The Life Of Duke Gisulf And The Tale Of Him Forcing A Pope To Pay Ransoms

Duke Gisulf (or Gisulfo) was a Lombard duke of Benevento who operated with substantial autonomy during the tumultuous reigns of the Lombard kings Cunincpert (r. 688-700), Liutpert (r. 700-701) and Aripert II (r. 701-712). Whereas previous dukes of Benevento had led campaigns of conquest toward the heel of Italy, Duke Gisulf was known to have instead set his ambitions on consolidating his power in Campania, while also expanding militarily into the territory of the popes of Rome. Gisulf’s military conquests were often successful, and he even managed to make a pope hand over bribes and ransoms.

Unfortunately, in-depth details about Duke Gisulf’s career are in short supply, but sources such as the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), provide some dates and geographical locations to create a vague framework for his time in power. Formulating a chronology for the events and campaigns in his long reign, nevertheless, is a difficult task to accomplish. Yet, we must make do with what we have.

Gisulf ascended to the command of the Benevento region after the deaths of his father, Romuald, and his brother, Grimoald. Paul the Deacon estimated that Duke Romuald ruled from around 662 to 677, and Duke Grimoald reigned for three years, placing his death around 680. Gisulf was reportedly a child when he succeeded his brother to the dukedom and his mother, Theuderata, was said to have stepped in as regent for a time. Nevertheless, Duke Gisulf reportedly was in control of his realm by 689 and he would go on to rule his land for around seventeen years.  There may be a margin of error to these dates, but whatever the case, Duke Gisulf was in power at the turn of the century and his reign in Benevento continued at least into the first decade of the 8th century.

Precise dates for the duke’s military campaigns are not known, but Gisulf of Benevento was especially known to have been active at the time when Pope John VI (r. 701-705) presided over the city of Rome. During or before Pope John’s pontificate, Duke Gisulf was expanding his power in Campania, and had also led campaigns of conquest that brought his armies reportedly within nearly fifty miles of Rome. The aforementioned historian, Paul the Deacon, summarized Duke Gisulf’s military campaigns:

“Gisulf the ruler of the Beneventines took Sura (Sora), a city of the Romans, and in like manner the towns of Hirpinum (Arpino) and Arx (Arce). This Gisulf at the time of Pope John [VI] came to Campania with all his forces burning and plundering, took many captives and set up his camp as far as in the place which is called Horrea, and no one could resist him. The Pontiff sent priests to him with apostolic gifts and redeemed all the captives from the hands of his troops, and induced the duke himself to go back home with his army” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.27).

As the quote conveys, Duke Gisulf was on a rampage between 701 and 705, when his reign and that of Pope John VI overlapped. With the Lombard duke conquering cities near Rome and ravaging the people of Campania, Pope John VI decided to resort to the dangerous tactic of bribery. The pope paid ransoms for the release of people that Duke Gisulf’s troops had taken captive during the wars, and a little extra was given to Gisulf to make him halt, or at least slow down, his raids and campaigns near Rome. Although it was a gamble, Pope John VI’s monetary payment to Gisulf of Benevento seemed to work, for the duke died around 706 without having launched another major offensive against Rome.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from Three Living and Three Dead from BL Harley 2917, f. 119, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library).



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