Aistulf confronts the pope, the emperor, and the king

Poor Aistulf the Lombard. Apparently a man of great ambition, drive, and some level of cunning, virtually everything we know about him was written by his enemies. The biographer of Pope Stephen II called Aistulf “shameless,” “atrocious,” “criminal,” “pernicious,” and of course, just plain “evil.” We don’t know his birth date, place of birth, the name of his mother, or anything of his upbringing. But hey, we don’t even know Charlemagne’s birth date, and people have even heard of him!

Aistulf was born to Pemmo, Duke of Friuli, some time before 730, when Pemmo died. Aistulf had a brother named Ratchis, who was probably the elder, since Ratchis got the plum appointments before Aistulf did. The Lombard political system gave kingship by acclamation of the dukes and other leaders, not family inheritance. Ratchis, who had been named Duke of Friuli by King Liutprand in 739 when Pemmo fell out of favor, was proclaimed king of the Lombards in 745. Aistulf became the new Duke of Friuli, while Ratchis lasted as king for only four years.

“Ratchis, whose diplomatic character had been shown in his career under Liutprand, now concluded a twenty years’ truce with Rome, but from some cause unknown to us, difficulties afterwards arose, and he found himself constrained to attack the Pentapolis and to lay siege to Perugia. The Pope came from Rome with a train of followers, visited the camp of Ratchis, and in a personal interview induced him to desist from his undertaking. This subserviency to papal influence, however, aroused the contempt of his own nobles and followers, who in Milan, in June, 749, chose as their king his younger brother Aistulf, a man of headstrong and unyielding character, whereupon Ratchis became a monk in the cloister of Monte Cassino.”1.History of the Lombards, Edwards’ extensive note at the end of the narrative, p.311.

Clearly one of history’s great unrecorded conversations.

The Lombard dukes were not disappointed with their choice. Aistulf continued the expansionist campaigns throughout Italy. He became Duke of Spoleto when the old duke died, and the duchy of Benevento came under royal rule.2.Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.57. Anticipating greater battles to come, he also took steps to build his army.

Earlier I mentioned that we have no sources from Aistulf’s side that record his deeds. While that is true, we do have the laws that he wrote, and so we can get some insight as to his thinking. In 750, only a year after taking the throne, Aistulf added nine new laws to the Lombard Code. Five of the nine laws focused on strengthening the army, such as mandating that men possess armor in accordance with their wealth, or immunizing “powerful men” from being sent home from the army. Another law forbade merchants from dealing with Romans without the king’s permission. Violators “must go about crying out: ‘Those who conduct business with a Roman contrary to the king’s wish, as long as the Romans are our enemies, suffer thus.'”3.Fischer-Drew, Lombard Laws, pp.227-230.

In 751 Aistulf made the biggest splash of his career and took Ravenna on the Adriatic, capital city of the Byzantine Emperor’s lands in Italy. In this conquest a glimpse of Aistulf’s cannier side is visible. He was careful not to impinge on the territory of Venice, just north of Ravenna. He also came to some kind of an agreement with Bishop Sergius of Ravenna, whereby the prelate gained some measure of independence from the papacy.4.Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.59-60. With the north in hand, Aistulf turned his eyes to Rome.

Aistulf faced a conundrum. On the one hand the Lombard nobility expected and demanded that Lombard rule be extended throughout Italy, and clearly the pope was not going to put up with being made just another duke under Lombard rule. On the other hand Aistulf styled himself “the most excellent king of the Catholic Lombard nation.” He had to move forcefully to dominate or remove the pope, while not appearing to oppress the church. It fell to Pope Stephen II, newly elected in March of 752, to bear the brunt of Aistulf’s efforts.

One of Stephen’s first accomplishments was to renew with Aistulf the peace treaty that had been signed with Ratchis. Given our knowledge of Aistulf’s actions over the next several years his re-commitment to this treaty is perplexing. Perhaps his goal was to build an appearance of benevolence, and then pin fault on the papacy for a later breach. Again, without a source from Aistulf’s side, it is difficult to understand how he then so brazenly broke the treaty a mere four months later. Whatever the proximate cause, Aistulf arrived on the Duchy of Rome’s border and demanded the right to levy a one solidus head tax. The abbots send by Stephen to protest this demand were ignored, and then told not to visit Rome when they returned to their abbeys. An envoy from the Emperor was similarly rebuffed, but on his return Aistulf sent along his own envoy to negotiate separately from the papacy.5.Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, p.208.

One of the odd gaps in the events of this time concerns Aistulf’s actions while virtually unopposed before the gates of Rome. He could have done it, he could have stormed the city and taken what he wanted. At this point he certainly knew that the Emperor wouldn’t be sending any forces. His own people wanted him to proceed. Why did he not? Here’s some almost pure conjecture on my part, but Aistulf must have felt that the political process had to play out before resorting to military force.

There were several possibly outcomes to the negotiation, pressure, and intimidation he was inflicting on the papacy. At best the pope would finally relent and submit to Lombard jurisdiction. A middle course would see the pope appeal to, and be rejected by, all of his allies, and then hopefully submit to the inevitable. If it came to a fight, that would work, too. The least attractive outcome, military intervention by the Franks, was probably seen as the least likely as well, given what Aistulf evidently knew about the political situation west of the Rhine. He certainly did not want to do anything to alienate his allies in Pepin’s court or play into the hands of those who looked favorably on a possible intervention. So he played the long game, and kept leashed the dogs of war, for the moment.

By 753 the dangerous game being played between Aistulf, King of Lombardy, and Stephen II, Bishop of Rome, was about to get more complicated. The potential third player in the mix, the Byzantine Emperor Leo, had made it known that no aid for Stephen would be forthcoming. Aistulf wanted Rome’s capitulation, but couldn’t be seen as an unholy aggressor, bent on conquest, so he pressured Stephen with military threats and demands. But Rome had one last card to play.

Stephen appealed to King Pepin of the Franks, who then sent his own envoys to Stephen, envoys who later accompanied Stephen to Aistulf’s capital city of Pavia for negotiations. Perhaps Stephen, without anything like an army, thought to try the same tactic that his predecessor had used so well with Aistulf’s brother, and the former Lombard king, Ratchis. But Aistulf was made of sterner stuff. He sent messages to the pope while the holy father was en route, informing him that no pleas would be heard for the conquered cities of the Exarchate. Stephen, no wallflower himself, was undeterred, and continued north. Throughout all of these negotiations proper form was always maintained, and all diplomatic niceties upheld. Gifts were always exchanged, and envoys allowed to pass.6.Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.79. Aistulf’s actions, however, led him inexorably toward confrontation of one sort or another.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. History of the Lombards, Edwards’ extensive note at the end of the narrative, p.311.
2. Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.57.
3. Fischer-Drew, Lombard Laws, pp.227-230.
4. Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.59-60.
5. Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, p.208.
6. Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.79.

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