Clovis and Theodoric In 410 CE (during height of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius) the Visigoths sacked Rome—the first time this had happened since the Gauls had sacked it almost 800 years previously. The end of the empire was approaching. The official end, however, came in 476, when Romulus Augustus surrendered to the Ostrogoth Odoacer. Theodoric the Great was also an Ostrogoth, ruling the western empire from 493 to 526. This makes him one of the greatest of late (or any) Roman emperors, which seems like a strange thing to say since Rome had already fallen. Yet Theodoric considered himself a Roman emperor, applying several times to the eastern emperor to be recognized as such. And he ruled according to Roman law and customs. He was an able ruler, and under him Rome and had stability, abundance, and peace.
At the time of Theodoric, the Visigoths ruled over the former Roman provinces of Gaul (France) and Spain. Theodoric was allied with the Visigoths, serving as regent for their infant king. Yet the Roman Church was not happy with Gothic rule. The Goths, after all, were Arian heretics, refusing to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. But who would be strong enough to get rid of Theodoric and the Goths? Unfortunately, at that time, power was almost exclusively in the hands of Germanic chieftains.
However, there was a promising ruler in the northern part of Gaul. This was Clovis, King of the Salian Franks. Clovis was married to Clotilde, a Roman lady of high family. During one of Clovis’s incessant wars, as he tried to gain mastery over the Alemans, one of the neighboring Germanic tribes, Clotilde exhorted him to pray to Christ for victory. Clovis, a pagan, agreed. If he won the next battle, he said, he would become a Christian. If not, she should hold her peace. Clovis won, and he became a Roman—not an Arian—Christian. This was a decisive event in history.
For Clovis’s conquests did not stop with his fellow Franks or the Alemans. Next on his list were the Visigoths, whom he defeated soundly in 507 CE. Clovis pushed the Visigoths into Spain, taking control of Gaul, though Theodoric kept him from invading Italy. But here, at last, was a German who might be able to effectively oppose Theodoric and the Goths. And he was a Roman Christian. The Roman Church became closely allied with Clovis and his Franks, with consequences that would echo down through the ages.
With the conversion of Clovis, there was at least one barbarian leader with whom the Bishop of Rome could negotiate as with a faithful son of the Church. It is from the orthodox Gregory of Tours that most of our knowledge of Clovis and his successors is derived. In Gregory's famous History of the Franks, the cruel and unscrupulous king appears as God's chosen instrument for the extension of the Catholic faith. Certainly Clovis quickly learned to combine his own interests with those of the Church, and the alliance between the pope and the Frankish kings was destined to have a great influence upon the history of western Europe. (James Harvey Robinson, History of Western Europe, pp. 35, 36)
Much has been made of Clovis’s conversion to Catholicism. One of the first Germanic kings to do so, he did, in fact, convert to Catholicism, but recent analysis of the contemporary sources that describe his reign—especially of a letter written by Avitus of Vienne congratulating him on his baptism—suggests that Clovis did not convert to Catholicism directly from paganism. Prior to accepting Catholicism, he was interested in the Christian heresy Arianism, sympathetic with it, and perhaps even leaning toward adopting it. According to Avitus, it is also likely that Clovis was baptized rather late in life, possibly at Christmas in 508, only three years before his death.
If this sequence of events is correct, it reflects the intellectual and religious climate of late 5th- and early 6th-century Gaul. The Arian heresy was the form of Christianity to which most Germanic peoples initially converted. It understood the godhead in hierarchical terms. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was a created being who did not share the eternal nature of God the Father but who was superior to God the Holy Spirit. Orthodox Catholicism understood the godhead as comprising three “coequal,” “coeternal” members. These two Christian belief systems represent a theological power struggle within the Christian community during the transformation period. The Catholics won by ecclesiastical and imperial decree in the 4th century, making Arianism a heresy, but Arianism remained an important force in parts of Europe as late as the 6th century.
Pagans, Arians, and Catholics shared the Gaul of Clovis and the Franks. Clovis personally illustrates the intersection of these three belief systems. He was born into paganism, two of his sisters were Arians (one married the Arian Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great), and his wife, Clotilda, like her sister, was Catholic but from a Burgundian royal family that included Arians. His conversion to Catholicism was that of one man and not of his kingdom, but it can be seen as pivotal in Frankish history.
Clovis’s life as a religious man illustrates the challenges then faced by the Catholic bishops and illuminates their concerns with evangelism. They combatted paganism and the ancient traditions that it embodied, stamped out heresy, and attempted to convert Gaul’s Jewish communities. The powerful advocacy of Catholicism that resonates in Gregory’s Histories is, perhaps, a response to the difficulty of conversions of those like Clovis, who was not baptized until at least 15 years into his reign. This advocacy may also reflect a deep-seated communal memory of a religiously diverse kingdom and the daunting task of converting it.
Questions How might Clovis’s conversion experience be similar to another leader from this year?
List two reasons for why Clovis’s conversion was so significant: