The Origo tells the story of a small tribe called the Winnili dwelling in southern Scandinavia (Scadanan) (The Codex Gothanus writes that the Winnili first dwelt near a river called Vindilicus on the extreme boundary of Gaul.) The Winnili were split into three groups and one part left the native land to seek foreign fields. The reason for the exodus was probably overpopulation. The departing people were led by the brothers Ybor and Aio and their mother Gambara and arrived in the lands of Scoringa, perhaps the Baltic coast or the Bardengau on the banks of the Elbe. Scoringa was ruled by the Wandals, and their chieftains, the brothers Ambri and Assi, who granted the Winnili a choice between tribute or war.
The Winnili were young and brave and refused to pay tribute, saying "It is better to maintain liberty by arms than to stain it by the payment of tribute. The Wandals prepared for war and consulted their god Godan (Odin), who answered that he would give the victory to those whom he would see first at sunrise. The Winnili were fewer in number and Gambara sought help from Frea (Frigg), who advised that all Winnili women should tie their hair in front of their faces like beards and march in line with their husbands. So it came that Godan spotted the Winnili first, and asked, "Who are these long-beards?" and Frea replied, "My lord, thou hast given them the name, now give them also the victory. From that moment onwards, the Winnili were known as the Langobards (Latinised and Italianised as Lombards).
When Paul the Deacon wrote the Historia between 787 and 796 he was a Catholic monk and devoted Christian. Therefore, he thought the pagan stories of his people "silly" and "laughable". Paul explained that the name "Langobard" came from the length of their beards, that the Latin word longus meant Lang and barba meant Bart. A modern theory suggests that the name "Langobard" comes from Langbarðr, a name of Odin. Priester states that when the Winnili changed their name to "Lombards", they also changed their old agricultural fertility cult to a cult of Odin, thus creating a conscious tribal tradition. Fröhlich inverts the order of events in Priester and states that with the Odin cult, the Lombards grew their beards in resemblance of the Odin of tradition and their new name reflected this. Bruckner remarks that the name of the Lombards stands in close relation to the worship of Odin, who wore the epithet "the Long-bearded" or "the Grey-bearded", and that the Lombard given name Ansegranus ("he with the beard of the gods") shows that the Lombards had this idea of their chief deity.
The first mention of the Lombards occurred between AD 9 and 16, by the Roman court historian Velleius Paterculus, who accompanied a Roman expedition as prefect of the cavalry. Paterculus described the Lombards as "more fierce than ordinary German savagery. Tacitus counted the Lombards as a Suebian tribe, and subjects of Marobod the King of the Marcomanni. Marobod had made peace with the Romans, and that is why the Lombards were not part of the Germanic confederacy under Arminius at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. In AD 17, war broke out between Arminius and Marobod. Tacitus records:
"Not only the Cheruscans and their confederates... took arms, but the Semnones and Langobards, both Suevian nations, revolted to him from the sovereignty of Marobod... The armies... were stimulated by reasons of their own, the Cheruscans and the Langobards fought for their ancient honor or their newly acquired independence. . . "
In 47, a struggle ensued amongst the Cherusci and they expelled their new leader, the nephew of Arminius, from their country. The Lombards appear on the scene with sufficient power, it seems, to control the destiny of the tribe which, thirty-eight years before, had been the leader in the struggle for independence, for they restored the deposed leader to the sovereignty again. In the mid 2nd century, the Lombards also appear in the Rhineland. According to Ptolemy, the Suebic Lombards settled south of the Sugambri, but also remained at the Elbe, between the Chauci and the Suebi, which indicates a Lombard expansion. The Codex Gothanus also mentions Patespruna (Paderborn) in connections with the Lombards. By Cassius Dio, we are informed that just before the Marcomannic Wars, 6,000 Lombards and Ubii crossed the Danube and invaded Pannonia. The two tribes were defeated, whereupon they desisted from their invasion and sent as ambassador to Aelius Basaus, who was then administering Pannonia, Ballomar, King of the Marcomanni. Peace was made and the two tribes returned to their homes, which in the case of the Lombards were the lands of the lower Elbe. At about this time, Tacitus, in his work Germania (AD 98), describes the Lombards as such:
"To the Langobardi, on the contrary, their scanty numbers are a distinction. Though surrounded by a host of most powerful tribes, they are safe, not by submitting, but by daring the perils of war."
