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Bill Thayer

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Book VII
Chapter 2, end
(IV: Spoleto)

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book VII
Chapter 3

Vol. VI
Note A

Ecclesiastical Notices of the Lombards of Spoleto

We have some hints as to the proceedings of the Lombards in Central Italy, furnished to us by the church writers of the period, which from their character we cannot accept as sober history, and yet which supply us with too vivid a picture of the times to be altogether omitted.

I. Chief among these are the marvellous stories told by Pope Gregory in his strange wonder-book the Dialogues. This book was composed in 593, in the early years of his pontificate, before he had tamed Ariulf, or corresponded with Theudelinda, or hurled meek defiance at the Emperor Maurice. Possibly in the later years of his life, after peace with the invaders had been brought about by his means, he might have spoken with rather less bitterness concerning them. The geographical indications furnished by the Dialogues​1 all point, as we might have expected, to the Lombards of the duchy of Spoleto as the ravagers with whom Gregory's friends were chiefly brought in contact. In one place​2 we hear (and it is an almost solitary instance of religious persecution) of their putting four hundred captives to death because they refused to worship a goat's head, round which the Lombards themselves circled in rapid dance, singing an unholy hymn. Of course, these barbarians must be mere idolaters, who did not pretend to the name even of Arian Christianity. We may perhaps be allowed to conjecture that they belonged rather to that colluvies gentium, Bulgarians, Sarmatians, Gepidae, who came with the Lombards into Italy,​3 than to the Lombards properly so called.

At Spoleto itself, the Arian bishop of the Lombards demanded of the bishop of the city a church which he might dedicate  p98 to his error.​4 On the firm refusal of the Catholic prelate he announced that he should come next day and forcibly enter the church of St. Paul. The guardian of that church hastened to it, closed and bolted the doors, extinguished all the lights at eventide, hid himself in the recesses of the church, and awaited the result. In the early morning twilight the Arian bishop came with a multitude of men prepared to break open the doors of the church. Suddenly, by an unseen hand, all the bolts of the doors were loosed, the doors opened with a crash, the extinguished lamps burst into flame, and the intruding bishop, seeking to pass the threshold of the church, was struck with sudden blindness and had to be led back by a guide to his home. The miracle of light at the same instant given to the church, and taken away from the heretical bishop, struck all the Lombards in that region with awe, and there was no further attempt to deprive the Catholics of their churches.

Some of Gregory's most characteristic stories are told​5 us concerning a certain presbyter of the province of Nursia, named Sanctulus, who had recently died and appeared to him in vision at the hour of his departure. This Sanctulus passing by saw some Lombards toiling in vain at an olive-press, from which no oil would run forth. He brought a skin and told them to fill it for him. The barbarians, already chafed by their wasted labour, answered him with angry and threatening words; but the holy man called for water, which he blessed and cast into the press, and now there gushed forth such a stream of oil that the labouring Lombards filled not their own vessels only, but his bladder also. In a similar way he fed the workmen employed in rebuilding the church of St. Lawrence destroyed by the Lombards, with a large and beautiful white loaf miraculously hidden in that which was supposed to be an empty oven. All these miracles seem to have procured for him a certain amount of favour from the barbarians, and when a deacon was brought into the city, whom some Lombards had taken prisoner and were about to put to death, they consented to hand him over to the custody of Sanctulus, but only on condition that  p99 he should answer for his safe keeping with his own life. At midnight, when the Lombards were all wrapt in slumber, the saint aroused the deacon and commanded him to fly, saying that he was in the hands of God and feared not the consequences for himself. Next morning, when the Lombards came and found their bird flown, they were of course vehemently enraged. 'You know,' said they, 'what was agreed upon between us.' 'I know it,' he answered. 'But you are a good man: we would not willingly torture you. Choose by what death you will die.' 'I am in God's hands: slay me in any manner that He shall permit.' Then they consulted together and decided that his head should be cut off by the stroke of a strong Lombard swordsman. At the news that so great a saint and one whom they so highly reverenced was to be put to death, the Lombards gathered from far and near to witness the famous sight.​6 The saint asked leave to pray, which was granted him; but as he remained long time on the ground prostrate in prayer, the executioner gave him a kick and said, "Rise, kneel down, and stretch out your neck.' He obeyed; he stretched out his neck; he saw the flashing sword drawn to slay him, and uttered only prayer, 'Saint John,​7 receive my soul.' The executioner swung his sword high in air, but there it remained, for his stiffened arm was unable to bring it down again. Then all the Lombards crowded round the holy man and begged him to arise. He arose. They begged him to release the executioner's arrested arm, but he replied, 'I will in no wise pray for him, unless he will swear never to slay a Christian man with that hand.' The penitent executioner swore the oath, and at the saint's word of command brought down his arm, and plunged the sword back into its sheath. The miracle struck a deep awe into the hearts of all the barbarians, who crowded round the saint and sought to buy his favour by presents of horses and cattle which they had plundered from the country-folk; but he refused all these and only claimed, and this successfully, that all the captives whom they had taken should be restored to freedom.

