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Heodoric's Tomb
Italy Under Odovacar
Roman Officials--cassiodorus
Rome And Ravenna
Storm And Stress
The Arian League
The Conquest Of Italy
The Might Of Attila
The Southward Migration
The Theodoric Of Saga
Theodoric's Ancestors
Theodoric's Boyhood

Italy Under Odovacar

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, Aetius, 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 Aetius 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 Aetius, 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.

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 Aetius 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 Aetius. 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 Aetius 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 Aetius.

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.

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

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]

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 L3,600 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

[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

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 Caesar 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 Caesar 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
(B.C. 44), 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.

Next: The Conquest Of Italy

Previous: Storm And Stress

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