An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors
Romulus Augustulus (475-476 A.D.)--Two Views
Last Roman Emperor in the West
The Next Emperor Odoacer, a Barbarian in 476 marks the
beginning of the Dark Ages
Ralph W. Mathisen
University of South Carolina
BACKGROUND AND ACCESSION
By the year 475, the western Roman empire was on its last legs. Its geographical holdings had shrunk to Italy and a toehold in southern Gaul. The reigning western emperor, Julius Nepos (474-475) had been appointed by the eastern emperors Leo (457-474) and Zeno (474-491), but had little tangible support either in the east or the west. In 475, Nepos replaced the Patrician and Master of Soldiers in the west, the Gaul Ecdicius, with Orestes, whose primary claim to fame had been service as the notarius (secretary) of Attila the Hun. Orestes responded by marching on Ravenna. The sixth-century Gothic historian Jordanes tells the tale:
"This Orestes, having taken charge of the army and having departed from Rome against the enemies, arrived at Ravenna, and remaining there he made his son Augustulus emperor. When he learned this, Nepos fled to Dalmatia" ("qui Orestes suscepto exercitu et contra hostes egrediens a Roma Ravenna pervenit ibique remoratus Augustulum filimum suum imperatorem efficit. quo conperto Nepus fugit Dalmatias...": Jordanes, Getica 241).
The Anonymous Valesianus indicates that Nepos arrived at Ravenna with Orestes in hot pursuit: "Soon Nepos arrived at Ravenna, pursued by the Patrician Orestes and his army. Fearing the arrival of Orestes, Nepos boarded a ship and fled to Salona" ("mox veniens Ravennam, quem persequens Orestes patricius cum exercitu, metuens Nepos adventum Orestis, ascendens navem fugam petit ad Salonam": 7.36 s.a.474). The Auctuarii Hauniensis ordo prior provides some additional insights:
"While Nepos was in the city, the Patrician Orestes was sent against him with the main force of the army. But because Nepos dared not undertake the business of resisting in such desperate conditions, he fled to Dalmatia in his ships. When Nepos had fled Italy and departed from the city, Orestes assumed the primacy and all the authority for himself and made his son Augustulus emperor at Ravenna" ("Nepote apud urbem residente Orestes patricius cum robore exercitus contra eum mittitur. sed cum desperatae rei negotium resistendo sumere non auderet, ad Dalmatias navigiis fugit. cum Nepos fugiens Italiam ac urbem reliquisset, Orestes primatum omnemque sibi vindicans dignitatem Augustulum filium suum apud Ravennam positum imperatorem facit, ipse vero omnem curam externorum praesidiorum gerit": s.a.475; cf. Auctarii Hauniensis ordo posterior: "Nepos cum ab Oreste patricio cum exercitu persequeretur, fugiens ad Dalmatias usque navigavit": s.a.475).
Other, briefer, sources provide a little clarification. The Fasti vindobonenses priores, for example, confirm that Nepos took flight from Ravenna after the arrival of Orestes: "In this year, on 28 August, the Patrician Orestes entered Ravenna with his army and the emperor Nepos fled to Dalmatia" ("his cons. introivit Ravennam patricius Orestes cum exercitu et fugavit imp. Nepos ad Dalmatias V kl. Septemb.": no.615. s.a.475). Jordanes says simply, "In the western empire, Orestes put the emperor Nepos to flight and established his own son Augustulus on the throne" ("parte vero Hesperia Nepotem imperatorem Orestes fugatum Augustulum suum filium in imperium conlocavit": Jordanes, Romana 344); and Count Marcellinus likewise recalled, "As soon as Nepos had been put to flight Orestes set his son Augustulus on the throne" ("Nepote Orestes protinus effugato Augustulum filium suum in imperium conlocavit": Chron. s.a.475).
Orestes then seems to have temporized for over two months, perhaps waiting for some response from the east. Finally, on 31 October 475, Orestes named his young son Romulus, perhaps fourteen years of age, as western Roman emperor. Given that Nepos, who had been nominated by the eastern emperor Leo (457-474), still reigned, albeit in exile, there was no question of Romulus ever receiving recognition from the east. The report by the chronicler Victor of Tonnena that Orestes' son was named Herculanus, and made an abortive attempt to seize power after the death of Anthemius, seems to be an erroneous reference to Romulus.
The youngster took the title "Augustus" as his name, but became commonly known as Augustulus, "the little Augustus": in the words of the Anonymous Valesianus, "Augustulus, who prior to ruling had been called Romulus by his parents, was made emperor by his father, the Patrician Orestes." Orestes, of course, intended to keep the real power in his own hands, as noted by an anonymous Italian chronicler: "Orestes, appropriating the primacy and every power to himself, made his son Augustulus emperor at Ravenna; he himself undertook all the supervision of external affairs."
