Raising an army in Post-Roman Europe – The seventh century Lombard Italy

From the early seventh century the sources available to us are more numerous and more evenly distributed across the west. By this period, the ‘ethnic’ armies descended from the late Roman field armies had evolved into armies raised from classes of landowners. This evolution continued through the seventh century.

lc             Lombard coin

The seventh-century Lombard territories appear at first to have raised armies on the model common throughout the west in the sixth century. As far as can be ascertained, though, this system, and taxation with it, seems soon to have withered and there is no evidence for its persistence by the time we have sufficient documentary evidence to examine such issues (in the eighth century). The development of Lombard armies from the ethnic forces of the very early period to Liutprand’s armies in the eighth century is difficult to follow. The documentary evidence from Lombard Italy is most uneven in its survival; we have little other than laws for the seventh century, but laws (of a generally different kind from those of the seventh century) and charters in the eighth. The forms of archaeological evidence also change. These differences in evidential nature and survival suggest that there was change between the seventh and eighth centuries, and make it problematic to argue back from the eighth-century situation. Nevertheless, in Rothari’s Edict, the political community of the Lombard kingdom is referred to as the army (exercitus) and an equation of Lombard ethnicity with military service might be implied. The term exercitalis (‘army man’) is used but only in a context where it could simply mean ‘soldier’, although it could have a broader meaning as a member of the social group which formed the army. It is not really possible to examine the status of these people in detail until the eighth century.

The Lombard kings were on the offensive for much of the seventh century, engaged in repeated warfare against the East Roman territories in Italy. Serious attacks into Italy by the Franks petered out by the early seventh century and although Avar raids and Byzantine counter-attacks were significant problems, the persistent campaigning provided ample opportunities for the acquisition of booty and land, and to gain prestige and office through good service. This may have helped to strengthen royal power but the extent of royal power over the dukes in the seventh century is difficult to gauge. Seventh-century Lombard royal succession was fairly turbulent. On the other hand, some cemeteries of furnished burials in the kingdom of Italy suggest a competition for local authority, which might have led to the importance of ducal or possibly royal patronage in local society, as in sixth-century Gaul. Certainly it suggests that local authority was expressed through the use of military symbols.


Mid-7th century Lombard territories

The importance of the retinues of royal officers and of other wealthy aristocrats should not be underestimated. Though it can be argued that this never became too significant in Lombard Italy, on the basis of the eighth-century evidence, it is not impossible that the situation differed in the seventh century. Early in the Lombard period, the settlement of the Lombard newcomers may have been organised, to some extent, by farae. The farae were once thought to have been large, clan-like, kin-based groupings. The evidence for this is unclear, though, and they may have been smaller military groupings. By the time that we know much about Lombard social and political structures, their importance appears to have waned; the only reference to a fara in the laws does imply that it is a family group, if perhaps a small one. As yet, the only members of such followings who concerned the lawmakers were those legally dependent upon a freeman. In Rothari’s Edict, freedmen (in other words, men freed from some form of servitude) are referred to in the service (gasindium) of dukes or in the obsequium of freemen or dukes. Freedmen were, because of their poverty, usually heavily dependent upon the individual who had granted them their freedom. These individuals owned weapons, which were to be inherited, presumably as signs of their legal status. Other gifts from their lords or patrons, if the freedman had not paid back these gifts through his service, were to revert to his lord. Otherwise, any links between members of the broad class of the free were based upon gift and counter-gift, and somewhat informal, as elsewhere at this date. Some Lombard warlords still periodically took service with the Byzantine enemies of the Lombard kingdom and led distinguished military careers with them. They presumably took with them their bands of military followers and dependants.

The organisation of the Lombard kingdom was based upon the civitas but in Italy these units were governed by dukes rather than by counts. The city district was thus also the principal unit of military organisation. The duke, assisted by his ‘judges’ would call up the Lombard freemen within his territory. Lombard law made clear that those liable to military service were obliged to serve when the duke called out the army, as well as when the call-up was on royal initiative. The frontier dukes of the Lombard kingdom were often engaged in warfare and their military successes could make them political rivals of the kings in Pavia. The Lombard kings created the institution of the gastald as an officer who reported directly to the king and could, to some extent, act as a counterweight to the duke in local politics. This was an interesting royal response to the problems of ruling an early medieval polity and to the dynamic tension between political core and local society.

(Source: “Warfare and society in the barbarian West, 450–900”, by Guy Halsall)

PaulusDiaconus               Paulus Diaconus

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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