Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

How the Western Empire Came to an End

We must now go back to the year 472, when Rikimer the emperor-maker died. The last emperor whom he had made, Olybrius, survived him only two months; and, after some time, Gundobad, Rikimer's nephew the same whom we have before spoken of as King of the Burgunds—appointed a certain Glycerius to the vacant throne. The choice did not please the eastern emperor, Leo, and Julius Nepos, Prince of Dalmatia, and a nephew (by marriage) of Leo's wife, was proclaimed at Constantinople, Emperor of the West. Nepos sailed to Italy to take possession of his empire in the spring of 474. There was not much trouble with Glycerius, who was soon persuaded to resign his diadem, and accept consecration as Bishop of Salona in Dalmatia. But in the August of the following year, Nepos himself had to take refuge in his inherited dominions. The army had revolted, and the commander-in-chief, an Illyrian named Orestes, had seized the reins of government.

This Orestes had had a strange history. About thirty years before the date of the events just mentioned, his native country—the northern part of what is now called Croatia had been given up by the Romans to the Huns. Orestes, who was then quite a young man, finding himself one of Attila's subjects, offered his services to the Hunnish king, and seems to have acted as his secretary. In this capacity he was in the year 448 sent on a mission from Attila to the eastern emperor, Theodosius II., and we read of his being terribly indignant because he was not regarded as a person of equal consequence with his fellow-envoy, Edica the Scirian. By what curious chances it came about that the former secretary of Attila now found himself at the head of the Roman army, and master of the Roman state, history does not tell.

Orestes did not choose to call himself emperor, thinking, perhaps, that it was safer for the wearer of the diadem and the real holder of power to be different persons. He contented himself with the title of Patrician, the same which had been borne by Rikimer and by Aetius; and bestowed the imperial crown on his son, a boy of fourteen, who was named Romulus after his maternal grandfather. Very likely Orestes may have thought what a lucky omen it was that the new emperor should bear the name of Rome's first sovereign, and may have flattered himself that his son's reign would be the beginning of a new age of glory and prosperity for the empire that had fallen so low. But the people looked on the election of the boy-emperor as a good joke, and turned his grand title of Augustus into the playful diminutive Augustulus. And so "Romulus Augustulus" is the name by which the son of Orestes is always known in history.

It was not long before signs of serious trouble showed themselves. The barbarian troops in the Roman service demanded of the Patrician that he should make them a gift of one-third of every landed estate in Italy. Orestes refused, and the whole mixed multitude of Goths, Scirians, Rugians, Turtilings, Herules, and Alans, which now formed the great bulk of the military force of the western empire, rose at once in rebellion. They chose as their king Odovacar or Odoacer [Audawakrs], the son of that Edica the Scirian, whom we have mentioned as having been associated with Orestes in Attila's embassy to Constantinople. The Scirians were one of those smaller peoples who spoke the same language of the Goths, and hence Odovacar is often spoken of as "King of the Goths." But he was really not the king of any nation, but only of the mingled host, belonging to many barbarian races, who served under the Roman standards.

There is a story which tells how, when Odovacar was a young man, poor and unknown, he was wandering in Southern Germany, and paid a visit with some of his companions to a saintly hermit named Severinus to ask for his blessing. His coarse dress showed his poverty, but the attention of the saint was at once attracted by his stature, which was so tall that he had to stoop in order to come under the lowly roof of the cell. Severinus soon saw that the young Scirian was as remarkable for his powers of mind as for his noble form and bearing, and prophesied that •there was a glorious career before him. Odovacar informed him that he was intending to go to Italy to seek employment in the Roman army. "By all means go," said Severinus, "although you are now poorly clad in skins, I foresee that it will not be long before you make many men rich with your princely gifts."

Orestes was killed in the tumult; some say that Odovacar slew him with his own hand. But the king of the barbarians took pity on "Romulus Augustulus," and gave him a pension of six thousand gold pieces yearly, and a splendid palace at Misenum, on the bay of Naples, which had belonged to the great Roman general, Lucullus.

It was in the year 476 that Orestes was put to death. For four years longer Odovacar seems to have kept up the pretense of being the servant and protector of the boy-emperor. But in the year 48o Augustulus was made formally to resign his throne, and to add his signature to a memorial which the senate addressed to the eastern emperor Zeno, saying that they had determined to abolish the useless dignity of emperor of the west, and asking him to proclaim himself the sovereign of the whole Roman world. Of course they added the request that Zeno would entrust the government of the western provinces to that excellent statesman and soldier Odovacar, and confer on him the rank of Patrician.

The memorial was carried to Constantinople by delegates from the senate, who were accompanied by ambassadors sent by Odovacar himself. No doubt Odovacar thought that Zeno, who had just been restored to the throne from which he had been driven by rebellion, would be highly flattered by the prospect of becoming, if only in name, the emperor both of east and west.

But on the same day on which the envoys presented themselves at the palace, there arrived ambassadors from Nepos to congratulate Zeno on his restoration, and to beg for his assistance in regaining his lost empire. Nepos was related by marriage to the empress, and had too many friends at the court at Constantinople for Zeno to venture to betray his cause. He angrily upbraided the senate for their treason against their rightful sovereign. To Odovacar himself he sent a polite letter, recommending him to acknowledge his allegiance to Nepos, and to seek to obtain from him the office which he desired. In the letter, however, he addressed Odovacar by the title of "Patrician," which, he said, he felt sure Nepos would willingly grant when he was asked.

But although Zeno might refuse to acknowledge the action of the senate, it was none the less the fact that the abdication of Romulus was the end of the western empire. The year 48o is a memorable date in history, and the name of "Romulus Augustulus" a memorable name, though the poor boy-emperor himself never did anything to make it so. From this time forward the proud title of Augustus remained the exclusive possession of the rulers of Constantinople, until three centuries later it was assumed by the Frankish king who was crowned at Rome as the successor of the emperors of the West.

Before this fateful year had closed, Nepos was assassinated by a certain Count Ovida. Zeno made no attempt to appoint a successor, and no longer refused to be regarded as sovereign over the western provinces.

Of course this sovereignty was only an empty name, for Odovacar was practically king of Italy, and all the rest of what had been the western empire was in the hands of other barbarian kings. The rule of Odovacar, so far as it depended on himself, was wise and merciful. Although an Arian, he gave the Catholics full liberty of worship; the Roman state officials were allowed to keep their places, and the system of government was little changed. But the barbarian soldiers received their promised third part of the Italian lands, and they subjected the Roman country people to a great deal of insult and oppression, which the king was unable to prevent. Property and life became insecure; agriculture and trade fell into neglect, and altogether the state of Italy under Odovacar was one of great wretchedness.

Although Odovacar would tolerate no interference with his government, he tried to gain Zeno's goodwill in various ways. He sent over to Constantinople the insignia of the imperial palace, and caused statues of the emperor to be erected in Rome and elsewhere. He also undertook an expedition to Dalmatia against the murderer of Nepos, who (vas taken prisoner and put to death.

But Zeno was anxious to be master of Italy in reality as well as in name, and if he had had a powerful army at his command he would very promptly have made an attempt to drive out the usurper by force of arms. For several years his weakness compelled him to put of his design, but about the year 489 he granted permission to the king of the Ostrogoths, the famous Theoderic the Amaling, to invade the country, and to take possession of it in the name of the empire.

Before we tell of the struggle that took place between Odovacar and the Amaling, we must relate the story of Theoderic's early life.