Episode 3: Childeric - Crossing Worlds
Around 455CE, the Salian Franks of Belgica Secunda, an area that in modern times falls in and around Northern France and Belgium, were facing a crisis. They were fresh off of having helped to push Attila and his Huns out of Roman Gaul, and were generally gaining strength due to their military prowess and their ties to the Roman Empire; however, their leader, the great king Merovech – who as we discussed last time, was rumored to have been descended from the Roman gods themselves - had just died, leaving his young son Childéric in charge of the Franks. In a hereditary system where most elders die before the age of 50, having a very young leader in charge of a group of people was most certainly not out of place. But make no doubts about it, a 15-year-old king is an unknown quantity, and one should not be surprised if the new king allows his newfound power to go to his head. Well, this was the case with Childéric. He had been raised from birth to expect to wear the crown, and he had also been raised to learn that what he wants, he gets. And what Childéric wanted more than anything, at the testosterone-fueled age of 15, was to make time with every single girl who came near him. Of course, many of the Frankish leaders probably thought it was great, at least for a moment, that their daughter may be a tool for them to get close to their new king and the power he wielded. But after many, many of the daughters had been sent back home to their families, dishonored and no closer to wearing the crown of queen than before they spent the night with the king, the Franks got fed up. Honor is a very powerful motivator, especially in a tribal society, and before long these disgraced fathers and brothers turned against their young king. They stormed his quarters, looking to extract their revenge, and it was only by the closest of margins that Childéric was able to run off in advance of this mutinous mob and save himself. Right before he left for safety in Thuringia, he contrived a signal that would be sent to him by his servant when the time was right and the people were calm enough for King Childéric to return and reclaim his throne. The signal in this case was a gold piece divided in two, similar to the lockets you can buy nowadays at Zales to share with your long-distance girlfriend; when the matching piece was sent to Childéric, he would know it was time to come home. He spent the next eight years in Thuringia, taking refuge with King Basinus and biding his time and waiting for the second half of his coin to be sent to him. While he was away, a person by the name of Aegidus usurped his position as the King of the Franks. Childéric grew, both in wisdom and physical prowess, as 20-year-olds do, and finally one day Aegidus was gone and the coin was sent; it was time to return. He went back to his throne and triumphantly took back the reins of leadership from his willing subjects. So strong and proud was he as a king that, when Queen Basina of Thuringia looked at him and then her own husband, she never even thought twice about leaving Basinus and running off to become Childéric’s Queen. When she arrived to his court, Childéric asked her why she had travelled so far to see him. She answered: "I know your worth, and that you are very strong, and therefore I have come to live with you. For let me tell you that if I had known of any one more worthy than you in parts beyond the sea I should certainly have sought to live with him.” They were united in marriage and began their family; their first son was to become that ultimate of all the Merovingian kings, Clovis.
This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Three – Childéric: Crossing Worlds.
So, how true is the story that I just told? Well, it’s a basic paraphrase of the story that Gregory of Tours told in his History of the Franks; the line from Queen Basina is a direct quote, because honestly, why would you want to alter poetry like that, right? At any rate, it’s important to remember something we already spoke about, and that is the fact that every single source, especially from this period wherein sources are so few, had their reasons for writing their histories that almost certainly had nothing to do with historical accuracy. The fact is, a story of a fallen king being given a second chance to redeem the wantonness and wickedness of his ways made for better allegorical reading than a detailed account of Childéric’s time spent as a de facto Roman general, which is really more likely what he was doing for eight years rather than pining away in Thuringia. Gregory’s story also allows him to emphasize the masculine virtuousness of King Childéric: he was such a stud that another man’s wife would gladly risk her life, her position, and everything she held dear as a queen in her own right, to run to the side of this manliest of men. Certainly, it gives the reader that much more respect for Clovis, the scion of this ultimate warrior king and a queen of royal blood. So, if we can all agree that Gregory’s version of events was largely self-serving rather than historically accurate, well then who exactly was Childéric?
