Imagine that you want to be king. (Or, just for argument’s sake, president). You’re powerful in your own way. You’ve been successful in the past. But you’re not completely sure you can get everyone to obey (or elect) you.

What’s your strategy?

Well, if you’re ambitious, and unburdened with a conscience, and not particularly worried about acting ethically, you can claim to be a Christian and appeal to other Christians for support. It’s a strategy that’s been working for centuries.

Let’s go back to the late Roman empire, where a group of related warrior tribes known, collectively, as “Franks” straggled down from the north and settled in the Roman lands that we now know as France and Germany. The Franks were an independent and surly bunch. The chief of the strongest tribe (the “Salian Franks”) styled himself “King of the Franks,” but the other chiefs didn’t pay much attention; each tribe pretty much did exactly as it pleased. The only thing that held the Franks together was their adoption of Roman culture: worship of the Roman gods, the Latin language, a Roman-type army structure.

 So when the Roman empire crumbled, so did the weak bonds holding the Franks together.

 At the end of the fifth century, a fifteen-year-old named Clovis was given the position of chief of the Salian Franks (and the meaningless title “King of the Franks”) when his father died young. With this inherited advantage in life, Clovis set out to make himself even more important. He spent fifteen years leading all of the Franks into battle against their non-Frankish neighbors, grabbing as much land as possible. His knack for victory earned him the loyalty of other Frankish chiefs; they could bring themselves to recognize him as their king, as long as he was making them all so much more powerful.

But he didn’t have quite as much power as he wanted.

So in 496, Clovis did something more drastic. He staged a dramatic battlefield conversion to Christianity, summoned a nearby Christian bishop to come and baptize him publicly—and ordered three thousand of his soldiers to be baptized at the same time.

Later Christian historians (like Gregory of Tours, who wrote an extensive biography of Clovis) insisted that Clovis’s conversion was sincere—but it’s hard to see how a sincere convert could have signed off on the mass baptism of three thousand warriors, still bloody from their latest battle, none of whom actually understood their new faith. No: this was a political move. If the Franks adopted Christianity, they would have a new glue that held them all together—and tied them to Clovis.

His first act as a Christian king was to inform his men that God wanted them to attack their pagan neighbors: “With God’s help let us invade them,” he told his officers. “When we have beaten them, we will take over their territory.” Which the Franks did, wiping out the nearby Visigoths and making their own empire greater by seizing the Visigoths' land. 

So Clovis’s second act was to stage a huge public worship service thanking God for his victory. And he then asked the most powerful Christian ruler around, the Emperor of Constantinople, to confirm Clovis’s “God-given” power over all the Franks. 

The Emperor agreed, at which point Clovis started wearing a purple tunic and a diadem and calling himself “Augustus.” He built a new capital city on the old Roman site Lutetia Parisiorum: this became Paris. And he killed off all of the other Franks who might challenge him for power. 

And then he ruled happily ever after. 

Without claiming Christianity as a common bond, without convincing other Christian leaders to support him, he’d have remained a violent, ambitious, wealthy chief among chiefs. Instead, Clovis is remembered as the first real King of the Franks.

It worked.

Well: temporarily. He hadn’t been much of a father, as it turned out. Certainly he hadn’t passed any Christian virtues on to his children. When he died his four sons all tried to kill each other to grab power. After multiple murders, including one brother massacring every young nephew he could get his hands on, the kingdom of the Franks split back apart into competing tribal territories. Centuries of infighting followed. 

Claiming Christianity to get political advantage had given Clovis the power he craved, but in the absence of real conviction (and real Christian behavior), it ultimately plunged his country into even deeper chaos.

About the Author

Susan Wise Bauer Ph.D.

Susan Wise Bauer, Ph.D., is a writer and historian. Her books include The Well-Educated MindThe Story of Western Science and an ongoing multi-volume narrative world history series.

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