In May, I published an article close to the anniversary of the fall of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire, in 1453. That article summarized the steadfastness and heroic last stand of the final Christian Emperor of Constantinople, Constantine XI. Today, I look back at the fall of the Western Roman Empire on September 4, 476 AD, 1,544 years from the day it occurred. If Constantine XI, through his refusal to flee Constantinople and his mission to defend the city or fall with it, left this world in a blaze of glory, the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century can be described as having occurred more with a whimper. The Germanic officer, Odoacer, forced the child Emperor-in-name-only, Romulus Augustulus, to abdicate the throne after having defeated the power behind the throne, Romulus’ father Flavius Orestes, in battle. Below, with the aid of a few texts, we examine the final days of the Western Roman Empire and the events that led up to them.
Prelude to the Fall
It is impossible to tell the story of Romulus Augustulus and the final fall of the Western Roman Empire without a bit of context. Below, you will find a very brief overview of the events that led to the split of Rome between West and East, and the final fall of the Western half of the Empire. This review is not at all comprehensive, but rather a quick glance at the 140 years leading up to the Western Roman Empire’s final days.
The Shift in Power from West to East
Beginning in the mid-to-late third century, the center of power in the Roman Empire began to shift eastward. The crisis period of the Roman Empire, from 235 to 284 AD, saw a succession of officers and generals from the Eastern provinces seize the imperial purple before losing it almost as soon as they had won it. The crisis subsided with the ascension of Diocletian in 284, who appointed a junior co-Emperor to rule in Italy, while Diocletian maintained his palace in Nicomedia (situated in modern Turkey). The Empire would not be ruled by a single ruler until Constantine the Great consolidated his status as the sole master of the Roman world in 324. Upon unifying the Roman Empire under his rule, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium, which he rechristened Constantinople.
The final Emperor to preside over a unified East and West was Theodosius I, who also made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Upon his death in 395, he was succeeded by his young sons, Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East.
Rome Sacked, But All is Well, for the Western Capital is in Ravenna
Honorius ruled for 28 years, placing him among the longest-tenured Roman Emperors. These 28 years marked the beginning of the end of the Western Empire. Early in Honorius’ reign, his top general, the half-Vandal Stilicho, effectively managed the affairs of the Empire. Alas, Honorius had Stilicho executed in 408, whereupon things began to turn south. Rome was sacked in 410, although Honorius was spared, safe in Ravenna where he had moved the capital in 402. Also in 410, Rome abandoned its province in Britain after more than 250 years of Roman rule. On the bright side, Honorius did ban the gladiatorial games – it is important to look at things from a glass half-full perspective sometimes.
Stopping Attila Before Being Sacked By the Vandals
Honorius was succeeded by another child, his nephew Valentinian III, who took the imperial purple at the age of six. Valentinian III would reign for three decades but with little more success than his uncle. Under Valentinian III’s rule, Rome hemorrhaged its African provinces as well as Sardinia and Corsica, and faced great pressure in Spain. If it sounds like things were going too smoothly, Attila the Hun turned his attention westward in 450, after nearly a decade of campaigning in the East. Fortunately for Italy, Valentinian III benefitted from the services of one of the Roman Empire’s most exceptional generals, the Easterner Flavius Aetius, who fought with some level of success to preserve the Western Empire. Aetius defeated Attila at the Battle of the Cataluanian Plains in 451, stopping the most imminent threat to Italy. In gratitude for his service, Valentinian III personally murdered Aetius in 454, before being assassinated within the year, three months before the Vandals emerged from North Africa to sack Rome in 455.
