Battle of Tolbiac

Battle of Tolbiac

"The Battle of Tolbiac" by Ary Scheffer. Galerie des Batailles
LocationZülpich, North Rhine-Westphalia
50°40′31″N 6°36′4″E / 50.67528°N 6.60111°E / 50.67528; 6.60111Coordinates: 50°40′31″N 6°36′4″E / 50.67528°N 6.60111°E / 50.67528; 6.60111

Decisive Frankish victory

  • End of Alamannic autonomy
Franks Alemanni
Commanders and leaders
Sigobert the Lame
Clovis I
Unknown Unknown
Casualties and losses
very heavy heavy
Battle of Tolbiac. Fresco at the Panthéon (Paris) by Joseph Blanc, c. 1881.

The Battle of Tolbiac was fought between the Franks, who were fighting under Clovis I, and the Alamanni, whose leader is not known. The date of the battle has traditionally been given as 496, though other accounts suggest it may have been fought in 506. The site of "Tolbiac", or "Tolbiacum", is usually given as Zülpich, North Rhine-Westphalia, about 60 km east of what is now the German-Belgian frontier. The Franks were successful at Tolbiac and established their dominance over the Alamanni.


The Franks were two neighboring peoples, and allies: the Salian Franks, whose king was Clovis, and the Ripuarian Franks, whose capital was Cologne and whose king was Sigebert the Lame. Bordering on Sigebert's kingdom were the Alemanni, a confederation of Germanic tribes. Border incidents, looting and punitive raids multiplied between the Alemanni and Ripuarian Franks, but in 496 Sigebert suffered a real invasion and called on Clovis for help. Clovis responded favorably to his ally and raised an army. It is generally accepted that in defending Tolbiac, Sigebert and his army suffered heavy losses. There were two battles of Tolbiac.

The battle

Little is known about the battle, except that the Ripuarian Franks were probably of no help after the first battle. Clovis saw his warriors being killed and felt the battle was getting out of hand. Moved to tears, he called upon the God of his wife Clotilde, the God that she had preached to him since their marriage in 493, asking for his help.

Gregory of Tours records Clovis's prayer in chapter II of the History of the Franks: "O Jesus Christ, you who as Clotilde tells me are the son of the Living God, you who give succor to those who are in danger, and victory to those accorded who hope in Thee, I seek the glory of devotion with your assistance: If you give me victory over these enemies, and if I experience the miracles that the people committed to your name say they have had, I believe in you, and I will be baptized in your name. Indeed, I invoked my gods, and, as I am experiencing, they failed to help me, which makes me believe that they are endowed with no powers, that they do not come to the aid of those who serve. It's to you I cry now, I want to believe in you if only I may be saved from my opponents." At these words, the Alemanni began to flee, as their leader had been killed with an axe. The Franks subdued or killed the remaining Alemanni.

Account by Gregory of Tours

Gregory of Tours was the first to have mentioned the element that has shaped subsequent interpretations of Tolbiac as a climactic in European history: Clovis is said to have attributed his success to a vow that he had made: if he won, he would convert to the religion of the Christian God who had aided him. He became a Christian in a ceremony at Reims at Christmas 496.[1] The traditional date of the battle of Tolbiac has been established to accord with this firmly attested baptismal date, by accepting Gregory's account. A surviving letter from Avitus of Vienne, congratulating Clovis on his baptism, makes no mention of the supposed recent battlefield conversion.[2]

Historia Francorum ii.30-31 directly affirms a parallel Gregory establishes with the conversion of Constantine the Great before the Battle of Milvian Bridge:

At last a war arose with the Alamanni, in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he had of his free will denied. It came about that as the two armies were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis's army began to be in danger of destruction. He saw it and raised his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into tears and cried: "Jesus Christ, whom Clotilde asserts to be the son of the Living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries." And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began to disperse in flight. And when they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the dominion of Clovis, saying: "Let not the people perish further, we pray; we are yours now." And he stopped the fighting, and after encouraging his men, retired in peace and told the queen how he had had merit to win the victory by calling on the name of Christ. This happened in the fifteenth year of his reign.[3]

Then the queen asked saint Remi, bishop of Rheims, to summon Clovis secretly, urging him to introduce the king to the word of salvation. And the bishop sent for him secretly and began to urge him to believe in the true God, maker of heaven and earth, and to cease worshipping idols, which could help neither themselves nor any one else. But the king said: "I gladly hear you, most holy father; but there remains one thing: the people who follow me cannot endure to abandon their gods; but I shall go and speak to them according to your words." He met with his followers, but before he could speak the power of God anticipated him, and all the people cried out together: "O pious king, we reject our mortal gods, and we are ready to follow the immortal God whom Remi preaches." This was reported to the bishop, who was greatly rejoiced, and bade them get ready the baptismal font. The squares were shaded with tapestried canopies, the churches adorned with white curtains, the baptistery set in order, the aroma of incense spread, candles of fragrant odor burned brightly, and the whole shrine of the baptistery was filled with a divine fragrance: and the Lord gave such grace to those who stood by that they thought they were placed amid the odors of paradise. And the king was the first to ask to be baptized by the bishop. Another Constantine advanced to the baptismal font...[4]


The Alemanni abandoned the Lower Rhine and left the Ripuarian Franks alone. Clovis, who profited only a little, and allowed his ally to retain the territory. Clovis later relied on Sigebert's assistance during the conquest of the French part of the Visigothic kingdom.

Another consequence was the conversion of Clovis to Catholicism, after a long period of reflection (most historians believe his conversion dates to 498 or 499), which brought him the support of neighbouring Christians, along with that of the influential clergy. In addition, it allowed Clovis to undertake conquests and crusades to Christianise his new territories or expunge Arianism, considered heretics by the clergy.


The traditional date of the battle in 496 was challenged by Augustine Van de Vyver, whose revised chronology placed the battle in 506. This was extensively debated and is followed in some modern accounts.[5] The date of 506 also follows Gregory's chronology, which places the death of Clovis' father, Childeric I around the same time as that of St. Pertpetuus, who died in 491. Hence 15 years from 491 would be 506.[6] Childeric's grave contained coins of Emperor Zeno, who died in 491, but none after.


  1. Joseph H Lynch, Christianizing Kinship: Ritual Sponsorship in Anglo-Saxon England, (Cornell University Press, 1998), 39. "The most famous baptism in Frankish history was that of King Clovis (481-511), and its date has given rise to a great deal of scholarly dispute. A letter of Bishop Avitus of Vienne to Clovis indicated that the latter was baptized at Christmas, but opinion is split over which Christmas between 496 and 506."
  2. See Daly 1994:640 and note.
  3. The date of the death of Childeric, commonly given as 481/82, is thus calculated as fifteen years before Tolbiac, as dated by Gregory.
  4. On-line text in English translation.
  5. A single Frankish-Alemannic combat, in summer 506, is presented, for example, in J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, Long-Haired Kings p 168, or Rolf Weiss, Chlodwigs Taufe: Reims 508 (Bern) 1971; the debate is briefly summarised in William M. Daly, "Clovis: How Barbaric, How Pagan?" Speculum 69.3 (July 1994, pp. 619-664) p 620 note.
  6. Claude Gauvard, La France au Moyen Âge du Ve au XVe siècle develops slightly different assumptions about the dating of the Battle of Tolbiac, some historians believe the battle was in 506, due to a letter of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, in which he congratulated the great victory of Clovis on Alemanni. On the other hand, in Michèle Laforest on Clovis, un roi de légende of 1996, when this battle called Tolbiac is set in the year of 496.
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