The Franks have to be the success story of all the groups that emerged to rule Europe after Rome; unlike the Goths and Vandals, they still have a modern country named after them.
For many, the Franks first appear as a ruling group only in the time of Clovis (born 466, ruled 481-511; he came to the throne at age fifteen) and that, like the native American people, there are ‘none before Clovis’. You can see his alleged tomb with the French kings in the cathedral of Saint-Denis, after all. Much too is made of his ostensible conversion to Christianity by Gregory of Tours, who was born several decades later.
|Tomb of Clovis, St-Denis, with Rose Window|
However, the Franks were prominent in fourth and fifth century Gaul, and held important roles in the later Roman Empire. They were in many cases already Christians.
There were probably no Franks before the 280s, so the rise of people identifying themselves as Franks was sudden. They seem to have been a merger of two peoples supposedly antagonistic: Gauls and Germanic people. As one concept of the name ‘Frank’ was ‘the fierce people’ and another ‘the free people’, this would suggest a military alliance. The throwing-axe called the francisca is claimed by Isidore of Seville to have been named after the Franks, but most of Isidore’s Etymologies were wrong, so they might have named after axe as an item they habitually carried (compare this with the Saxons, so called because they used used a saxus, a type of sword). Examples of the francisca have been found at the Roman castle at Burgh Castle, Norfolk, suggesting continuing contact between Romans and Franks.
|St Isidore of Seville|
The Franks are first mentioned in a panegyric poem addressed to Constantius Chlorus by a citizen of Augustodunum in Gaul (modern Autun), a city used as an imperial capital by a variety of rulers.
Julian’s commander of the infantry in Gaul was Claudius Silvanus, a Frank and son of Bonitus, both Latinate names (the name Silvanus might be a Latin form of Succelos, an god associated with Silvanus and worshipped in both Gaul and Germany). Of Bonitus Ammianus comments he was ‘a Frank it is true, but one who in the civil war often fought vigorously on the side of Constantine against the soldiers of Licinius’ (XV.5.24) He tried to usurp the imperial throne at Cologne, but his attempt failed after twenty-eight days. He had previously changed sides from Magnentius to Constantius to defeat the former at the Battle of Mursa (Ammianus XV.5.34, see also Eutropius Breviarium, X.12); other rebels executed were Lutto and Maudio, whose names sound Frankish.
Julian came upon groups of Frankish warriors around Gaul, including a group of 600 Ripuarian Franks near Cologne, heading into Gaul to raid. By a ruse he tricked them into surrendering to him (XVII.2.1-4). They had occupied two deserted military establishments, probably ones abandoned by the Romans themselves.
The Caesar is also recorded as having (Ammianus XVII.17.8) met with the Salii (the Salian Franks) who had moved from the sea shore at Toxiandria to the area of Tongres (Tongelen) in Belgium. This is where Clovis’s father was based and eventually buried. He is recorded as patrolling the Rhine to stop them crossing and breaking up thickening ice, forcing them to advance no further, then to submitting to him.
Julian is recorded as suddenly diverting to attack a group of Franks called Atthuarii (Ammianus 20.10.1-3); this surprise attack may have been to pre-empt a raid on the city of Tricensimae, modern Xanten.
|The business end of a francisca, a throwing spear which may have given the Franks their name|
Silvanus was not the only Frank in the Roman army. Ammianus also reports a discussion with Laniogaisus, a military tribune who had been the sole witness to the death of the Emperor Constans at the hands of Magnentius (XV.5.15).
Nevitta was a Frankish general who defeated Alamanni in Rhaetia under Julian, supported Julian in his bid to be made emperor in AD359, and was one of the judges at the tribunal at Chalcedon which condemned corrupt officials from the reign of Constantius II, including the notarius Paul ‘the Chain’). He was made consul for AD361.
Count Bauto, a man whom St Ambrose (in a letter to the emperor Eugenius in AD394) called ‘a man of the highest rank of military authority’ was a Frankish Roman officer under Valentinian. He was made Consul in 385, with Arcadius. He commanded the forces that defeated Magnus Maximus in that same year. His daughter Aelia Eudoxia became the wife of Arcadius and his son Arbogastes became the regent for the boy Emperor Valentinian II (who was probably illegitimate anyway).