 p100  Less fortunate, or less strong in faith, was a certain abbot named Suranus, who, having at the news of the approach of the Lombards check: gave away all the stores laid up in the monastery and therefore having nothing to give when the barbarians came round him, clamouring for gold, was carried off by them to a forest among the mountains. He succeeded in escaping, and dwelt for some time in a hollow tree, but one of the Lombards finding him, drew his sword and slew him. When his body fell to the ground the mountain and the forest were shaken together as though the trembling earth confessed herself unable to bear the weight of his holiness.8

A deacon in the land of the Marsi being beheaded by a Lombard, the foul fiend CHECK:at once entered into the murderer, who fell prostrate at the feet of his victim.​9 Two monks in the province of Valeria being taken by the raging Lombards were hung on the branches of a tree and died the same day. At evening the two dead monks began to sing with clear and sweet voices, to the joy of their fellow-captives who yet remained alive, but to the terror and confusion of the barbarians who had murdered them.10

Such are the chief stories told by the great Pope concerning the evil deeds of the Lombards of Central Italy.

II. Another source of information of a similar kind is opened to us by the Life of St. Cetheus (or Peregrinus), bishop of Amiternum, a city now destroyed, which once stood about forty miles south-east of Spoleto, at the foot of the Gran Sasso d'Italia.​a

The Life is given in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum (XIII June) on the authority of two MSS., one of which is considerably fuller than the other. I have no means of judging of the age of the MSS. or the authority of the narrative of which I will give a brief abstract, using as much as possible the words of the biographer.

'In the time of Pope Gregory, Emperor Phocas,​11 and Farwald  p101 duke of Spoleto, the Lombards entered Italy and overflowed the boundaries of the Romans, Samnites and Spoletines. Of this nation, two most evil and ignoble men, sons of concubines, named Alais and Umbolus, came to the city of Amiternum, which they ravaged and plundered in their usual barbaric fashion. Unable to bear their cruelty, Cetheus bishop of the city fled to Rome and besought the protection of Pope Gregory, who assured him that in no long time the Lombards would repent and seek the Papal blessing. For this Cetheus prayed, and before long his prayer was granted, the Lombards from Amiternum coming to implore the Pope's benediction, which he would only grant them on condition of their receiving back their bishop.​12 All the priests and other clergy poured forth from the gate of the city to meet him on his return and welcomed him in the name of the Lord.

'Now dissensions arose between the two Lombard dukes, of whom Alais held the eastern and Umbolus the western gate. Each sought to kill the other, and there was great sadness among the Christians in that city. Alais, plotting with his friends the ruin of the city, sent messengers to Vesilianus [the Roman] count of Orta, praying him to make a midnight attack on the city of Amiternum, and utterly destroy it. Of this design the blessed bishop Cetheus, abiding in his cell, was utterly ignorant. Now there were in that city a God‑fearing couple named Fredo and Bona, who went at eventide into the church and prayed, and then having received the bishop's blessing returned to their home. When bed‑time came, Fredo did not take off his clothes, but lay down as he was. On his wife asking him the reason he answered, "I am shaken with an immense trembling and I greatly fear that to‑night this city will perish." "God will forbid it," said she: but he said, "Bring me my weapons of war and place them by my head, and then we shall sleep secure." This he said, being warned by the Holy Ghost, for he knew naught of the counsels of Alais.

'At midnight a cry was heard, "Arise, arise, an enemy attacks the city!" The most christian Fredo rose from his wife's side, and donning his arms, ran through the streets crying, "Rise,  p102 most holy father Cetheus, rise and pray for us! The city perisheth, we shall lose all our goods and shall ere daybreak be slain with the sword." Bishop Cetheus arose, and rushed into the street, calling aloud on Christ who delivered Daniel from the lions and the Three Children from the fiery furnace, to save the people of Amiternum from their foes. The prayer was heard, the invaders were struck with panic and retired having lost many of their number.

'Next day all the citizens came together to see by what means the enemy could have entered the city. They found ladders raised near the church of St. Thomas, and discovered that all this had been done by the counsel of Alais. He was brought bound into the midst of the people,​13 who thundered forth the words, "Death to the traitor!" and began to consider how best to torture him. But Cetheus besought them not to lay hands on him but to cast him into prison and call a meeting​14 of all in that city, both small and great, who should lay upon him a penance lasting many days, that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

'At once uprose the impious Umbolus in wrath and fury, and said, "Thou too, O Cetheus, wast certainly privy to this treacherous scheme, for the ladder set against the church of St. Thomas was placed there by thy magic arts. Thou art unworthy to be bishop any longer." The blessed Cetheus swore by the crucified Son of God, by the undivided Trinity, and by the holy Gospels, that he was innocent of any such design; but Umbolus, stopping his ears, ordered him and Alais to be led bound into the midst of the city and there beheaded in the sight of all the people.

