Odoacer

The Germanic chieftain Odoacer (433-493), by deposing the Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus, is traditionally credited with ending the Western Roman Empire.

Odoacer was born into a Germanic tribe, the Scirians, and was probably the younger son of Edico, an important person under Attila the Hun. In 470 he and the Scirians entered Italy and, together with many Germanic warriors, took up military service under the Romans. In 472 these German troops, including Odoacer, rebelled and aided the powerful German Ricimer in his bid to make Olybrius emperor. Both Ricimer and Olybrius soon died, and in the ensuing struggle a Roman officer, Orestes, triumphed. In 476 he established his son Romulus Augustulus as emperor, dispossessing the existing Western emperor, Julius Nepos.

However, Orestes failed to satisfy the demands of the Germans, who turned to Odoacer, proclaiming him king on Aug. 23, 476. The Germans then followed him in a rebellion which led to Orestes' death and Romulus's deposition. Significantly Odoacer ceased using shadow emperors and instead claimed himself as the power in the West with whom Zeno, the Eastern emperor, had to deal. Defining the nature of that relationship would concern Zeno and Odoacer as long as Odoacer lived.

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An Uneasy Throne

Zeno still claimed to support the deposed Julius Nepos, but he rewarded Odoacer with the title of patrician. In 480 Julius Nepos was murdered, and Odoacer punished his murderers. Zeno had no choice but to recognize Odoacer. Peace lasted until 487, when Odoacer corresponded with a certain Illus, a rebel against Zeno. Although Odoacer had not actually aided the rebel, Zeno regarded his actions as hostile and decided to break his power by sending the Germanic tribe of the Rugians against him (487). Odoacer defeated the Rugians, and Zeno turned for assistance to Theodoric, ruler of the Ostrogoths.

Meanwhile, Odoacer sought to build up his power in Italy. To placate the Germans, he made large grants of land to them. He won the favor of the Roman Senate by awarding high offices to its members. By war and diplomacy, he managed to deal with Italy's two major external threats— Euric, King of the Visigoths, and Gaiseric, King of the Vandals. From 477 he even issued coins in his own name.

Theodoric remained the major threat. In 489 he entered Italy. After several major defeats, Odoacer in 490 lost the support of the Roman Senate. He fell back upon the capital at Ravenna, where he endured a siege of 2 years. In 493 a compromise was worked out; Odoacer and Theodoric agreed to rule Italy jointly. However, a few days after entering the city, Theodoric slew Odoacer.

Further Reading on Odoacer

Ancient sources for Odoacer are given in Colin Douglas Gordon, The Age of Attila (1960). The best accounts in English are in Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders (8 vols., 1880-1889), and J. B. Bury, A History of the Later Roman Empire (2 vols., 1889). More recent sources are Stewart Perowne, The End of the Roman World (1966), and Arnold H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 (3 vols., 1964) and The Decline of the Ancient World (1966).

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