The Franks were a group of Germanic peoples who lived northeast of the northernmost part of the Rhine frontier of the Roman Empire. References to the Franks first appeared in the mid-third century in Roman sources listing them among the German tribes raiding across the Roman frontier. Eventually, they settled within the Roman Empire and came to hold respected positions in both the Roman military and Roman society, and emerged as the only Germanic kingdom to outlive Rome.
Perhaps more than any other barbaric people, the Franks had no common history or common ancestry. Initially, the umbrella term Frank covered a variety of groups, including Chamavi, Chattuari, Bructeri, Amsivarii, Salii, and possibly the Usipii, Tubanti, Hasi, and Chasuari.
These groups maintained separate identities but at times pulled together for a common purpose, usually an offensive or defensive military action. However as a group they were so loosely connected that some historians believe it is incorrect to consider them a confederation, while others who do not wish to rule out the possibility of a confederation prefer to use the term tribal swarm.
When they drew together they identified themselves as Franks, a term historians believe meant the hardy, the brave, or perhaps the fierce. Later, Frank came to mean the free. At first however the Franks, as an unimportant and divided group living in the shadow of Rome, were anything but free.
In the mid-third century the Franks and other German tribes launched a series of destructive raids into Roman territory, prompting an apparent increase in Roman fort building efforts. The Franks also attacked by sea, raiding the Channel coast, striking deep into Gaul via rivers, and attacking occupied Spain. Soon, however, the Franks and the Romans collaborated.
The Roman general Postumus enlisted the help of one group of Franks to restore order in Gaul and drive out another group of Franks and other Germans. Internal feuds and jealousy among the Frankish factions led to shifting alliances with Rome, and over the next 200 years the Romans and Franks operated by turn as enemies and then allies.
In the late third and early fourth centuries, the emperors Constantius Chlorus and Constantine the Great brutally suppressed a flurry of Frankish rebellions, fed the barbarian leaders to wild animals in the arena, and took vast numbers of the barbarian warriors into the imperial army. Their long relationship with Rome influenced Frankish cultural, military, and political structures. Serving in the imperial army increased the soldier’s identity with Rome, as well as his identity as a Frank.
Eventually the Salian Franks settled in the modern Netherlands, cleared the land, and began farming, providing the Romans with both a buffer between the less civilized tribes to the north and a steady source of recruits for the imperial army. Despite the harsh treatment they sometimes received from the Romans, the Franks remained loyal allies of the empire.
Over the years many Franks rose to high positions within the Roman army. Loyal service brought further rewards, and in the fifth century the empire allowed the Franks to move from buffer regions into modern Belgium, northern France, and along the lower Rhine.
Throughout the fifth century under the leadership of Chlodio, Merovich, and Childeric, the Salian Franks came to dominate the other tribes of the Frankish confederation. Childeric, in power by 463, was the final Frankish commander to serve as an imperial German. Driven into exile after arguing with his Roman commander, he remained closely involved.
Childeric emerged as a leader in his own right, maintaining relations with the Gallo-Roman aristocracy while negotiating to keep peace with other powers, such as the Visigothic kingdom. He often cooperated with Roman commanders and the Gallo-Roman bishops, enhancing his position with his Frankish warriors and the Roman power structure and building a secure power base for his son Clovis.
The reign of Clovis (c. 481–c. 511) was critical for the development of the larger Frankish identity. Through diplomacy, treachery, and military action, he eliminated the political independence of the various Frankish subgroups and led as king of the Franks.
Following several successful military campaigns under Clovis, the Franks emerged as the most powerful of the Germanic groups. His acceptance of Roman Christianity subsequently brought all the Franks in line with the Western Church and won him the unqualified support of the Gallo-Roman clergy.
Thereafter nearly all surviving historical sources on the Franks come from Gallo-Roman clerics, who owed their positions in the church to Clovis or his descendents, the Merovingian dynasty, and because of this influence they may have stressed the tribal unity of the Franks in their writing.
Following these developments the meaning of Frank began to change. Gallo-Romans and other subjects of the Frankish kings adopted many Frankish customs, and the Franks adopted many of their customs and their language, Latin. The line between Frank and Gallo-Roman blurred. In addition the political control of the Frankish kings and their agents led subjects to think of themselves, at least partially, as Franks.
Loyalty to the primary tribe persisted, some assert, until as late as the eighth century east of the Rhine, but in the kingdom of Francia, Frank indicated a political allegiance, regardless of one’s tribal origin. By the mid-eighth century most of the Gallo-Roman inhabitants of Francia called themselves Franks, and everyone from outside the kingdom called all its inhabitants Franks.
The events that built the Franks from a “tribal swarm” into one essentially unified kingdom, as well as the relationship they established with the Roman Church, left them in a position to emerge at the end of the transformation of the Roman world as the most powerful group in Europe. The actions taken by their leading families, the Merovingians and later the Carolingian dynasty, helped form the medieval world and strongly influenced the development of European culture.