From the 2nd century onwards, many of the Germanic tribes of the era of the Tiberian emperors started to unite into bigger tribal unions, resulting in the Franks, Alamanni, Bavarii, and Saxons. The reasons why the Lombards disappear, as such, from Roman history from 166–489 could be that they dwelt so deep into Inner Germania that they were only detectable when they appeared on the Danubian banks again, or that the Lombards were also subjected into a bigger tribal union, most probably the Saxons. It is, however, highly probable that when the bulk of the Lombards migrated, a considerable part remained behind and afterwards became absorbed by the Saxon tribes in the region, while the emigrants alone retained the name of Lombards. However, the Codex Gothanus writes that the Lombards were subjected by the Saxons around 300, but rose up against the Saxons with their king Agelmund. In the second half of the 4th century, the Lombards left their homes, probably due to bad harvests, and embarked on their migration.
The migration route of the Lombards, from their homeland to "Rugiland" in 489 encompassed several places: Scoringa (believed to be the their land on the Elbe shores), Mauringa, Golanda, Anthaib, Banthaib, and Vurgundaib (Burgundaib). According to the Cosmographer of Ravenna, Mauringa was the land east of the Elbe.
The crossing into Mauringa was very difficult, the Assipitti (Usipetes) denied them passage through their lands; a fight was arranged for the strongest man of each tribe, the Lombard was victorious, passage was granted, and the Lombards reached Mauringa. The first Lombard king, Agelmund, from the race of Guginger, ruled for thirty years.
The Lombards departed from Mauringa and reached Golanda. Scholar Ludwig Schmidt thinks this was further east, perhaps on the right bank of the Oder. Schmidt considers that the name is the equivalent of Gotland and means simply "good land. This theory is highly plausible, Paul the Deacon mentions an episode of the Lombards crossing a river, and the Lombards could have reached Rugiland from the Upper Oder area via the Moravian Gate.
Moving out of Golanda, the Lombards passed through Anthaib and Banthaib until they reached Vurgundaib. Vurgundaib is believed to be the old lands of the Burgundes . In Vurgundaib, the Lombards were stormed in camp by "Bulgars" (probably Huns) and were defeated; King Agelmund was killed. Laimicho was raised to the kingship afterwards; he was in his youth and desired to avenge the slaughter of Agelmund. The Lombards themselves were probably made subjects of the Huns after the defeat, but the Lombards rose up against them and defeated them with great slaughter. The victory gave the Lombards great booty and confidence, as they ". . . became bolder in undertaking the toils of war.
When they entered Italy, some Lombards retained their native form paganism, while some were Arian Christians. Hence they did not enjoy good relations with the Catholic Church. Gradually, they adopted Roman titles, names, and traditions, and partially converted to orthodoxy (7th century), not without a long series of religious and ethnic conflicts.
The whole Lombard territory was divided into 36 duchies, whose leaders settled in the main cities. The king ruled over them and administered the land through emissaries called gastaldi. This subdivision, however, together with the independent indocility of the duchies, deprived the kingdom of unity, making it weak even when compared to the Byzantines, especially after they began to recover from the initial invasion. This weakness became even more evident when the Lombards had to face the increasing power of the Franks. In response to this problem, the kings tried to centralize power over time; but they lost control over Spoleto and Benevento definitively in the attempt.
Alboin was murdered in 572 in Verona by a plot led by his wife, who later fled to Ravenna. His successor, Cleph, was also assassinated, after a ruthless reign of 18 months. His death began an interregnum of years, the "Rule of the Dukes", during which the dukes did not elect any king, and which is regarded as a period of violence and disorder. In 584, threatened by a Frankish invasion, the dukes elected Cleph's son, Authari, king. In 589, he married Theodelinda, daughter of the Duke of Bavaria, Garibald I of Bavaria. The Catholic Theodelinda was a friend of Pope Gregory I and pushed for Christianization. In the mean time, Authari embarked on a policy of internal reconciliation and tried to reorganize royal administration. The dukes yielded half their estates for the maintenance of the king and his court in Pavia. On the foreign affairs side, Authari managed to thwart the dangerous alliance between the Byzantines and the Franks.
Authari died in 590. His successor was Agilulf, duke of Turin, who in 591, also married Theodelinda. He successfully fought the rebel dukes of Northern Italy, conquering Padua (601), Cremona and Mantua (603), and forcing the Exarch of Ravenna to pay a conspicuous tribute. Theodelinda reigned alone until 628, and was succeeded by Adaloald. Arioald, who had married Theodelinda's daughter Gundeberga, and head of the Arian opposition, later deposed Adaloald.
