Conversion of Clovis and Constantine
By Alfred Blauwasser
The Christian Conversion of Clovis and Constantine
In The History of the Franks, Gregory of Tours portrayed Clovis as a leader who, although his conversion to Christianity appeared to be genuine, nonetheless, used his conversion to realize his political aspirations. By converting to Christianity, Clovis, according to Gregory of Tours’ narrative, was able to garner the support of Christian leaders such as Saint Remigius and, consequently, gain powerful political allies. Moreover, as a result of his conversion, Clovis became a king who was more attractive to orthodox Christians. Furthermore, Clovis’ conversion provided him with a reason for conquering territories that were not ruled by orthodox Christians. Thus, Clovis was able to bring additional territories under his command without resistance from local orthodox Christian leaders and with a degree of approval from the orthodox Christian masses as he, in essence, took on the Christ-like role of savior and liberator who relieved the orthodox Christian masses of flawed leadership from “false” Christians, pagans, or the morally inept. Interestingly, it seems that Clovis’ alleged behavior was not entirely unique as parallels and discrepancies exist between Gregory of Tour’s account of Clovis’ conversion to orthodox Christianity, his depiction of Gundobad’s conversion, and Eusebius’ description of Constantine’s conversion.
Eusebius’ account of Constantine’s conversion is comparable to Gregory of Tours’ accounts of Clovis’ and Gundobad’s conversions to Christianity, in the sense that they all initially called upon the “Christ-God” (albeit Gundobad perhaps indirectly) to come to their aid, which he did, during periods of military crisis. The similarities between Gregory of Tours’ Clovis and Eusebius’ Constantine are obvious as they both made their original pleas to the “Christ-God” when they realized they could not prevail in battle through military might alone. Indeed, Constantine called upon the aid of Christ to help him defeat his adversaries and end the wars of imperial succession that had been plaguing Rome since the crisis of the third century, “…he [Constantine] needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him…”(Eusebius, The Conversion of Constantine, Ch. XXVII).
Likewise, Clovis beseeched the “Christ God” for assistance as his army faltered in battle with the Alamanni, “…war broke out against the Alamanni and in this conflict he was forced by necessity to accept what [the existence and supremacy of the living god and his son Jesus Christ over the pagan gods] he had refused of his own free will” (Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Bk. II, Ch.30). Furthermore, they both converted or devoted themselves to the Christian god following thereafter, apparently as a result of their military victories and, in the case of Clovis, due to the influence of his wife Clotild. However, Gregory of Tours’ portrayal of Gundobad’s conversion is similar to that of Clovis and Constantine, but it has different aspects and, possibly, subsequent consequences.
Although, Gundobad did not appeal directly to the Christian god for support like Clovis and Constantine, he was able to avoid military catastrophe (Clovis’ sacking of Vienne) through the assistance of Aridius, who apparently enlisted the support of the Christian god, “If you carry out my [Aridius’] plan…the Lord God…will assure you a happy outcome” (Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Bk. II, Ch.32). In addition, Gundobad converted to Christianity following his victory over his brother at Vienne, similar to the conversions of Clovis and Constantine; yet, dissimilarly, he never announced his conversion publicly (Bk. II, Ch. 34). Perhaps Gundobad’s failure to openly display his conversion to orthodox Christianity is why he was not depicted as being as powerful or famous as Clovis or Constantine. Moreover, considering the religious loyalties of the historians, it is not surprising that Gundobad did not garner as much attention as the brazenly Christian and tremendously successful Clovis or Constantine. Nevertheless, both Gundobad and Constantine, like Clovis, appear sincere, to some extent, in their conversions.
Clovis, it seems, was sincere in his conversion as the fact that he actually converted following his victory against the Alamanni evidences. During his request for Christ’s aid, he promised to convert, “If you will give me victory…I will believe in you and…be baptized in your name” (Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Bk. II, Ch. 30). After his victory, Clovis could have very easily reneged on his promise; however, he did in fact keep it and, after receiving the approval of his subjects, was actually baptized by Saint Remigius (Bk. II, Ch. 30). Perhaps Clovis’ adherence to his promise indicates that he was indeed convinced by his victory that the God of his wife was the supreme god and deserved reverence; however, Clovis may have been aware of the possible political advantage his conversion would have facilitated and he surely was at least familiar with the success achieved by the prior Christian convert Constantine. Indeed, Gregory of Tours alluded to this, “Like some new Constantine he stepped forward to the baptismal pool…” (Bk. II, Ch. 31). Furthermore, the letter Clovis received from Bishop Remigius prior to his conversion hinted at the fact that he would be a more powerful ruler if he accepted the “true” Christian God, “…you should act so that God’s Judgment may not abandon you…” (Bishop Remigius of Reims to Clovis, c.481). Nevertheless, it seems that, especially in light of his later actions, Clovis was sincere. Not only were Clovis, much of his army, and members of his family baptized following his victory but Clovis also instructed his soldiers to spare the lands of the churches and honor the saints during later campaigns, “In respect for Saint Martin, Clovis ordered that they [his soldiers] should requisition nothing in this neighborhood [Tours]…” (Bk. II, Ch’s 31, 37).
