Romulus Augustus

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Romulus Augustus
Last emperor of the
Western Roman Empire
Tremissis of Romulus Augustus.
Reign 28 August 475 - 4 September 476
Full name Flavius Romulus Augustus
Died After 476
Castellum Lucullanum
Predecessor Julius Nepos
Successor None
Father Flavius Orestes

Flavius Romulus Augustus (c. 463 – after 476), often called Romulus Augustulus, was the last of the Western Roman Emperors ( 28 August 475 - 4 September 476).

His father Orestes, the commanding general of the Roman army, installed Romulus on the throne after deposing the emperor Julius Nepos. Romulus, who may have been little more than a child, acted as a figurehead for his father's rule. Reigning for only ten months, Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer and sent to live in the Castellum Lucullanum in Campania; he disappears from the historical record afterward.

Romulus Augustus' deposition traditionally marked the end of the Roman Empire, although the Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453 and the Western Roman Empire had all but collapsed by the time of Romulus Augustus' reign. Despite his significant place in history, very little is known about the last Western Roman Emperor.


Romulus' father Orestes was a Roman citizen, originally from Pannonia, who had served as a secretary to Attila the Hun and later rose through the ranks of the Roman army. The future emperor was named Romulus after his maternal grandfather, a nobleman in Noricum. Augustus was a common cognomen at the time. Many historians have noted that the last western emperor bore the names of the founder of Rome and its first emperor, but this appears to have been coincidental.

He is widely known by the disparaging nickname "Romulus Augustulus", though he ruled officially as Romulus Augustus. The Latin suffix -ulus is a diminutive; hence, Augustulus effectively means "Little Augustus", though "little" in the sense of insignificant or unimportant. Some Greek writers even went so far as to corrupt his name sarcastically into "Momylos", or "little disgrace".

Orestes was appointed master of soldiers by Julius Nepos in 475. Shortly after his appointment, Orestes launched a rebellion and captured Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire since 402, on August 28, 475. Nepos fled to Dalmatia, where his uncle had ruled a semi-autonomous state in the 460s. Orestes, "from some secret motive," refused to become emperor, and installed his son on the throne on October 31, 475.

The empire they ruled was a shadow of its former self. Imperial authority had retreated to the Italian borders, and the Eastern Empire treated its western counterpart as a client state: the Eastern Emperor Leo, who died in 474, had appointed the western emperors Anthemius and Julius Nepos. As a result, Constantinople viewed Orestes' coup d'etat coolly, and neither Zeno nor Basiliscus, the two generals fighting for the Eastern throne at the time of Romulus' accession, accepted him as ruler.

As a proxy for his father, Romulus made no decisions and left no monuments, though coins bearing his name were minted in Rome, Milan, Ravenna and Gaul. Several months after Orestes took power, a coalition of Heruli, Scirian and Turcilingi mercenaries demanded that he give them a third of the land in Italy. When Orestes refused, the tribes revolted under the leadership of the Scirian chieftain Odoacer. Orestes was captured near Piacenza on August 28, 476 and swiftly executed.

Odoacer advanced to Ravenna, capturing the city and the youthful Emperor. Romulus was compelled to abdicate the throne on September 4, 476. This act is considered the end of the Western Roman Empire, but Romulus' deposition did not cause any significant disruption at the time. Rome had already lost its hegemony over the provinces, Germans dominated the "Roman" armies and Germanic generals like Odoacer had long been the real powers behind the throne. Italy would be far more devastated in the next century when Emperor Justinian I re-conquered it.

After Romulus Augustus's abdication, the Roman Senate, Odoacer, and Julius Nepos sent representatives to the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. Odoacer petitioned for the position of viceroy in Italy. Julius Nepos requested the restoration of his throne. Odoacer's solicitation was accepted under the condition that he become Italy's viceroy for the legitimate Western Emperor Julius Nepos. Coins bearing Nepos' name were struck in Italy and in the domains in Gaul under the control of Roman general Syagrius until Nepos' death in 480.

After the abdication

The Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, which succeeded the Western Roman Empire.  By the time of Augustus' abdication, imperial authority did not extend beyond Italy.
The Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, which succeeded the Western Roman Empire. By the time of Augustus' abdication, imperial authority did not extend beyond Italy.

Romulus' ultimate fate is unknown. The Anonymous Valesianus wrote that Odoacer, "taking pity on his youth", spared Romulus' life and granted him an annual pension of six thousand solidi before sending him to live with relatives in Campania. Jordanes and Count Marsellinus, however, say Odoacer exiled Romulus to Campania, and do not mention any reward from the German king.

The sources do agree that Romulus took up residence in the Lucullan Villa, an ancient castle originally built by the Scipio family in Campania. From here, contemporary histories fall silent. In the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon notes that the disciples of Saint Severinus were invited by a "Neapolitan lady" to bring his body to the villa in 488, "in the place of Augustulus, who was probably no more." The villa was converted into a monastery before 500 to hold the saint's remains.

Cassiodorus, then a secretary to Theodoric the Great, wrote a letter to a "Romulus" in 507 confirming a pension. Thomas Hodgkin, a translator of Cassiodorus' works, wrote in 1886 that it was "surely possible" that the Romulus in the letter was the same person as the last western emperor. The letter would match the description of Odoacer's coup in the Anonymous Valesianus, and Romulus could have been alive in the early sixth century. In Early Medieval Europe, author Roger Collins suggests that Romulus likely lived on in quiet retirement until 510 or so. But Cassiodorus does not supply any details about his correspondent or the size and nature of his pension, and Jordanes, whose history of the period abridges an earlier work by Cassiodorus, makes no mention of a pension. The connection between the last western emperor and the "Romulus" in this letter is, at best, uncertain.

The last emperor: Romulus Augustus or Julius Nepos?

Julius Nepos on a gold Tremissis.
Julius Nepos on a gold Tremissis.

Because Augustus was a usurper, Julius Nepos legally held the title of emperor when Odoacer took power. Some have argued that Nepos, who ruled in Dalmatia until his murder in 480, should be recognized as the last Western Roman Emperor, noting that Odoacer struck coins in Nepos' name and did not take the imperial title for himself. But few of Nepos' contemporaries were willing to support his cause after he fled Italy. Following Odoacer's coup, the Roman Senate sent a letter to Zeno, saying that "the majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and protect, at the same time, both the East and the West." While Zeno told the Senate that Nepos was their lawful sovereign, he did not press the point. The Eastern Emperor acknowledged Odoacer as the Patrician of Italy, and when the latter sent the Imperial ensigns to Constantinople, Zeno accepted them gratefully.

Romulus Augustus in fiction

Romulus Augustus is the main character of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play Romulus der Große ("Romulus the Great"), which revolves around the last days of Romulus' emperorship.

Romulus is also one of the characters in Valerio Massimo Manfredi's book, The Last Legion. In this work of fiction, Romulus survives his fall from power and finds a strange new destiny in Britain.

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