Good Night Western Empire
Today in 476, the Roman Empire in the West disappeared. Sort of. That’s to say that the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed. Of course, this did not make a lot of difference to people living Italy at the time. The Western Empire had shrunk to Italy itself and some scraps of Gaul, but the so-called Emperor wasn’t really ruling any of it. The army was now Germanic, and various Gothic warlords were the real power in Western Europe. Following a bit of intrigue and confusion, one of these warlords, Odoacer, decided that enough was enough and it was time to call it a day and stop pretending there was such a thing as a Western Emperor any more.
The last, the very last Western Emperor was little more than a child – Romulus Augustus, and like a number of emperors before him, he was virtually a prisoner, walled up in his palace in Ravenna. The Eastern emperor declared that with the extinction of the line of Western emperors he and his successors would claim titular authority over the whole Roman world but in practice this was a mere acknowledgement of the Gothic rule that had worked out reasonably well under the circumstances. Indeed, the brief reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Emperor Justinian in the 6th century was experienced not as a liberation of Rome from the Goths but as a cruel occupation by alien Greeks.
There’s a pleasant irony to the name Romulus Augustus. A name that combines the founder of Rome with the founding of the line of emperors seems a fitting way to go out. In fact, the youth and impotence of this so-called “emperor” did lead to him being awarded the Latin diminutive of “Augustulus” – little Augustus – baby Augustus – pitiable Augustus. Of course “Caligula” was a diminutive nickname also, but Gaius Galigula was better equipped to exact elaborate and imaginative revenge upon anyone who sniggered.
Little Augustus was not slaughtered or even bothered in any way. He appears to have lived quietly for a while after his deposition and just fades out of the historical records. His office and his empire had been dwindling for so long that the official extinction of the world’s greatest empire was barely perceived by those who lived through it. The perfect example of “not with a bang but a whimper.” The eventual fate of the Eastern empire could not have been more different. In 1453, Constantine “you’ll never take me alive” XI tore off his imperial insignia (thus preventing his recognition, capture and ransom) and threw open the doors to go out screaming in a blaze of melodramatic futile glory.
It’s easy to celebrate the bangs and harder to remember the whimpers. But the adult study of history requires both.