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The Fall of the Roman Empire: Italy Under the Barbarian Odovacar

The last Roman Emperors were weak and indolent, and almost indifferent to the collapse of the Empire going on around them.

Condition of Italy--End of the line of Theodosius--Ricimer the Patrician--Struggles with the Vandals--Orestes the Patrician makes his son Emperor, who is called Augustulus--The fall of the Western Empire and elevation of Odovacar--Embassies to Constantinople.




In former chapters I have very briefly sketched the fortunes of the Italian peninsula during two great barbarian invasions--that of Alaric (407-410) and that of Attila (452). The monarch who ruled the Western Empire at the date of the last invasion was Valentinian III., grandson of the great Theodosius. He dwelt sometimes at Rome, sometimes at Ravenna, which latter city, protected by the waves of the Adriatic and by the innumerable canals and pools through which the waters of two rivers [42] flowed lazily to the sea, was all but impregnable by the barbarians. A selfish and indolent voluptuary, Valentinian III. made no valuable contribution to the defence of the menaced Empire, some stones of which were being shaken down every year by the tremendous blows of the Teutonic invaders. Any wisdom that might be shown in the councils of the State was due to his mother, Galla Placidia, who, till her death in 451, was the real ruler of the Empire. Any strength and valour that was displayed in its defence was due to the great minister and general, Aëtius, a man who had himself, probably, many drops of barbarian blood in his veins, though he has been not unfitly styled "the last of the Romans". It was Aëtius who, as we have seen, in concert with the Visigothic king, fought the fight of civilisation against Hunnish barbarism on the Catalaunian battle-plain. It was to "Aëtius, thrice Consul", that "the groans of the Britons" were addressed when "the Barbarians drove them to the sea, and the sea drove them back on the Barbarians".

[Footnote 42: The Ronco and the Montone.]

When Attila was dead, the weak and worthless Emperor seems to have thought that he might safely dispense with the services of this too powerful subject. Inviting Aëtius to his palace, he debated with him a scheme for the marriage of their children (the son of the general was to wed the daughter of the Emperor), and when the debate grew warm, with calculated passion he snatched a sword from one of his guardsmen, and with it pierced the body of Aëtius. The bloody work was finished by the courtiers standing by, and the most eminent of the friends and counsellors of the deceased statesman were murdered at the same time.

The foul assassination of this great defender of the Roman State was requited next year by two barbarians of his train, men who no doubt cherished for Aëtius the same feelings of personal loyalty which bound the members of a Teutonic "Comitatus" to their chief, and who deemed life a dishonour while their leader's blood remained unavenged. On a day in March, while Valentinian was watching intently the games in the Campus Martius of Rome, these two barbarians rushed upon him and stabbed him, slaying at the same time the eunuch, who had been his chief confederate in the murder of Aëtius.

With Valentinian III. the line of Theodosius, which had swayed the Roman sceptre for eighty-six years, came to an end. None of the men who after him bore the great title of Augustus in Rome (I am speaking, of course, of the fifth century only) succeeded in founding a dynasty. Not only was no one of them followed by a son: scarcely one of them was suffered to end his own reign in peace. Of the nine Emperors who wore the purple in Italy after the death of Valentinian, only two ended their reigns in the course of nature, four were deposed, and three met their death by violence. Only one reigned for more than five years; several could only measure the duration of their royalty by months. Even the short period (455-476) which these nine reigns occupy is not entirely filled by them, for there were frequent interregna, one lasting for a year and eight months. And the men were as feeble as their kingly life was short and precarious. With the single exception of Majorian, (457-461), a brave and strong man, and one who, if fair play had been given him, would have assuredly done something to stay the ruin of the Empire, all of these nine men (with whose names there is no need to burden the reader's memory) are fitly named by a German historian "the Shadow Emperors".

