The Franks

We previously learned that Indo-European people, known as Celts, occupied widespread areas of Central Europe, eventually expanding into areas of present-day Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Northern Italy, Switzerland, lower Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  These people occupied most of present-day France during Julius Caesar’s effort to conquer Gaul.  The Celts were not a single group of people.  Over time, they evolved into many tribal groups.  In Britain, the primary tribes were Caledones, Taexali, Carvetii, and Venicones, while in Western Europe, they included Boii, Iberians, Gaels, Gauls, Gallaeci, Galatians, and Leopontii.

Part of what makes their story interesting is that despite speaking similar languages, no one today quite understands their cultural relationships.  Some experts contend that while we may call them Celts, they do not all belong to a central ethnic group — but other ethnologists disagree.  The Celts, they say, may have split off into various tribal segments, but they were uniquely similar and so widespread that around eighty percent of European people today came from Celtic stock.  It may also be true that we tend to focus on Celts simply because we do not know much about the people predating them.

What we do know is that Rome battled these people over many years so that, eventually, they could be suitably civilized and admitted into the Empire.  Eventually, they were admitted, and to one degree or another, they contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

One interesting aspect of human interaction is acculturation — a social, psychological, and cultural change that stems from balancing two cultures while adapting to the prevalent society.  Acculturation is a condition within which individuals acquire, adopt, and adjust to new cultural environments, either voluntarily or as may be imposed upon them by a dominant culture.  We can see the effects of acculturation throughout history, notably in changes in language, religion, attitudes, values, and traditions.  Rome existed for more than 1,100 years.  Within that time, millions of people adopted Roman culture as their own.  By the time Rome collapsed in A.D. 476, Roman culture was deeply engrained throughout Western Europe.

Another interesting interaction between Romans and Celts, true in Gaul and the British Isles, was that Romans mixed with them.  The extent of the effect of a Gallo-Roman mix is uncertain, but even with intermarriage, the dominant gene continues to be the Celtic connection.  In Western Europe, we speak primarily about the Germanii, Alemanii, Teutonii, and Goetii people.  Modern geneticists conclude that there are very few differences in most European people (including Austrians, Croatians, Hungarians, and Ukrainians).

The basic framework of Celtic society was composed of extended families and clans based within a particular territorial confine and governed by strong codes of personal honor.  While it is true that Celtic tribes were eventually Latinized and later incorporated into Gallo-Roman culture, the Celts never stopped fighting for their independence.  In effect, Celtic adoption of the Roman language, morals, and folkways provides modern historians a model by which to compare (or contrast) human development in the region once known as Gaul and other less-studied Roman provinces.

The Franks of Myth

Every culture has mythical stories because such stories help people understand who they are or what they think they are.  From these early stories, one would think the Franks came from Pannonia, crossed the Rhine, and marched through Thuringia, setting up counties and minor kingdoms.  Other stories have them originating in Troy with claims to kinship with Virgil, the poet.  But none of these stories were written until the sixth and seventh centuries A.D.

The Franks (also Franci, Francorum, Francs, and French) were a recent addition to numerous Celtic tribal groups in Gaul.  Princeton historian P. J. Geary argues that the two mythical stories are similar in revealing that none of the early Franks knew much about their history or origins.  Not knowing their roots produced an inferiority complex absent in other Celtic groups of the period.  In the Liber Historiae Francorum, 12,000 Trojans sailed from Troy to the River Don in Russia and then went on to Pannonia, which sits on the river Danube, set near the Sea of Azov.  There, they established the city Sicambria (the most well-known tribal group in the Frankish homeland in the time of the Early Roman Empire (44 B.C.), which was soon defeated and dispersed by Rome’s legions.

The Franks in History

We first read about the Franks in Augustan History, a collection of biographies of the Roman emperors.  None of these sources offer a complete list of Frankish tribes, but there are references to the Franks as associated with the Chamavi (A.D. 289), the Bructeri (A.D. 307), and Amsivarii (A.D. 364-375).

Roman authors described the Franks as allies and enemies — which appears consistent with Julius Caesar’s descriptions of the Gallo in Commentarii de Bello Gallico.   In A.D. 260, a group of Franks penetrated as far as Tarragona (Spain) and plagued the region for around ten years before the Romans expelled them with much prejudice.  Later, after A.D. 288, the emperor Maximian defeated Salian Franks (and others) and moved them to Germania Inferior to work as laborers and prevent the settlement of other Germanii tribes.

One thing we know for sure about the Franks is that they never gave up breaking Rome’s rules about having a good relationship with others.  Frankish incursions were so frequent that the Romans finally decided to settle Franks along the border regions to control them better and use them against other Frankish groups trying to sneak into Roman territories.  In A.D. 328, the Sixth Legion captured Frankish raiders near Mainz and ended up executing around 700 and selling 300 into slavery.

