Conquerors of the Roman Empire - the Franks, Simon MacDowall

Conquerors of the Roman Empire - the Franks, Simon MacDowall

As the author points out fairly early on, the Franks weren’t actually one of the conquerors of the Roman Empire -  indeed for much of the period being considered here they were fairly loyal allies of the fading power of Rome, doing their best to defend parts of the Rhine frontier against repeated attacks. It was only after Roman power had effectively disappeared from much of Gaul that the Franks began to expand seriously, and most of their victories were actually over the other Germanic tribes who had contributed more directly to the fall of Rome. However the Franks did end up in control of most of what had been Roman Gaul, and certainly played a major role in the events that led to the collapse of the western half of the Empire, so deserve their place in this series.

One of the more depressing features of this period is that for most of the Fifth Century the Romans still had armies that might have been capable of restoring order across Gaul, but instead of focusing on their external enemies the emperors of this period were were far more likely to concentrate on crushing their internal rivals. This tendancy was probably at its most disasterous at the very start of the century. When a series of tribes crossed the Rhine in the winter of 406 the most effective response came from the commander of the British legions, whose troops acclaimed him as Emperor Constantine III. He took his troops into northern Gaul early in 407 and began to restore Roman control. The reaction of Stilicho, then the power behind the western throne, wasn’t to try and find some way to work with Constantine, but instead to send an army to Gaul to try and defeat him. The same sort of pattern can be seen for much of the next century, with the remains of the Roman armies often fighting civil wars while their empire collapsed around them. The great skill of the Frankish leaders was to find a way to carve their own kingdom out of the chaos that was left behind when Roman authority collapsed, and this is where we start to find more familiar figures, including Clovis, the founder of the Frankish kingdom, making an appearance. 

We start with a look at the earliest references to the Franks, who first appear as one of Rome’s neighbours in the late third century, and as one of her enemies during the fourth century. During this period some of the Franks were defeated by the future emperor Julian and settled at the northern end of the Rhine as Roman allies. The focus here is thus on the period in which the Franks were one of the powers attempting to find a stable home in the chaos caused by the declining power of Rome. In many of the campaigns that are discussed here they were actually fighting on the Roman side, including at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains, when a Roman led but largely barbarian army defeated Atilla the Hun and forced him to retreat from Gaul. In order to make sense of Frankish activities the author has to provide a great deal of background material, so in some respects this book feels more like a history of the decline and fall of Rome Gaul than purely of the Franks, but any other approach wouldn’t make sense.

1 - The Rhine Tribes
2 - Gaul on the Brink
3 - Rome’s Last Grasp
4 - Defending the Rhine
5 - Aetius and Attila
6 - The End of Roman Gaul
7 - From Gaul to Francia
8 - The War in Italy
9 - The Frankish Way of War
10 - The Legacy of the Franks

Author: Simon MacDowall
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 208
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2018

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