Well, as I mentioned, in the last episode, Childéric was reportedly the son of Merovech, but given what we know now about Merovech and how his story was likely embellished to lend additional authority to the Merovingian dynasty’s legitimacy, it’s just as likely that Childéric was the son of Chlodio. In either case, we can place his birth somewhere around 440CE, meaning that he would have been too young to have taken part in the action at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plain, but old enough to know what was going on and his family and tribe’s part in the action. He also would have been introduced through these familial ties to some of the most important people from that time. The most important of these would have been the Magister Militum, Flavius Aetius (“the last of the Romans”), and his subordinate, Magister Militum per Gallias (Military Commander of the Gauls) Aegidus. The former, Aetius – and this should really give you an idea of how messed up the Roman Western Empire was in the final few years of its existence - was put to death by Emperor Valentinian III, but the whole story, as recounted by the ancient historian Priscus, needs to be told to appreciate the melodrama of this moment:
“Maximus was married to a woman discreet in her ways and exceedingly famous for her beauty. For this reason a desire came over Valentinian to have her to wife. And since it was impossible, much as he wished it, to meet her, he plotted an unholy deed and carried it to fulfillment. For he summoned Maximus to the palace and sat down with him to a game of draughts, and a certain sum was set as a penalty for the loser; and the emperor won in this game, and receiving Maximus' ring as a pledge for the agreed amount, he sent it to his house, instructing the messenger to tell the wife of Maximus that her husband bade her come as quickly as possible to the palace to salute the Queen Eudoxia. And she, judging by the ring that the message was from Maximus, entered her litter and was conveyed to the emperor's court. And she was received by those who had been assigned this service by the emperor, and led into a certain room far removed from the women's apartments, where Valentinian met her and raped her, much against her will. And she, after the outrage, went to her husband's house weeping and feeling the deepest possible grief because of her misfortune, and she cast many curses upon Maximus as having provided the cause for what had been done.
Maximus, accordingly, became exceedingly aggrieved at that which had come to pass, and straightway entered into a conspiracy against the emperor; but when he saw that Aetius was exceedingly powerful, for he had recently conquered Attila [at the Battle of Chalôns in 451 CE], who had invaded the Roman domain with a great army of Massagetae [i.e., Huns] and the other Scythians, the thought occurred to him that Aetius would be in the way of his undertaking. And upon considering this matter, it seemed to him that it was the first, paying no heed to the fact that the whole hope of the Romans centered in him. And since the eunuchs who were in attendance upon the emperor were well-disposed toward him, he persuaded the emperor by their devices that Aetius was setting on foot a revolution. And Valentinian, judging by nothing else than the power and valor of Aetius that the report was true, put the man to death [September 21, 454 CE]. Whereupon a certain Roman made himself famous by a saying which he uttered. For when the emperor enquired of him whether he had done well in putting Aetius to death, he replied saying that, as to this matter, he was not able to know whether he had done well or perhaps otherwise, but one thing he understood exceedingly well, that he had cut off his own right hand with the other.
Later on Maximus slew the emperor with no trouble and secured the tyranny [455 CE], and he married Eudoxia by force. For the wife to whom he had been wedded had died not long before. And on one occasion in private he made the statement to Eudoxia that it was all for the sake of her love that he had carried out all that he had done.”
As with the other histories, we can debate the facts of this story and the writer’s keen moral edge, but it does carry certain grains of truth within it. Aetius had in fact pushed back the Huns in 451 and was a major actor in the late history of the Western Roman Empire. Aetius was murdered on 21 September 454 by Valentinian, and Maximus overthrew Valentinian in 455. The murder of Aetius would have left Aegidus alone in Gaul, and the constantly shifting dynamic of power would do much to guide his thinking as he settled into power in the area known as the Kingdom, or Domain, of Soissons in Northern France. Aegidus, while a Roman, would have been adrift vis-à-vis his chain of command to Rome. This break would explain why Aegidus has been referred to in various histories as everything ranging from having no title to being a Count, a Commander, and ultimately a King. He may have been none or all of these, and it really is not hugely important. Mainly this confusion highlights what we were talking about in the first episode of T&M, that the fall of the Empire made for a messy transition wherein old elements of the Empire were left to try and carve out a piece of the action for themselves, and the conditions were ripe for new players to enter the scene.
At any rate, back to Childéric. He would have been in his teens when Aetius died, and the power vacuum exposed by Rome really started to develop. Given the death of his own father at around this same time, who, no matter who that was, would have been serving as a Roman vassal, Childéric would be taking the throne at a very young age to lead the Salian Franks at the precise moment that Rome was no longer around, in force, to check tribal expansion. Aegidus would have been looking to assert himself in the wake of so many palace intrigues, and likely would have been an outsized figure to the Franks. With all of that in mind, the simplest and most likely scenario, in my opinion, is that Childéric simply laid low, and either took his court away for few years while an older, much more established figure with Roman bona fides, Aegidus, effectively took power in the region, or Childéric actively fought alongside of Aegidus. This latter idea is borne out by the appearance of a Roman fibula having been placed in Childéric’s tomb; this fibula was only used by Romans of high authority, and its presence in the tomb indicates that Childéric was considered by the Romans, and considered himself, to be tied in some strong way to the Empire. This explanation also explains why Gregory of Tours had the Franks referring to Aegidus during this time as “king,” as he was effectively the highest power in the land, in action if not also in law. It also explains Childéric going away for a little while, not so much as a wanton beast-child and defiler of so many young Frankish girls, as much as it was a prolonged absence for him to grow, physically and otherwise, into a true leader of the Franks. When Aegidus died in 464, it looks as if Childéric had been fighting alongside of him against the Visigoths; the argument of who was “king” does not appear to have been an issue in this context.
