Reign and Conversion of Clovis – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 38 Part 1

Reign of Clovis


Hi, this is the History Books Review and I am Colin Sanders, currently engaged on mopping up operations.  We have seen that the last Roman emperor had been removed by Odoacer in Italy, and in this episode we follow the ramifications to Roman Gaul in Chapter 38 Part 1 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Disposing of the last Roman emperor was relatively easy, and it left Odoacer in charge of the destiny of Italy.  But the hard bit was just starting.

Odoacer was a realist. He knew the big problem he faced was holding on to his newly won position as king of Italy. One possible source of danger was the Visigoths who had been expanding at the expense of the empire in Gaul. The remains of Caesar’s conquests had been reduced to the corner in the south to the west of the Alps – a hopeless strategic position.  Odoacer made the best of the situation he could and handed this territory over to the Visigoths in return for an alliance.

The Visigoths were probably going to get their hands on this region sooner or later anyway so it made sense. It seems a bit of an anticlimax for the final end of official Roman rule in Gaul, but at least Odoacer got something out of it.  Euric the king of the Visigoths was a friend worth having.  He ruled over a large and expanding kingdom that comprised large chunks of Gaul and Spain, and looked poised to occupy the whole of both of them.  This was far from being an unsophisticated barbarian federation.  Euric had diplomatic relations as far afield as Persia, and artfully played Italy and Vandal Africa off against one another.

The only remnant of Roman authority in Gaul -though self appointed – was Syagrius, the son of Aegidius, who still claimed to be a Roman emperor, albeit one whose imperial ambitions were rather more theoretical than practical.  It is rather hard to pin down exactly where Syagrius was actually in charge.  This may well have been a problem Syagrius himself had, since it was all to do with alliances and deals with individual chieftains.  It certainly didn’t include Brittany or much if any of Normandy, which at this time comprised an independent Romano-British kingdom called Amorica.  It is often portrayed as being the area bounded by the Loire, the Somme, the Rhine and the English Channel.  This is geographically neat and makes a very rational state, with Paris almost in the centre.  But it is very unlikely that the turmoil of the time would have resulted in anything as straight forward as that.

His position may be hard to be sure about, but whatever it was it was pretty vulnerable to any attack from a determined adversary.  The one which would be most expected would be the Visigoths when they could find the time to turn their attention that way. But their hands were for now full expanding in Spain as well as towards Italy.

So the nemesis of the last vestige of Roman rule in the event was a man who had plenty of energy and ambition but not too much in the way of resources, or at least not at first. Clovis was a Frank, but only led a fraction of that tribe. He was the son of Childeric who was one of several chieftains of different factions amongst the Franks.  Childeric’s father was Merovech who we saw fighting alongside Aetius against Attila at the battle of Chalons.  Other Franks had fought on the other side.  The Franks were clearly not a particularly cohesive group.  They were also not one of the most civilised of the Germans of this time and we are a bit short of written records about them, and they didn’t keep any themselves.  This means that the picture we have of Merovech is a bit vague, to the extent that his actual existence is doubted by some.  Childeric on the other hand is a definite figure in history, indeed one we know a reasonable amount about because his grave has been found.  As befits such an important chieftain it was full of great treasures including some rather cute gold bees.  1300 years later these bees would reappear as designs on the robes worn by Napoleon.  He planned to use them as the symbol for the dynasty he was intent on founding.  The precedent of someone coming from nowhere to create a big impact on history was no doubt one that appealed to him.

We know a bit about Childeric’s character as well as his stuff. His rather chequered career as a Frankish warlord paints a vivid picture of a man with a zest for life and not too many scruples about getting what he wanted.  At one point he had to get out of Frankish territory due to sleeping with too many fellow Franks wives.  He obviously didn’t see this as something so serious he couldn’t smooth it over later, because he left a friend with half of a coin to send back to him when things had calmed down.  He took refuge in the court of the king of Thuryngia – a large tribal group in Germany.

But some people just can’t help themselves.  Childeric found himself in bed with his host’s wife.  This woman, Basina, seems to have been very independent minded.  We don’t know a lot about her husband, but her words of praise for Childeric have been recorded.  She freely declared, that if she had known a man wiser, stronger, or more beautiful, than Childeric, then that man should have been the object of her preference.  But as it was, Childeric was the best she’d had.  I think we can comfortably award Childeric the title of the Dark Ages number one babe magnet.