His successor was Rothari, regarded by many authorities as the most energetic of all Lombard kings. He extended his dominions, conquering Liguria in 643 and the remaining part of the Byzantine territories of inner Veneto, including the Roman city of Opitergium (Oderzo). Rothari also made the famous Edict bearing his name, which established the laws and the customs of his people in Latin: the edict did not apply to the tributaries of the Lombards, who could retain their own laws. Rothari's son Rodoald succeeded him in 652, still very young, and was killed by the Catholic party.
At the death of King Aripert I in 661, the kingdom was split between his children Perctarit, who set his capital in Milan, and Godepert, who reigned from Pavia. Perctarit was overthrown by Grimoald, son of Gisulf, duke of Friuli and Benevento since 647. Perctarit fled to the Avars and then to the Franks. Grimoald managed to regain control over the duchies and deflected the late attempt of the Byzantine emperor Constans II to conquer southern Italy. He also defeated the Franks. At Grimoald's death in 671 Perctarit returned and promoted tolerance between Arians and Catholics, but he could not defeat the Arian party, led by Arachi, duke of Trento, who submitted only to his son, the philo-Catholic Cunipert.
Religious strife remained a source of struggle in the following years. The Lombard reign began to recover only with Liutprand the Lombard (king from 712), son of Ansprand and successor of the brutal Aripert II. He managed to regain a certain control over Spoleto and Benevento, and, taking advantage of the disagreements between the Pope and Byzantium concerning the reverence of icons, he annexed the Exarchate of Ravenna and the duchy of Rome. He also helped the Frankish marshal Charles Martel to drive back the Arabs. His successor Aistulf conquered Ravenna for the Lombards for the first time, but was subsequently defeated by the king of the Franks Pippin III, called by the Pope, and had to leave it. After the death of Aistulf, Ratchis tried once again to be king of the Lombardy but he was deposed in the same year.
After his defeat of Ratchis, the last Lombard to rule as king was Desiderius, duke of Tuscany, who managed to take Ravenna definitively, ending the Byzantine presence in Central Italy. He decided to reopen struggles against the Pope, who was supporting the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento against him, and entered Rome in 772, the first Lombard king to do so. But when Pope Hadrian I called for help from the powerful king Charlemagne, he was defeated at Susa and besieged in Pavia, while his son Adelchis had also to open the gates of Verona to Frankish troops. Desiderius surrendered in 774 and Charlemagne, in an utterly novel decision, took the title "King of the Lombards" as well. Before then the Germanic kingdoms had frequently conquered each other, but none had adopted the title of King of another people. Charlemagne took part of the Lombard territory to create the Papal States.
The Lombardy region in Italy, which includes the cities of Brescia, Bergamo, Milan and the old capital Pavia, is a reminder of the presence of the Lombards.
Charlemagne came down with an army, and his son Louis the Pious sent men, to force the Beneventan duke to submit, but his submission and promises were never kept and Arechis and his successors were de facto independent. The Beneventan dukes took the title princeps (prince) instead of that of king.
The Lombards of southern Italy were thereafter in the anomalous position of holding land claimed by two empires: the Carolingian Empire to the north and west and the Byzantine Empire to the east. They typically made pledges and promises of tribute to the Carolingians, but effectively remained outside Frankish control. Benevento meanwhile grew to its greatest extent yet when it imposed a tribute on the Duchy of Naples, which was tenuously loyal to Byzantium and even conquered the Neapolitan city of Amalfi in 838. At the point in the reign of Sicard, Lombard control covered most of southern Italy save the very south of Apulia and Calabria and Naples, with its nominally attached cities. It was during the ninth century that a strong Lombard presence became entrenched in formerly Greek Apulia. However, Sicard had opened up the south the invasive actions of the Saracens in his war with Andrew II of Naples and when he was assassinated in 839, Amalfi declared independence and two factions fought for power in Benevento, crippling the principality and making it susceptible to external enemies.
The civil war lasted ten years and was ended only by a peace treaty imposed by the Emperor Louis II, the only Frankish king to exercise actual sovereignty over the Lombard states, in 849 which divided the kingdom into two states: the Principality of Benevento and the Principality of Salerno, with its capital at Salerno on the Tyrrhenian.