Around this same time of 463-464, the Visigoths threatened Orleans; Aegidus and Childéric turned up with the Frankish cavalry to defeat the Visigoths, and in the process killed Theodoric II’s brother Frederic (Theodoric II was the king of the Visigoths at this time). After Aegidus’s death – the causes of which are unknown – Childéric continued to press the Visigoths out of the Loire Valley along with the help of Comes, or Count, Paul a military subordinate of Aegidus. This partnership is yet another fact pointing us toward the idea of Childéric and Aegidus having been relative partners; why would Aegidus’s subordinate almost immediately take up with Childéric, unless Childéric was viewed by Comes Paul as having an authority similar to Aegidus? In the next few years, Childéric and Paul retake the city of Bourges and ride on to Angers, where Paul is killed by Saxon raiders. Childéric had Angers torched for having worked with the Saxons, and then proceeded to follow those same Saxons all the way to the mouth of the Loire and the islands therein. According to Gregory of Tours, “their islands were captured and ravaged by the Franks, and many were slain. In the ninth month of that year, there was an earthquake.” This effectively ended the issues with the Saxons. Childéric then went back to Paris, occupying the city for ten years from 466-476 (quick side note right here: This is one of those interesting spots in history where the translation of a single word GREATLY affects what is trying to be put forth in a story. In this case, the Latin word “opsidionem” was used to describe Childéric’s actions in Paris in this timeframe; the word usually translates as “siege” or “blockade.” However, in ecclesiastical Latin, “obsidio” could mean occupation. This makes much more sense, as the idea that Childéric would have spent ten years in the siege of a city would have been unlikely). Anyway, this period of time correlates to the proposed year of Clovis’s birth in the city of Paris. Childéric had four children in total and they all were born at this point when he was consolidating power: besides Clovis, there was Audofleda, who would go on to be the Queen of the Ostrogoths and the wife of Theodoric the Great; Lanthilde; and Aboflede. All would play a role in Clovis’s reign.
Finally, in the last years of his life, Childéric and Odoacer, he of 476 fame and the final overthrow of the Roman Emperor Romulus, made an alliance. Together, again according to Gregory, they subdued the Alamanni. What is especially interesting about this is that Childéric had at this point gone WAY outside of his normal area of operations, and possibly exposed his flank in doing so. While no source directly discusses how Childéric lost control of the city of Soissons, it is noted that Aegidus’s son Syagrius was able to somehow wrest control of the city for himself. He likely waited until Childéric was out of the area before making his move and was in control of the Soissons region as Clovis began his reign in 481-2.
This is where the story of Childéric sets the stage for the rise of his eldest son Clovis in 481. Clovis, only 15 years of age, has been handed a sizeable territory in Northern France, and Childéric’s ties to the Romans, his economic strength, and his aggressive tactics, while not necessarily taking an enormous amount of territory himself, primed the pump, so to speak, for Clovis to conduct the great expansions to come by greatly weakening many of the other tribes surrounding the Franks. Additionally, Childéric left his son with a strong military force that was capable of ranging far from its home territory in Belgica Secunda. Clovis is perhaps considered by most to be the first true King of France, but his ability to take on that mantle was certainly helped immensely by the healthy inheritance he received from Childéric.
In this way, Childéric and Clovis remind me in many ways of Phillip the Second and Alexander the Great. Phillip, much like Childéric, laid much of the groundwork for his son to be able to quickly take the reins of power and be successful. In both cases, the sons were physically and intellectually astute enough that, while young, they were able to take these gifts and exploit them to great effect, earning both of them great recognition for their abilities. In both cases, the fathers have been largely overshadowed in history by the successes of their children, and both cases raise the counterfactual, “What if the older men had lived?” Phillip was assassinated at about 46 years of age, and Childéric died somewhere around 40-45 years old. While this is not particularly old – and, as I’m 41 as of this podcast, so I would actually argue that it’s quite young! – in those older days it was fairly common for people to die before they made it to 50. Still, you have to wonder if Phillip and Childéric were struck down just as they were on the precipice of becoming the “great” leader of their people, or if they would have remained in the same general position kingdom-wise because they didn’t have the audacity and charisma that their sons leveraged to take their people to the next level. But more than this, would Alexander the Great and Clovis have had the ability to leverage their natural abilities if their fathers had not done so much to set them on the road to glory?