During sixteen years of this time (456-472), supreme power in the Empire was virtually wielded by a nobleman of barbarian origin, but naturalised in the Roman State, the proud and stern "Patrician" Ricimer. This man, descended from the chiefs of the Suevi,[43] grandson of a Visigothic king, and brother-in-law of a king of the Burgundians, was doubtless able to bring much barbaric influence to support the cause which, from whatever motives, he had espoused,--the cause of the defence of that which was left to Rome of her Empire in the West of Europe.

[Footnote: 43 widely spread German nation, the largest fragment of which was at this time settled in the west of Spain and in Portugal.]

Many Teutonic tribes had by this time settled themselves in the Imperial lands. Spain was quite lost to the Empire: some fragments of Gaul were still bound to it by a most precarious tie; but the loss which threatened the life of the State most nearly was the loss of Africa. For this province, the capital of which was the restored and Romanised city of Carthage, had been for generations the chief exporter of corn to feed the pauperised population of Rome, and here now dwelt and ruled, and from hence (428-432) sallied forth to his piratical raids against Italy, the deadliest enemy of the Roman name, the king of the Vandals, Gaiseric.[44] The Vandal conquest of Africa was, at the time which we have now reached, a somewhat old story, nearly a generation having elapsed since it occurred,[45] but the Vandal sack of Rome, which came to pass immediately after the death of Valentinian III., and which marked the beginning of the period of the "Shadow Emperors" was still near and terrible to the memories of men. No Roman but remembered in bitterness of soul how in June, 455, the long ships of the Vandals appeared at the mouth of the Tiber, how Gaiseric and his men landed, marched to the Eternal City, and entered it unopposed, how they remained there for a fortnight, not perhaps slaying or ravishing, but with calm insolence plundering the city of all that they cared to carry away, stripping off what they supposed to be the golden roof of the Capitol, removing the statues from their pedestals, transporting everything that seemed beautiful or costly, and stowing away all their spoils in the holds of those insatiable vessels of theirs which lay at anchor at Ostia.

[Footnote 44: Commonly but incorrectly called Genseric. The form used above, which is that found in nearly all contemporary historians, is now almost universally employed by German scholars.]

[Footnote 45: The capture of Carthage, which completed the conquest, did not take place till 439.]

The remembrance of this humiliating capture and the fear that it might at any moment be repeated, probably with circumstances of greater atrocity, were the dominant emotions in the hearts of the Roman Senate and people during the twenty-one years which we are now rapidly surveying. It was doubtless these feelings which induced them to submit more patiently than they would otherwise have done to the scarcely veiled autocracy of an imperfectly Romanised Teuton such as Ricimer. He was a barbarian, it was true; probably he could not even speak Latin grammatically; but he was mighty with the barbarian kings, mighty with the foederati the rough soldiers gathered from every German tribe on the other side of the Alps, who now formed the bulk of the Imperial army; let him be as arrogant as he would to the Senate, let him set up and pull down one "Shadow Emperor" after another, if only he would keep the streets of Rome from being again profaned by the tread of the terrible Vandal.

(456-468) To a certain extent the confidence reposed in Ricimer was not misplaced. He inflicted a severe defeat on the Vandals in a naval engagement near the island of Corsica; he raised to the throne the young and valiant Majorian, who repelled a Vandal invasion of Campania; he planned, in conjunction with the Eastern Emperor, a great expedition against Carthage, which failed through no fault of his, but by the bad generalship of Basiliscus, whose brother-in-law, Leo, had appointed him to the command. But the rule of a barbarian like Ricimer exercised on the sacred soil of Italy, and the brutal arrogance with which he dashed down one of his puppet-Emperors after another when they had served his purpose, must have done much to break the spirit of the Roman nobles and the Roman commonalty, and to prepare the way for the Teutonic revolution which occurred soon after his death. Above all, we have reason to think that, during the whole time of Ricimer's ascendancy, the barbarian foederati were becoming more absolutely dominant in the Roman army, and with waxing numbers were growing more insolent in their demeanour, and more intolerable In their demands.