The Last Hope for the Revival of the Western Empire Literally Burned to Ashes
The death of Valentinian III and the second sack of Rome led to nearly two decades of shadow rule by the Germanic general, Ricimer. The Eastern Emperor appointed the ineffectual Avitus as Emperor and Ricimer as a count of the Empire. Ricimer, along with Majorian, both of whom had served in high military positions under Aetius, deposed Avitus, seizing the purple for Majorian. Ricimer hoped to continue to rule from the shadows, but Majorian had his own idea, publishing a new consolidated legal code and recovering parts of Gaul (modern France) and Spain that had been lost to the West. Majorian planned to embark on an ambitious seaborn assault against the Vandals in North Africa, but someone sabotaged him by burning his fleet on land, causing him to cancel the invasion. In surely unrelated news, Ricimer had Majorian assassinated in 461, and whatever hope was left for Rome in the West was extinguished, as Ricimer appointed a series of non-entities as Emperor-in-name-only over the course of the next decade. Meanwhile, Ricimer, and later Ricimer’s nephew Gundobad, wielded the real power. By now you can probably figure that the times were sub-optimal for Rome when power was wielded by “Gundobad.”
Rule by Puppet Emperor Briefly Ends, but Nature Quickly Heals Itself
Let us skip ahead a bit to 474. The stable half of the Roman Empire in the East had nominated several of the Emperors who floundered while Ricimer retained power. Ricimer had died in 472, and the Eastern Emperor, Zeno, supported Julius Nepos arrival in Rome to claim the throne in June 474. Nepos peacefully deposed Gundobad’s puppet and became the new Emperor in the West, beholden to no general. Nature soon righted itself after this brush with an independent Emperor, ruling in his own name. One of Nepos’ officers, Flavius Orestes, a former member of Attila’s court, marched on Ravenna, forcing Nepos to flee Italy, and appointed as the new Emperor his 6-year old son, Romulus Augustus, who would become known as Romulus Augustulus.
Charles Merivale’s Account of the Final Days of the Western Roman Empire
Here at The New Leaf Journal, I enjoy finding interesting and lesser-known older books to share, both for content and illustrations. For the story of the end of the Western Empire, I turn to the English historian, Charles Merivale, who lived from 1808-1893. Specifically, we will be reading from his many works about the Roman Empire – “General History of Rome: From the Foundation of the City to the Fall of Augustulus: B.C. 753-A.D. 476.” The book was published posthumously in 1903; I do not know when Mr. Merivale wrote it. At the very least, already the author of the earlier work, “A History of the Romans Under the Empire,” Mr. Merivale was not lacking in ambition.
This below passage covers part of page 654 and all of page 655 of “General History of Rome.” I will start the excerpt with the brief rise and fall of Julius Nepos. You can follow along with this link to the original text. I will discuss further after recording the passage as it was originally written.
Before continuing, please note that I copied Mr. Merivale’s text verbatim, preserving some different spellings of names from those used in the majority of this article. The same applies to quotes from selected historians in subsequent sections.
Passage from Charles Merivale’s “General History of Rome: From the Foundation of the City to the Fall of Augustulus”
“Ricimer’s soldiers, under the command of his nephew, Gundobald, now placed the diadem on the head of Glycerius. Glycerius was forced to resign in 474 in favor of Julius Nepos, a man who bore at least a genuine Roman appellation, and he was suffered to live in exile at Salona, where he became bishop, by an indulgence which was now sometimes allowed to political rivals. Nepos was constrained to abdicate in the following year, and found repose in the same quiet spot, among the gardens of Diocletian.
This last revolution was effected like those which had preceded it. Orestes, a Pannonian, but of Roman origin, had resorted with other men of distinction, amidst the troubles of the times, to the court of Attila. He had returned with wealth and reputation, and had obtained on the death of Ricimer the title of patrician, which ranked next to the imperial dignity, and was equivalent to regent of the empire. Such was the ascendancy which in after times the Franks conferred upon the Mayor of the Palace. This chief was impatient of the sovereignty of Nepos. Orestes constrained him to descend from the throne at Ravenna; but still following the policy of Ricimer and other regents before him, he abstained from assuming the purple himself, while he went through the farce of bestowing it upon his own son, a child of six years. This child, with whom the Western empire was destined to perish, bore by some freak fortune the name of Romulus, to which was added that of Augustus under it is diminutive form Augustulus. Orestes had found it easy to seize and transfer the phantom of an empire, but he could not shake off the substantial demands of Odoacer, a barbarian of uncertain origin, the chief of a combined force from various German peoples, with which he pretended to defend the tottering throne. This man demanded his price, no less than the assignment to his myrmidons one-third of the lands of Italy. This demand was petulantly refused; but Odoacer knew his own strength and called upon the tribes of the North to cross the Alps. Barbarians of many uncouth names, Rugians, Herulians, and Turcillingians flocked to the standard of so liberal a leader. Orestes had sent envoys to gain the support of the Eastern emperor; he had made peace with the Vandals. But he could offer no effectual resistance to the invaders. He sought refuge within the walls of Patavium; but the place was easily stormed, and he was delivered to the executioner. The reign of Augustulus was at an end in August 476, just a year after its commencement. Paulus, a brother of Orestes, was likewise put to death, but the tender years of the infant emperor were spared, and he found a last tranquil retreat in the delicious villa of Lucullus, on the coast of Surrentum.