Clovis was the offspring of Basina and Childeric.  His name was given to him by his mother – an unusual event among the Franks.  We know him as Clovis, which is the Romanised form of what his mum actually called him which would have been Hlodwig.  The name also passed into the language of Gaul that would transform into French, and became the name Louis which was to become the default choice of handle for French kings until the monarchy came to an end.

In fact, the name Louis carried on its magic after the kings had gone.  Napoleon III’s full name was Louis Napoleon, and he was ruling France less than a hundred years before I was born.  The Merovingian dynasty casts a very long shadow on French history.  But for now Clovis was not even the ruler of all the Franks.    He started a campaign to establish himself as the top dog which involved campaigning in what is now Germany.   Once he had mastered all the Franks he was able to set himself up as the first King of the Franks.  He then turned on Syagrius.  This was technically treason, because on paper Clovis was an ally of the Roman empire and held his lands in Gaul as a foedarati.  So in theory Syagrius was his ruler.  I don’t suppose anybody at the time gave this a moment’s thought.  But it did mean that the kingdom of France at the time of Gibbon was the only one that could claim a continuous administrative history back to the Roman empire – albeit a rather tortuous one.  This link was broken shortly after Gibbon wrote his account by the French revolution.  I wonder if it was this break with continuity that gave Napoleon the idea of claiming to be an emperor?  He was certainly interested in that sort of thing.

Clovis however was no respecter of the rights of the nearly extinct empire.  He attacked and decisively defeated Syagrius at Soissons.  Syagrius fled to the court of his one time enemy, the Visigoths.  The Franks asked for him back, and he was handed over, and shortly afterwards killed.  He had ruled for twenty years in a difficult position, so on the basis of these facts alone cannot have been a fool.  And that Clovis wanted him dead was in the context flattering – though Syagrius himself might have preferred some other expression of esteem.  Nonetheless it was a sad ending to the Romans’ project in Gaul started by Julius Caesar some 400 years before.  But at least Syagrius went down fighting, so it was not totally dishonourable.

Clovis now established his capital at Paris.  The history of France had started.  As luck would have it, about this time the highly competent king of the Visigoths, Euric, died and was replaced by an infant.  This gave Clovis the opportunity he needed to strengthen his position still further, which he did with an attack on the Alemanni.  It was a hard fought battle.  Both sides had  impressive track records to live up to.  But the Franks were victorious and Clovis had the last king of the Alemanni killed.

And so Clovis was responsible for the removal of another long standing factor from the patchwork of post-Roman Gaul.   The Alemanni never again became a formal grouping, but Alemanish is still a distinct dialect of modern German, and it is different enough that I was able to spot that it was used in some older inscriptions in Alsace when I was on holiday there.  It is also the form of German that the Amish in America still use.  At one time a large proportion of the population of Pennsylvania spoke it.  This was because they fled there when Louis XIV attacked the Palatinate, the centre of Alemannish.  I don’t suppose anyone at the time picked up that this was a continuation of a feud that went back to the time of Clovis.

Clovis had come to the throne at the age of 15 and defeated the Alemanni at the age of 30.  He must have been a natural at fighting. But he was more than just a warlord.  He married a Burgundian princess called Clotilde.  At this time the Burgundians, like the Visigoths, were Arian Christians.  But Clotilde had been brought up a Catholic.   I don’t know why.  Nonetheless, she won over Clovis to her form of Christianity.  The story goes that Clovis called on God to help him in his desperate battle with the Alemanni.  God granted him victory, and afterwards not only Clovis but 2,000 of his knights spontaneously converted. Yeah.  Right.  Royal conversions at this time always have some kind of story like this to go with them.  A bit more believable are the words attributed to Clovis about how him and his Franks would have saved Christ from Crucifixion had they been on hand when the Romans crucified him.  That sounds like the sort of thing a man of action who wasn’t too clued up on theology would come out with.

Clovis may not have grasped the finer points of the redemptive nature of Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of fallen mankind.  But he can’t have failed to spot the practical advantages of becoming the champion of the Catholic Church.  With the end of the empire there was now no longer a Catholic state in the west.  By stepping in and fulfilling that role Clovis got some much needed support amongst his romanised subjects and gave him grounds to pick a fight with the heretic Visigoths.

Because the Visigothic kingdom was the next in line to get the Clovis treatment.  This was quite a step up in selection of rivals for Clovis, especially as he had tried to conquer the smaller kingdom of Burgundy with some success but without prevailing completely.  On paper the Visigoths had all the advantages.  But Clovis was by now a very experienced commander leading veteran forces who showed great loyalty to him.  When he proposed attacking the Visigoths his Frankish warriors were keen to participate in a campaign that offered the prospect of rich spoils.  This would be standard motivation for the time.  They were also able to add a religious motive, since they were fighting the heretics.  Adding a religious element to a conflict was not too unusual for the time either.  They also vowed not to shave their beards until they were victorious.  Not sure where that one came from.  I guess that must just be Franks for you.

