yet, even this blunt quote may be too generous to the king in its wording. The word ‘bold,’ perhaps, should have been exchanged with the similar, but different, descriptive word, ‘ambitious.’ For ‘bold’ suggests courage, whereas King Cunincpert was said to have once used a body-double to lead his troops into battle, which was a decision that was arguably cowardly. Nevertheless, King Cunnincpert was a Lombard monarch of the Catholic faith in a realm where the rival Christian sect of Arianism was still popular, and therefore the Catholic clergymen-historians, such as the aforementioned Paul the Deacon, had to do some public relations damage control to safeguard the memory of Cunincpert’s pro-Catholic reign. As for the assertion that Cunincpert was notably strong, however, other stories were dug up by Lombard storytellers and historians to support that detail. The legend that supported Cunincpert’s supposed strength, as our title subtly hinted, was a tale that involved a flock of sheep.
According to the twice-mentioned Paul the Deacon, it was during the reign of Cunincpert’s father, King Perctarit (r. 671-688), when young Cunincpert had a memorable stroll through one of the king’s sheep pastures alongside his eventual rival, Duke Alahis. The two were just as competitive in their youth as they would be in their adulthood, and their mutual competitiveness that day led to a contest of strength in front of the wooly audience that was grazing in the royal pastureland. One thing led to another, and eventually the sheep, themselves, became props in the boyhood battle of will and muscle. Paul the Deacon, again recording dialogue that was allegedly attributed to Duke Alahis, wrote, “[there was a ram] of great size which he [Cunincpert] seized by the wool of the back and lifted from the ground with outstretched arm, which, indeed, I [Alahis] was not able to do” (History of the Lombards, V.40).
Whatever the truth behind that legend might be, Cunincpert and Alahis transitioned from competing with sheep to battling with armies. Alahis, who originally controlled the Trento region of Italy, added the area of Brescia to his realm through a successful war against King Perctarit. When Cunincpert succeeded his father as king of the Lombards in 688, Duke Alahis challenged him for the throne. His campaign was initially successful, and he captured the Lombard capital of Ticinum (later Pavia). Yet, Cunincpert and his supporters regrouped and engaged the powerful duke in the Battle of Coronate near Bergamo in 689. It was during that battle that Cunincpert’s peculiar body-double incident allegedly occurred, whereas Duke Alahis fought on the front lines. The scheme, however, worked out for Cunincpert, because, by the end of the battle, both the body-double and Duke Alahis were dead on the battlefield. With Alahis dead, Cunincpert was able to win the battle and consolidate his monarchal power.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Shepherds and Sheep, David Teniers the Younger (c. 1610–1690), [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.