And this was the end. Odoacer disdained to make an emperor. Yet neither did he assume the title in his own person. He was content to style himself king; but king in those days was a national, not a territorial title, and a captain of banditti could claim no nation as his subjects. The Empire of the West had ceased to be. The successors of the Caesars who still ruled in Constantinople, and whose rule endured a thousand more years, affected to regard it as lapsed to their own crown; but they seldom attempted to secure it, and never but for a moment held it even by the skirt. Rome continued to be governed by her native bishops, or by a series of barbarian kings; and more than three centuries elapsed before her empire was nominally revived by the great German prince who reigned at Aachen.”
Thoughts on the Passage and the Last Days of the Western Roman Empire
In the following subsections, I will offer some thoughts on Merivale’s account of the fall of the Western Roman Empire and some additional information on the main figures.
Odoacer’s No Pretense Decision
One might have expected Odoacer to go the route of Ricimer, Gundobad, and Orestes himself after seizing power. Although the Eastern half of the Empire nominally backed Julius Nepos, it had neither the resources nor the will to invest in installing its favored candidate as the ruler of what little was left of the Roman Empire. Although Odoacer may have concluded that he could not be Emperor himself, he could have easily installed a senator or other similarly situated figure as the nominal ruler, while wielding the real power behind the scenes.
Instead, Odoacer chose the path of no pretenses. There was no “Empire” left. His domain was Italy and a sliver of Gaul. As Merivale wrote: “[Odoacer] was content to style himself king; but king in those days was a national, not a territorial title, and a captain of banditti could claim no nation as his subjects.” Odoacer had no investment in the fantasy that the Western Roman Empire continued to exist in any meaningful sense, or that it could be revived. Nor did he think that there was some latent Roman spirit in the people that would cause them to resist and topple a Germanic King. Ricimer’s shadow rule after he disposed of Majorian was one of pretenses. With Majorian’s death also died any hope of a semi-meaningful Roman revival.
Odoacer did adopt one pretense. As the historian Ralph W. Mathisen retells, the Byzantine historian Malchus reported that Odoacer ordered Romulus Augustulus to write a letter of resignation to the Eastern Emperor, Leo, and send it along with the imperial regalia. The letter informed Leo that the Roman Empire had need of only one Emperor, and that the people of Italy were content with Odoacer acting as their protector. Thomas Williams Allies reported that the Western Senate concurred: “[I]n the boy Romulus Augustulus a western emperor ceased to be, and the senate declared that one emperor alone was needed.” Leo was more than happy to oblige the facade, and Odoacer ruled Italy for 17 years, nominally as a regent of the Roman Empire, but for all intents and purposes, independently.
What Happened to Romulus Augustulus After He Abdicated?
The historical accounts seem to be in unanimous agreement that the boy Emperor’s life was spared by Odoacer. The rest of Romulus Augustulus’ life, however, is shrouded in mystery, and it is not certain what he did or how long he lived.
Merivale did not dwell on the subject, only offering the following account: “[B]ut the tender years of the infant emperor were spared, and he found a last tranquil retreat in the delicious villa of Lucullus, on the coast of Surrentum.
Mr. Mathisen noted a similar account to Merivale’s, attributing it to Anonymous Valesianus: “Entering Ravenna, Odovacer deposed Augustulus from the rule, and taking pity on his youth granted him his life, and because he was comely he even granted him an income of six thousand soldidi and sent him to Campania to live freely with his relatives.”
