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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Vol. XX

Odoacer, or Odovacar (c. 434‑493), the first barbarian ruler of Italy on the downfall of the Western empire, was born in the district bordering on the middle Danube about the year 434. In this district the once rich and fertile provinces of Noricum and Pannonia were being torn piecemeal from the Roman empire by a crowd of German tribes, among whom we discern four, who seem to have hovered over the Danube from Passau to Pest, namely, the Rugii, Scyrri, Turcilingi and Heruli. With all of these Odoacer was connected by his subsequent career, and all seem, more or less, to have claimed him as belonging to them by birth; the evidence slightly preponderates in favour of his descent from the Scyrri.

His father was Aedico or Idico, a name which suggests Edeco the Hun, who was suborned by the Byzantine court to plot the assassination of his master Attila. There are, however, some strong arguments against this identification. A certain Edica, chief of the Scyrri, of whom Jordanes speaks as defeated by the Ostrogoths, may more probably have been the father of Odoacer, though even in this theory there are some difficulties, chiefly connected with the low estate in which he appears before us in the next scene of his life, when as a tall young recruit for the Roman armies, dressed in a sordid vesture of skins, on his way to Italy, he enters the cell of Severinus, a noted hermit-saint of Noricum, to ask his blessing. The saint had an inward premonition of his future greatness, and in blessing him said, "Fare onward into Italy. Thou who art now clothed in vile raiment wilt soon give precious gifts unto many."

Odoacer was probably about thirty years of age when he thus left his country and entered the imperial service. By the year 472 he had risen to some eminence, since it is expressly recorded that he sided with the patrician Ricimer in his quarrel with the emperor Anthemius. In the year 475, by one of the endless revolutions which marked the close of the Western empire, the emperor Nepos was driven into exile, and the successful rebel Orestes was enabled to array in the purple his son, a handsome boy of fourteen or fifteen, who was named Romulus after his grandfather, and nicknamed Augustulus, from his inability to play the part of the great Augustus. Before this puppet emperor had been a year on the throne the barbarian mercenaries, who were chiefly drawn from the Danubian tribes before mentioned, rose in mutiny, demanding to be made proprietors of one-third of the soil of Italy. To this request Orestes returned a peremptory negative. Odoacer now offered his fellow-soldiers to obtain for them all that they desired if they would seat him on the throne. On the 23rd of August 476 he was proclaimed king; five days later Orestes was made prisoner at Placentia and beheaded; and on the 4th of September his brother Paulus was defeated and slain near Ravenna. Rome at once accepted the new ruler. Augustulus was compelled to descend from the throne, but his life was spared.

Odoacer was forty-two years of age when he thus became chief ruler of Italy, and he reigned thirteen years with undisputed sway. Our information as to this period is very slender, but we can perceive that the administration was conducted as much as possible on the lines of the old imperial government. The settlement of the barbarian soldiers on the lands of Italy probably affected the great landowners rather than the labouring class. To the herd of coloni and servi, by whom in their various degrees the land was actually cultivated, it probably made little difference, except as a matter of sentiment, whether the master whom they served called himself Roman or Rugian. We have one most interesting example, though in a small way, of such a transfer of land with its appurtenant slaves and cattle, in the donation made by Odoacer himself to his faithful follower Pierius.​1 Few things bring more vividly before the reader the continuity of legal and social life in the midst of the tremendous ethnical changes of the 5th century than the perusal of such a record.

The same fact, from a slightly different point of view, is illustrated by the curious history (recorded by Malchus) of the embassies to Constantinople. The dethroned emperor Nepos sent ambassadors (in 477 or 478) to Zeno, emperor of the East, begging his aid in the reconquest of Italy. These ambassadors met a deputation from the Roman senate, sent nominally by the command of Augustulus, really no doubt by that of Odoacer, the purport of whose commission was that they did not need a separate emperor. One was sufficient to defend the borders of either realm. The senate had chosen Odoacer, whose knowledge of military affairs and whose statesman­ship admirably fitted him for preserving order in that part of the world, and they therefore prayed Zeno to confer upon him the dignity of patrician, and entrust the" diocese" of Italy to his care. Zeno returned a harsh answer to the senate, requiring them to return to their allegiance to Nepos. In fact, however, he did nothing for the fallen emperor, but accepted the new order of things, and even addressed Odoacer as patrician. On the other hand, the latter sent the ornaments of empire, the diadem and purple robe, to Constantinople as an acknowledgment of the fact that he did not claim supreme power. Our information as to the actual title assumed by the new ruler is somewhat confused. He does not appear to have called himself king of Italy. His kingship seems to have marked only his relation to his Teutonic followers, among whom he was "king of the Turcilingi," "king of the Heruli," and so forth, according to the nationality with which he was dealing. By the Roman inhabitants of Italy he was addressed as "dominus noster," but his right to exercise power would in their eyes rest, in theory, on his recognition as patricius by the Byzantine Augustus. At the same time he marked his own high pretensions by assuming the prefix Flavius, a reminiscence of the early emperors, to which the barbarian rulers of realms formed out of the Roman state seem to have been peculiarly partial. His internal administration was probably, upon the whole, wise and moderate, though we hear some complaints of financial oppression, and he may be looked upon, as a not altogether unworthy predecessor of Theodoric.