Anyway, we can run the chicken-or-the-egg argument into the ground for as long as we’d like and we would never get any closer to answering the question in a way that appeases both groups of people on opposite sides of the debate, as it’s obviously impossible to go back and isolate any one given factor to see how history would play out differently without it. That’s part of the fun of history though; taking what we know about human nature, and superimposing that knowledge onto the facts of history, can result in two completely separate and yet equally plausible interpretations of the same event. Throw a few cognitive biases in for good measure, and it’s amazing what can come out.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a different part of history. In this case, let’s look at the tomb of Childéric. You see, Childéric’s tomb was discovered on 27 May 1653, so as opposed to the histories and stories that we have had handed down to us, in this case we have actual archaeological evidence as to how Childéric was buried and how lavish the event was. The tomb, as described in the book The Tomb of Childéric I by Abbé Cochet, was about seven or eight feet down in the earth and discovered by a deaf-mute mason named Adrian Quinquin while working on the construction of a new church near Saint Brice in Tournai, Belgium. The tomb contained hundreds of gold and silver coins, upwards of 300 jeweled bees, as in the flying insect, and the bones of Childéric, along with two skulls. There was also a mass of rusted iron, indicating that Childéric had been buried with multiple weapons surrounding him. He also had several distinctly Roman items in the tomb with him, to include the fibula worn by Roman aristocracy and generals as described earlier in this episode, and a signet ring proclaiming the owner as Chilirici Regis – King Childéric. Finally, Childéric appears to have been buried with the better part of the royal stable surrounding him, as the bones of multiple horses were found adjacent to the tomb. The contents of the tomb survived in varying states of decay: all of the wood in the two had long since decomposed, and most of the iron that had been in the tomb was completely rusted through. Additionally, the site was not excavated in the 17 century in the same way that we would excavate a site nowadays. The contents of the tomb were removed by locals and brought to the home of a physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, who was in the employ of the local governor. Chifflet was the good news piece of this story, as he took his time to catalogue all of the pieces brought to him from the tomb. He ultimately published a folio of 367 pages, along with 27 plates of engravings, to give us a very good understanding and visual representation of what had been in the tomb. His efforts mitigated some of the damage done by the local’s excavation, and also preserved the pieces for the historical record from any further decay. Unfortunately, we’ll never know exactly how the pieces were positioned, or the actual state of decay of the iron weapons ripped from the ground by the stone workers which, if done by a proper archaeologist, would have given us an even greater understanding of the site.
At any rate, we can deduce several things from Childéric’s grave. One, Childéric truly crossed historical boundaries. His tomb, which was likely a large mound, was that of a nature associated with tribal elements or even Hunnic culture. However, the inclusion of the fibula, the signet ring, and other Roman artifacts indicates that he was neither 100 percent Roman nor 100 percent barbarian. Second, we can deduce from the size of the tomb and the opulent display associated with it, that a statement was being sent forth to those that would see such a magnificent grave. This, however, is where we start to get into the differing interpretations that I mentioned before: did Childéric plan the tomb prior to his death as one final shout to the world of his glory? Or did Clovis plan the tomb, as an honor to his father and a sign to all around that he was the one, true heir to the mantle of “King of the Franks?” I offer the two following arguments; first, from the Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World:
“As imperial authority was fragmenting throughout the western empire and new polities, mostly identified with barbarian leaders and peoples, were emerging to replace it, funerary ritual offered a potent means to claim power symbolically. There is no reason to assume that so successful and decisive a figure as Childéric in the complex and changing political and cultural environment of the day would not have decided so fundamental a matter as his own funeral. Indeed he appears to have fashioned from various traditions (most notably the Germanic "chieftain's burials" that his Frankish ancestors had known for generations) a bold new funerary model fit for a king.”
And the counter-argument, from Svante Fischer and Lennart Lind in the Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History:
“We conclude that the solidus hoard together with the silver coins constituted a meaningful composition that had been manipulated for ideological purposes by Childéric’s successor, Clovis… here is an array of genuine or reinterpreted Roman regalia, notably the crystal ball, the signet ring, the fibula, and the weapons. These were all signs of Childéric’s past political legitimacy, and Clovis sought to arrange them in a most favorable light. Their inclusion in the burial rite meant that all Childéric’s credentials were transferred on to his rightful successor Clovis. In many ways, the extravagant burial in Tournai marked one of the most important transition points on the long path from Late Antiquity to the Medieval Period known to us.”
