Ancient History & Civilisation

The Franks

The Franks first appeared among Rome's enemies in northern Gaul in the later 250s. In 286 the new emperor Maximianus made a treaty with the Frankish king Gennobaudes,51 as a consequence of which many Franks entered Roman service. It was alleged at the time of the supposed revolt of the Frankish officer Silvanus in 355 that “a large number at that time had influence in the palace” (Ammianus 15.5.5, cf. 11). Such men became Christians. Silvanus was murdered as he sought sanctuary in a chapel in Cologne (Ammianus 15.5.26). Frankish foederati probably made up the largest non-Roman contingents of the fourth-century army in the Roman West.52 Meanwhile independent Franks were an established force in northeast Gaul by 350. Some of these figures preserved their status both within the Roman and the Frankish hierarchy, notably the warrior Mallobaudes, who had a military career which spanned more than twenty-five years from Constantius to Gratian, when he is described simultaneously as count of the household troops and king of the Franks, comes domesticorum et rex Francorum.53 The Franks Bauto and Arbogast, who dominated the youthful Valentinian II, played an increasingly prominent role in the western empire towards the end of the fourth century.

After the middle of the fifth century, the king of the Salian Franks, Childeric, became a major power in northern Gaul.54 He supported Aegidius in his battle against the Visigoths in 463, and helped another Roman comes, Paulus, to defeat the Scirian Odoacar and an army of Saxons at Angers in 469. He was succeeded around 481 by his son Clovis. Clovis extended Frankish power by defeating Syagrius, son of Aegidius, in the neighborhood of Soissons, in the 480s, and the Alemanni and Riparian Franks along the Rhine in the following decade. The decisive moment in his career was the battle of Vouillé/Voulon near Poitiers of 507, in which he defeated the Visigoth Alaric II. Had it not been for the intervention of Theoderic the Amal with Ostrogothic forces in 508, he would have been able to extend his kingdom to the Mediterranean.

The ethnography of northern Gaul in the early fifth century was a complicated matter, as Procopius recognized. In an interesting passage, he drew a clear distinction between the free Germans (his designation for the Franks), the native people called the Arborychi, which is probably a mistake for the Armorici who lived in Brittany and northwest Gaul, and the Roman military settlers in the frontier areas, who should surely be identified as Germanic, that is Frankish foederati:

But as time went on, the Visigoths forced their way into the Roman Empire and seized all Spain and the portion of Gaul lying beyond the Rhone river and made them subject and tributary to themselves. By that time it so happened that the Arborychi had become soldiers of the Romans. And the Germans, wishing to make this people subject to themselves, since their territory adjoined their own and they had changed the government under which they lived from of old, began to plunder their land and, being eager to make war, marched against them with their whole people. But the Arborychi proved their valour and loyalty to the Romans and showed themselves brave men in this war, and since the Germans were not able to overcome them by force, they wished to win them over and make their two peoples kin by intermarriage. This suggestion the Arborychi received not at all unwillingly; for both, as it happened, were Christians. And in this way they were united into one people and came to have great power.

Now other Roman soldiers also had been stationed at the frontiers of Gaul to guard it. And these soldiers, having no means of returning to Rome, and being unwilling to yield to their enemy who were Arians, gave themselves together with their standards and the land, which they for long had guarded for the Romans, to the Arborychi and the Germans. And they handed down to their descendants all the customs of their fathers which were thus preserved, and this people has held them in sufficient reverence to guard them up to my time. For even at the present day they are clearly recognised as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned when they served in ancient times, and they always carry their own standards when they enter battle, and always follow the customs of their fathers. And they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular even as regards their shows. (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.12.12–19, trans. Dewing)

Gregory of Tours implies that the Franks under Childeric had mainly been pagans. “They fashioned idols for themselves out of birds and beasts: these they worshipped in place of God and to these they made their sacrifices” (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.10, trans. Thorpe). Excavations at the location of Childeric's tomb, which was discovered in the seventeenth century, produced evidence for horse sacrifices, but this may not be sufficient to prove that Childeric himself was a pagan. The royal burial may have been accompanied by traditional pagan practices.55 Clovis at first worshipped idols made of stone, metal or wood, not gods (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.29). Gregory of Tours says that he adopted Catholic Christianity after his marriage to the Burgundian princess, Clotild, and as a consequence of a victory over the Alemanni around 496, which could be attributed to God's support.56 However, conversion did not come out of a blue sky, and the date is also in dispute. Clovis' and Childeric's earlier paganism had certainly been rooted in native traditions of leadership. They invented a lineage for their dynasty which went back two generations to a bull-like creature, which had mated in the sea with the wife of a Frankish noble, Clodio. She gave birth to Merovech, the eponymous founder of the Merovingian dynasty and supposed father of Childeric (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.9). Such a lineage was better suited to tribal Germans than to successor kingdoms of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, the Franks who had reached high rank under the emperors had all been Christian, and Christianity had also made headway among the people as a whole, as Procopius indicates. At the end of the narrative of Clovis' baptism by Remigius, bishop of Reims, Gregory reveals that the king's sister Lanthechild was converted at the same time from her former Arian ways. Clovis' approach to Christianity was certainly a more gradual process than Gregory of Tours suggests. The main significance of Clovis' shift to Catholicism was political and signaled his ambition to take on the mantle of Roman power. Avitus, bishop of Vienne, underlined the aspirations of the Franks to become major players in the post-Roman world in a letter to Clovis on the occasion of his baptism: “Your faith is our victory…Let Greece, to be sure, rejoice in having an orthodox ruler, but she is no longer the only one to deserve such a gift” (Avitus, ep. 46, trans. Shantzer and Wood). The king of the Franks, this implied, could now assume the role of a western emperor. Gregory of Tours described Clovis emerging from the pool of baptism “like a new Constantine” (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.31). By adopting Catholicism, Clovis not only appealed to the non-Arian Roman inhabitants of the Visigothic kingdom, but also attracted support from Constantinople. The eastern emperors had been aware of growing Frankish power since the mid-fifth century. Childeric's tomb contained a large hoard of gold solidi minted for eastern emperors, and Leo had summoned a Frank, Titus, to Constantinople, where he had fallen under the spell of the Stylite saint Daniel (Life of Daniel 60–3). The eastern emperor, Anastasius, awarded Clovis a consulship in 508, and Clovis himself took on the trappings of a victorious emperor:57