A large Muslim force seized Bari, until then a Lombard gastaldate under the control of Pandenulf, in 847. Saracen incursions then proceeded northwards until finally the prince of Benevento, Adelchis called in the help of his suzerain, Louis II. Louis allied with the Byzantine emperor Basil I to expel the Arabs from Bari in 869. An Arab landing force was defeated by the emperor, after a brief imprisonment by Adelchis, in 871. Adelchis and Louis were at war for the rest of the latter's career. Adelchis regarded himself as the true successor of the Lombard kings and in that capacity he amended the Edictum Rothari, the last Lombard ruler to do so.
After Louis's death, Landulf II of Capua briefly flirted with a Saracen alliance, but Pope John VIII convinced him to break it off. Guaimar I of Salerno fought against the Saracens with Byzantine troops. Throughout this period the Lombard princes swung in allegiance from one party to another. Finally, towards 915, Pope John X managed to unite all the Christian princes of southern Itay against the Saracen establishments on the Garigliano river. That year, in the great Battle of the Garigliano, the Saracens were ousted from Italy.
Landulf the Red of Benevento and Capua tried to conquer the principality of Salerno with the help of John III of Naples, but with the aid of Mastalus I of Amalfi Gisulf repulsed him. The rulers of Benevento and Capua made several attempts on Byzantine Apulia at this time, but in late century the Byzantines, under the stiff rule of Basil II, gained ground on the Lombards.
The principal source for the history of the Lombard principalities in this period is the Chronicon Salernitanum, composed late in the century at Salerno.
Capua was again put under Norman rule by the Siege of Capua of 1098 and the city quickly declined in importance under a series of ineffectual Norman rulers. The independent status of these Lombard states is generally attested by the ability of their rulers to switch suzerains at will. Often the legal vassal of pope or emperor (either Byzantine or Holy Roman), they were the real power-brokers in the south until their erstwhile allies, the Normans, rose to preeminence. Certainly the Lombards regarded the Normans as barbarians and the Byzantines as oppressors. Regarding their own civilisation as superior, the Lombards did indeed provide the environment for the illustrious Schola Medica Salernitana.
. . . in order that they might increase the number of their warriors, confer liberty upon many whom they deliver from the yoke of bondage, and that the freedom of these may be regarded as established, they confirm it in their accustomed way by an arrow, uttering certain words of their country in confirmation of the fact.Complete emancipation appears to have been granted only among the Franks and the Lombards.
The freemen of the Lombard kingdom were far more numerous than in Frankland, especially in the eighth century, when they are almost invisible in the surviving documentary evidence for the latter. Smallholders, owner-cultivators, and rentiers are the most numerous types of person in surviving diplomata for the Lombard kingdom. They may have owned more than half of the land in Lombard Italy. The freemen were exercitales and viri devoti, that is, soldiers and "devoted men" (a military term like "retainers"); they formed the levy of the Lombard army and they were, if infrequently, sometimes called to serve, though this seems not to have been their preference. The small landed class, however, lacked the political influence necessary with the king (and the dukes) to control the politics and legislation of the kingdom. The aristocracy was more thoroughly powerful politically if not economically in Italy than in contemporary Gaul and Spain.
The urbanisation of Lombard Italy was characterised by the città ad isole (or "city as islands"). It appears from archaeology that the great cities of Lombard Italy — Pavia, Lucca, Siena, Arezzo, Milan — were themselves formed of very minute islands of urbanisation within the old Roman city walls. The cities of the Roman Empire had been partially destroyed in the series wars of the fifth and sixth centuries. Many sectors were left in ruins and ancient monuments became fields of grass used as pastures for animals, thus the Roman Forum became the campo vaccinio: the field of cows. The portions of the cities which remained intact were small and modest and contained a cathedral or major church (often sumptuously decorated) and a few public buildings and townhomes of the aristocracy. Few buildings of importance were stone, most were wood. In the end, the inhabited parts of the cities were separated from one another by stretches of pasture even within the city walls.
After their migration into Pannonia, the Lombards had contact with the Iranian Sarmatians. From these people they borrowed a long-lived custom once of religious symbolism. A long pole surmounted by the figure of a bird, usually a dove, derived from the standards used in battle, was placed by the family in the ground the home of a man who had died far afield in war and who could not be brought home for funeral and burial. Usually the bird was oriented so as to point in the direction of the suspected site of the warrior's death.
