The Last Emperor of Rome
By Natasha Sheldon
Romulus Augustus is widely recognised as the last Emperor of Rome. His abdication marked the fall of the western Roman Empire
Named for the founder of Rome and its first emperor, Romulus Augustus is widely regarded as the Western Empire’s last emperor. Aged fourteen at his accession, he was forced to abdicate only ten months later. His story is synonymous with the decline of the empire he so briefly ruled.
The Last Roman Emperor?
Declared emperor on the 31st October 475AD in Ravenna, there is some debate as to whether Romulus’ title was legitimate. He was awarded power following a military coup organised by his father, the general Orestes. However, the deposed emperor, Julius Nepos, still lived, albeit in exile in Dalmatia.
Nepos had been installed by the eastern emperors, Leo and Zeno and they continued to regarded him as emperor. In reality, Nepos’s had little support in the west. After Orestes siezed power, he fled Italy and this was taken by the Roman senate as evidence of his deposition. Despite their nominal support, Leo and Zeno offered Nepos no practical help to restore him.
Contemporaries then, accepted that, Nepos was replaced by the young Augustus. This fact is reinforced by the fact that after Romulus's deposition, the man who replaced him, Odovacar, viceroy of Italy, still cast coins in his name.
‘Little Augustus’ and the Decline of Rome
This acceptance did not make Romulus a credible emperor. Orestes installed his son as a puppet emperor, probably on the basis of the boy’s mother’s patrician credentials. But the boy became known as ‘Augustulus’ or little Augustus, signifying his unimportance. Some even referred to him as ‘momylus’ or little disgrace. Romulus made no decisions and only left his mark through a few coins minted in Rome, Ravenna and Gaul.
Yet the ‘little disgrace’ suited his empire well. Rome’s influenced had waned, stretching no further than Italy and parts of Gaul. Many Roman landowners outside Italy had been forced to hand over their lands to encroaching German allies. Orestes maintained his power through tenuous promises of Italian land to barbarian mercenaries who had helped him mount his coup. When he rescinded his offer, Odovacar one of his German officers led them against him.
The Final Fall of Rome
War followed, culminating in Orestes defeat and execution in Piacenza. Little over a week later, Romulus was forced to abdicate on the 4th September 476AD in the city where he inherited the imperial mantel. Owing to his youth, his life was spared and he was sent to Campania, either in exile or pensioned retirement. It is at this point that history falls silent on the subject of Rome’s last emperor.
Edward Gibbon Decline and fall of the Roman Empire (Bison Books, 1979)