Today I happened to read about an obscure war that started in 773AD between Charlemagne and the forgotten and obscure last king of the Lombards. There were three main parties directly involved in the conflict, along with a whole host of other characters who had influence in the course of events, the Frankish Kingdom, the Lombard Kingdom, and the Papacy. None of them wanted a conflict, yet the actions they took because of their insecurities and desires ended up leading to a war that ended up causing difficulties for all of them, even if it ultimately served the interests of the winners, eventually. Even if this war is not something that is generally known, the dynamics of the conflict suggest matters that may be of interest to people in different situations about how to best avoid conflicts, and the sort of tensions that are inherent in that.
Before 773, there had been efforts made for a triple alliance between the Papacy, the Franks, and the Lombards, but those efforts foundered because of the behavior of all three parties. Charlemagne started keeping a German “concubine” who was fertile, which led him to put away his wife (a Lombard princess) and seek to repay the bride price for his barren wife to her father, the Lombard king. Naturally, putting away someone’s daughter is not a particularly good way to commend oneself to her father, while also starting the conquest of Saxony because of his belief that Italy and Gascony were quiescent fronts without trouble. For his part, the Lombard king harbored the young nephews of Charlemagne and their widowed mother, who were a potential threat to the peace of the Frankish kingdom, and had engaged in an aggressive war against the pope and taken several of his cities. The pope, for his part, sought papal independence and to maximize his rule over Italy, and supported whoever was most willing to provide him what he wanted–control over as much of Italy as possible.
How did war come about? For one, the Papacy engaged in a politics of brinksmanship that managed to increase the insecurity of both the Franks and the Lombards in their search for independence. The Lombards, for one, saw the Papacy as being militarily weak (which was largely true, even if they underestimated the skill of papal diplomacy) and also thought of Charlemagne as weak because of his desire to negotiate even at late stages of a campaign. As a result, Charlemagne ended up in a lengthy campaign that distracted him from his goal of the conquest of the Saxons and had to expend a great deal of blood and treasure in the conquest of the Lombard kingdom. The Lombards, of course, lost their independence and became part of Charlemagne’s kingdom and later part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was definitely a negative outcome for them. The Papacy had to pay a great deal of logistical aid to the Franks for their defense and were unable to fully gain the independence they sought, but ended up in a codependent relationship with various revivals of the Roman Empire that provided the muscle while they provided the supposed spiritual legitimacy, a pattern that has not yet ended.
What was the mistake of each party? The Papal side overplayed their hand, not realizing that their military weakness meant that, at best, they could play a supporting rule to a power capable of providing them with cover and protection. Likewise, the papal corruption evident even at that early date meant that they were vulnerable to a loss of power because their moral example did not live up to their claims of spiritual legitimacy. The Franks, on the other hand, were prudent in their attacks but did not convey their strength, allowing their enemies to underestimate them, which led to more conflicts than they wished because they were not respected enough and had to prove their strength over and over again. Their moderation was confused with a lack of strength and resolution. Likewise, the Lombards failed to understand either the diplomatic strength of the papacy or the true military strength of the Franks. As a result, they lost their kingdom altogether.
A similar situation was present at the beginning of the American Civil War, albeit in a more simplified form. The moderation of Abraham Lincoln, combined with the probability that the South would continue to lose influence and power relative to the North, suggested to much of the South that it was necessary to act in order to preserve an unjust system of slavery. The North, for its part, had a great logistical strength but was viewed as being too weak to successfully prosecute its war effort, which invited a challenge. There were some areas, like Kentucky, that sought to remain neutral but were unable to remain so. Sometimes in life we cannot achieve the independence we seek, even as a buffer between larger powers, and then we must simply choose who to serve. Knowing how to balance between not being so much of a threat that others unite against us before we are strong enough to defend ourselves and not being seen as strong enough to be respected is a difficult balance. If Charlemagne had trouble with that balance, imagine how hard it is for the rest of us?