In the history of the papacy Odoacer figures as the author of a decree promulgated at the election of Felix II in 483, forbidding the pope to alienate any of the lands or ornaments of the Roman Church, and threatening any pope who should infringe this edict with anathema. This decree was loudly condemned in a synod held by Pope Symmachus (502) as an unwarrantable interference of the civil power with the concerns of the church.

The chief events in the foreign policy of Odoacer were his Dalmatian and Rugian wars. In the year 480 the ex-emperor Nepos, who ruled Dalmatia, was traitorously assassinated in Diocletian's palace at Spalato by the counts Viator and Ovida. In the following year Odoacer invaded Dalmatia, slew the murderer Ovida, and reannexed Dalmatia to the Western state. In 487 he appeared as an invader in his own native Danubian lands. War broke out between him and Feletheus, king of the Rugians. Odoacer entered the Rugian territory, defeated Feletheus, and carried him and "his noxious wife" Gisa prisoners to Ravenna. In the following year Frederick, son of the captive king, endeavoured to raise again the fallen fortunes of his house, but was defeated by Onulf, brother of Odoacer, and, being forced to flee, took refuge at the court of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, at Sistova on the lower Danube.

This Rugian war was probably an indirect cause of the fall of Odoacer. His increasing power rendered him too formidable to the Byzantine court, with whom his relations had for some time been growing less friendly. At the same time, Zeno was embarrassed by the formidable neighbourhood of Theodoric and his Ostrogothic warriors, who were almost equally burdensome as enemies or as allies. In these circumstances arose the plan of Theodoric's invasion of Italy, a plan by whom originated it would be difficult to say. Whether the land when conquered was to be held by the Ostrogoth in full sovereignty, or administered by him as lieutenant of Zeno, is a point upon which our information is ambiguous, and which was perhaps intentionally left vague by the two contracting parties, whose chief anxiety was not to see one another's faces again. The details of the Ostrogothic invasion of Italy belong properly to the life of Theodoric. It is sufficient to state here that he entered Italy in August 489, defeated Odoacer at the Isontius (Isonzo) on the 28th of August, and at Verona on the 30th of September. Odoacer then shut himself up in Ravenna, and there maintained himself for four years, with one brief gleam of success, during which he emerged from his hiding-place and fought the battle of the Addua (11th August 490), in which he was again defeated. A sally from Ravenna (10th July 491) was again the occasion of a murderous defeat. At length, the famine in Ravenna having become almost intolerable, and the Goths despairing of ever taking the city by assault, negotiations were opened for a compromise (25th February 493). John, archbishop of Ravenna, acted as mediator. It was stipulated that Ravenna should be surrendered, that Odoacer's life should be spared, and that he and Theodoric should be recognized as joint rulers of the Roman state. The arrangement was evidently a precarious one, and was soon terminated by the treachery of Theodoric. He invited his rival to a banquet in the palace of the Lauretum on the 15th of March, and there slew him with his own hand. "Where is God?" cried Odoacer when he perceived the ambush into which he had fallen. "Thus didst thou deal with my kinsmen," shouted Theodoric, and clove his rival with the broadsword from shoulder to flank. Onulf, the brother of the murdered king, was shot down while attempting to escape through the palace garden, and Thelan, his son, was not long after put to death by order of the conqueror. Thus perished the whole race of Odoacer.

Literature.— The chief authorities for the life of Odoacer are the so‑called "Anonymus Valesii," generally printed at the end of Ammianus Marcellinus; the Life of Severinus, by Eugippius; the chroniclers, Cassiodorus and "Cuspiniani Anonymus" (both in Roncalli's collection); and the Byzantine historians, Malchus and John of Antioch. A fragment of the latter historian, unknown when Gibbon wrote, is to be found in the fifth volume of Müller's Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum. There is a thorough investigation of the history of Odoacer in R. Pallmann's Geschichte der Völkerwanderung, vol. II (Weimar, 1864). See also T. Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, vol. III (Oxford, 1885).

[T. H.]

The Author's Note:

1 Published in Marini's Papiri diplomatici (Rome, 1815, Nos. 82 and 83) and in Spangenberg's Juris Romani Tabulae (Leipzig, 1822, pp164‑173), and well worthy of careful study.

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