The Franks were an amalgamation of people active in the region around the lower Rhine surfacing in Late Antiquity as a significant player in Gaul.
“Francia” is known from a map drawn up by Agrippa during the reign of Augustus (27 BC– AD 14), the Tabula Peutingeriana. However, the recognition of the Frankish people dates to the end of the 3rd century, and the name figuring on the map may date from later redactions, corresponding to their mention in the 3rd century. At first, described as colonists (laeti) or prisoners (deditici), the Frankish people (Francorum Gentis) together with the Sueves, the Vandals and the Alemanni were gradually turned into distinct tribes in the contemporary writings of Vopiscus, Ammianus Marcellinus, Sulpicius Alexander and other historians and geographers. The need to get a grip on these fluid groups of people, led here as elsewhere Roman authors and authorities to group them as distinct “tribes”. These identifications, however, were not transformed and adopted as identities by the Franks themselves until late in the 5th century. Probably this process did not come to its conclusion before the writing down of the Salian Laws between AD 476-85. Later in the 6th century after the defeat of the Goths in Italy and in the eyes of the Eastern Roman Empire, Franks finally appeared as the Germanic people par excellence.
In the earlier Roman writings, the Frankish males were characterised as ferocious and scary warriors contributing to the overall misery of war-torn Gaul of the 4th and 5th centuries. As such, they became coveted by the Roman military, which led to a gradual establishment of migrant colonies in a broad band east and west of the river Rhine from the estuary in the North to Mainz in the south. At first, though, the Franks were primarily regarded as important agriculturalists and workers employed in the endless military armament industry. Their role as a reservoir of mercenaries (foederati) arrived later, after c. 380.
The Franks AD 400-500
Thus, compared to the Goths, the Sueves and the Vandals, which all established viable successor-kingdoms in the 5th century, the Franks were latecomers acquiring the status of a tribal entity. Indeed, many Roman authors even made a distinction between “the salted” Franks (the Salians) and the “river” Franks (the Ripuarians), thus establishing the Franks as a minor and diverse group of people.
Also, the Franks continued to be regarded as “barbarians”. As such, they appear in the writings of Sidonius in his panegyric dedicated to the Emperor Majorian (AD 457-461), where he described them as sunburned (red-skinned), with flying hair, bald necks, and pale grey-bluish eyes; and shaven but for a thin moustache. Sidonius also tells us they dressed in close-fitting tunics, exposing the knees and girdled with broad belts.
According to Sidonius, these Franks were led by a certain Cloio (Childeric’s grandfather), whom Majorian defeated in an ambush in AD 448 near Artois. Later, however, we meet contingents of Franks participating in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in AD 451 on the Roman side. Nevertheless, Aegidius († 464/65) had to abandon Cologne c. 457 to the Ripuarian Franks, once more meeting up with the Franks as enemies. This Aegidius was the last Roman magister militum in Gaul. Also known in some late sources as the King of Soissons, he forged a principality in northern Gaul, which his son Syagrius ruled AD 464-486.
During these years, patchy sources present us with glimpses of Cloio’s descendents, Merovech, Childeric and Clovis (Clodevech), founders of the Merovingian dynasty.
Frankish Fibula c. 400-600 from Xanten. The rider carries a helmet and a cloak. Source: Wikimedia