Letters reached Clovis from the emperor Anastasius to confer the consulate on him. In St Martin's church he stood clad in a purple tunic and the military mantle, and he crowned himself with a diadem. He then rode out on his horse, showered gold and silver coins among the people present all the way from the doorway of St Martin's church to Tours cathedral. From that day on he was called consul or Augustus. (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.38, trans. Thorpe)

Clovis died in 511, and chose to be buried, like Constantine and in striking contrast to his father Childeric, in another Church of the Holy Apostles, at Paris.58

Clovis was survived by four male children. It now became the custom for the Frankish kingdom to be divided between the previous ruler's surviving sons. The three sons of Clotild, his second wife, were involved in disputes with each other over the Burgundian kingdom, which they occupied in 524. Their power was overshadowed by Clovis' eldest son, Theoderic I, and his son Theodebert I, who succeeded him in 533. They controlled the west bank of the Rhine from the North Sea to the Alps, and Theodebert took full advantage of the situation in 536 when Justinian's Roman forces undertook the reconquest of Italy. The Franks offered their support both to the Romans and to the Ostrogoths, acquired control of Provence from the latter, who were too hard pressed to defend it themselves, and then marched into northern Italy in 539. They sacked Milan and took control of much of Liguria. Procopius offers the partisan eastern view that Theodebert and his 100,000 barbarous followers had not yet abandoned paganism and conducted human sacrifice among their captives.59

They began to sacrifice the women and children of the Goths whom they had found at hand and to throw their bodies into the river as the first fruits of war. For these barbarians, though they had become Christians, preserve the greater part of their ancient religion; for they still make human sacrifices and other sacrifices of an unholy nature, and it is in connection with these that they make their prophecies. (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.25.1–18, trans. Dewing)

Theodebert was succeeded by Theodebald, who had to cede control of northern Italy to the Romans in 548, and who died in 555. This left the way open for the two surviving children of Clotild, Childebert I and Clothar I, to assert their claims, and after the former died in 558, Clothar I became king of all the Frankish peoples until his death in 561. His four sons, Charibert I, Sigebert I, Chilperic I, and Guntram, divided the kingdom as the sons of Clovis had done before, now basing it on four royal residences at Paris, Reims, Soissons, and Orleans.60 However, there was no corresponding territorial division of Gaul, and each leader had supporters in all areas. The nature of the Frankish kingship was not territorial. Their title to rule was based on their lineage, and the personal following that each could command both among their own people and among the post-Roman landowners (see pp. 388–9). Rulers displayed their power through royal progresses through their realms.

In the patchwork political fabric of Merovingian Gaul, whose single name conceals a complex web of towns and local elites, the consensus between sixth-century ruler and ruled was constantly exemplified by the adventus ceremony. The quintessentially Merovingian institution of the “royal circuit” or circuitus regis of a wandering monarchy became so essential a trait of rulership that a seventh-century Frank assumed its roots reached into the Roman past.61

The situation was inherently unstable. Charibert I died in 567 and this led to a civil war between Sigebert and Chilperic, who both claimed the area of Tours and Poitiers. Guntram, in dispute with Sigebert, joined Chilperic, but he made his peace with Sigebert after Chilperic was defeated near Reims in 575. Chilperic's wife Fredegund hired assassins to murder Sigebert, whose kingdom now passed to his son Childebert II, while he was still a minor. Chilperic died in 584 also leaving a young son, Clothar I, to follow him. In 592 Childebert II inherited the possessions of Guntram, who had no male children, and thus emerged as the strongest of the group, but when he died aged 25 in 596, his kingdom was again divided between his two sons Theodebert II and Theoderic II.62

The historical and social fabric of sixth-century Gaul is presented in extraordinary detail by the works of Gregory of Tours, who was born in 538 into one of the major Gallo-Roman families, became bishop of Tours, like many other members of his family, in 573, and died c.594. His Book of Histories (most often translated as History of the Franks), began with a summary of biblical history and covered events of the fourth and fifth century on the basis of narrative sources available to Gregory, some of which are now lost. For the generation of Clovis' children he will have drawn on oral tradition, and the narrative becomes more detailed. The later books deal with events that happened during his own adult lifetime, and are recorded in a dense chronicle of Herodotean richness. It is evident that Gregory compiled his history as events occurred, continually updating the record until 591. He seems to have used the same process of incremental composition in other surviving works, most notably the lives of martyrs and saints, and the miracles they performed.63The huge body of Gregory's writings reflects the outlook of the Christian aristocracy of Gaul a century after Sidonius. The world had changed radically. The balance between Christian and classical allusion had shifted completely in favor of the former. The style and language of Gregory are simple and direct, contrasting with Sidonius' ornate and self-conscious sophistication. The historical world of the Roman Empire, which was still the main cultural frame of reference in fifth-century Gaul, was now no more than a background to a world in which the outlines of early medieval Europe are already clear (see Map 6.1).64


Map 6.1    Map of the western empire showing barbarian kingdoms in the west c.500 (StepMap GmbH)

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