Today (September 4, 2022) marks 1546 years since the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. I published September 4 articles on Rome in 2020 and 2021, so I figured that I ought to continue the tradition today. My September 4, 2021 article put together all of the available sources on Project Gutenberg on the life and times of Romulus Augustulus, who is most often credited with being the last Emperor of Rome in the West (Constantine XI, who was killed in battle in 1453, traditionally holds the honor of being considered the last Emperor of Rome in the East).
In my 2020 article, which served as a general survey of the imperial intrigues of the years leading up to the fall of Rome in the West, I noted that there is some dispute as to whether the rightful claimant to the title of the last Western Roman Emperor is Romulus Augustulus or his predecessor in purple, Julius Nepos:
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.’”
Nepos had been installed as the Western Roman Emperor in 474 by the Eastern Roman Emperor. He held power (whatever that was worth in what was left of the Western Roman Empire) for 14 months before being deposed by Flavius Orestes on August 28, 475.
Nepos managed to flee to Dalmatia in lieu of being killed while Orestes installed his child, Romulus Augustulus, as the nominal Emperor. Orestes was killed and Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer on September 4, 476. Odoacer did not seek the title of Roman Emperor and instead consented to Leo, the Emperor in Constantinople, being the Emperor of both Rome in the West and Rome in the East, while Odoacer exercised real power in Italy as King.
Nepos remained in Dalmatia after Odoacer seized power and continued to assert that he was the Western Roman Emperor. Leo agreed with Nepos’ view, albeit he did little in practice to support it. Nepos was killed on May 9, 480, without ever having regained control of the Western Roman Empire that he had nominally been Emperor of since 474. After Nepos’ death, the new Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno, declined to appoint a new Western Roman Emperor, resulting in the arrangement that Odoacer had sought when he initially seized power in 476.
As I noted in my 2020 post, both Romulus Augustulus and Julius Nepos have a colorable claim to the title of “last Western Roman Emperor.” Nepos survived after losing power in 475, and he asserted his claim to the title for nearly four years after Odoacer real took power in September 476. The Eastern half of the Roman Empire recognized Julius Nepos as the Western Roman emperor continuously from his becoming Emperor in 474 to his death in 480, notwithstanding the intervening military successes of Orestes and Odoacer. However, Julius Nepos does not appear to have held power in any meaningful sense after he was driven to Dalmatia in 475, where his existence was begrudgingly tolerated by Odoacer until 480.
In my 2020 article, I noted (quoted above) different historian positions on the question of who was the last Western Roman Emperor. Here, I note a contemporary take from the pseudonymous Scott Alexander, formerly of State Star Codex (now Astral Codex Ten on Substack) a psychiatrist and popular writer. Mr. Alexander engaged with the Romulus Augustulus-Julius Nepos debate not to resolve it, but rather to address issues involving postmodernism and truth. However, for this post, I will address his commentary in only the narrow aspect of the question of who was the true last emperor of the Western Roman Empire.
Mr. Alexander entered the Roman Empire history section of his essay by first noting that the statement that the Roman Empire fell in 476 is dubious in light of the fact that it survived in the East through 1453. I agree, albeit I would note that one could raise some questions about the continuity of the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known as the Byzantine Empire beyond 476, based on certain events in its latter stages (not to mention that the last rump state of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire fell in 1460). After noting that issue, he addressed the question of Romulus Augustulus and Julius Nepos, and by extension, the date on which the Western Roman Empire fell:
It would be tempting to say ‘It’s a matter of opinion whether the fall of Rome started a Dark Age, but it’s an objective fact that the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD.’ But we just saw otherwise. Even a more careful statement like “the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD” is iffy; barbarians deposed Emperor-claimant Romulus Augustulus in that year, but an equally legitimate claimant, Julius Nepos, ruled some Roman territories until 480. The date of the Western Roman Empire’s fall implicitly depends on whether you support Augustulus’ or Nepos’ claim to the throne.
For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the following interesting observation:
The date of the Western Roman Empire’s fall implicitly depends on whether you support Augustulus’ or Nepos’ claim to the throne.
This is an interesting thought. Odoacer’s deposing Orestes and Augustulus on September 4, 476, is traditionally viewed as the point at which the Western Roman Empire ceased existing. That is, the moment that Romulus Augustulus abdicated the throne is the moment at which the Western Roman Empire was no more. However, some historians believe that Julius Nepos, who reigned in Dalmatia and continued to be recognized in Constantinople (and reluctantly to a limited extent by Odoacer) as the Western Roman Emperor until his death in 480. Is it necessarily the case, as Mr. Alexander suggested, that recognizing Julius Nepos as the last Roman Emperor means dating the fall of the Western Roman Empire to 480 instead of 476?
