Romulus Augustus – The Last Emperor of Rome
Romulus Augustus was the son of Orestes who once had been an assistant to Attila the Hun, and who had at times been sent on diplomatic visits to Constantinople.
After Attila’s death, Orestes joined the service of the western empire and quickly achieved senior position. In 474 emperor Julius Nepos made him ‘Master of Soldiers’ and raised him to the rank of patrician.
In this elevated position Orestes enjoyed far greater support by the troops than the emperor himself. For by now almost the entire garrison of Italy consisted of German mercenaries. They felt very little allegiance to the empire at all. If they had any allegiance then it was to their fellow German ‘Master of Soldiers.’ For Orestes was half German, half Roman.
Seeing his chance, Orestes launched a coup d’état and marched his troops on Ravenna, the seat of the emperor. Julius Nepos fled in August 475, leaving Italy to Orestes. Yet Orestes did not take the throne himself. With his Roman wife he had a son Romulus Augustus. Perhaps Orestes decided that the Romans would be more willing to accept his son, who bore more Roman blood in him, than he himself did. In any case, Orestes made his young son emperor of the west in 475. The eastern empire refused to recognize the usurper and continued to support Julius Nepos who remained in exile in Dalmatia.
Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of Rome, was a target of much mockery in his day. For his name alone invited ridicule. Romulus being the legendary first king of Rome, and Augustus its glorious first emperor. Hence both his names were at times transformed to reflect the public’s disrespect for him. Romulus was changed to Momyllus, which means little disgrace, and Augustus was turned into Augustulus, meaning little Augustus or little emperor. It was the latter version which stuck with him throughout history, with many historians today still referring to him as Romulus Augustulus.
Only ten months after Romulus’ accession to the throne, a serious mutiny of the troops arose.
The reason for the troubles was that in other parts of the western empire landowners had been obliged to hand over possession of up to two thirds of their estates to allied Germans within the empire. However, this policy had never been applied to Italy. Orestes had at first made promises of such land grants to the German soldiery if they would help him depose Julius Nepos. Once this had been done he had chosen to forget such concessions, but the German troops were not willing to let the issue be forgotten and demanded their third of the land. The man who led their protest was one of Orestes’ own senior officers, Flavius Odoacer.
Faced with such a wide scale mutiny, Orestes withdrew behind the well-fortified walls of the city of Ticinum. But the mutiny was not to be a short lived affair.
Ticinum was besieged, captured and sacked. Orestes was taken to Placentia where he was executed in 476. Orestes’ brother (Paul) was soon after killed during fighting near Ravenna.
Odoacer thereafter captured the city of Ravenna and forced Romulus to abdicate on September 4, 476. The deposed emperor was retired to a palace at Misenum in Campania with an annual pension of six thousand solidi. The date of his death is unknown, though some accounts indicate that he may still have been alive in 507-11.
Meanwhile, the emperor in the east since 474, Flavius Zeno, was troubled by an Ostrogoth tribal chief, Theodoric, and he rid himself of Theodoric by sending him and his army to Italy against Theodoric’s fellow Ostrogoth, Odoacer. Theodoric’s army confronted Odoacer’s army and after four years of fighting, Theodoric wore down Odoacer’s forces. During a truce the two leaders met. Odoacer and Theodoric agreed to divide the rule of Italy between them. It was another sharing of power that was not to succeed. At a banquet at the emperor’s palace, Theodoric killed Odoacer, and Theodoric’s troops killed all of Odoacer’s relatives and cut down Odoacer’s troops wherever they could find them.
Theodoric established himself as King of Italy, not as Rome’s emperor. The family line of emperors in the western half of the empire had come to an end. The west was now to be dominated by Germans. Emperors in the east still ruled over Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, to be known as the Byzantine Empire – Byzantium the former name of the city of Constantinople. The most dominant empire in the world, one that lasted over 500 years, had come to an end.