Bauto’s brother, Richomeres, was comes domesticorum under Gratian, magister militum under Valens, where he tried to prevent the Battle of Adrianople and eventually consul in 384, under Theodosius, the year after the second consulship of Merobaudes.
Merobaudes, another Frankish general under Roman command, played a significant part in holding the West together after the death of Valentinian. He was consul twice, in 377 and again in 383. He helped Maximus gain the throne , prosecuted the supposed heretic Priscillian and may have lived to hold a third consulship in 388.
St Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, was a Frank called Genovefa, born at Nanterre in AD419. She was a Catholic, and Nanterre is very close to Paris. Her father, Severus, was Frank in Roman service and her mother, Geronica, was said to be a Greek. The number of Franks with Roman names can suggest several things: that some of the supposed Franks were what we might call ‘political Franks’, individuals who had chosen to be Franks as a new personal identity.
Later, when royal service and the Church were alternative career paths under the Merovingians, we do see sons intended for royal service (and receiving Salic land in return) being christened with Frankish sounding names, while those intended for the Church were given Latin-sounding names. But people whose career paths changes could take new names. In AD581, Gregory of Tours met his mother’s uncle, Duke Gundulf. Gundulf was the son of Florentinus and Artemia, and the brother of Nicetius (Martin Heinzelmann (2001) Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, Cambridge: CUP, p.20). His ancestry was ‘senatorial’, that is, Roman. Gregory didn’t know until he met him that Gundulf was his great uncle, which tells us he knew him under his original Roman name.
Personal identity, bound up with one’s name, was clearly fluid. Clovis (Clodovechus, possibly Hlodowig, hence the development of his name into Ludovic, Louis, Ludwig and Lewis) clearly had no need of a Roman name. He was allegedly a pagan – Gregory claims he worshipped Mercury, which in Roman terms is Woden. He married a Burgundian princess, Clotilda, who was a Catholic.
It’s possible that he already was a Catholic, since so many of the Franks who worked for the Romans were Catholics too, and literate. His baptism by St Remigius, who had worked for some years with Clovis’s father, Childeric, may not have been from pagan to Christian. Many adults who had to do unchristian things like fight wars, received baptism later in life. Constantine was baptised on his deathbed, despite having a Christian mother.
|The Baptism of Clovis: Ninth-Century Ivory Book Cover|
The local laws of Gaul were given a Frankish gloss and a new name Lex Salica. The code specifies certain courses of action which are to be taken if one is a Frank or a Roman. Usually they are to be written if you’re Roman and involve action if a Frank.
The grandfather of Clovis, Merovech (Meroveus in Latin) had been a Roman soldier with a special command, to hold the Roman military road from Cologne to Boulogne, during the invasion of Vandals, Sueves and Alans in AD407. He was based in what’s now Belgium (Belgica Secunda) and obviously had good success, because he was able to hand command to his son, Childeric, mentioned above. Childeric’s tomb was unearthed in the 1600s, and his grave goods were lodged in the Louvre, where they survived the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, only for some items to be stolen in the 1830s.
One item stolen was Childeric’s seal ring. Fortunately someone had the idea to take an impression of the ring, and it can be seen from this picture that he used Latin and termed himself Childericus Rex. He has a Gaulish moustache and wears Roman chainmail armour. He was able to transmit his realm, north of the Somme (a very strong farming area at that time), to Clovis, still using the special command structure or a departed empire.
|The seal of King Childeric, ruler of many Franks and father of Clovis, giving his name in Latin; he has both a Gaulish moustache and Roman armour|
It’s very hard to see where Frank ends and Roman begins. Most of the Franks within Gaul probably considered themselves Romans, and manipulated their Roman and Frankish identities ad hoc. It wasn’t until after the end of the western empire that a new cultural identity was needed, and by use of the law and career paths, doused with a liberal dose of saints’ lives that Roman identity was over time sublimated into a Frankish one.