Aistulf

(d. 756)
   Penultimate Lombard king (r. 749-756), and one of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty to wear the iron crown of the Lombard monarchy. Like all the Lombard kings, Aistulf sought to extend his authority over the important central Italian possessions of the papacy and the Byzantine Empire and thereby establish Lombard power over the entire Italian peninsula. Successful against the Byzantines, Aistulf met his match in the protector of the pope, Pippin, king of the Franks. Indeed, it was Aistulf's aggression and repeated violation of diplomatic agreements that forced Pope Stephen II to seek aid from the great power in the north. Stephen's revolutionary act led to the final split between Rome and Constantinople, which in turn led to the formation of the independent papal state, and also brought about the important alliance of the papacy and the kings and, eventually, emperors of the Franks. Aistulf's threats and Stephen's response also provided the conditions in Rome that led to the creation of the greatest forgery of the Middle Ages, the Donation of Constantine.
   Aistulf's reign was a difficult time for the papacy because he was determined to unify the Italian peninsula under his authority. Italian unity, however, could be accomplished only at the expense of the pope's vast estates in central Italy, and therefore the official biography of Pope Stephen II contains a very negative picture of the Lombard king. According to the Book of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Aistulf was a "shameless Lombard king" who was "contaminated by the Ancient Enemy's cunning" (Davis 1992, 94.6, 55). He was accused of "pernicious savagery" (Davis 1992, 94.5, 55) and cruelty. Stephen's biographer describes him as an "atrocious king . . . [who] boiled over with mighty rage and, roaring like a lion, kept sending pestilential threats to the Romans" (Davis 1992, 94.10, 56-62). Clearly this account is biased, but other contemporary accounts reveal that Aistulf was a treacherous and ambitious ruler who was not unwilling to violate treaties in pursuit of his goal. And although he was a Catholic king, Aistulf did not let his religion get in the way of conquest.
   Aistulf became king in 749 after the death of Liutprand, whose threats to Roman territory and security had already caused the pope to seek Frankish aid. Liutprand, however, was respectful of St. Peter and a less ruthless and duplicitous adversary than Aistulf. From the very outset of his short and terrible reign, Aistulf took the initiative against his rivals in Italy. Within two years of his ascension to the throne, Aistulf captured Ravenna, the imperial stronghold in Italy and seat of the Byzantine emperor's representative in the Latin West, and had begun to issue royal proclamations from the city. The exarch of Ravenna, as the emperor's representative, had been the protector of the pope, and the loss of the imperial city was a blow not only to Constantinople's prestige but to the safety of Rome and its estates in central Italy.
   The Lombard king's success against imperial Italy encouraged him to increase the pressure on papal Italy. Rome was now without its protector and powerless to prevent the expansion of Aistulf, who, according to the Book of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis), instituted "a great persecution" of Rome (Davis 1992, 94.5, 54). He invaded Roman territory, capturing cities in the northern part of the duchy and increasing pressure on Rome itself. Pope Stephen, following the practice his predecessors had used with other Lombard kings, sought to negotiate a peace with Aistulf. Stephen sent his brother and other high-ranking papal officials, along with many gifts, to Aistulf to sign a peace treaty in June 752. Although Aistulf agreed to a peace of forty years, he violated the treaty in only four months. Tearing up the treaty, Aistulf imposed a heavy tribute on Rome, piled insults on the pope, threatened the Roman people, and claimed that the city was under his jurisdiction.
   The difficult position Stephen faced was further complicated by imperial demands that the pope negotiate the return of Ravenna and other imperial territories seized by Aistulf. Shortly after the Lombard resumed hostilities toward Rome, Stephen received an envoy form Emperor Constantine V ordering the pope to secure the return of imperial territory. Stephen now faced the prospect of pleading for his safety and that of the emperor's lands in Italy in the face of a most unfriendly foe. In the summer and fall of 753, Stephen sought come to terms with his enemy. He had also contacted Pippin, the recently crowned king of the Franks, who had sent his own ambassadors to meet with the pope. Aistulf refused to meet with the pope or begin discussions over lands he had conquered.