(Before continuing, I note again that Mr. Alexander addressed Augustulus vs Nepos for reasons other than determining the identity of the last Western Roman Emperor or the date of the fall of Rome in the West, so my own take below should not be seen as agreeing or disagreeing with Mr. Alexander’s essay. I only note the above passage from his essay as a prompt for a separate question.)
In my 2020 article, I noted that the question of whether Romulus Augustulus or Julius Nepos was the last Western Roman Emperor is purely academic. There is a saying about the later Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy nor Roman nor an Empire. The same can be said about the “Western Roman Empire” in 476. The later Western Roman Emperors maintained a tenuous grip over most of Italy and little elseand, as I detailed in the 2020 review, their power generally depended on warlords (e.g., Romulus Augustulus) or the favor of the Emperor in Constantinople (e.g., Julius Nepos). Odoacer’s seizure of power was very much in line with the trend that began in 455 except for the fact that he neither claimed to be Emperor himself nor did he appoint a puppet to “rule” as a figurehead while he exercised power. Thus, the Western Roman Empire was not much of an “Empire” by 476. Neither Julius Nepos nor Romulus Augustulus’ father had much to rule over, and both were at the mercy of more powerful actors. Moreover, as Mr. Alexander indirectly noted, the way in which the “fall of Rome” is discussed now is not necessarily how it was seen at the time. Rome had been ruled, directly or indirectly, by warlords for two decades prior to Odoacer’s ascension in 476. Odoacer’s real battle was against another warlord, Flavius Orestes – the abdication of Romulus Augustulus was a mere formality. Odoacer’s break from tradition was packaged as embracing tradition – he never renounced Constantinople but instead claimed to accept the nominal authority of the Eastern Roman Emperor. Those in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire continued to view themselves as Roman, and I will venture that the same could be said of many persons living under the rule of Odoacer.
In light of the foregoing, there is no meaningful historical consequence that results from siding with Romulus Augustulus or Julius Nepos as the last Western Roman Emperor. But is there a semantic consequence in giving the honor to Julius Nepos? Is it the case, as Mr. Alexander suggested in his example above, that viewing Julius Nepos as the last Western Roman Emperor means dating the fall of the Western Roman Empire to May 9, 480, instead of September 4, 476? I do not think that this is necessarily the case. While the concept of the fall of Rome in the West is nebulous, Odoacer’s victory in 476 was a turning point in that Odoacer rejected the pretenses that characterized the shadow rules of several 5th century Germanic generals. With the benefit of hindsight, it is indisputable that although the significance of Odoacer’s conquest may not have been fully clear at the time, it accelerated the transition of Italy from what it had been into something new. (This fact presents the best argument for viewing Romulus Augustulus – who despite being a child was not too much more powerless than a number of his predecessors – as the last Western Roman Emperor.)
For these reasons, I think that one can view Julius Nepos as the last Roman Emperor while also dating the effective fall (or transmogrification) of the Western Roman Empire to 476. Odoacer himself tolerated Julius Nepos’ claim to the title of Roman Emperor at the behest of Constantinople, and Julius Nepos’ nominal recognition cast a shadow over Odoacer’s rule while Nepos lived. But Nepos never exercised real power in Italy subsequent to being forced out of power by Orestes in 475, and his claim to the throne subsequent to September 4, 476, ultimately had little consequence to Odoacer’s grip on power and the transformation of the former Western Roman Empire into a new entity that would, over time, become more and more distinct from its Eastern half. Giving Nepos the honor of being the last genuine claimant to the title of the Western Roman Empire while also acknowledging that this claim does not diminish the significance of Romulus Augustulus’ abdication on September 4, 476 on the history of Italy and Western Europe.
My Dual Case For Augustulus and Nepos
For whatever it is worth, I think that while Julius Nepos certainly did more than the young Romulus Augustulus to become Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus is the best candidate for the title of “last Western Roman Emperor.” Nepos was mostly an afterthought after Romulus Augustulus abdicated the throne under duress to Odoacer. As I noted above, Odoacer’s assuming practical control in Italy while declining to become Emperor himself or appoint a shadow Emperor, was one of many decisive moments in the end of the Western Roman Empire and Western Europe’s transition from the Roman period. The same cannot be said of the death of Julius Nepos. However, with all of that having been said, Julius Nepos indisputably holds the title of the last legitimate claimant to the title of Western Roman Emperor, insofar as that imperial office was distinguishable from the office of Emperor in Constantinople.
(PS: There really is no way to deny the honor of “last Western Roman Emperor” to someone with so perfect a name for the crown as Romulus Augustulus.)