The most serious problem that the new administration faced was how to manage the diverse barbarian troops putatively under his command. One means of doing so was to pay them. Gold solidi of Romulus were issued at Rome, Milan, and probably Ravenna. And one problem that the die-cutters had was in trying to fit the entire name "Romulus Augustus" onto a single coin. A token number of solidi also was issued at Arles, attesting to the last tenuous hold that the empire had in Gaul. A few silver coins were issued at Ravenna, but no bronze coins of Romulus are known.
Problems with the soldiers escalated in 476, when troops including Heruls, Scirians, and Torcilingi made demands for land grants that were refused by Orestes. The soldiers then turned to Odovacar, a barbarian chieftain from a Hunnish and Scirian background. He promised to grant their requests if they made him king. They did so on 23 August, and then advanced against Orestes.
On 28 August 476, Orestes was captured and killed by Odovacar near Piacenza -- the site of the defeat of the emperor Avitus in 456. Odovacar then occupied Ravenna, where on either 31 August or 4 September he killed Orestes' brother Paulus. As for young Romulus, the Anonymous Valesianus (8.38) reports, "Entering Ravenna, Odovacar deposed Augustulus from the rule, and taking pity on his youth he granted him his life, and because he was comely he even granted to him an income of six thousand solidi and sent him to Campania to live freely with his relatives." The chronicler Count Marcellinus painted a rather less rosy picture of Romulus' fate: "Odovacar, king of the Goths, occupied Rome. Odovacar immediately killed Orestes. Odovacar condemned Augustulus, the son of Orestes, to exile in the castle of Lucullus in Campania" ("Odoacar rex Gothorum Romam obtinuit. Orestem Odoacer ilico trucidavit. Augustulum filium Orestis Odoacer in Lucullano Campaniae castello exilii poena damnavit": s.a.476). And Jordanes similarly related,
"After Augustulus had been established as emperor at Ravenna by his father Orestes, not long afterward Odovacer, king of the Torcilingi, who had with him the Scirians, Heruls, and auxiliaries from diverse peoples, occupied Italy and, after killing Orestes, deposed his son Augustulus from the rule and condemned him to exile in the Lucullan castle in Campania" ("Augustulo vero a patre Oreste in Ravenna imperatore ordinato non multum post Odoacer Torcilingorum rex habens secum Sciros, Herulos diversarumque gentium auxiliarios Italiam occupavit et Orestem interfectum Augustulum filium eius de regno pulsum in Lucullano Campaniae castello exilii poena damnavit": Getica 242).
This castellum has sometimes been identified as the estate of the late-Roman Republican general Lucullus.
The Byzantine historian Malchus, moreover, suggests that Romulus was required to perform one final official act before going into retirement: the dispatching of a "letter of resignation" to the eastern emperor Zeno returning the imperial regalia and saying that the empire now needed but a single emperor, in Constantinople.
"When Augustus, the son of Orestes, heard that Zeno, having expelled Basiliscus, had again gained the kingship of the east, he caused the Senate to send an embassy to tell Zeno that they had no need of a separate empire but that a single common emperor would be sufficient for both territories, and, moreover, that Odovacar had been chosen by them as a suitable man to safeguard their affairs, since he had political understanding along with military skill; they asked Zeno to award Odovacar the patrician honor and grant him the government of the Italies. The men from the Senate in Rome reached Byzantium carrying these messages. On the same day messengers from Nepos also came to congratulate Zeno on the recent events concerning this restoration, and at the same time to ask him zealously to help Nepos, a man who had suffered equal misfortunes, in the recovery of his empire. They asked that he grant money and an army for this purpose and that he co-operate in his restoration in any other ways that might be necessary. Nepos had sent the men to say these things. Zeno gave the following answer to those arrivals and to the men from the Senate: the western Romans had received two men from the eastern Empire and had driven one out, Nepos, and killed the other, Anthemius. Now, he said, they knew what ought to be done. While their emperor was still alive, they should hold no other thought than to receive him back on his return. To the barbarians he replied that it would be well if Odovacar were to receive the patrician rank from the emperor Nepos and that he himself would grant it unless Nepos granted it first. He commended him in that he had displayed this initial instance of guarding good order, suitable to the Romans, and trusted for this reason that, if he truly wished to act with justice, he would quickly receive back the emperor [sc. Nepos] who had given him his positon of honor. He sent a royal epistle about what he desired to Odovacar and in this letter named him a patrician. Zeno gave this help to Nepos, pitying his sufferings because of his own, and holding to the principle that the common lot of fortune is to grieve with the unfortunate. At the same time Verina also joined in urging this, giving a helping hand to the wife of Nepos, her relative" (fr. 10: Gordon trans., pp.127-128)
Nepos, of course, never was able to reoccupy Italy, which remained in the hands of Odovacar. Cassiodorus stated, "In this year, Orestes and his brother Paulus were killed by Odovacar, and Odovacar assumed the title of King, although he made use of neither the purple nor the imperial regalia" ("His conss. ab Odovacre Orestes et frater eius Paulus extincti sunt nomenque regis Odovacar adsumpsit, cum tamen nec purpura nec regalibus uteretur insignibus": no.1303).