   In October 753 Stephen began a journey that was to have revolutionary consequences for the papacy, Franks, and Lombards. Contemporary accounts note that his departure was marked by heavenly signs, including a fireball that rose in the sky from the north - over the Frankish kingdom - and set to the south - over the Lombard kingdom. He met Aistulf at the king's residence in the royal capital of Pavia, but the pope's advances were rejected by the king, who demanded that the pope return to Rome rather than continue his trip north. Nevertheless, protection from Frankish allies guaranteed that Stephen could continue to meet the Frankish king in his residence in Ponthion. The meeting was decisive for Frankish-papal relations and was the beginning of the end of Aistulf's dream to unite Italy under his authority.
   The fall and winter of 753-754 was spent forging an alliance between Pippin and Stephen. The creation of the alliance was quickened by Aistulf's miscalculation. He sent Pippin's brother, Carloman, who had retired to the monastery of Monte Cassino, to intervene on Aistulf's behalf and convince Pippin not to ally with the pope. Carloman's pleas were rejected, and he was not allowed to return to Italy. At the same time, Pippin grew closer to the pope, who may have used the claims of the Donation of Constantine to support his position. Although it is unlikely that the Donation had been written (most scholars believe it was composed sometime after 755), the basic ideas of the forgery were in evidence in Rome and may have played a role in the negotiations. Stephen confirmed the alliance by crowning Pippin king of the Franks for a second time and bestowing on him the imperial title of Patrician, thus providing the king with the right to intervene in Italy. The discussions between the king and pope did yield a donation from Pippin, one that promised that the lands of St. Peter would be returned to the pope. Pippin agreed to guarantee the return of the lands by an invasion of Italy if necessary and sent repeated demands to Aistulf to return St. Peter's patrimony.
   Aistulf refused to submit to Pippin's demands and forced the Frankish king to invade Italy. After convincing the Frankish nobility of the wisdom of his policy, Pippin invaded in the spring of 755 to defend the interests of St. Peter - a focus of Carolingian devotion - and his representative, the pope. Aistulf moved north to stop the advancing Frankish armies, but he was defeated and his army put in disarray. Pippin then laid siege to the Lombard capital of Pavia, and Aistulf sued for peace. He agreed to send hostages to the Frankish court, return cities seized from Rome and Ravenna, and keep the peace, an agreement he broke shortly after Pippin left Italy. Once again Aistulf invaded Roman territory and with three separate armies laid siege to the city of Rome. He violated the cemeteries outside the city by digging up the graves and threatened to kill all the Romans by a single sword if they failed to submit to his authority.
   Stephen again sent a letter to the king of the Franks seeking aid in the name of St. Peter. Upon learning of the pope's appeal, Aistulf remarked, "Let the Franks come and get you out of my hands now." In the spring of 756 Pippin did just that, invading Italy, with little of the difficulty from Frankish nobles his first invasion occasioned, and overwhelming Aistulf. The Lombard king was forced to lift his siege and to accept another treaty at the hands of the Frankish king. A list of twenty-two cities was compiled that were to be returned to the pope, and Pippin's representatives, including Abbot Fulrad, were sent to each of these cities to ensure that Aistulf honored the terms of the treaty. Fulrad accepted the keys of the cities and symbolically laid them on the altar of St. Peter in Rome as a sign of Rome's power.
   It is likely that Aistulf would have violated the treaty yet again had he not died in a hunting accident in December 756. He was succeeded by Desiderius, the duke of Tuscany. His repeated assaults on Rome and treaty violations played an important role in the revolution of the eighth century. Aistulf's aggression forced the pope finally to sever ties with the emperor in Constantinople and find a more reliable protector. Stephen's alliance with Pippin and his dynasty had far-reaching repercussions throughout the rest of the Middle Ages and laid the foundation for the creation of a new Western empire. Aistulf's reign was important too because his attempted conquest of Rome helped create the papal states and established the conditions that contributed to the composition of the Donation of Constantine.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Christie, Neil. The Lombards: The Ancient Langobards. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
 ♦ Davis, Raymond, trans. The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of Nine Popes from a.d. 715 to a.d. 817. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.
 ♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
 ♦ Llewellyn, Peter. Rome in the Dark Ages. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996.
 ♦ Noble, Thomas F. X. The Republic of St. Peter: The Birth of the Papal State, 680-825. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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