It also appears that Gundobad sincerely supported his new religion as he asked Saint Avitus to write polemics against perceived heresies in Constantinople (Bk II, Ch. 34). In the same way, Constantine’s conversion also appears heartfelt as he carried the sign of the “Christ-God” as a safeguard in battle, immediately called for instruction regarding the “Christ-God” following his victory, and continued to study the “Word” and favor and promote Christians, “he determined thenceforth to devote himself to the reading of the Inspired writings…he made the priests of God his counselors, and deemed it incumbent on him to honor the God who had appeared to him with all devotion” (The Conversion of Constantine, XXXII). Despite the fact that Clovis, Gundobad, and Constantine appear to have converted in earnest, they may have feigned piety in order to reap the political benefits their new found religious allegiance provided them and it seems that Constantine, like Clovis, may have used his conversion to successfully strengthen his respective political position. However, Gundobad clearly did not take advantage of his conversion to strengthen his political career because he never announced it publicly (Bk. II, Ch. 34).
The ultimate success of Clovis, Gundobad, and Constantine in the Gregory of Tours and Eusebius accounts seems inevitable given the position given to Christianity by the writers. In chapter XXVII of The Conversion of Constantine, Eusebius declared the superiority of the “Christ-God” over other gods, “those who had rested their hopes in a multitude of gods…had met with an unhappy end…while one alone who had…honored the one Supreme God during his whole life, had formal I him to be the Saviour and Protector of his empire…” Correspondingly, Gregory of Tours promoted the preeminence of Christianity over paganism with his degradation of the pagan gods in Clotild’s dialogue with Clovis concerning the baptisms of their first two sons, “What have Mars and Mercury ever done for anyone” (The History of the Franks, Bk. II, Ch. 28). Additionally, he may have asserted the supremacy of orthodox Christianity over Arianism by insinuating that Gundobad had attained victory over Godigisel as a result of the latter’s affinity for Arianism, “Godigisel took refuge in one of the heretic churches, but he was killed there and his Arian bishop with him” (Bk. II, Ch. 33). Thus, it is only logical that, given the treatment of opposing religions – most likely resulting from the religious affiliations of the narrators, those who accepted the “Christ-God” would attain victory and the accompanying wealth, power, notoriety, etc.
To this end, Gregory of Tours uses the exchange between Clotild and Clovis regarding their sons’ baptisms to not only discredit the pagan gods, but also those who worship them, “The gods whom you worship are no good…they haven’t even been able to help themselves, let alone others” (Bk. II, Ch. 28). In addition, Clovis also discredits the pagan gods during his plea to Jesus Christ for help, “I have called upon my own gods, but, as I see, only too clearly, they have no intention of helping me” (Bk. II, Ch. 30). Also, in Eusebius’ description of Constantine’s thought process leading to his decision to pray to the Christian god, the pagan gods and their followers are also degraded, “…those who had already taken arms against the tyrant, and had marched to the battle-field under the protection of a multitude of gods, had met with a dishonorable end…”(The Conversion of Constantine, XXVII).
Therefore, with the pagan gods, the “false” Christians, and their followers discredited, those who gained success and attributed it to the divine intervention of the orthodox Christian god could have gained political sway by, in essence, suggesting that they had succeeded through the help of the “Christ-God” where previous pagan leaders had failed. That notwithstanding, it is unclear whether or not they actually suggested this; or if Clovis and Constantine converted anticipating that their conversions would aid them politically or if they simply converted out of desperation and their eventual military successes combined with their conversions to further their political goals. It seems most likely that the political careers of both Clovis and Constantine benefited most from their military successes and the consequent acquisition of wealth and power. Indeed, it may be that the popularity of Christianity benefited the most as two powerful leaders attributed their success to the fledgling and obscure (especially in the time Constantine) religion.