The ranks of the foederati were at this time recruited, not from one of the great historic nationalities--Visigoth, Ostrogoth, Frank, or Burgundian,--but chiefly from a number of petty tribes, known as the Rugii, Scyri, Heruli, and Turcilingi, who have failed to make any enduring mark in history. These tribes, which upon the break-up of Attila's Empire had established themselves on the shore of the Middle Danube, north and west of the lands occupied by the Ostrogoths, were continually sending their young warriors over the passes of Noricum (Salzburg, Styria, and Carinthia) to seek their fortune in Italy. One of these recruits, on his southward journey, stepped into the cave of a holy hermit named Severinus, and stooping his lofty stature in the lowly cell, asked the saint's blessing. When the blessing was given, the youth said: "Farewell". "Not farewell, but fare forward",[46] answered Severinus. "Onward into Italy: skin-clothed now, but destined before long to enrich many men with costly gifts". The name of this young recruit was Odovacar.[47]

[Footnote 46: "Vale". "Vade".]

[Footnote 47: This is the form of the name used by contemporary historians; Odoacer is a later and less authentic form.]

Odovacar probably entered Italy about 465. He attached himself to the party of Ricimer, and before long became a conspicuous captain of foederati After the death of Ricimer (18th August, 472), there was a series of rapid revolutions in the Roman State. Olybrius, the then reigning nonentity, died in October of the same year.

(June, 474) After five months' interregnum, a yet more shadowy shadow, Glycerius, succeeded him, and after fifteen months of rule was thrust from the throne by Julius Nepos, who had married the niece of Verina, the mischief-making Augusta of the East, and who was, therefore, supported by all the moral influence of Constantinople.

Nepos, after fourteen months of Empire, in which he distinguished himself only by the loss of some (Oct.,475) Gaulish provinces to the Visigoths, was in his turn dethroned by the Master of the Soldiery, Orestes, who had once held a subordinate situation in the court of Attila. Nepos fled to Dalmatia, which was probably his native land, and lived there for four years after his dethronement, still keeping up some at least of the state which belonged to a Roman Emperor.

We know very little of the pretexts for these rapid revolutions, or the circumstances attending them, but there cannot be much doubt that the army was the chief agent in what, to borrow a phrase from modern Spanish politics, were a series of pronunciamentos. For some reason which is dim to us, Orestes, though a full-blooded Roman citizen, did not set the diadem on his own head, but placed it on that of his son, a handsome boy of some fourteen or fifteen years, named Romulus, and nicknamed "the little Augustus". For himself, he took the dignity of "Patrician", which had been so long worn by Ricimer, and was associated in men's minds with the practical mastery of the Empire. But a ruler who has been raised to the throne by military sedition soon finds that the authors of his elevation are the most exacting of masters. The foederati, who knew themselves now absolute arbiters of the destiny of the Empire, and who had the same craving for a settlement within its borders which we have met with more than once among the followers of Theodoric, presented themselves before the Patrician Orestes, and demanded that one-third of the lands of Italy should be assigned to them as a perpetual inheritance. This was more than Orestes dared to grant, and, on his refusal, Odovacar said to the mercenaries: "Make me king and I will obtain for you your desire".

(23d Aug., 476) The offer was accepted; Odovacar was lifted high on a shield by the arms of stalwart barbarians, and saluted as king by their unanimous acclamations.