Romulus had lost his throne after just over ten months of rule -- his deposition would have occurred on or soon after 4 September 476. One cannot explain the curious report in the Anonymus Valesianus that Augustulus ruled not one but ten years: "Augustulus imperavit annos X" (7.36). His fate after his settlement in Campania is unknown, although it has been suggested that he might be the Romulus to whom the Ostrogothic king Theodoric wrote ca. 507/511 concerning a bequest made to a certain Romulus and his mother.
After Romulus' fall, the last scanty imperial possessions in southern Gaul were occupied by the Visigoths: under the year 477, the Gallic Chronicle of 511 reported, "Arles was captured by Euric, along with Marseilles and the other fortified places" ("Arelate capta est ab Eurico cum Massilia et ceteris castellis": no.657). Curiously, however, the Danubian provinces of Raetia and Noricum seem still to have retained a loose connection to Italy (the Life of St. Severinus of Noricum reports that border militia in Noricum continuing to have expectations of being paid from Italy), not, hoever, because of any Italian authority, but merely because of administrative inertia, and the lack of any barbarian people sufficiently powerful, or interested, to occupy this region.
Romulus commonly has been considered to be the last emperor of the western empire; with names like "Romulus" and "Augustus", it would have been difficult indeed to resist doing so. This tradition began as early as the early sixth century, when Count Marcellinus lamented,
"The western Empire of the Roman people, which first began in the seven hundred and ninth year after the founding of the City with Octavian Augustus, the first of the emperors, perished with this Augustulus, in the five-hundred and twenty-second year of the reign of Augustus' successor emperors. From this point on Gothic kings held power in Rome" ("Hesperium Romanae gentis imperium, quod septingentesimo nono urbis conditae anno primus Augustorum Octavianus Augustus tenere coepit, cum hoc Augustulo periit, anno decessorum regni imperatorum quingentesimo vigesimo secundo, Gothorum dehinc regibus Roman tenentibus": s.a.476).
Both the "seven hundred and ninth year after the founding of the City," counting from 753 BC, and, counting backward from 476 AD, "five-hundred and twenty-second year of the reign of Augustus' successors", work out to 45 BC, the date that Marcellinus seems to have assumed the Roman Empire began. Perhaps Caesar's victory at Munda or his assumption of the perpetual dictatorship was meant. or, if not this, then perhaps the inception of the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC, or the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
Romulus was indeed the last, and perhaps even the least significant, of the "shadow" or "puppet" emperors of the west. But otherwise he was a mere usurper, and an undistinguished one at that. The legitimate western emperor Nepos not only continued to rule, albeit in Dalmatia, but even had coins issued in his name in Odovacar's Italy. 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 sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius pronounced an apt epitaph on Augustulus and the other shadow emperors when he noted, confusing Nepos with Olybrius,
"And another emperor, Nepos, upon taking over the empire and living to enjoy it only a few days, died of disease, and Glycerius after him entered into this office and suffered a similar fate. And after him Augustus assumed the imperial power. There were, moreover, still other emperors in the west before this time, bht although I know their names well, I shall make no mention of them whatsoever. For it so fell out that they lived only a short time after attaining the office, and as a result of this accomplished nothing worthy of mention..." (Bellum Vandalicum 7.15-17: Dewing trans., p.69)
Cantarelli, L., Annali d'Italia. Dalla morte di Valentiniano III alla deposizione di Romolo Augustolo (anni 455-476) (Rome, 1896)
________., "L'ultimo rifugio di Romolo Augustolo," Historia 2 (1928) pp.185-190.
Croke, Brian, "A.D. 476: The Manufacture of a Turning Point," Chiron 13 (1983) 81-119
Dewing, H.B., trans., Procopius, History of the Wars, vol.2 (Cambridge, Mass., 1916).