While still in Pannonia, the Lombards were first touched by Christianity, but only touched: their conversion and Christianisation was largely nominal and far from complete. During the reign of Wacho, they were Roman Catholics allied with the Byzantine Empire, but Alboin converted to Arianism as an ally of the Ostrogoths and invaded Italy. All these Christian conversions only affected, for the most part, the aristocracy; for the common people remained pagan.
In Italy, the Lombards were intensively Christianised and the pressure to convert to Catholicism was great. With the Bavarian queen Theodelinda, a Catholic, the monarchy was brought under heavy Catholic influence. After an initial support for the Three Chapters, Theodelinda remained a close contact and supporter of Pope Gregory I. In 603, Adaloald, the heir to the throne, received a Catholic baptism. During the next century, Arianism and paganism continued to hold out in Austria (the northeast of Italy) and the Duchy of Benevento. A succession of Arian kings were militarily aggressive and presented a threat to the Papacy in Rome. In the seventh century, the nominally Christian aristocracy of Benevento was still practising pagan rituals, such as sacrifices in "sacred" woods. By the end of the reign of Cunincpert, however, the Lombards were more or less completely Catholicised. Under Liutprand, the Catholicism became real as the king sought to justify his title rex totius Italiae by uniting the south of the peninsula with the north and bringing together his Italo-Roman subjects and his Germanic into one Catholic state.
The Duchy and eventually Principality of Benevento in southern Italy developed a unique Christian rite in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Beneventan rite is more closely related to the liturgy of the Ambrosian rite than the Roman rite. The Beneventan rite has not survived in its complete form, although most of the principal feasts and several feasts of local significance are extant. The Beneventan rite appears to have been less complete, less systematic, and more liturgically flexible than the Roman rite.
Characteristic of this rite was the Beneventan chant, a Lombard-influenced chant which bore similarities to the Ambrosian chant of Lombard Milan. Beneventan chant is largely defined by its role in the liturgy of the Beneventan rite; many Beneventan chants were assigned multiple roles when inserted into Gregorian chantbooks, appearing variously as antiphons, offertories, and communions, for example. It was eventually supplanted by the Gregorian chant in the eleventh century.
The chief centre of Beneventan chant was Montecassino, one of the first and greatest abbeys of Western monasticism. Gisulf II of Benevento had donated a large swathe of land to Montecassino in 744 and that became the basis for an important state, the Terra Sancti Benedicti, which was a subject only to Rome. The Cassinese influence on Christianity in southern Italy was immense. Montecassino was also the starting point for another characteristic of Beneventan monasticism: the use of the distinct Beneventan script, a clear, angular scrip derived from the Roman cursive as used by the Lombards.
The first major modifications to the Germanic style of the Lombards came in Pannonia and especially in Italy, under the influence of local, Byzantine, and Christian styles. The conversions from nomadism and paganism to settlement and Christianity also opened up new arenas of artistic expression, such as architecture (especially churches) and its accompanying decorative arts (such as frescoes).
Few Lombard buildings have survived. Most have been lost, rebuilt, or renovated at some point and so preserve little of their original Lombard structure. Lombard architecture has been well-studied in the twentieth century, and Arthur Kingsley Porter's four-volume Lombard Architecture (1919) is a "monument of illustrated history."
The small Oratorio di Santa Maria in Valle in Cividale del Friuli is probably one of the oldest preserved pieces of Lombard architecture, as Cividale was the first Lombard city in Italy. Parts of Lombard constructions have been preserved in Pavia (San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro, crypts of Sant'Eusebio and San Giovanni Domnarum) and Monza (cathedral). The Basilic autariana in Fara Gera d'Adda near Bergamo and the church of San Salvatore in Brescia also have Lombard elements. All these building are in northern Italy (Langobardia major), but by far the best-preserved Lombard structure is in southern Italy (Langobardia minor). The Church of Santa Sofia in Benevento was erected in 760 by Duke Arechis II. It preserves Lombard frescoes on the walls and even Lombard capitals on the columns.
Through the impulse given by the Catholic monarchs like Theodelinda, Liutprand, and Desiderius to the foundation of monasteries to further their political control, Lombard architecture flourished. Bobbio Abbey was founded during this time.
Some of the late Lombard structures of the ninth and tenth century have been found to contain elements of style associated with Romanesque architecture and have been so dubbed "first Romanesque". These edifices are considered, along with some similar buildings in southern France and Catalonia, to mark a transitory phase between the Pre-Romanesque and full-fledged Romanesque.