Mr. Mathisen also notes that one account, that of the sixth-century Gothic historian, Jordanes, “painted a rather less rosy picture”: “Odovacer condemned Augustulus, the son of Orestes, to exile in the castle of Lucullus in Campania.”
The same webpage that contains Mr. Mathisen’s short history of Romulus Augustulus also includes a brief history by Mr. Geoffrey S. Nathan, delving into the different stories surrounding Augustulus’ post-imperial life.
Mr. Nathan starts with the rosier Augustulus account, that he was sent into retirement with a sizable stipend to live with relatives at Lucullanum. Mr. Nathan noted that the castle had served as the retirement villa for Tiberius, the second Roman Emperor, many centuries earlier.
Citing uncertain later accounts, Mr. Nathan noted that there are indications that “Romulus appears to have founded an important monastery at Lucullanum centered around the remains of St. Severinus, sometime in the 480s or 490s.” Furthermore, there are accounts of a “Romulus” negotiating agreements with King Theodoric in 493 and in 507 or 511 – Theodoric ruled Italy after deposing Odoacer in 493. While those are signs that Romulus lived for many years after being divested of his rule, Mr. Nathan did opine that he was almost certainly dead by the time the armies of the Roman Emperor Justinian reconquered much of Rome and Italy in the 530s, noting that a historian of the campaign who considered Romulus Augustulus the last legitimate ruler in the West made no mention of him in telling the history of Justinian’s campaign. Mr. Nathan does tell us, however, that Romulus’ monastery gained prominence and survived into the tenth century.
Was Romulus Augustulus or Julius Nepos the Last Western Roman Emperor?
There is some debate as to who was the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Merivale clearly cast his hat with Augustulus, dating the death of the Western Roman Empire to 476 with his fall. Mr. Mathisen, however, took a different view, noting that, while Romulus Augustulus’ name being fitting for the final emperor made it tempting to give him the title, “[b]ut he was a mere usurper … [t]he legitimate western emperor Nepos not only continued to rule, albeit in Dalmatia, but even had coins issued in his name in Odovacer’s Italy.” Mr. Mathisen continued: “Until his death in 480, Nepos continued to have hopes of recovering his throne, and more rightly deserves the title ‘last western Roman emperor.’”
The debate is, of course, academic. By the time 476 came about, there was no Western Roman Empire – as Odoacer recognized. I cannot disagree with Mr. Mathisen that Julius Nepos was the more deserving claimant of the title, but his being the “legitimate” Emperor meant little after nearly two decades of rule by mere puppets. The end of the Western Roman Empire, or what was left of it, is rightfully marked as occurring in August and September of 476, and the event that caused the final break was the removal of the child “Emperor,” Romulus Augustulus. Perhaps had Romulus Augustulus not borne the perfect name for a final Roman Emperor, Julius Nepos would get his due. But Romulus Augustulus had the name and a good enough claim to the title.
The fall of Rome in the West in 476 was far less dramatic than the fall of Rome in the East in 1453. In the end, Italy fell to a Germanic general from within, rather than to a mighty army from afar. Few of the players evinced having any sentiments for what was left of the once mighty Roman Empire as strong as Constantine XI’s for his beloved Constantinople and its glorious churches. The last days of Rome in the West are more of a poorly documented curiosity than a glorious story. While Romulus Augustulus’ names tied together the founding of Rome and the birth of its Empire, it was the actions and sentiments of Constantine XI nearly 1,000 years later, as I have argued, that brought together the ideals of classical and Christian Rome for one final stand.
So ends my brief retelling of the fall of Rome in the West. There is far more to the myriad events I described, and how the Western half of the Roman Empire slowly, and then quickly, disintegrated in the fifth century, before transmogrifying into a new Germanic kingdom. But this should suffice for pondering all the interesting events on the 1,544th anniversary of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Update (October 4, 2021): The Western Roman Empire remains fallen, but readers of this article may also be interested in my September 4, 2021 article about the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus.