Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia  (Vol. 1-2)
Christopher Kleinhenz [Publ.]. - New York, NY (2004)
Routledge encyclopedias of the Middle Ages / [9]


(John B. Dillon)



Among the peoples of late antiquity called barbarians were the Bulgars, originally seminomadic Central Asians speaking a probably Turkic language. Many Bulgars moved into the eastern Danube provinces of the Roman empire in the late fifth century; some served with the Roman (early Byzantine) army, mostly as mounted troops, and some of these may have seen combat in Italy when it was was being reconquered for the empire. Gregory the Great has a story in Book 4 of the Dialogues involving a Bulgar soldier on Narses’s staff speaking the (exotic) Bulgar tongue in the city of Rome in the 550s or 560s. Paul the Deacon (c. 720-c. 799) tells us that Bulgars formed part of the ethnic assortment brought into Italy by the Lombards in their migration of the late 560s and that the Bulgars had left their mark in the names of villages still in use in his own day. An organized group of Bulgars said to have been part of a large diaspora from the qaganate of Great Bulgaria to the northeast of the Black Sea entered Roman territory in the exarchate of Ravenna c. 660 and were settled in the Pentapolis. Not long afterward, a sizable Bulgar military force accompanied by the soldiers’ families offered its services to the Lombard king Grimoald I. This force was sent to the duchy of Benevento, and its members were given lands in present-day Molise, where their leader, Alxec, became a local gastald. In Paul the Deacon’s time their descendants still used their original language but also spoke Latin. Human graves dated c. 650 700 indicating practices associated with steppe culture (including horse burials) have been found in the part of Molise where these Bulgars are said to have settled; the graves may well document this element of the ethnic mix in early medieval Italy.


Also in the later seventh century, many Bulgars settled in the lower Danube region in areas still nominally Roman; the qaganate they formed there is the ancestor of modern Bulgaria. Over time they were assimilated into the general population and became Slavic-speakers. In contemporary sources, their Slavic descendants and successors are also called Bulgars; this usage of the term really specifies a region of origin. Eugenius Vulgarius, a Campanian poet and churchman of the late ninth and early tenth century whose culture was both Latin and Greek, may have had such Bulgarian antecedents. Most





of the presumably Bulgar place-names attested to in medieval Italy do not appear in the records before the eleventh century, although the district in northern Lombardy called Bulgaria or Burgaria is a prominent exception. These place-names are now usually thought to relied local Bulgarian settlements (known to have occurred at various limes) or the presence of Bogomils (members of this originally Bulgarian sect were often called Bulgari) but not that of earlier, unslavicized Bulgars. Some too may have completely different etymologies unrelated either to Bulgars or to Bulgarians.


        See also Lombards




Braga, G[abriella]. “Eugenio Vougario” In Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. Vol. 43. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1993, pp. 505 509.


Brown, T.S. Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy A.D. 554-800. Rome: British School at Rome, 1984. (See especially p. 70.)


Christie, Neil. The Lombards: The Ancient Longobards. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, pp. 64, 98-100.


De Benedittis, Gianfranco, et al. “Crisi e rinascita: II VII secolo d.C.” In Samnium: Archeologia del Molise, ed. Stefania Capini and Angela Di Niro. Rome: Quasar, 1991. (See pp. 325 365 and plates 27-32 on pp. 395-400.)


Petkanov, Ivan. “Bulgarus nell'onomastica e nella toponomastica italiana” Lingua Nostra, 21, 1960, pp. 17-20.





(Katherine Fischer Drew)


The Lombards were a Germanic people who moved into Italy in 568. In the late first century, Tacitus reported them as living in the area of the lower Elbe River; but over the centuries they drifted southward, and settled in Pannonia in the early sixth century. Throughout this early period, the Lombards were very much part of a world where Roman interests were involved, and their institutions had undoubtedly been influenced as a result. For example, the Lombards had come into contact with Christianity, and at least some of them were Catholic in the mid-sixth century, although Lombard leadership was Arian at the time of the Italian invasion; however, many Lombards probably remained heathen. Although most of the Lombards had become Catholic by the third quarter of the seventh century, religion seems never to have been a major factor in their political experience. Also as a result of contacts with the empire, some Lombards came to know Italy in the later stages of the Byzantine-Gothic wars through service in one of the mercenary units of the Byzantine army.

Lombard tradition traced the kingship back to a legendary past (as we know from the work of the eighth-century Lombard historian Paul the Deacon); but although many of their early kings had ties to a single family, the Lombards had not developed a fixed rule of hereditary succession—and they did not develop one in Italy. Alboin, son of Audoin, was the king who led the Lombards across the Julian Alps into northeastern Italy, where the first of the Lombard duchies, Friuli, was established and was bestowed on Gisulf (a nephew of Alboin’s), who remained behind with chosen groups (farae) while the remainder of the Lombards continued west and south under Alboin. Conquest was relatively easy. The long, drawn-out Byzantine-Gothic wars had devastated Italy, the new Byzantine rule with its heavy fiscal exactions was not loved, and the Byzantines’ military attention had been diverted by threats from the east.

The main Lombard settlements were in Friuli and Trent, the Po valley (Pavia became the usual Lombard capital), western Emilia, and Tuscany; but perhaps as early as 571, splinter groups had pushed on southward and established the duchies of Spoleto (under Duke Faroald) and Benevento (under Duke Zotto). At the height of the Lombards’ power (under King Liutprand, 712–744), a large part of the Italian peninsula (including Spoleto and Benevento) was under their direct control; but some parts of Italy always remained separate, under actual or nominal control by the Byzantines: Istria, the area around Ravenna and the Pentapolis, a strip of territory running southward from Ravenna toward and spreading out in the vicinity of the city of Rome, Naples and its territory, and the southernmost parts of the peninsula. The boundaries of all these regions shifted frequently as royal, ducal, imperial, and papal power waxed and waned. The situation was always unstable (one factor in this instability was the frequently elective nature of the Lombard kingship), and in the end it defeated the attempts of the Lombard rulers to unify the peninsula.

Despite this weakness, the Lombards established one of the most important of the “barbarian” kingdoms. They had the advantage, of course, of settling in Italy, which had been the heart of the western Roman empire. It is very hard to gauge the exact nature of this advantage, however, for it is impossible to know just how much of the Roman administrative structure remained through the turbulent last years of the Ostrogothic kingdom. At one time it was assumed that the Lombards were actually barbarous and had destroyed all traces of Roman institutions and freedom, but it is now apparent that no such thing happened—the charges against the Lombards were largely a result of the political hostility of the papacy. Roman city life survived under the Lombards, as did a class of Roman landholders, although the aristocracy seems to have been largely Lombard.

The Lombards’ respect for things Roman is demonstrated principally by the most important written records left by a number of the Lombard kings (Rothari, Grimoald, Liutprand, Ratchis, and Aistulf): the Lombard laws. Roman influence is reflected in the act of royal legislation as well as in the acceptance of such Roman concepts as contracts, land transfers, and testaments, and the use of the Latin language. The Lombard laws also make it clear that persons of Roman descent enjoyed peace and security in the Lombard kingdom, as well as the right to continue to use Roman law (although we do not know just how Roman law was administered in the Lombard portions of Italy).

The Lombard court at Pavia became a center of legal as well as cultural activity. As early as the reign of Agilulf (590–616), Secundus of Nun from Trent resided at court and composed a chronicle history (now lost) of the Lombards. The laws were issued from Pavia, and in the mid-eighth century the historian Paul the Deacon lived at court there before moving to Benevento with his patroness, Adelperga (a daughter of the Lombard king Desiderius), whose husband had been appointed the new duke of Benevento. Although Pavia remained the capital of Lombard Italy after the Carolingian conquest in 774 and charters and court records dated from Pavia indicate a continued high level

of education there, the court at Benevento in many ways succeeded to the cultural leadership of Italy in the late eighth and ninth centuries. The princes of Benevento retained the use of Lombard law and added to it on several occasions, developed an elaborate court ceremonial (influenced by Byzantine practice), provided for the construction of a number of important sacred buildings (also heavily influenced by Byzantium), and sponsored a scriptorium that produced the beautiful Beneventan script.

The Lombards’ political domination would give way in northern and central Italy during the late eighth century and would gradually disintegrate in the south during the tenth century, but the Lombards left behind a priceless legal heritage, as well as the most urbanized geographic landscape in western Europe. In the cultural realm, they left a number of architectural monuments (few of which now survive) as well as educational centers in cities such as Pavia and Benevento, and in monasteries such as Nonantola and Monte Cassino.


        See also Aistulf; Alboin; Benevento; Desiderius; Grimoald of Benevento, King; Liutprand; Lombard Law; Ostrogoths; Pavia; Ratchis; Rothari; Spoleto


Drew, Katherine F. The Lombard Laws. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973.

Foulke, William Dudley. Paul the Deacon History of the Lombards. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.

Hallenbeck, Jan T. Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century. Philadelphia, Pa.: American Philosophical Society, 1982.

Wickham, Chris. Early Medieval Italy. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981.