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 entry 2005

he Duchy and Papal Province of Benevento

Born in this age of giant nation-states, we glaze over when we behold the many obscure duchies and principalities that sprang up on the Italian peninsula after the Roman empire. The Duchy of Benevento is one of those. As mentioned in the entry on the Samnites, the town of Benevento today has an interesting tower on the main street. The structure displays two maps: one shows Samnium (see that entry, linked above); the other map (photo, right) shows the Duchy of Benevento in the 8th century.

Longobard Italy was at its greatest extent in about 750, after the
Byzantine Exarchate around Ravenna had ceased to exist and before
the creation of the Papal States.

he town of Benevento, about 50 miles from Naples, is what is left of the original Duchy of Benevento, part of the large Longobard (or Lombard) kingdom, and one of a loose confederation of such duchies set up by the Longobards during their rule in Italy, roughly 570-770 a.d. The Duchy of Benevento, at its greatest extent around 750 (map, left), encompassed most of Italy, except the areas immediately around Rome and Naples and a few Byzantine Greek enclaves hanging on way down at the bottom of the peninsula in the toe and heel of the “boot” of Italy.

Longobard rule in northern Italy came to an end when Charlemagne —the “father of Europe”— was crowned as first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800. That event left in place in Italy:

(1) the Holy Roman Empire in the north;
(2) a large chunk of central Italy donated to the Papacy and known as “The Papal States” and
(3) the vast and unconquered Duchy of Benevento in the south (roughly, everything south of Rome) untouched by Charlemagne’s efforts to unify the peninsula.

Then, the splintering continued. The Duchy of Benevento split in half in the mid-800s through a civil war that produced two other large duchies in the south, Capua and Salerno (see map, below); the latter would later merge with Norman lands in the south to form the Kingdom of Sicily in the 1100s).

[See the entry on Sichelgaita.] [See main entry on The Lombards.]

By the year 1000, this last remnant of the last Lombard holding in Italy was still much larger than the city of Benevento itself. The Duchy had 34 counties, and had a coastline on the Adriatic of many miles, including all of the Gargano “spur”; inland it included parts of the modern-day regions of Molise, Abruzzo and Campania. The Duchy was captured by Robert Guiscard [again, see Sichelgaita] in 1053 and eventually wound up in the Papal hands in the late 1000s, reduced in size to only the town, itself. It then ceased to be a “duchy” and became a province of the Papal States.

The modern reader should remember that “Papal States” was not just a funny way of saying “The Vatican” (in modern times, the size of a postage stamp, surrounded by the city of Rome). They were an important political Italian state for many centuries, an elective hierarchy with the pope as head of state; popularly, in Italian he was called il Papa Re —the Pope King. The government of the Papal States was like other governments: there was a descending order of lower level politicians; taxes were levied and collected; there was an extensive system of courts (with the power to impose punishment, including the death penalty); there was an extensive diplomatic service and even a small military force. The configuration of the Papal States changed marginally in their 1000 years of existence (from Charlemagne to the unification of Italy in 1861), but a few statistics from the 1850s show how large the Papal holdings were: they encompassed 12,000 square miles over much of the territory of the modern Italian regions of Lazio, Umbria, the Marche and Emilia-Romagna, running from well south of Rome almost to Venice. In the mid 1850s, the population was 3 million and the territory was divided into 20 provinces, of which Benevento was one. Geographically, Benevento was cut off physically from the rest and was essentially an enclave within the kingdom of Naples (map, below).

Benevento (yellow dot) in the midst of the
Kingdom of Naples.

In its long history as part of the Papal States, Benevento had its quirky ups and downs. It was taken twice by Frederick II in 1229 and 1241. Fred was a notorious pope-baiter, and he was just showing the Church who was boss. His son and heir, Manfred, was killed in battle there in 1266. The victors, the Angevins, took over the kingdom of Naples and gave Benevento back to the papacy. In the 1400s and 1500s, unstable times at best, Benevento bounced around as a fiefdom from one noble family to another, but always found its way back to the Church. In 1688, the town was totally destroyed by an earthquake and was rebuilt under the direction of Cardinal Vincenzo Orsini, who became Pope Benedict XIII. Between 1768 and 1774, it was occupied by Naples under king Ferdinand IV (no doubt under the direction of anti-cleric prime-minister, Tanucci, who didn’t like the idea of a little church enclave in the middle of the kingdom. In 1799 it joined the new and short-lived Neapolitan Republic. In 1806 Napoleon took it over and made Talleyrand First Sovereign Prince of Beneventum. (He never got a chance to move in.) The Congress of Vienna returned Benevento to the Papacy in 1815 where it remained until the unification of Italy.

[Also see  Easy Steps to the Dark Ages]

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