Decades before Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476 AD and the Western Roman Empire officially went out of business, the provinces of northern Gaul (roughly the area between Paris and the lower Rhine in what’s now the Netherlands and northwest Germany) had long since slipped from the grasp of the authorities. The whole region had become a playground for warlords, some of them drawn from the Roman aristocracy of the region, others barbarian Franks born beyond the frontier or the descendants of immigrants.
This playground for warlords was the birthplace of the kingdom of the Franks, the wellspring from which the famous King Clovis erupted to conquer and transform the entirety of Gaul. The conquests of Clovis and his Frankish followers are why France is called “France” and not “Gaul,” and why eventually its inhabitants all became known as “French” instead of “Romans.”
In the traditional telling of this story, the Franks crossed the Rhine into Roman territory, bringing with them a Germanic warrior culture. They settled there for a while before eventually acquiring Clovis’s grandfather, Merovech, and then his father, Childeric, as kings. Under the leadership of this glorious dynasty, which would eventually be known as the Merovingians, the Franks conquered first the north and then the rest of Gaul and beyond.
This is a long way from the right story, though. Northern Gaul was already a military region by the middle of the fourth century. Its once-luxurious villas, full of mosaics and bathhouses and libraries, had been replaced by fortified farmhouses. Watchtowers dotted the high points along the frontier. Every city had walls and a garrison, and some that had once been thriving centers were now effectively military bases, complete with arms factories. The whole area from Paris to the Rhine was full of soldiers, many of them drawn from beyond the frontier (Franks and others), stationed at a vast number of forts, outposts, and city garrisons stretching hundreds of miles into the interior from the frontier.
When Rome’s central authority in the region collapsed around the beginning of the fifth century, northern Gaul was already steeped not just in the presence of the Roman army, but the culture and practices that accompanied it: Even civilians carried weapons and wore military-style belts and clothing. As the army became less of a presence and threats from beyond the frontier continued in the first decades of the fifth century, local aristocrats transformed themselves into strongmen with private armies of their own. Petty kings of Frankish descent with a foot on both sides of the border, many of them formally allies of the Roman government, gathered their followers and set out to make their way.
Eventually, the two groups—Frankish kinglets and Roman strongmen—cooperated and competed against each other in a heady mixture of shifting alliances and conflicts. They and their soldiers, many of whom were Franks from beyond the old Rhine border or the children of immigrants, coalesced around a common set of beliefs and practices that’s better described as a military frontier culture than Germanic. Roman generals became kings of the Franks, and Frankish kings received the support of bishops and ruled as if they were provincial governors. Were these warlords Roman, or were they Franks? That question is less interesting than the world that produced them.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. I always wished that more professional historians tried to talk to the general public, so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.
This week’s episode focuses on how Clovis and his group of Franks—not the only one, or initially the most important one, operating in and around northern Gaul—emerged victorious from this environment of endemic violence, beating out all their challengers to become the dominant force. When they expanded outward from the north, they brought with them this military frontier culture; to be a Frank was about participation in this violent world, rather than ethnic identity, and the story of how Gaul became France is the story of how the practices that sprang up along the frontier eventually overtook the rest of the region.
If that sounds interesting to you, give this episode a listen.
Edward James, The Franks
Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751
Guy Halsall, Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul
Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords
John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton (eds.), Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity?