Moneta con Romolo Augusto Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. CC BY-SA 3.0


The sack of Rome of 390 by the Gauls, of 410 by the Visigoths and the sack of 455 by the vandals led by Genserico, who arrived to Rome by climbing the Tiber with their fleet, were the precursors of the fall of the Western Roman Empire took place at the hands of Odoacre.

The Vandals, whose Genserico was king, came from Carthage, their homeland. They had signed a peace treaty with the Romans. Following the assassination of Emperor Valentinian III by Petronio Massimo who usurped the throne, Genserico believed the peace treaty had fallen. All the patricians of Rome, headed by Petronio Massimo, escaped from the city on arrival at the Tiber mouth of the Vandal fleet. Petronio was captured little outside the walls of the city by the abandoned population and was killed. After two days the vandals entered Rome. Pope Leo I faced Genserico by imploring to save Rome and its inhabitants. In spite of the bad reputation which came with the vandals, Genserico respected the pope’s desire and the Urbe and the Romans were largely spared by the fire and the sword of the invaders, who were happy with the gold and silver they managed to raid.

The decadence of the empire built by Rome had its beginning already in the third century, when the Romans began to engage massively in their army barbaric elements of Germanic origin, good fighters but difficult to control. The situation had also deteriorated since the Romans renounced the command of their legions, entrusting them to generals of barbarian and Germanic origins. Army control was ensured until the money payments to troops and their generals were punctual and abundant. When the money was late to arrive, the troops rebelled and created problems for their control.

After Valentinian III and Petronio Massimo there were another six emperors, from Avito to Glicerio, who did not leave their traces in Roman history. At the end of the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire had lost many of its territories. It included Italy, Gaul (Kingdom of Soissons), Dalmatia and Rezia-Norica, today Friuli and Austria. Glicerio was deposed by Giulio Nepote in 474, which, to give him a consolation prize, made him the bishop of Milan. After about a year of reign, Emperor Nepote was removed by his general, Flavio Oreste.

Flavio Oreste, who was born in Pannonia, thanks to the knowledge of his wife, who was the daughter of “Comes” Romulus, became “magister militum” and commanded the Roman troops in Gaul. Not content with this task, he entered Italy with his troops to remove Giulio Nepote. The emperor fled to Ravenna, pursued by Oreste. He embarked for Dalmatia, leaving coast clear to his “magister militum”, saving his life.

Flavio Oreste, wanting to do things right, asked the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zenone, to appoint him as his representative in the Western Roman Empire. Not having received a reply, on October 31, 475, he made Roman Senate do his son Romolo Augusto, just 14 years old, the Western Roman Emperor. Flavio Oreste could not personally obtain the nomination because he was of barbarian origin, while his son, his mother being from a Roman patrician family, was considered a citizen of Rome.

Because of the young age of Romulus, his father Flavio Oreste had the power and he ruled the empire. He was called Augustolo (the term “ulus” in Latin meant “small”) for this reason, which was indicative of age and the fact that he did not count for anything. His father did also strike a golden coin, a “solido” (from which derived the current “soldo”), with the image of the young emperor.

The commander of the Roman legions was Odoacre. He had an Unna or Scira origin. He became general of the Roman army, “comes domesticorum,” under the Emperor Glicerio. He was smart and moderate, as a general of Germanic origin could be. He had been serving Nepote but had not hesitated to side with Flavio Oreste to help him to remove the emperor.

Flavio Oreste encountered many difficulties in finding the sums needed to pay the barbarian troops that formed the Roman army, given the general anarchy widespread in Italy. Their commander Odoacre asked that he and his soldiers be granted one-third of the Italian territories in exchange for money remuneration. Flavio Oreste refused to grant much of the Italian territory. The troops commanded by Odoacre rebelled and appointed their commander “Rex (King)”. After a few days on August 28, 476 German soldiers, commanded by Odoacre, captured Flavio Oreste in Piacenza and killed him.

After the killing of Flavio, Odoacre forced his son Romolo Augusto, reigning emperor, to write a letter to Zenone, emperor of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, with whom he renounced the throne to facilitate the reunion of the two empires, the eastern Empire and the western, under the crown of Zenone. He suggested appointing Odoacre as representative of the emperor in Italy in his message. The resignation to the throne saved life to Romolo who was relegated to the ancient villa of Lucullo located on the islet of Megaride, in the Gulf of Naples, where today the Castel Dell’Ovo is sited. Probably Odoacre spared the young Romolo because, aware that he could never acquire the title, thought it appropriate to keep a backup possibility while keeping the young emperor alive. It seems that Odoacre also granted Romolo Augusto an annuity of six thousand solids for his material needs. It was a remarkable sum, which allowed a very expensive life. There is not much news about Augustus Romulus after his removal. In 488, mother of Romolo wrote to the disciples of San Severino to invite them to a ceremony during which the remains of the saint would be transferred to a church on the island of Megaride, inside Lucullo’s villa.

Odoacre could not get long-wanted appointment to “Patrician” by Zenone who would have officially declared his dominance over Italy. According to Zenone, the former Emperor Giulio Nepote, who was removed by Flavio Oreste, was the only one to have nominations relating to the Italian peninsula. Despite this, Zenone called him “Patrizio” in the messages that later addressed him. Giulio Nepote never returned to Italy, preferring to stay in Dalmatia.

After a few years Zenone changed his mind about the control Odoacre exercised over Italy and Dalmatia that he had in the meantime invaded. Around the year 490, he charged Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, to conquer Italy. After several clashes, which ended most often with the Ostrogoth’s victory, Odoacre took refuge in Ravenna. Teodorico besieged the city. Odoacre’s resistance was fierce and lasted for a few months. In the end, having no hope of winning, he agreed with the king of Ostrogoth, which provided for a joint government of both of them on Italy. During the celebration following the agreement, Teodorico took the sword from Odoacre and struck him with a slice to the collarbone. Odoacre died shortly after the serious injury.

There is a correspondence between Teodorico and Romolo Augusto in 507. The secretary of Teodorico, Cassiodoro, confirmed the annual annuity in favor of the former emperor who died in Naples, in his fortified villa, in one unspecified year back to 511.

Romulus Augustus is considered by many historians as the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire. The year of his removal, 476, is considered to be the beginning date of the Middle Ages. Some historians consider Giulio Nepote as the last emperor, as he was the last to be recognized as such by Zenone. They therefore consider 480, the date of Nepote’s death by Ovidia, the year of the end of the Western Roman Empire. However, the last emperor recognized as such by the Roman Senate, the only authority with the formal power to elect them, was Romolo Augusto.

(Imagine at the top: Moneta con Romolo Augusto Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. CC BY-SA 3.0)