Of the Teutonic invaders of Italy none are invested with more interest than the Lombards,—the Long Beards, to give them their original title. Legend yields us the story of their origin, a story of interest enough to repeat. A famine had been caused in Denmark by a great flood, and the people, to avoid danger of starvation, had resolved to put all the old men and women to death, in order to save the food for the young and strong. This radical proposition was set aside through the advice of a wise woman, named Gambara, who suggested that lots should be drawn for the migration of a third of the population. Her counsel was taken and the migration began, under the leadership of her two sons. These migrants wore beards of prodigious length, whence their subsequent name.
They first entered the land of the Vandals, who refused them permission to settle. This was a question to be decided at sword's point, and war was declared. Both sides appealed to the gods for aid, Gambara praying to Freya, while the Vandals invoked Odin, who answered that he would grant the victory to the party he should first behold at the dawn of the coming day.
The day came. The sun rose. In front of the Danish host were stationed their women, who had loosened their long hair, and let it hang down over their faces. "Who are these with long beards?" demanded Odin, on seeing these Danish amazons. This settled the question of victory, and also gave the invaders a new name, that of Longobardi,—due, in this legend, to the long hair of the women instead of the long beards of the men. There are other legends, but none worth repeating.
The story of their king Alboin, with whom we have particularly to deal, begins, however, with a story which may be in part legendary. They were now in hostile relations with the Gepidæ, the first nation to throw off the yoke of the Huns. Alboin, son of Audoin, king of the Longobardi, killed Thurismund, son of Turisend, king of the Gepidæ, in battle, but forgot to carry away his arms, and thus returned home without a trophy of his victory. In consequence, his stern father refused him a seat at his table, as one unworthy of the honor. Such was the ancient Lombard custom, and it must be obeyed.
The young prince acknowledged the justice of this reproof, and determined to try and obtain the arms which were his by right of victory. Selecting forty companions, he boldly visited the court of Turisend, and openly demanded from him the arms of his son. It was a daring movement, but proved successful. The old king received him hospitably, as the custom of the time demanded, though filled with grief at the loss of his son. He even protected him from the anger of his subjects, whom some of the Lombards had provoked by their insolence of speech. The daring youth returned to his father's court with the arms of his slain foe, and won the seat of honor of which he had been deprived.
Turisend died, and Cunimund, his son, became king. Audoin died, and Alboin became king. And now new adventures of interest occurred. In his visit to the court of Turisend, Alboin had seen and fallen in love with Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of Cunimund. He now demanded her hand in marriage, and as it was scornfully refused him, he revenged himself by winning her honor through force and stratagem. War broke out in consequence, and the Gepidæ were conquered, Rosamond falling to Alboin as part of the trophies of victory.
We are told that in this war Alboin sought the aid of Bacan, chagan of the Avars, promising him half the spoil and all the land of the Gepidæ in case of victory. He added to this a promise of the realm of the Longobardi, in case he should succeed in winning for them a new home in Italy, which country he proposed to invade.
About fifteen years before, some of his subjects had made a warlike expedition to Italy. Their report of its beauty and fertility had kindled a spirit of emulation in the new generation, and inspired the young and warlike king with ambitious hopes. His eloquence added to their desire. He not only described to them in glowing words the land of promise which he hoped to win, but spoke to their senses as well, by producing at the royal banquets the fairest fruits that grew in that garden land of Europe. His efforts were successful. No sooner was his standard erected, and word sent abroad that Italy was his goal, than the Longobardi found their strength augmented by hosts of adventurous youths from the surrounding peoples. Germans, Bulgarians, Scythians, and others joined in ranks, and twenty thousand Saxon warriors, with their wives and children, added to the great host which had flocked to the banners of the already renowned warrior.
It was in the year 568 that Alboin, followed by the great multitude of adventurers he had gathered, and by the whole nation of the Longobardi, ascended the Julian Alps, and looked down from their summits on the smiling plains of northern Italy to which his success was thenceforward to give the name of Lombardy, the land of the Longobardi.
Four years were spent in war with the Romans, city after city, district after district, falling into the hands of the invaders. The resistance was but feeble, and at length the whole country watered by the Po, with the strong city of Pavia, fell into the hands of Alboin, who divided the conquered lands among his followers, and reduced their former holders to servitude. Alboin made Pavia his capital, and erected strong fortifications to keep out the Burgundians, Franks, and other nations which were troubling his new-gained dominions. This done, he settled down to the enjoyment of the conquest which he had so ably made and so skilfully defended.
History tells us that the Longobardi cultivated their new lands so skilfully that all traces of devastation soon vanished, and the realm grew rich in its productions. Their freemen distinguished themselves from the other German conquerors by laboring to turn the waste and desert tracts into arable soil, while their king, though unceasingly watchful against his enemies, lived among his people with patriarchal simplicity, procuring his supplies from the produce of his farms, and making regular rounds of inspection from one to another. It is a picture fitted for a more peaceful and primitive age than that turbulent period in which it is set.
But now we have to do with Alboin in another aspect,—his domestic relations, his dealings with his wife Rosamond, and the tragic end of all the actors in the drama of real life which we have set out to tell. The Longobardi were barbarians, and Alboin was no better than his people; a strong evidence of which is the fact that he had the skull of Cunimund, his defeated enemy and the father of his wife, set in gold, and used it as a drinking cup at his banquets.