'On the road to execution Cetheus sang Psalms with such a loud and triumphant voice that the awe‑stricken guardsman,​15 though he gladly struck off the head of Alais, refused to strike a blow at the holy man. Full of fury, Umbolus ordered Cetheus to be brought before him and began to taunt him with his bonds. The bishop declared that the curse of Cain the fratricide should rest upon him,​16 and that he should dwell for ever with  p103 the Evil One. Turning then to his guards he said, "Why, oh sons of iniquity and servants of darkness, do ye keep me thus in chains? Is it because ye recognise in me a servant of the true God? In His name I will gladly bear not chains only, but death itself: but you, Arians and infidels that ye are, shall have your mansions with Judas Iscariot in the unquenchable Tartarus, and among the wandering spirits shall be your portion: yea, and cursed for ever shall ye be, because ye have scorned my preaching and have refused to listen to the corrections of Truth. But to thee Umbolus, most unutterable of men, none shall ever give the kiss of peace. He who blesses thee shall be accursed, for the curser of Satan curses thee."

'Filled with rage, Umbolus ordered him to be bound and led away to the river Pescara and thrown into it from the marble bridge. So was he thrown in, but by the blessing of God he came to shore safe and sound. Again and again was he thrown in at the tyrant's command by the raging people, but always came safely to the shore. Then the most impious Umbolus ordered them to bring the holy man into his presence, and to fasten under his feet a millstone weighing five hundredweight, and drown him in the deepest part of the river. Then after another prayer he was thrown into the stream, and at once yielded up his breath, but his body was carried [down the river and across the Adriatic] to the city of Jaterna [Zara in Dalmatia], where a fisherman found it with the millstone still attached to it and surrounded by a holy light. News of the discovery was brought to the bishop and clergy of Zara, who at once perceived that it was the body of a holy man, and buried it near the shore in the odour of sanctity. Often at night was a light like that of a lamp seen to hover round the corpse's head; and a blind man received sight by visiting the tomb. But as none knew the martyr's name, the men of Zara called him only by this name, Peregrinus.'

With all the marks of the handiwork of the conventional martyrologist, there are some touches in this narrative which indicate a real knowledge of the circumstances of the time, and point to a nearly contemporary origin. The Lombards are still 'unspeakable': the split between the two Lombard dukes and the intrigue of one of the rivals with the Imperial general  p104 are events of only too frequent occurrence in Lombard history: and lastly the martyrdom as it is called, is not due to religious intolerance on the part of the Lombards, but to merely political causes. Bishop Cetheus is drowned, the because he upholds the creed of Nicaea, but because he is suspected of complicity in the betrayal of the city to the Greeks, and various circumstances suggest even to us the thought that the suspicion was not altogether without foundation.

The Author's Notes:

1 'Valeria provincia' (I.4, IV.21), 'provincia quae Sura [? Sora] nominatur' (IV.22), 'ex Nursiae provincia' (III.37), 'in Marsorum provincia' (IV.23).

2 Dial. III.28.

3 Paulus, H. L. II.26.

4 'Cum ad Spoletanam urbem Langobardorum episcopus, scilicet Arianus, venisset, et locum illic ubi solemnia sua ageret non haberet, coepit ab ejus civitatis episcopo Ecclesiam petere, quam suo errori dedicaret' (Dial. III.29).

5 Dial. III.37.

6 'Cognito itaque quod Sanctulus, qui inter eos pro sanctitatis reverentiâ magni honoris habebatur occidendus esset, omnes qui in eodem loco inventi sunt Langobardi convenerunt (sicut sunt nimiae crudelitatis) laeti ad spectaculum mortis.' Ten years later Gregory would perhaps have somewhat modified this sweeping assertion.

7 Meaning probably John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Lombards.

Thayer's Note: John the Baptist having himself been beheaded by the order of an unjust ruler — Sanctulus' invocation seems clearly addressed in part to the Lombards: You do this to me, and you side with the murderers of John; do you think he will defend you after that?

8 'Cujus corpore in terram cadente, mons omnis protinus et silva concussa est, ac si se ferre non posse pondus sanctitatis ejus diceret terra quae tremuisset' (Dial. IV.22).

9 Ibid. IV.23.

10 Ibid. IV.21.

11 This is of course an error. The accession of Phocas was thirty-four years after the entry of the Lombards into Italy.

12 Was this conversion the result of Ariulf's reconciliation with Gregory in 592?

13 This is surely a Lombard folc‑mote.

14 Conventus. This was to be of Romans as well as Lombards, and might take a different view of the case from the folc‑mote.

15 Spiculator.

16 For the death of Alais (?).

Thayer's Note:

a About 60 km from Spoleto as the crow flies, Amiternum is 92 km away if you have to walk or drive there: you will be crossing the Apennines by sometimes tortuous mountain roads. It is near the little town of San Vittorino, about 10 km NW of L'Aquila. A fair summary of the scant remains, with 11 photographs, is given by Luigi Serra in chapter 1 of his book Aquila (Bergamo, 1929), "Vestigia romane".

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