Desiderius

(eighth century)
   Successor of Aistulf and king from 757 to 774, Desiderius was the last of the kings of the Lombards. His fate was linked with the rise of the Carolingian dynasty and the complex diplomatic relations between the Carolingians, Lombards, and popes in Rome. He pursued the traditional, aggressive policy of Lombard kings and attempted, with some success, to unify Italy under Lombard rule. His threatening posture toward Rome and the papal territories led to his conflict with the popes, who sought aid from the Carolingian dynasty. Pippin the Short intervened diplomatically on the pope's behalf, and his son Charlemagne invaded in defense of the papacy, absorbed the kingdom of the Lombards into the growing Carolingian Empire, and deposed Desiderius as king and exiled him to a Frankish monastery.
   Although he eventually suffered defeat as a result of his bad relations with Rome, Desiderius began his reign as king in the good graces of Rome. His election as king of the Lombards on March 3 or 4, 757, in fact, was supported by the pope, Stephen II (r. 752-757). The succession to Aistulf was a complicated affair: Desiderius, a former official in Aistulf's government and duke of Tuscany, appears to have been a likely candidate, but he faced strong opposition from another Lombard noble, Ratchis. Desiderius, however, appealed to the pope for support in his efforts to obtain the crown and met with representatives of the pope. In exchange for promises to return papal cities seized by Aistulf, Desiderius received military backing from the pope. Stephen also secured for Desiderius the support of the Carolingian king Pippin, who had already invaded Italy twice in the 750s to punish Aistulf for harassing the pope. This important backing from Rome secured the election of Desiderius and the retirement of Ratchis.
   The reign of the new king opened with the promise of good relations between Rome and the Lombards. In 758, Desiderius visited Rome as a pilgrim and prayed at the tomb of St. Peter, indicating his devotion to the Apostle and to his successor, the pope. But matters changed quickly for the pope, now Paul (r. 757-767), as Desiderius returned to the aggressive and expansive policy of his predecessors. The new king imposed his will on the southern Lombard duchies of Benevento and Spoleto. Even worse, Desiderius refused to return the papal cities as he had promised, despite repeated requests from the pope, and he even seized new territory near Rome. He also negotiated with representatives of the Byzantine emperor in southern Italy, entering into an arrangement that would have seen the further erosion of papal authority in Italy and the further loss of papal territory. In response, Pope Paul sent numerous letters over the next several years to King Pippin for aid against Desiderius. Pippin was no longer interested in military involvement in Italy and was content to intervene diplomatically. In 760, Pippin's envoys convinced Desiderius to agree to return cities to the pope, but the Lombard king still did not follow through on the agreement, and the situation worsened for the pope.
   During the reigns of Paul and his successor Stephen III (r. 767-772), the situation deteriorated for Rome, as Desiderius increased his power throughout Italy and benefited from a tumultuous papal election in 767. Moreover, Desiderius benefited from the turmoil in the Carolingian kingdom at the death of Pippin and succession of his sons Carloman and Charlemagne in 768. Charlemagne faced a revolt in part of his kingdom and received little help from his brother, and the two were on the point of civil war after Charlemagne suppressed the revolt. The tensions between the two brothers made intervention in Italy unlikely, but Desiderius, now at the height of his power, benefited further by the diplomatic initiative of Pippin's widow, Bertrada. In an attempt to resolve the crisis between her sons and improve their international standing, Bertrada negotiated a marriage alliance between her dynasty and the Lombard. Desiderata, the daughter of Desiderius, was married to Bertrada's son Charlemagne. The alliance bound the Carolingians with the Lombards and the powerful duke of Bavaria, Tassilo, who was married to another daughter of Desiderius. Clearly a coup for Desiderius, whose greatest rival, the pope, lost his most important ally, the king of the Franks. Although forced by the agreement to return territory to the pope, Desiderius surely gained more than he lost in the agreement. Indeed, the letters of complaint sent by the pope to the Carolingians reveal the great dissatisfaction Rome felt over the treaty.
   Desiderius's triumph did not last long, as the alliance collapsed and an aggressive Carolingian king took sole control of the throne. In 771, Carloman died and his widow and sons fled to the Lombard capital of Pavia. Desiderius pressured the pope, now Hadrian (772-795) to recognize Carloman's heirs as king, but the pope felt less threatened by Desiderius because of other changes in the Carolingian kingdom. Charlemagne, now free of the threat of his brother, repudiated the marriage alliance and expressed greater support for the pope than even his father had. The new pope, mindful that Desiderius had not fulfilled his side of the agreement with Bertrada, was willing to strike at the king's allies in the papal administration and establish a stronger alliance with Charlemagne. Desiderius, with Carloman's sons at his side, marched on Rome, threatening a siege and demanding the coronation of the Carolingian princes. Hadrian threatened Desiderius with excommunication, which stopped his advance, and wrote to Charlemagne for aid.
   The new king first attempted to negotiate a settlement with Desiderius, but the Lombard's refusal forced Charlemagne to invade in 773. His armies quickly broke the Lombard forces, which preferred flight to battle in the face of the powerful Carolingian army. Desiderius's kingdom quickly collapsed, as the southern duchies detached themselves from his authority and surrendered to the pope. Charlemagne laid siege to the capital of Pavia, where Desiderius had taken up residence, and captured the city in six months. The Carolingian king also took the city of Verona, Lombard Italy's second city, where Desiderius's son, Adelchis, had gone with Carloman's family. The invasion of Italy brought Carloman's family and Desiderius into Charlemagne's control. We hear little of either after 774; Desiderius was sent into exile in a monastery in Charlemagne's kingdom. Despite his many talents and early success, Desiderius overplayed his hand in the struggle with Charlemagne, who could not allow Desiderius to ensure the coronation of his nephews or to harass the pope. Desiderius's ambition brought about the end of the independent Lombard kingdom and the coronation of Charlemagne as king of the Lombards in 774.
   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.
 ♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ Llewellyn, Peter. Rome in the Dark Ages. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993.
 ♦ 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.
 ♦ Scholz, Bernhard Walter, trans. Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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