Thursday, April 21, 2011

Monarch Profile: Emperor Romulus

The Roman Empire was an institution so influential and truly historical that, in many ways, the world refused to let it die. The Eastern Roman Empire lingered on until the fall of Constantinople in the 15th Century under Emperor Constantine XI while in the west, the Roman Empire was restored in 800 AD as the Holy Roman Empire which survived until the 19th Century when it was dissolved by Emperor Francis II in 1802 under pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte. However, the one area which most fascinates is the old Western Roman Empire which ended, rather ingloriously, with the overthrow of the young Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 AD. His reign was short, almost insignificant in perspective, but also extremely interesting.

It is one of the strange twists of history that the last Emperor of Rome was also the son of a man who once served the single greatest threat the Roman Empire had ever faced, namely; Attila the Hun. Known as "the Scourge of God", Attila's right hand man during his invasions was a man named Orestes. It was Orestes who later became a Roman general himself, though by this time, the once mighty Western Roman Empire had been reduced to most of the Italian peninsula and a small holding in the south of Gaul. Ruling at this time was the Emperor Julius Nepos, appointed in 474 by the Emperors of the East, Leo and Zeno, though he himself was not very strong and it was Nepos who appointed Orestes to the post of Patrician and Master of Soldiers for the Western Empire.

Obviously, this was not a wise decision on the part of Nepos as when the Emperor ordered the new Patrician to march against Gaul, the ambitious Orestes immediately marched into Ravenna on August 28, 475, forced Nepos to flee to Dalmatia, and made his son Romulus Emperor two months later on October 31. The new monarch was probably around 10 to 14-years-old and would not have been able to count on significant international recognition were it not for the fact that the Emperor Leo of the East, who had appointed Julius Nepos, had died the previous year. Because of his youth, the new Emperor was nicknamed "Agustulus" or "the little Augustus" by those around him. The real power continued to be with his father Orestes who effectively ran the empire, or what was left of it, in the name of his son.

Orestes attended to diplomatic efforts first, in actions that in hindsight seems quite a bit like obsessing over details in the face of disaster. He secured recognition for Emperor Romulus from the Eastern Empire and negotiated peace treaties with the German princes ruling in Spain, Africa and Gaul. While this ensured peace for a few years, at least from these individuals, the throne of Romulus was far from secure and such diplomatic efforts amounted to little more than making beds in a burning house.

During this era, the decay of the once mighty Roman Empire was in its final stages, and a clear indication of the depths to which Rome had fallen is how few Romans there were who could actually bestir themselves to fight for the Empire. The Roman military now consisted of barbarians of various tribes, acting as mercenaries, who had no real loyalty to Rome or the young Emperor Romulus but who expected to be paid. These men, fierce, brutal and increasingly exasperated, were Orestes' biggest problem. Gold coins were struck and distributed in Rome, Milan and Ravenna bearing the image of Romulus Augustulus but these few tokens were nothing compared to what the barbarian mercenaries were demanding.

In 476, when Orestes to give land to the assorted Heruls, Scirians and Torcilingi who were demanded compensation for their service, they dropped all semblance of loyalty to the young Emperor Romulus and turned instead to the German chieftain Odoacer. Odoacer, himself a "barbarian" of mixed Scirian and Hunnish ancestry, was somewhat more shrewd and promised the disgruntled soldiers all that they had been denied by Orestes if they would support his own ambition to become king. Seeing the opportunity for something as better than a certainty of nothing, they made an official agreement with Odoacer on August 23, 476 and immediately turned to attack Orestes, hardly bothering at all about his son who actually sat on the imperial throne.

Orestes came out to meet them but was forced to retreat to Pavia, which soon fell to Odoacer. The barbarians closed in on Orestes near Piacenza and on August 28, captured and beheaded him. With that victory, the power behind the throne was gone, and in effect, the campaign was all but over. Odoacer moved on to Ravenna where he killed the Emperor's uncle, Paulus in late August or early September. Once the city was taken, Odoacer turned his attention to the nominal ruler, Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Sources differ over how Odoacer reacted to the boy. Some imply that he was harshly removed and banished, barely escaping with his life. Others say that the chieftain took a liking to the hapless, young monarch. According to one source, because of his youth and handsome appearance he decided to depose Romulus rather than execute him and then sent the former emperor into exile in Campania with his family where he paid him an annual pension of 6,000 solidi. However, Odoacer also forced Romulus to formally abdicate his position, sending a "letter of resignation" to Emperor Zeno of the Eastern Empire, effectively recognizing Constantinople as the one and only capital of the Empire.

If true, this may have been due to the fact that the Emperor Julius Nepos in Dalmatia, who still considered himself the true Western Emperor in exile, was plotting to regain his throne in Italy. In fact, the message from Odoacer seeking recognition of his claim to be King of Italy arrived in Constantinople on the very same day as a message from Emperor Nepos seeking Byzantine money and troops to help in reclaiming his lost dominions. Not wishing to further endanger the shaky imperial hierarchy, Emperor Zeno decided to back the man his predecessors had placed on the throne and advised the envoys from Odoacer to deal with Nepos as the Western Emperor and seek his rank of Patrician from him before Zeno would confirm it.

Of course, Nepos was never able to retake his throne and the Western Roman Empire formally came to an end after the ten month reign of Romulus Augustulus. By then, nothing remained with Odoacer in command of Italy and the few holdings in Gaul rapidly taken in by the Visigoths. In point of fact though, the boy best known as "the last Roman Emperor" might not have been so were it not for the attraction of his name, recalling the legendary co-founder of Rome, allowing for a nice illustration of the Roman civilization coming full circle from one Romulus to another. In actuality, Emperor Romulus was the pawn of his father and nothing more, a usurper who had taken the throne from the legitimate Emperor Nepos who continued to claim Italy from his base in Dalmatia for the rest of his life. Little is known of the young emperor's life in exile. He sent the imperial regalia to Emperor Zeno, who recognized Odoacer as King of Italy, but it seems that he continued to be at least somewhat active, founding the monastery at Lucullanum with the support of his very religious mother.

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