Aistulf plays the odds… and loses

In November of 753 Pope Stephen and King Aistulf met for last ditch face-to-face talks. The negotiations, which lasted for perhaps ten days, went nowhere, to no one’s surprise. When Stephen announced his intent to continue on to Francia to meet with Pepin, Aistulf did his best to dissuade Stephen, but when the pontiff insisted, Aistulf allowed he and the other ambassadors to proceed. This must have been another example of diplomatic form being observed.1.This must have galled Aistulf, forced by circumstance to allow papal envoys through his territory, knowing their intent, but not able to break protocol with the pope, which would put him in the wrong. One could, perhaps, speak of Lombard honor, but that claim is frankly belied by Aistulf’s record of treaty and oath-breaking.

One interesting, unknowable question about these final talks is whether or not Aistulf knew of the death of Grifo, Pepin’s half-brother, in a battle with Pepin’s men. The Carolingian chroniclers maintain that Grifo was going to Lombardy “to stir up trouble,” but there is no way to know Grifo’s real intent. The timing is also circumspect, as the sources don’t indicated when Grifo was killed, except that it was probably in the fall. It is fun (if feckless) to wonder if Aistulf knew of Grifo’s coming, or had even invited him. We shall see in a moment that Aistulf had yet another card to play in his efforts to dissuade the Franks, one that could be related to Grifo’s journey.

What does seem evident is that Aistulf knew that there was discord in Francia over the prospect of an Italian expedition. Nothing indicates how he knew, but don’t forget that Pepin was the ceremonially adopted son of the late Lombard king Liutprand, and of course old connections run both ways. There were also connections through Bavaria, to the north of Lombardy, where Pepin’s sister had fled on Martel’s death. Early medieval royal families were just as interconnected as we find them a thousand years later. Aistulf must have been counting on these connections to halt the Frankish armies short of war. As we shall see, twice he gambled on the prospect of a Frankish invasion. 2.It is also possible that Pepin knew more of Aistulf’s inner circle than Aistulf supposed. His brother Ratchis had promulgated a law “Concerning those who investigate and reveal the secrets of the king” for which the penalty was death. Fischer-Drew, Lombard Laws, p.223. Perhaps Pepin had spies as yet uncovered in Aistulf’s camp.

Stephen met Pepin that winter, and evidently spent the months working with Pepin to convince the leading families to back Stephen and the papacy in the conflict with Aistulf. Knowing this was Stephen’s intent, Aistulf pulled Pepin’s brother Carloman from the abbey at Monte Cassino, where he had retired (or been ‘assigned’ by Pope Zacharias to build faith with Pepin) in 747 and sent him north to add his voice to those opposed to any Italian intervention. Had Aistulf hoped to have Grifo, whom many had believed to be a co-equal heir to Martel’s rule, stand with Carloman in opposition to Pepin? But Grifo was killed, Carloman’s solo gambit failed, and Pepin convinced the kingdom to support Stephen and oppose Aistulf.

All through 754 Aistulf was bombarded with ambassadors from Pepin, and from the still diplomatically active Emperor Leo. He rebuffed them all, including a last effort from Pepin that offered him 12,000 solidi if he would desist.3.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.45. Did he believe that in the end, Pepin could or would not muster his forces and march south? Or did he hold boundless confidence in his own forces and their ability to hold the passes and eject the Franks? Was he even paying attention?

During the winter of 754/755 Aistulf decided to promulgate a new addition to the Lombard law code, which was announced on the first of March. The laws are an interesting mix of mundane and unusual. Aistulf regularized the method to free a slave, and some inheritance laws. He eliminated the double taxation exacted by churches that belonged to the crown. He forcefully outlawed “[T]hose who throw dirty water on a wedding party.” And in an ironic twist that foreshadowed events mere months away, he reorganized the taking of oaths by abbots and other magnates.4.Fischer-Drew, Lombard Laws, pp.230-238.

While Aistulf calmed the desperate fears of clean, dry wedding guests, Pepin prepared for war. In the spring of 755 Pepin’s army came streaming over the pass at Susa, brushed aside the Lombard forces, and laid waste to everything in sight.

Yet even in defeat Aistulf skillfully played his cards, and reached out to friendlier elements inside Pepin’s camp. Usually in these kinds of situations the loser offers terms, which are brought before the king. While we don’t know about the negotiations between Pepin and his dukes and bishops, it is evident that they entertained no interest in staying around to enjoy the fruits of their victory. Aistulf was presented with a fairly standard list of conditions, in addition to returning the cities in question, including booty, oaths, and hostages. Pepin and the army left Italy as soon as they could, and Aistulf was left to hold the field.

He made one last great through of the dice. He had seen how readily Pepin acquiesced to the wishes of his nobility, and how little interest the Franks showed in Italian conquest. Aistulf decided to tear up the treaty, sacrifice the hostages, and break his oaths. Pope Stephen reacted immediately, and Pepin received a stream of letters that fall and winter, informing him of Aistulf’s treachery and failure to live up to the terms of the agreement. No response from Pepin is noted, and perhaps that further emboldened the Lombard.

The only explanation I can fathom for Aistulf’s behavior is that he must have been very certain that Pepin would not return. Perhaps his friendly contacts inside Pepin’s court assured him that the Franks would never make two sorties to support the pope. Perhaps he was under intense pressure from the Lombards who had appointed him king to stand fast. He certainly couldn’t have thought his army would stand a second time, after the drubbing they had received in their initial encounter with Frankish forces. Whatever the thinking that led him to the act, on January 1, 756 Aistulf appeared in force at Rome and presented fresh demands to the pope. Unfortunately for him, he had seriously misjudged the situation.

Pepin came roaring back over the pass and scattered the Lombard forces to the winds. He still had no interest in staying and ruling, but he did leave a force in Lombardy to ensure that the terms of the agreements and oaths were carried out. He also took a third of the Lombard treasury back to Francia with him. The threat to the papacy was over.

Aistulf seems not to have suffered politically from his miscalculations and defeats. There is no record of the Lombard nobility rising against and deposing him, as they had his brother Ratchis. Perhaps they recognized when they had been beaten fairly. The last history knows of Aistulf is his death in December of 756. “He fell from his horse while hunting. And the ailment which he contracted from this accident brought an end to his life within a few days.”5.Royal Frankish Annals, Revised, year 756, Scholz, Carolingian Chronicles, p.42. I think he would have been pleased that his last act was in the saddle.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This must have galled Aistulf, forced by circumstance to allow papal envoys through his territory, knowing their intent, but not able to break protocol with the pope, which would put him in the wrong.
2. It is also possible that Pepin knew more of Aistulf’s inner circle than Aistulf supposed. His brother Ratchis had promulgated a law “Concerning those who investigate and reveal the secrets of the king” for which the penalty was death. Fischer-Drew, Lombard Laws, p.223. Perhaps Pepin had spies as yet uncovered in Aistulf’s camp.
3. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.45.
4. Fischer-Drew, Lombard Laws, pp.230-238.
5. Royal Frankish Annals, Revised, year 756, Scholz, Carolingian Chronicles, p.42.

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