Doubtless this brutality stirred revengeful sentiments in the mind of Rosamond. An added instance of barbarian insult converted her outraged feelings into a passion for revenge. Alboin had erected a palace near Verona, one of the cities of his new dominion, and here he celebrated his victories with a grand feast to his companions in arms. Wine flowed freely at the banquet, the king emulating, or exceeding, his guests in the art of imbibing. Heated with his potations, in which he had drained many cups of Rhætian or Falernian wine, he called for the choicest ornament of his sideboard, the gold-mounted skull of Cunimund, and drank its full measure of wine amid the loud plaudits of his drunken guests.
"Fill it again with wine," he cried; "fill it to the brim; carry this goblet to the queen, and tell her that it is my desire and command that she shall rejoice with her father."
Rosamond's heart throbbed with grief and rage on hearing this inhuman request. She took the skull in trembling hands, and murmuring in low accents, "Let the will of my lord be obeyed," she touched it to her lips. But in doing so she breathed a silent prayer, and resolved that the unpardonable insult should be washed out in Alboin's blood.
If she had ever loved her lord, she felt now for him only the bitterness of hate. She had a friend in the court on whom she could depend, Helmichis, the armor-bearer of the king. She called on him for aid in her revenge, and found him willing but fearful, for he knew too well the great strength and daring spirit of the chief whom he had so often attended in battle. He proposed, therefore, that they should gain the aid of a Lombard of unequalled strength, Peredeus by name. This champion, however, was not easily to be won. The project was broached to him, but the most that could be gained from him was a promise of silence.
Failing in this, more shameful methods were employed. Such was Rosamond's passion for revenge that the most extreme measures seemed to her justifiable. Peredeus loved one of the attendants of the queen. Rosamond replaced this frail woman, sacrificed her honor to her vengeance, and then threatened to denounce Peredeus to the king unless he would kill the man who had so bitterly wronged her.
Peredeus now consented. He must kill the king or the king would kill him, for he felt that Rosamond was quite capable of carrying out her threat. Having thus obtained the promise of the instruments of her vengeance, the queen waited for a favorable moment to carry out her dark design. The opportunity soon came. The king, heavy with wine, had retired from the table to his afternoon slumbers. Rosamond, affecting solicitude for his health and repose, dismissed his attendants, closed the palace gates, and then, seeking her spouse, lulled him to rest by her tender caresses.
Finding that he slumbered, she unbolted the chamber door, and urged her confederates to the instant performance of the deed of blood. They entered the room with stealthy tread, but the quick senses of the warrior took the alarm, he opened his eyes, saw two armed men advancing upon him, and sprang from his couch. His sword hung beside him, and he attempted to draw it, but the cunning hand of Rosamond had fastened it securely in the scabbard. The only weapon remaining was a small foot-stool. This he used with vigor, but it could not long protect him from the spears of his assailants, and he quickly fell dead beneath their blows. His body was buried beneath the stairway of the palace, and thus tragically ended the career of the founder of the kingdom of Lombardy.
But the story of Rosamond's life is not yet at an end. The death of Alboin was followed by another tragic event, which brought her guilty career to a violent termination. The wily queen had not failed to prepare for the disturbances which might follow the death of the king. The murder of Alboin was immediately followed by her marriage with Helmichis, whose ambition looked to no less a prize than the throne of Lombardy. The queen was surrounded by a band of faithful Gepidæ, with whose aid she seized the palace and made herself mistress of Verona, the Lombard chiefs flying in alarm. But the assassination of the king who had so often led them to victory filled the Longobardi with indignation, the chiefs mustered their bands and led them against the stronghold of the guilty couple, and they in their turn, were forced to fly for their lives. Helmichis and Rosamond, with her daughter, her faithful Gepidæ, and the spoils of the palace, took ship down the Adige and the Po, and were transported in a Greek vessel to the port of Ravenna, where they hoped to find shelter and safety.
Longinus, the Greek governor of Ravenna, gave willing refuge to the fugitives, the more so as the great beauty of Rosamond filled him with admiration. She had not been long there, indeed, before he offered her his hand in marriage. Rosamond, moved by ambition or a return of his love, accepted his offer. There was, it is true, an obstacle in the way. She was already provided with a husband. But the barbarian queen had learned the art of getting rid of inconvenient husbands. Having, perhaps, grown to detest the tool of her revenge, now that the purpose of her marriage with him had failed, she set herself to the task of disposing of Helmichis, this time using the cup instead of the sword.
As Helmichis left the bath he received a wine-cup from the hands of his treacherous wife, and lifted it to his lips. But no sooner had he tasted the liquor, and felt the shock that it gave his system, than he knew that he was poisoned. Death, a speedy death, was in his veins, but he had life enough left for revenge. Seizing his dagger, he pressed it to the breast of Rosamond, and by threats of instant death compelled her to drain the remainder of the cup. In a few minutes both the guilty partners in the death of Alboin had breathed their last.
When Longinus was, at a later moment, summoned into the room, it was to find his late guests both dead upon the floor. The poison had faithfully done its work. Thus ended a historic tragedy than which the stage possesses few of more striking dramatic interest and opportunities for histrionic effect.