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.

Read more

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.

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.

Read more

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. History of the Lombards, Edwards’ extensive note at the end of the narrative, p.311.