Constantine used his conversion as a political tool for uniting his empire. Although, he declared religious tolerance in the 313 Edict of Milan, he was Christian and he instituted building projects for new churches, funded restorations projects, and gave privilege to Christian Priests (Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages, 26). Furthermore, he chaired the Council of Nicaea in 325, which formulated church doctrine and provided a common set of rules, which could serve as a bond (albeit a precarious one) between east and west (26). Clovis also used his conversion as a political mechanism for unification; however, he also employed it in a different manner.
Regardless of whether or not Clovis believed his conversion would aid him politically before or as he did it; afterwards, he took full advantage of the political power it provided. Through his conversion, Clovis was able to gain the support of important orthodox Christian leaders which was evidenced by the flattering and affectionate tone of the letter he received from Bishop Avitus and the support he received from Saint Remigius following his revelation on the battlefield and after the death of his sister (Franks, Bk. II, Ch. 31 and Bishop Avitus to King Clovis). With the support of the Bishops, Clovis’ political power was enhanced as he must have known that he could count on the support, or at least lack of resistance, of their followers in any territory he chose to conquer.
Furthermore, it seems that Clovis would not have been able to obtain the title of consulate from the Emperor Anastasius and increase his political might further, if he had not converted to orthodox Christianity, “In Saint Martin’s church…he crowned himself with a diadem…” (Bk. II, Ch. 38). In addition to enlisting the support of the Bishops and the emperor, Clovis’ conversion also rendered him more palatable to those people (who were or wanted to become orthodox Christians) that he wanted to conquer and ultimately rule over, “At that time a great many people in Gaul were keen on having the Franks [led by Clovis] as their rulers” (Bk. II, Ch. 35). Indeed, it seems that Clovis was actually construed as a Liberator by some of the masses as evidenced by the response of the people after Clovis had their treacherous leader, Chloderic, killed and recommended that they give him their new allegiance, “…they clashed their shields…shouted their approval …[and] they raised Clovis up on a shield and made him their ruler” (Bk. II, Ch. 40).
Thus, with the support of the Bishops, the emperor, and many of the people of Gaul, Clovis began to take advantage of his newly found political support and set his sights on conquest. By being able to define himself as orthodox Christian, Clovis was also able to simultaneously define those who were not as the “other” and, consequently, the enemy. That is, he was able to use religion as grounds for offensive campaigning against pagans, “false” Christians (such as the Goths and their Arian King Alaric II), and morally corrupt rulers, “ I find it hard to go on seeing these Arians occupy a part of Gaul … with God’s help let us invade them …[and] take over their territory” (Bk. II, Ch. 37). Additionally, Clovis’ conversion may have allowed him the moral license to condemn the deviant Ragnachar and eventually kill him and take his holdings, “Ragnachar who was so sunk in debauchery … this situation roused the Frankish subjects…” (Bk. II, Ch. 42). Whether or not Clovis attacked these leaders to champion orthodox Christianity and eliminate its competitors, or merely to acquire their land and wealth is unclear; however, there is no question that Clovis used his conversion to bolster his political position.
Gregory of Tours’ Clovis used his conversion to orthodox Christianity to increase his political power by gaining the support of the bishops, the emperor, and the orthodox Christian masses. Furthermore, it became grounds for conquest against non-orthodox Christian and Pagan rulers. Although it seems that, judging by his actions after his conversion, Clovis was indeed sincere in his conversion, he may have had an idea that the conversion would benefit him politically, prior to the actual act. In addition, the circumstances surrounding the conversions of Gundobad and Constantine, as described in the accounts of Gregory from Tours and Eusebius, were remarkably similar, with the a few wrinkles in the case of Gundobad. Indeed, the initial requests for aid from the “Christ-God” by Clovis and Constantine arose from nearly identical circumstances. Furthermore, the ultimate political success of these leaders appears inevitable considering the position allotted orthodox Christianity, subordinating paganism and Arianism, by the authors, as a result of their religious preferences. While Clovis and Constantine used their conversions to boost their political might, Gundobad clearly did not. Moreover, it seems likely that the military triumphs of Clovis and Constantine contributed at least as much to their political successes as their conversions did. Perhaps Christianity benefited more from them than they from it since the relatively unified Christian kingdoms they forged provided a fertile bed from which Christianity could grow. Furthermore, it appears that, taking into account their actions following their conversions, Constantine and Gundobad, like Clovis, were relatively genuine in their dedication to Christianity.
© Alfred Blauwasser