Pope Gregory II (r. 715-731) lived at a time when the city of Rome was becoming increasingly estranged from Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire—a trajectory that would eventually lead to the independence of the Papal States in 756. Despite this future, Pope Gregory II’s Rome remained politically and militarily aligned with the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantinople, however, was suffering at that time from decades of frequent regime changes, and the weary imperial city could not adequately defend its waning territory in Italy. Therefore, Rome and other imperial strongholds in Italy had to start taking the initiative to coordinate together on their own against external threats.
Rome’s greatest physical threat in the 8th century was the kingdom of the Lombards, led at that time by formidable King Liutprand (r. 712-744). Since their arrival in Italy around the year 568, the Lombards had been waging a multi-generational campaign of conquest in Italy, with the Lombard kings and their often loosely-controlled dukes taking control of great swaths of land. Pope Gregory II was still facing this relentless expansion in the 8th century. One of the earliest Lombard assaults during Pope Gregory’s time in power occurred around 717, when an army of Lombards (presumably led by Duke Romuald II of Benevento) successfully stormed and captured the fortress of Cumae. Constantinople was a bit busy at that time, for Emperor Theodosius III (r. 715-717) was being overthrown by Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741), meaning a timely response from an emperor would be unlikely. Therefore, Pope Gregory II decided to take it upon himself to provide an incentive for imperial strongholds in Italy to respond to the Lombard attack.
As the story goes, Pope Gregory II reached out to the Eastern Roman Empire’s leader of the Naples region and proposed a deal. If the Neapolitan troops could retake the fortress of Cumae from the Lombards, the pope was prepared to hand over a reported seventy pounds of gold to the leader of Naples. The local leader of the Neapolitans agreed to the arrangement and rallied his troops for battle. These back-and-forth campaigns for Cumae were recorded by a Lombard historian named Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), who wrote:
“While the blessed Pope Gregory indeed of the Roman See was still living, the fortress of Cumae was taken by the Langobards of Beneventum, but…certain of the Langobards were [later] captured and others were killed by the duke of Naples. Also the fortress itself was retaken by the Romans. For the ransom of this fortress the Pontiff gave seventy pounds of gold as he had promised in the first place” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.40).
As told by Paul the Deacon, Pope Gregory II’s plan worked, with the duke of Naples successfully reconquering Cumae in exchange for the pope’s payment. Nevertheless, this would not be the last time the Lombards and Rome clashed, especially after the Eastern Roman Empire’s Italian cities began to resist and rebel against Constantinople during the Iconoclasm Controversy. In addition to Pope Gregory II, King Liutprand of the Lombards also waged war against Pope Gregory III (r. 731-741) and Pope Zacharias (r. 741-752).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Pope and Queen from BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 239, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.