Gusso, Massimo, "Incerteze onomastiche e scanbi di persona a carico degli ultimi sovrani occidentali: Il caso del misterioso imperatore Herculanus in Vittore di Tunnuna," Studia et Documenta Historia et Iuris 59 (1003) pp.337-346.
Hodgkin, Thomas, Italy and Her Invaders, vol.2 (London, 1880) pp.508-514.
Hossner, Karl, Die letzten kaiser des römischen abendlandes: Anthemius, Olybrius, Glycerius, Julius Nepos und Romulus Augustulus (Bielitz, 1900)
Martindale, John R., ed., The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Volume II. A.D. 395-527 (Cambridge, 1980) = PLRE II pp.949-950.
Vassilli, L., "Oreste, ultimo esponente del tradizionialismo romano," Rivista di Filologia e d'Istruzione Classica 67 (1939) p.261ff.
Geoffrey S. Nathan
University of California-Los Angeles
Romulus' early life and reign
Romulus, commonly called the diminutive "Augustulus" because of his youth, was named emperor by his father, Orestes, after the latter had revolted against Julius Nepos. Crowned in October of 475, possibly at the age of ten, he reigned as a figurehead for ten months in Ravenna while his father actually ran the remains of the western empire in Italy as military commander-in-chief (magister militum). In mid-476, Odovacer-- a "barbarian" officer of undetermined ethnicity--led a revolt against Orestes for failing to provide lands for Germanic troops in Roman employ (or perhaps income from those lands). Orestes was quickly defeated and executed in August of that year.
Romulus was spared because of his age and was sent to live in exile at the castellum Lucullanum near Naples. Lucullanum had been an imperial estate originally built by the Roman Republican statesman, Lucius Licinius Lucullus (consul 74 BC), and had served as the retirement villa for the emperor Tiberius. With Romulus went various relatives and a sizable retinue. Odovacer granted him an annual stipend of 6,000 solidi, the income of a wealthy senator, and sent the imperial regalia to the emperor Zeno in Constantinople. Odovacer subsequently swore allegiance to the eastern emperor and ruled as king in Italy without an imperial successor. Most scholars consider Romulus Augustulus' forced abdication the end of the western Roman Empire as a political entity.
Possible post-abdication activities
As a private citizen, Romulus appears to have founded an important monastery at Lucullanum centered around the remains of St. Severinus, sometime in the 480's or early 490's. Barbaria, a noblewoman who was probably his mother, also played a crucial role in establishing the religious house. In 493 and again in 507 (or 511), Romulus had to renegotiate his financial arrangements with the government of king Theodoric: Odovacer after all had promised the stipend, not the Ostrogothic king. He is surely dead by the time of the emperor Justinian's invasion of Italy in the mid-530's. The historian Procopius--who considered Romulus the last legitimate ruler of the west--does not mention the boy-emperor during his account of the campaign. Romulus' monastery, however, gained considerable prominence by the pontificate of Gregory I and survived into the tenth century (Severinus' remains still rest in Naples today).
Nothing of his personal character is known nor what policies, if any, he pursued. There are no laws, no significant inscriptions and few coins to supplement the meager narrative record of Romulus Augustulus' brief stewardship of the imperial throne. Yet this shadowy and inconsequential figure holds the dubious distinction of being Rome's last western emperor.
There are few primary source references to Romulus or his reign. The principal record of his reign comes in the Anonymous Valesianus 7:36, 8:37 and 10:45. See also Jordanes, Getica 241-2 and Romana 344; Marcellinus comes, a.c. 475 and 476; Procopius, BG, i:1-8. For his survival into the sixth century, see Cassiodorus, Variae iii:35. For his possible religious activities, see Eugippius, Vita Severini preface and 46.
Croke, B. (1983), "A.D. 476: The Manufacture of a Turning Point," Chiron 13, 81-119.
Demougeot, E. (1978), "Bedeutet das Jahr 476 das Ende des romischen Reichs im Okzident?" Klio 60, 371-81.
Hodgkin, Thomas (1886), Italy and her Invaders, vol. 3 (London), 188-91.
Martindale, J.R. (1980), The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 2 (Cambridge), 811-2 and 949-50.
Momigliano, A. (1973), "La caduta senza rumore di un impero nel 476 d.C.," in Concetto, storia, miti e immagini del Medio Evo (Florence), 409-28.
Nathan, Geoffrey (1992), "The Last Emperor: The Fate of Romulus Augustulus," Classica et Mediaevalia 43, 261-71.
Thompson, E.A. (1982), Romans and Barbarians (Madison), 61-6.
Comments to: Ralph W. Mathisen. and Geoffrey S. Nathan
Updated: 26 August 1997
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