4 September 476 CE, the warlord Odoacer proclaimed himself “King of Italy” after deposing Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman emperor.
“But Odoacer had resolved to abolish that useless and expensive office; and such is the weight of antique prejudice, that it required some boldness and penetration to discover the extreme facility of the enterprise. The unfortunate Augustulus was made the instrument of his own disgrace: he signified his resignation to the senate; and that assembly, in their last act of obedience to a Roman prince, still affected the spirit of freedom, and the forms of the constitution.“ (Edward Gibbon, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“)
|J.M.W. Turner’s Romantic reminiscence of ancient Roman glories with a few of the Campo Vaccino, the cow pasture, as the old Forum Romanum was known in 1839, when Turner painted his masterpiece.|
Once a confidant of Attila the Hun and now, in 475 CE, magister militum, something along the lines of a general field marshal and supreme commander, the Pannonian aristo Orestes showed a remarkable sense for realpolitik in not trying to become Emperor of the West, but crowning his underaged son instead. In fact, the crumbling Western Roman Empire was torn apart for centuries by military brass trying to become imperator and over the course of the 5th century, it were, more often than not, the Germanic military leaders who reigned instead of the Roman-born shadow emperors they had under their thumbs. Unfortunately his common sense left him rather soon and Orestes, ignoring the demands for land in Italy of his own Germanic, Hunnic and Indo-Iranian soldiery, was, before he knew it, defeated and killed by one of the leaders of these so-called foederati, one of the typical condottiero-types of the Migration Period of mixed ethnic origin, a man called Odoacer.
|Hermann Knackfuß' (1848 - 1915) imagination of Romulus Augustulus surrendering crown and imperial purple to Odoacer|
According to the, admittedly, not always reliable contemporary sources, Odoacer "took pity on the youth” of Romulus Augustulus, the teenaged emperor who had reigned for only ten months. He spared his life, even granted him a yearly rent of 6,000 solidi, probably about half a million Euros in today’s money, along with an estate near Naples, and Romulus Augustulus might have still been alive during the reign of Theoderic the Great in the early 6th century. The latter finally ended Odoacer’s reign as King of Italy in 490 CE and established the short-lived Ostrogothic Empire in the ruins of Western Rome. Odoacer’s act of deposing the last Western Emperor was perceived for a long time as the end of antiquity or at least that of the Western Empire. Actually, Odoacer sent Romulus Augustulus’ insignia to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople, stating that one Augustus would be entirely sufficient and reigned, more or less, as a vassal of Eastern Rome. Nevertheless, the tradition of the principate in Rome, invoked by Octavian as first Augustus in 27 BCE, ended after more than 500 years with Romulus Augustulus and in many parts of Western Europe the Middle Ages had indeed begun.
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