Life of the Week: Romulus Augustus
Generally considered to be the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus (aka Augustulus) was just a teenager when he ascended the imperial throne in AD 475
Romulus Augustus ruled the empire’s dominions for just over 10 months before being deposed in September AD 476. His deposition traditionally marks the fall of ancient Rome, and heralds the beginning of the Middle Ages in Western Europe.
As part of Ancient Rome Week on the History Extra website, we explore the life of the last Roman emperor…
Born: c461 AD
Died: Unknown – Romulus possibly died sometime in the early sixth century
Ruled: 31 October AD 475 – 4 September AD 476
Remembered for: Being the last Roman emperor. He was deposed in September 476 after reigning for little more than 10 months.
Family: Romulus’s father, Orestes, was a Roman aristocrat and politician who gained control of the western Roman army in AD 474. He used his power to depose the emperor, Julius Nepos, and put his son on the imperial throne. Romulus’s mother was the daughter of the aristocrat Count Romulus of Passau.
It is unknown whether Romulus had any siblings, or whether he married in later life.
His life: Little is known of Romulus’s childhood before he became emperor at the age of around 14. As his father held such a prominent position in government, it can be assumed that Romulus received a formal education typical of that given to aristocratic boys at the time.
In June AD 474, Julius Nepos became the emperor of the western Roman empire. Soon after this, he appointed Romulus’s father, Orestes, as the ‘master of soldiers’ of the western Roman army. Orestes used his newfound command over the military to advance his son’s position in power. By 28 August AD 475, Orestes had successfully seized control of the empire’s government in Ravenna, which was considered to be the capital of the Roman Empire after AD 402. Intimidated by Orestes’s troops, Julius Nepos escaped to Dalmatia.
Rather than taking the Imperial throne for himself, on 31 October AD 475 Orestes made his son, Romulus, the next emperor of the western Roman Empire. The new emperor, who was around 14 years old, was proclaimed as ‘Romulus Augustus’ to the western empire. Many historians have remarked that it is ironic that the last Roman emperor was (coincidentally) named after the first Roman ruler, Augustus, who reigned from 27 BC–AD 14.
The public mocked Romulus’s imperial name. Many referred to him as ‘Momyllus’, meaning ‘little disgrace’, and ‘Romulus Augustulus’, which meant ‘little Augustus’. This suggests that few recognised Romulus as their legitimate ruler.
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To add to Romulus’s troubles, the empire was in disrepair. Throughout the century before his accession, the western empire had lost much of its political power and its land. The eastern empire, meanwhile (also known as the Byzantine empire), had become increasingly wealthy, and its rulers now threatened to conquer the west’s dominions. This created a rivalry between the two sides and their rulers.
Romulus did not become actively involved in politics, as he was considered too young to rule in his own right. Instead, his father governed on his behalf. Although his name was printed on some coins that were minted in cities such as Rome, Ravenna and Milan, no monuments were built in Romulus’s honour.
Despite being proclaimed as emperor in the west, those in the east of the empire did not consider Romulus as the legitimate ruler. In AD 476, troops from the eastern Germanic tribes of Heruli, Turcilingi and Scirian united to revolt against Romulus and his father’s rule. In August AD 476, under the leadership of military officer Odoacer, these troops swiftly marched across the Italian border and rebelled against the western emperor.
Romulus Augustus surrendering to Odoacer in AD 476. (Credit: © liszt collection / Alamy Stock Photo)
On 23 August 476 Odoacer proclaimed himself the first king of Italy. Five days later, Romulus’s father, Orestes, was captured and executed by Odoacer’s troops near Piacenza, in northern Italy. Romulus fled the fighting and possibly moved to Ravenna.
A month later, Odoacer successfully deposed Romulus. The Roman Empire, which had thrived for nearly 500 years, fell, and the western empire was dissolved.
Despite his deposition, unlike his father Romulus was not executed. Legend has it that, after meeting Romulus, Odoacer decided to save his life because he considered Romulus too young to die. Odoacer sent him away to live at the castle of Lucullus in Campania in southern Italy, and gave him a pension of 6,000 solidi per year.
After Romulus’s deposition, the imperial seal and other items from the imperial office were sent to the emperor of the eastern empire, Zeno. This signified the end of the rule of the emperors in the west, and the break up of the western empire.
Questions over what happened to Romulus after he moved to Campania continue to this day to perplex historians, because there is very little evidence of his existence after his deposition in AD 476. Many assume that he resided in Lucullus Palace in Campania for the remainder of his life, and there is some indication he may have lived into the first decade of the sixth century.