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Clovis I: Frank(ly) a Barbarian?

The Germanic tribes were hardly understood by the Romans; related as border guards of the empire at best or as Barbarians that threatened the Roman empire's stability. In Tacitus's Germania (98CE), the Germanic tribes were described as brutal aggressors who were constantly at war (if not, in sloth and gluttony). This is hardly a flattering description, and a sweeping generalisation of all the Germanic tribes although Tacitus acknowledged some form of social structure & rules existed among Germanic tribes; such as the common social structure of Comitatus comprising the chief who acted as the military leader, and warriors who served as advisors and supporters (as discussed in class). Also, important to note, the Germanic tribes were largely Arian Christian (if not, pagans), in contrast to the Romans who were largely Catholics at the time. However, contrary to the biased account of Tacitus, Clovis I (466-511CE) would refute the stereotypical perception of the all war-mongering, less civilized Germanic tribes by placing his mark as an astute conquerer and politician of his time, the King of the Franks.

Clovis I was the heir to the Merovingian Dynasty (named after Clovis I's grandfather Merovech, leader of the Salian franks) that was founded by Childeric I (Clovis I's father), and solidified rule under his leadership. Although Clovis I ascended to the throne at the young age of 15, he had great ambition to unite the Gaul region and made his first military venture at Soissons (486CE) just 5 years later. Clovis I, with his men emerged victorious (look below).


After his victory at Soissons, Clovis I continued his territorial expansion against nearby Germanic tribes such as the Burgundians, the Alemanni and the Visigoths. This is evidenced in Gregory of Tours' work, History of the Franks where Clovis I used a variety of means to achieve his expansion such as by obtaining consistent tribute; even his wife Clotilda, from the Burgundians (B2.V28.), conducting military conquest against the Alemanni in 496CE (B2.V30.) & the Visigoths in 507CE (B2.V37.).

"Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to be the son of the living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries."

- From Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks

However, in the process of his territorial expansion, Clovis I made a landmark decision of converting to Catholicism shortly after his victory over the Alemanni (496CE). According to Gregory of Tours, Clovis was on the verge of losing against the Alemanni when he made a desperate plea by calling on Jesus Christ, in the hopes of reviving and winning the battle (B2.V30.). In a turn of events, after his call on Christ, Clovis I won the battle(B2.V30.). Subsequently, Clotilda was successful in convincing Clovis I to convert to Catholicism, mainly due to the favour Clovis I was showed in battle (B2.V31.). Although the Merovingian Dynasty at the time still largely consisted Arian Christian or pagan worshippers, word relating the experience Clovis had during the battle with the Alemanni spread, leading to the conversion of not just Clovis I himself, but a sizeable number of his people as well (B2.V30-31.).

Despite the provision of narratives that related Clovis's conversion to the favour shown by Christ to him in the battle against the Alemanni, it can be argued that there was possibly a political symbolism attached to Clovis's conversion. There are grounds for this suggestion as Clovis's novel choice made him the first ruler of a Barbarian kingdom to align with the Catholic faith that was held by the Romans, unlike the rest of the Germanic tribes who were still either Arian Christians or Pagan worshippers. Moreover, Clovis's conversion meant that both his kingdom and himself held the same high God as the Romans; resulting in greater reluctance among the Romans to resist Clovis's Kingdom. For example, when Clovis I invaded Visigoth territory, he met little resistance from the Romans as the Franks were possibly perceived to be on the same side as they shared the same religion, in opposition to the Visigoths who were Arian Christians keen on spreading their faith throughout the Gaul region. Clovis's conversion ensured that his dynasty enjoyed a stable relationship with the Romans.

In support of Clovis's use of Catholicism as another tool for his expansion plans, Gregory of Tours notes that prior to the invasion of Visigoth territory, Clovis mentions to his people that "I take it very hard that these Arians hold part of the Gauls. Let us go with God's help and conquer them and bring the land under our control." (B2.V37.). Thus we can observe that Clovis used Christ's name to garner support and give good divine reason to engage in his expansion plans and to go at war with neighbouring Germanic tribes. Also, Clovis's conversion meant that it was easier for him to obtain support from the people of his new territories (closer to Rome) as he shared a common religion with them.


After the defeat of the major Germanic tribes that posed a threat or stood in the way of his conquest to unite the Gaul region under his dynasty, alas Clovis I plotted against his closest allies to consolidate power as the undisputed King of the Franks. For instance, he tricked the son of Sigibert (his closest ally), Cloderic into assassinating his own father, then hired assassins to kill Cloderic on his behalf, before finally seizing power over Sigibert's territory within the Kingdom (B2.V40.). The ruthless betrayal of his rivals suggests the hard-handed approach to power that Clovis I demonstrated during his life, that he would not hesitate to dispose of anyone perceived as a threat to his authority. In a practical sense, Clovis I wanted to be sure that he would not be internally challenged or doubted as the absolute King of the Franks in his dynasty.

VIDEO: Clovis finally unites Gaul

In essence, Clovis I was a savvy politician and conquerer who adopted many strategies; trickery, military conquest, forcing tributes, even converting to Catholicism to unite his dynasty over the Gaul region, although he maintained his barbaric roots throughout his rule. Clovis's divine experience during his battle against the Alemanni could very well have impacted him to a great extent on a personal level, but the implications of his conversion to Catholicism suggest that Clovis I could have done it for practical reasons as well. Also, Clovis's use of many different strategies to expand his territory suggests that contrary to Tacitus's description of the Germanic tribes, not all of them were solely brutal aggressors who were constantly at war, sloth or gluttony. Clovis I proved that the Franks (as one of the Germanic tribes) were every bit worthy opponents and not merely the brutes in Tacitus's Germania. What do you think?