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Romulus Augustulus
Emperor of the
Western Roman Empire
Tremissis of Romulus Augustus.
Reign 31 October 475 – 4 September 476
Predecessor Julius Nepos
Successor Odoacer (as King of Italy)
Full name
Romulus Augustulus
Father Orestes
Died unknown, after 476
unknown, probably Castellum Lucullanum
The Western and the Eastern Roman Empire by 476.

Romulus Augustus (fl. 461/463 – 476), more known by his nickname Romulus Augustulus (Little Augustus), was the last Western Roman Emperor reigning from the 31 October 475 until his deposition on the 4 September 476. His deposition is used to mark the end of the Western Roman Empire, the fall of ancient Rome, and the beginning of the Middle Ages (historically called the Dark Ages) in Western Europe.

The historical record contains few details of Romulus' life. He was installed as emperor by his father Orestes, the Magister militum (master of soldiers) of the Roman army after deposing the previous emperor Julius Nepos. Romulus, little more than a child, acted as a figurehead for his father's rule. Reigning for only ten months, Romulus was then deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer and sent to live in the Castellum Lucullanum in Campania; afterwards he disappears from the historical record.

Contents

Life

Romulus' father Orestes was a Roman citizen, originally from Pannonia, who had served as a secretary and diplomat for Attila the Hun and later rose through the ranks of the Roman army.[1] The future emperor was named Romulus after his maternal grandfather, a nobleman from Poetovio in Noricum. Many historians have noted the coincidence that the last western emperor bore the names of both Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, and Augustus, its first emperor.[2]

He is also known by his nickname "Romulus Augustulus", though he ruled officially as Romulus Augustus. The Latin suffix -ulus is a diminutive; hence, Augustulus effectively means "Little Augustus". Some Greek writers even went so far as to corrupt his name sarcastically into "Momylos", or "little disgrace".[3]

Orestes was appointed Magister militum by Julius Nepos in 475. Shortly after his appointment, Orestes launched a rebellion and captured Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire since 402, on 28 August 475. Nepos fled to Dalmatia, where his uncle had ruled a semi-autonomous state in the 460s.[4] Orestes, however, refused to become emperor, "from some secret motive", according to historian Edward Gibbon.[5] Instead, he installed his son on the throne on 31 October 475.

The empire they ruled had shrunk significantly over the previous 80 years. Imperial authority had retreated to the Italian borders and parts of southern Gaul, Italia and Gallia Narbonensis, respectivelly.[6] The Eastern Empire treated its western counterpart as a client state. The Eastern Emperor Leo, who died in 474, had appointed the western emperors Anthemius and Julius Nepos, and Constantinople never recognized the new government. Neither Zeno nor Basiliscus, the two generals fighting for the eastern throne at the time of Romulus' accession, accepted him as ruler.[3]

As a proxy for his father, Romulus made no decisions and left no monuments, though coins bearing his name were minted in Rome, Milan, Ravenna, and Gaul.[3] Several months after Orestes took power, a coalition of Heruli, Scirian and Turcilingi mercenaries demanded that he give them a third of the land in Italy.[5] When Orestes refused, the tribes revolted under the leadership of the Scirian chieftain Odoacer. Orestes was captured near Piacenza on 28 August 476 and swiftly executed.

Odoacer advanced to Ravenna, capturing the city and the youthful Emperor. Romulus was compelled to abdicate the throne on 4 September 476. This act has been used to mark the end of the Western Roman Empire, although Romulus' deposition did not cause any significant disruption at the time. Rome had already lost its hegemony over the provinces, Germanics dominated the Roman army and Germanic generals like Odoacer had long been the real powers behind the throne.[7] Italy would suffer far greater devastation in the next century when Emperor Justinian I re-conquered it.

After Romulus' abdication, the Roman Senate, on behalf of Odoacer, sent representatives to the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. Zeno was asked by the senate to formally reunite the two halves of the Empire: "the west… no longer required an emperor of its own: one monarch sufficed for the world".[8] He was also asked to make Odoacer a Patrician, and administrator of Italy in Zeno's name. Zeno pointed out that Senate should rightfully have first requested that Julius Nepos take the throne once more; but he nonetheless agreed to their requests. Odoacer then ruled Italy in Zeno's name.[9]

