The Role of Treachery in and after the Fall of the Roman Empire
The so-called fall of the Roman Empire is a milestone in western history. Yet the betrayals that often marked Rome’s transfer of power didn’t disappear. Treachery gave rise to the last western Roman emperor in 475 and, on March 15, 493, the Ostrogothic rule of Italy that would last 60 years.
Julius Nepos became western emperor in 474, appointed by eastern emperors Leo I and Zeno. Nepos placed Orestes, a former official for Attila the Hun, in command of Roman troops to battle barbarian allies rebelling in southern Gaul. Orestes had other ideas. He sent the army to march on Ravenna, the capital of the western empire, and on August 28, 475, Nepos fled the empire.
Noted historian Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire says “some secret motive” lay behind Orestes having his son Romulus proclaimed emperor. As Romulus was only between 12 and 15 years old at the time, he was called Romulus Augustulus, the latter term meaning “little Augustus.” The boy was merely a figurehead while Orestes exercised imperial power. The rule didn’t last long.
In 476, Germanic barbarian troops in the Roman Army revolted, led by Odoacer (also known as Odovacer or Odovacar). Odoacer’s forces defeated, captured, and executed Orestes, and on September 4, 476, they captured Ravenna and Romulus. In light of the boy’s age, Odoacer not only spared him but granted him a pension to live on in exile. The soldiers declared Odoacer king.
The following year, the Roman Senate sent a delegation to Constantinople to inform Zeno they were now governed by Odoacer, but neither he nor they considered Odoacer emperor. They also said Rome wasn’t abandoning allegiance to the Eastern Roman Empire. Zeno accepted this state of affairs, but to Odoacer, it was form over substance. “For it was the will of Odoacer that was obeyed in the land, and not the will of his titular superior at Constantinople,” wrote noted British historian Charles Oman in The Dark Ages, 476–918.