The Franks are also mentioned in Tabula Peutingeriana (an Atlas of Roman roads).  Historians identify this atlas as a 13th century copy of a 4th or 5th century document that reflects information from the 3rd century.  In it, the word Francia appears as one of several locations with notations of tribal groups called Cherusci and Chamavi as Frankish groups.

The Salians Franks

We know of the Salians Franks from Ammianus Marcellinus, whose writing described how the Roman Emperor Julian (shown right) defeated “the first Franks of all,” the Salians, in A.D. 358.  The Salians were a northwestern subgroup of the early Franks who lived along the lower Rhine in Roman territory (present-day Netherlands and Belgium). 

Unlike the other Frankish groups, the Salians were (more or less) pushed into Roman territory by other warring Franks.  In time, these people would become Saxons, and some of those would later invade the British Isles.  There is some question about how these Franks became Saxons — but (maybe) we’ll unravel that mystery in time.

The first mention of the Salian people occurred in A.D. 286 during the reign of Emperor Probus; the soldier Carausius wrote of his efforts to defend the Straits of Dover against Saxon pirates.  These people were not the first associated with seafaring; Julius Caesar had to deal with them, as well.  Our understanding, while elementary, is that the Salians used riverboats to skirt around other Frankish groups to play havoc with Roman settlements in the Roman river delta.  In time, the Salians were brought to heel and joined the Roman system.

In the fifth century, Salian Franks under Chlodio pushed into Roman land above the Charcoal Forest, the northern boundary of what Julius Caesar called Belgium.  Chlodio began a campaign to conquer Toumai, Artois, and Cambrai to the Somme River.  Some historians regard Chlodio as the ancestor of the Merovingian dynasty, which was begun under Childeric I.  This is only important for understanding how Childeric I and his descendants established the Frankish kingdom of Neustria, the foundation for medieval France.  Childeric’s son, Clovis I, seized the “independent kingdoms” east of Silva Carbonaria and Belgica.  These locations, in turn, became the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia.

The Ripuarian Franks

Franks living in the Rhineland (Mainz to Duisburg) (present-day Cologne) were called Ripuarian Franks.  The term Ripuarians may mean “river people.” the Romans refer to them as raiders and as a source for Roman military service in the third century.  The earliest legal code of the Merovingian kingdom was called Lex Ribuaria.  In any case, the territory on both sides of the Rhine became a central part of Merovingian Austrasia, which included Roman Germania Inferior and incorporated both Ripuarian and Salians lands.

The Merovingian Dynasty Begins

The Merovingian Dynasty was the ruling family of the Franks from A.D. 481 when Clovis I ascended the throne of the Salian Franks until 751 when Childeric III was deposed and replaced by the Carolingian Dynasty as Kings of Francia.  Before then, the Merovingians established the largest and most powerful realm in Western Europe, solidifying the dominance of the Franks.

The name of the dynasty is derived from one of its forebears named Merovech, a semi-mythical Salian Frank who was said to have fought alongside the Romans.  Merovech’s grandson was Clovis I (reign from A.D. 481 to 511) — the man responsible for expanding Merovingian power into most of Gaul.

Next week, a word about the Visigoths.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in ANTIQUITY, EUROPE, HISTORY, LINEAGE, MIDDLE AGES, RELIGION. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Franks

  1. Phil Strawn says:

    Good read. It appears the Romans owned and ruled most of Europe. My family research has turned up that the Strawns (Straughns) came from Celtic background in and around Britain. I’m still involved in the digging, but have found much I didn’t know. Thans for a great history lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. The challenge to keep the topic interesting and fun to read is to somehow skirt around the tribal names, which I quite frankly (no pun intended) find distracting.

      I was always fascinated by the Basques, who to this day continue in their refusal to knuckle under to dominant cultural groups (French/Spanish) — and I knew that one day I would have to go there and experience Basque culture for myself.

      I’ve done that and am very glad I did. We stayed for a week in a small village called St. Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains. You can glimpse the town in the film “The Way.” What a great experience it was. I even came very close to buying a hat frequently worn by Basque men-folk … and I might have done had my wife not suggested that I looked like a dork wearing it.

      Just on the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains (on the Spanish side), descending into Roncesvalles, is where the battle took place recorded in the Song of Roland. Having walked that path twice gives one a good appreciation for the poem.

      I ramble. Thanks again, Phil. Good luck with your family research.


    • Phil Strawn says:

      That part of the world is on our list, but first we must visit Irland, UK and Scotland, the roots of our families.


  2. Baysider says:

    Something I find most fascinating to think on is that one day we had Romans ruling from Rome. Then gradually the pieces and allegiances get remixed and rearranged on the board and then we have a Clovis and modern France emerging just in time to have a Charles Martel to stop the muslim advance that is sweeping into the vacuum. All those people had language, histories, stories and families just as real as our lives today are to us. Another interesting read, shared with Mr. B after dinner.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andy says:

    Excellent !

    I have my hopes that you’ll have more than a word to say about the Visigoths.



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