When the foederati were gathered out of the "Roman" army, there seems to have been nothing left that was capable of making any real defence of the Empire. The campaign, if such it may be called, between Odovacar and Orestes was of the shortest and most perfunctory kind. Ticinum (Pavia), in which Orestes had taken refuge, was taken, sacked, and partly burnt by the barbarians. The Master of the Soldiery himself fled to Placentia, but was there taken prisoner and beheaded, only five days after the elevation of Odovacar. A week later his brother Paulus, who had not men enough to hold even the strong city of Ravenna, was taken prisoner, and slain in the great pine-forest outside that city. At Ravenna the young puppet-Emperor, Romulus, was also taken prisoner. The barbarian showed himself more merciful, perhaps also more contemptuous, towards his boy-rival than was the custom of the Emperors of Rome and Constantinople towards the sons of their competitors. Odovacar, who pitied the tender years of Augustulus, and looked with admiration on his beautiful countenance, spared his life and assigned to him for a residence the palace and gardens of Lucullus, the conqueror of Mithridates, who five and a half centuries before had prepared for himself this beautiful home (the Lucullanum) in the very heart of the lovely Bay of Naples. The building and the fortifying of a great commercial city have utterly altered the whole aspect of the bay, but in the long egg-shaped peninsula, on which stands to-day the Castel dell' Ovo, we can still see the outlines of the famous Lucullanum, in which the last Roman Emperor of Rome ended his inglorious days. His conqueror generously allowed him a pension of £3,600 per annum, but for how long this pension continued to be a charge on the revenues of the new kingdom we are unable to say. There is one doubtful indication of his having survived his abdication by about thirty years,[48] but clear historical notices of his subsequent life and of the date of his death are denied us; a striking proof of the absolute nullity of his character.

[Footnote 48: I allude here to a letter in the Vanarum of Cassiodorus (iii., 35), written between 504 and 525, and addressed to Romulus and his mother. But we can by no means prove that this is Romulus Augustulus.]

This then was the event which stands out in the history of Europe as the "Fall of the Western Empire" The reader will perceive that it was no great and terrible invasion of a conquering host like the Fall of the Eastern Empire in 1453; no sudden overthrow of a national polity like the Norman Conquest of 1066; not even a bloody overturning of the existing order by demagogic force like the French Revolution of 1792. It was but the continuance of a process which had been going forward more or less manifestly for nearly a century,--the recognition of the fact that the foederati, the so-called barbarian mercenaries of Rome, were really her masters. If we had to seek a parallel for the event of 476, we should find it rather in the deposition of the last Mogul Emperor at Delhi, and the public assumption by the British Queen of the "Raj" over the greater part of India, than in any of the other events to which we have alluded.

Reflecting on this fact, and seeing that the Roman Empire still lived on in the East for nearly a thousand years, that the Eastern Cæsar never for many generations reliquished his claim to be considered the legitimate ruler of the Old Rome, as well as of the New, and sometimes asserted that claim in a very real and effective manner, and considering too that Charles the Great, when he (in modern phrase) "restored the Western Empire" in 800, never professed to be the successor of Romulus Augustulus, but of Constantine VI., the then recently deposed Emperor of the East; the latest school of historical investigators, with scarcely an exception, minimise the importance of the event of 476, and some even object to the expression "Fall of the Western Empire" as fitly describing it. The protest is a sound one and was greatly needed. Perhaps now the danger is in the other direction, and there is a risk of our making too little of an event in which after all the sceptre did manifestly depart from Rome. During the whole interval between Odovacar's accession and Belisarius' occupation of Rome (476-536), no Roman, however proud or patriotic, could blind himself to the fact that a man of barbarian blood was the real, and in a certain sense the supreme, ruler of his country. Ricimer might be looked upon as an eminent servant of the Emperor who had the misfortune to be of barbarian birth. Odovacar and Theodoric were, without all contradiction, kings; if not "kings of Italy", at any rate "kings in Italy", sometimes actually making war on the Cæsar of Byzantium, and not caring, when they did so, to set up the phantom of a rival Emperor in order to legitimise their opposition. But in a matter so greatly debated as this it will be safer not to use our own or any modern words, This is how Count Marcellinus, an official of the Eastern Empire, writing his annals about fifty-eight years after the deposition of Romulus, describes the event: "Odovacar killed Orestes and condemned his son Augustulus to the punishment of exile in the Lucullanum, a castle of Campania. The Hesperian (Western) Empire of the Roman people, which Octavianus Augustus first of the Augusti began to hold in the 709th year of the building of the city (44 Before Christ), perished with this Augustulus in the 522d year of his predecessors (A.D. 476), the kings of the Goths thenceforward holding both Rome and Italy".[49]

