Thursday, May 09, 2019

"We are to be thrown overboard by the Empire" ~ The short reign of the last western Roman Emperor, Julius Nepos

A gold solidus of Julius Nepos minted in Thessalonica.
May 9 is one of several possible dates given for the death of the last Western Roman emperor, Julius Nepos, in the year AD 480.

“Wait,” you say. “I thought the last Western Emperor was Romulus Augustulus who was deposed by Odoacer the Scirian in AD 476.” Well, about that…

Julius Nepos was named Western Emperor by the ailing Eastern Roman emperor Leo in AD 473. Leo did this because he opposed the puppet emperor Glycerius who had been raised by the Burgundian general Gundobad. According to the Chronicle of John of Antioch, this Gundobad had personally beheaded the Western emperor Anthemius the previous year in the service of uncle, the treacherous generalissimo, Ricimer. According to the Fragmentary History of Priscus:
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When the Eastern emperor Leo learned of Glycerius’s accession, he marshaled an army against him under the command of Nepos, who when he captured Rome subdued Glycerius without a fight. He drove him out of the palace and appointed him bishop of Salon [that is, Salona in Dalmatia across the Adriatic]. Glycerius made a mockery of the office for eight months. Nepos was immediately proclaimed emperor and began to rule Rome. [Taken from Given: Fragmentary History of Priscus, page 171]
The contemporary poet Apollinaris Sidonius described Julius Nepos as: “a man whose character, no less than the success of his arms, entitles us to hail him as Supreme Augustus.” [Taken from Hodgkin: Italy and Her Invaders, page 346]

Unfortunately for Nepos, he possessed neither sufficient military strength nor support in Italy to establish a lasting reign. The only accomplishment Nepos could claim during the 14 months he held the imperial authority in Italy was the ceding of practically all of Gaul to Euric, king of the Visigoths in exchange for peace. Sidonius, who had been an early supporter of Nepos, laments this shameful negotiation and the subsequent quitting of his homeland by the Romans, saying: “For all these daring experiments of our devotion our reward, as I hear, is that we are to be thrown overboard by the Empire. Oh! blush, I pray you, for this peace which is neither expedient nor honorable.” [Taken from Hodgkin: Italy and Her Invaders, page 493]

The abandonment of Gaul for a tenuous peace seemed an unpopular move in Italy as well. The history of what happened next is exceedingly hazy, but it appears that the Roman forces under a certain Ecdicius were recalled from Gaul, arrived in Italy, and were subsequently placed under the command of Orestes. This Orestes was a man with a long pedigree of service to the Roman empire, most memorably as an ambassador to Attila in AD 449. Once named Magister Militum, Orestes quickly seized the opportunity to depose Nepos and install his own son as emperor—Romulus Augustulus.

As his support in Italy evaporated, Julius Nepos fled to Dalmatia to join his previous adversary, Glycerius, in exile. There he remained quiet as events unfolded in Italy. The barbarian warlord Odoacer deposed Augustulus and declared himself king of Italy in AD 476. Writing to Constantinople in AD 477, the Roman Senate, no doubt as a mouthpiece for Odoacer, declared that they no longer needed an emperor—that the emperor of the East was sufficient for them with Odoacer as their protector—and they returned the imperial insignia of the west to Zeno.

To this embassy, Zeno replied (as per the near-contemporary historian, Malchus):
The western Romans had received two men from the eastern Empire and had driven one out, Nepos, and killed the other, Anthemius. Now, he said, they knew what ought to be done. While their emperor was still alive, they should hold no other thought than to receive him back on his return. [taken from the De Imperatoribus Romanis website ~ Julius Nepos by Ralph W. Mathisen]
Needless to say, Odoacer had no interest in re-instating Nepos, though he seems to have tolerated his presence in nearby Salona for a few more years. In AD 480, however, things suddenly came to a head. Some of the sources claim that Nepos was in the process of gathering resources for an attempt to retake his throne in Italy when he was suddenly slain by two retainers. One source (Photius, writing a summary of the lost history of Malchus) claims that the assassination of Nepos was instigated by none other than Glycerius himself.

Taking advantage of the situation, Odoacer used the assassination as an excuse to invade Dalmatia, thereby extending his rule over the region and establishing the boundaries of the barbarian kingdom of Italy. Odoacer would rule this kingdom until until AD 493 when he was slain by Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

Meanwhile, in the farther reaches of Gaul, a Roman rump state—the so-called "kingdom" of Soissons, survived until AD 486 under the leadership of the general Syagrius.

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