In other words, Clovis knew what was going into his father’s tomb, and knew how to arrange it for maximum effect. Personally, this latter argument makes more sense to me. While I can appreciate that a person, and especially a king, would be concerned with his last rites and legacy, Clovis would have been the person who had an immediate need to make some sort of political capital out of the funeral. On top of that, there is no source available that lets us know how Childéric died. He was older, for his day and age anyway, but there is nothing to indicate that he could not have lived a longer life than he did. Basically, we don’t know how Childéric viewed his mortality, and there’s nothing that tells us if he died quickly or if he lingered for a while. This leaves us in the position of having to assume that Childéric would have taken part in his funeral planning if given the chance. Ultimately, however, it strikes me that Clovis had more riding on the funeral, and I’m inclined to believe that even if he was following Childéric’s general plan, Clovis would have been the one making sure that it was carried out to perfection and seen by everyone who needed to see it so as to leave no doubt as to whom the new king was.
BON VOYAGE: And so ends today’s episode taking a look back at the life and times of Childéric. As he leaves the stage, it’s time to say bon voyage this week to the two people who didn’t get their story taken all the way to the end in today’s episode: Petronius Maximus and Licinia Eudoxia, the assassin and the widow of Valentinian III, respectively. Maximus, upon succeeding in outsourcing the murder of Valentinian, proceeded to buy off enough palace and military officials to secure his claim to the emperorship, and took the throne on 17 March 455. Why so exact with this date you may ask, especially when so many of our sources of this time are more than happy to play fast and loose with dates and times to within a few years? Well, you see, Maximus didn’t have a few years. To be exact, he had 77 days. And that’s all. After he assumed power, he forced Eudoxia into marrying him. Unhappy to be forced into a relationship with the man who just killed her husband, Eudoxia sent word to Geiseric of the Vandals, in North Africa, to come on up and give her a hand. When word spread that Geiseric was sailing for Rome, the people panicked and fled, to include Maximus’s personal bodyguard. Maximus tried to make a run for it himself, but on 31 May 455 he was caught by the mob, stoned to death, and his body was thrown in the Tiber, never to be seen again. Geiseric and his Vandals sacked Rome for two weeks (very possibly giving us the term vandalism in the process), and according to the ancient chronicler Malchus, “took everything from the palace, even the bronze statues. He even led away as captives surviving senators, accompanied by their wives; along with them he also carried off to Carthage in Africa the empress Eudoxia, who had summoned him; her daughter Placidia, the wife of the patrician Olybrius, who then was staying at Constantinople; and even the maiden Eudocia. After he had returned, Gaiseric gave the younger Eudocia, a maiden, the daughter of the empress Eudoxia, to his son Huneric in marriage, and he held them both, the mother and the daughter, in great honor." Eudoxia would end up living quite a long life, eventually returning to her birth home of Constantinople, and dying in 493 at around the age of 70. She, along with Honoria in the last episode, have most certainly shown that, in no uncertain terms, it is a bad, bad idea to piss off a Roman woman; they will pull the house down on you, or your entire empire for that matter, literally.
OUTRO: Alright, in these first three episodes we have discussed the conditions that the Frankish kings were operating under in the 5th century, how and why the fall of the Western Roman Empire was so important to everything that was to come for the next 1,300 years, and laid down an understanding of who the first two, small “k” kings of the Franks were in relation to the Merovingian Dynasty, Merovech and Childéric. Next week, we are going to take all of this information and start the first of a three-part series on the first capital “K” King of the Franks, Clovis. Clovis jumped into this historical estuary and owned it, taking charge of almost all of what had been Roman Gaul, uniting it under the dominion of the Franks. And for sake of reference and as we’ll see, “uniting” is really not the right word to use here, more like “coercing” or “forcing” or “murdering,” but the end result was a territory that, when Clovis was done, transformed from a heathen or Arian Gaulish state, into the Catholic state of Francia. It’s a pretty remarkable story, and I hope you’ll join me in two weeks when we begin on Clovis.
Before we go, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode and a list of sources will also be available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please leave a comment. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle, or leave a comment on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ThugsAndMiracles/. Finally, if you enjoyed the show and have a moment, please consider leaving a review on whichever platform you get your podcasts. My name is Benjamin Bernier, and I’ll look to see you in two weeks with the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.