Clovis had lined up the Amoricans as allies, and together they routed the Visigoths at the battle of Vouillé.  The Visigoths were driven out of Gaul altogether, apart from a thin strip along the coast..  It was a dramatic turnaround in their fortune and left Clovis as the most powerful king in Western Europe.

It was always likely that a single power would eventually come to dominate the region that we know today as France.  In a sense, you might say that Clovis just happened to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Western Empire.  But he owes his position as the founder of one of the great nations of the world to rather more than blind chance.  He certainly was a brave war leader and a ruthless and violent politician.  But he also showed a lot of nous in getting signed up to Catholicism at a time when its eventual triumph can’t have seemed anywhere near as inevitable as it does to us today.  He didn’t incidentally, let his new religion of peace and humility have the slightest effect on his behaviour.  He continued to indulge in extreme violence including murdering anyone who had any claim to a Merovingian blood line.

But it is in his establishment of a code of law that we see him as a visionary and a man who would leave his mark on the world.  The Franks had done pretty well without a legal code, but Clovis now had many non-Frankish subjects to manage.  The romanised Gauls were used to the Roman legal system, and it had the advantage of centuries of operation and development.

Both the Burgundians and the Visigoths had started the process of documenting their laws but Clovis went a big step further by integrating his tribal laws with those of the Romans. The approach is what we would call multicultural. The two communities were to live under their own laws.  But the new laws left no doubt about which culture was the dominant one. Murder was frowned upon, but the penalty was simply to pay compensation for the death of the individual.  The prices reflected who mattered in the new world of the barbarians.  A Frankish nobleman was valued at 600 pieces of gold, while a Roman provincial administrator would only set you back 300.  Prices went all the way down to 50 gold pieces.  When I read that I found myself involuntarily weighing up whether the permanent removal of any of my more annoying workmates might justify that kind of expenditure.

Gibbon notes that in his own time the law favoured the rich, but that under Clovis the law favoured the strong.   This was most notable in the institution of trial by combat.  You literally settled a dispute by fighting.  This meant that justice was tilted in favour of the warrior class who knew how to use a weapon.  As there always are, there were theologians on hand who were prepared to justify the government’s preferred policy.  The practice was a way of determining the will of God.  There was a legal basis for the seizure of the property of the conquered along similar lines.  Clovis regulated this by imposing a rule that two thirds of the conquered territory was forfeit.  This had some vague basis in a Roman rule intended for the billeting of troops during a crisis.  In the short run it at least enabled the vanquished Romans to keep something.  In the longer run the estates taken by the warrior caste formed the initial base that allowed the development of the French nobility.

The kingdom of Clovis was one that had many continuities with the empire.  The Catholic Church was restored to its position of pre-eminence.  Clovis had gold coins stamped that were reliable enough in their metal content to be accepted as legal tender in the empire of the East.  He even received official recognition of his position from Constantinople.  He was appointed as a consul and was able to parade through the streets of Paris dishing out gold coins as a donative and wearing a purple robe.  As everyone knew he owed this position to his own fighting skills and not the indulgence of a distant emperor, it must have been a somewhat farcical exercise.  But nobody today believes for a minute that senior American politicians are actually being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their pacifist behaviour either.  Ceremonies like this seem to work even when they are obviously humbug.

The more solid achievements of Clovis were impressive.  His descendants were to extend the boundaries of his newly founded empire. Burgundy would be integrated and the Visigoths expelled completely from Gaul.  But this was not a renewal of the empire under new management.   We can see even in the history of the campaigns of Clovis that he could not match the abilities of the legions.  Burgundy was able to resist the Franks for a generation largely because the initial Frankish successes on the battlefield could not be followed up.  The war was not completely won because the Franks just didn’t have the logistics to finish it off.  The protracted war against the Visigoths shows the same story.  It would be many centuries before European states could again raise armies on the scale that the Roman Empire managed routinely.

Okay, so that sorts out the end of Roman Gaul.  Next time we’ll be going back a little bit in time to look at the end of Roman Britain, which is a surprisingly different story given how close the two former provinces were to each other.  If you have any comments or questions, observations or objections please address them on the blog, the youtube channel or the itunes feed.  I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say and in the meantime, thanks for listening.

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