[Footnote 49: "Orestem Odoacer llico trucidavit, Augustulum filium Orestis Odoacer in Lucullano Campania castello exilii poena damnavit. Hesperium Romana gentis imperium, quod septingentesimo nono urbis condita anno primus Augustorum Octavianus Augustus tenere coepit, cum hoc Augustulo periit, anno decessorum regni Imperatorum DXXII. Gothorum dehinc regibus Romam tenentibus". It will be seen that there is an error of two years in the calculation.]

Of the details of Odovacar's rule in Italy we know very little. Of course the foederati had their will, at any rate in some measure, with reference to the assignment of land in Italy, but no historian has told us anything as to the social disorganisation which such a redistribution of property must have produced. There are some indications that it was not thoroughly carried into effect, at any rate in the South of Italy, and that the settlements of the foederati were chiefly in the valley of the Po, and in the districts since known as the Romagna.

The old Imperial machinery of government was taken over by the new ruler, and in all outward appearance things probably went on under King Odovacar much as they had done under Count Ricimer. No great act of cruelty or oppression stains the memory of Odovacar. He lost Provence to the Visigoths, but, on the other hand, he by judicious diplomacy recovered Sicily from the Vandals. Altogether it is probable that Italy was, at any rate, not more miserable under the sway of this barbarian king than she had been at any time since Alaric's invasion, in 408, proclaimed her helplessness to the world.

One piece of solemn comedy is worth relating, namely, the embassies despatched to Constantinople by the rival claimants to the dominion of Italy. It was probably towards the end of 477, or early in 478, that Zeno, then recently returned from exile after the usurpation of Basiliscus, received two embassies from two deposed Emperors of the West. First of all came the ambassadors of Augustulus, or rather of the Roman Senate, sent nominally by the orders of Augustulus, really by those of Odovacar. These men, great Roman nobles, represented "that they did not need an Emperor of their own. One absolute ruler was sufficient to guard both East and West; but they had, moreover, chosen Odovacar, who was well able to protect their interests, being a man wise in counsel and brave in war. They therefore prayed the Emperor to bestow on him the dignity of Patrician, and to entrust to him the administration of the affairs of Italy". At the same time (apparently) they brought the ornaments of the Imperial dignity, the diadem, the purple robe, the jewelled buskins, which had been worn by all the "Shadow Emperors" who flitted across the stage, and requested that they might be laid up in the Imperial palace at Constantinople.

Simultaneously there came ambassadors from Nepos, the Imperial refugee, the nephew by marriage of Verina. From his Dalmatian exile he congratulated his kinsman Zeno on his recent restoration to the throne, and begged him to lend men and money to bring about the like happy result for him by replacing him on the Western throne.

To these embassies Zeno returned ambiguous answers, which seemed to leave the question as to the legitimacy of Odovacar's rule an open one. The Senate were sharply rebuked for having acquiesced in the dethronement of Nepos, and a previous Emperor who had been sent to them from the East.[50] Odovacar was recommended to seek the coveted dignity from Nepos, and to co-operate for his return. At the same time, the moderation of Odovacar's rule, and his desire to conform himself to the maxims of Roman civilisation, received the Emperor's praise. The nature of the reply to Nepos is not recorded, but it was no doubt made plain to him that sympathy and good wishes were all that he would receive from his Eastern colleague. The letters addressed to Odovacar bore the superscription "To the Patrician Odovacar", and that was all that the barbarian really cared for. With such a title as this, every act, even the most high-handed, on the part of the barbarian king was rendered legitimate. Nepos and Augustulus were equally excluded as useless encumbrances to the state, and the kings de jure and de facto became practically one man, and that man Odovacar.

[Footnote 50: Anthemius.]







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