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Castegrande, view from the south-east.

The early Middle Ages

The decline in power of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century did not bring about the elimination of its civil and military infrastructure. Availing themselves of the support of the Church and its bishops, the legitimate successors of the Roman emperors in Italy the Ostrogoths around 500 AD, the eastern Byzantine Empire towards the middle of the 6 century, and the Longobards from 568/70 onwards made use of the regional administration to impose their sovereignty. Having been an important imperial stronghold since the 4th century, Bellinzona was incorporated in the military organisation of the succession states, continuing to fulfil its strategic purpose and, as archaeological research on the Castelgrande has revealed, was even enlarged and modified when circumstances so required. When the Longobards occupied northern Italy, Bellinzona, which had probably already fallen under the dominion of Milan in the 5th century, became the seat of a permanent garrison responsible for the defence of the site from raids by Frankish-Alemannic troops. Popular legend has it that in 590 an attack by the Franks was repulsed after an enemy commander was felled by a defender's spear.
In the early Middle Ages, Castelgrande rock, together with its late Roman city walls, constituted an almost impregnable fortress; the Longobard kings were therefore anxious to keep the stronghold of Bellinzona securely in their possession, even if, at that time, the Alpine passes it protected were only of secondary importance. During the early Middle Ages, the area of Castelgrande also comprised some private land, so that only the central area within the fortified perimeter was still the property of the rulers. Bellinzona's involvement in the disputes between the Carolingian and Longobard dynasties was probably only marginal. There is no evidence to suggest that a military event was the cause of a fire, which, according to archaeological findings, destroyed the southern part of the castle in the year 800.

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