After the abdication

Romulus Augustus resigns the Crown

Romulus' ultimate fate is unknown. The Anonymus Valesianus wrote that Odoacer, "taking pity on his youth", spared Romulus' life and granted him an annual pension of 6,000 solidi before sending him to live with relatives in Campania.[3][10] Jordanes and Count Marcellinus, however, say Odoacer exiled Romulus to Campania, and do not mention any reward from the Germanic king.[3][10]

The sources do agree that Romulus took up residence in the Lucullan Villa, an ancient castle originally built by Lucullus in Campania.[10] From here, contemporary histories fall silent. In the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon notes that the disciples of Saint Severinus of Noricum were invited by a "Neapolitan lady" to bring his body to the villa in 488, "in the place of Augustulus, who was probably no more."[11] The villa was converted into a monastery before 500 to hold the saint's remains.[10]

Cassiodorus, then a secretary to Theodoric the Great, wrote a letter to a "Romulus" in 507 confirming a pension.[3] Thomas Hodgkin, a translator of Cassiodorus' works, wrote in 1886 that it was "surely possible" the Romulus in the letter was the same person as the last western emperor.[12] The letter would match the description of Odoacer's coup in the Anonymus Valesianus, and Romulus could have been alive in the early sixth century. But Cassiodorus does not supply any details about his correspondent or the size and nature of his pension, and Jordanes, whose history of the period abridges an earlier work by Cassiodorus, makes no mention of a pension.

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last emperor

As Romulus was a usurper, Julius Nepos was claimed to legally hold the title of emperor when Odoacer took power. However few of Nepos' contemporaries were willing to support his cause after he fled Italy. Some historians regard Julius Nepos, who ruled in Dalmatia until being murdered in 480, as the last lawful Western Roman Emperor.[13]

Following Odoacer's coup, the Roman Senate sent a letter to Zeno, saying that "the majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and protect, at the same time, both the East and the West".[14] While Zeno told the Senate that Nepos was their lawful sovereign, he did not press the point, and accepted the imperial insignia brought to him by the senate.[9][14]

Romulus in popular culture

Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote a play called Romulus the Great (Romulus der Große) about a last Emperor called Romulus Augustulus, but uses some artistic license: his Romulus is a middle-aged student of history. The play was adapted by Gore Vidal into an English-language play called "Romulus", which had a brief Broadway run in 1962.

Romulus is a principal character in the 2007 film The Last Legion, which is very loosely based on events surrounding and just after the fall of the Western Empire. He is portrayed in this film by Thomas Sangster. This film was based upon a novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi of the same title.

Romulus Augustus appears in the Massively multiplayer online role-playing game City of Heroes as an enemy Arch-Villain.

The comicbook character Tyrannus is very loosely based on the emperor.

Notes

  1. ^ Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, David Womersley, ed. London; Penguin Books, 1994. Vol. 3, p. 312.
  2. ^ For a famous example, cf. Gibbon, p. 405.
  3. ^ a b c d e f De Imperatoribus Romanis, http://www.roman-emperors.org/auggiero.htm  
  4. ^ Gibbon, pp. 391, 400.
  5. ^ a b Gibbon, p. 402.
  6. ^ Hollister, C. Warren, Medieval Europe: A Short History. New York; McGraw Hill, 1995, 32.
  7. ^ Norwich, 54.
  8. ^ Bryce 1961, p.25
  9. ^ a b Bryce, James, The Holy Roman Empire  
  10. ^ a b c d Gibbon, p. 406
  11. ^ Gibbon, p. 407
  12. ^ Cassiodorus, Variae, iii, 35.
  13. ^ Duckett, Eleanor Shipley, "I", The Gateway to the Middle Ages, p. 1, ISBN 978-0-472-06051-1  
  14. ^ a b Gibbon, p. 404.

Sources

  • Bryce, James Bryce.The Holy Roman Empire, Schocken Books, 1961.
  • Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 3, David Womersley, ed. London; Penguin Books, 1994.
  • Heather, Peter. The fall of the Roman Empire, 2005
  • Hollister, C. Warren, Medieval Europe: A Short History. New York; McGraw Hill, 1995.
  • Murdoch, Adrian, The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West, Stroud; Sutton, 2006.
  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: A Short History. New York, Vintage, 1997
  • Ralph, and Geoffrey Nathan, "Romulus Augustulus (475-476 A.D.)--Two Views", De Imperatoribus Romanis

External links

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Julius Nepos
Western Roman Emperor
475-476
Succeeded by
Odoacer (King of italy)
Preceded by
Julius Nepos
Roman Emperor
475-476
Succeeded by
Zeno as Emperor of the whole empire

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