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Book III
Note G

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press
London, 1892

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book III
Chapter 9

Book 3 (continued)

Vol. II
Chapter VIII

Odovacar, the Soldier of Fortune


Sources: —

The two mysterious chroniclers, Anonymus Cuspiniani and Anonymus Valesii, are our best authorities for this most meagrely furnished epoch. Cuspinian's MS. gives us all our dates, and that of Valois nearly all our personal details as to the dethroner of the last Roman Emperor.

It will be seen however that Ennodius' Life of Epiphanius is again a valuable source of information. So is the somewhat similar Life of Saint Severinus by Eugippius1 (published in the first volume of the 'Auctores Antiquissimi' in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Berlin, 1877). Joannes Antiochenus and Jordanes also contribute some facts. The details as to revolutions and embassies at Constantinople rest chiefly on the authority of Malchus and Candidus, two Byzantine historians of the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth century. They were read and abstracted by the all‑devouring Photius. Fragments of their works are published in the Bonn edition of the Byzantine historians.

Guides: —

Mascou's History of the Germanic Nations is an exceedingly valuable guide over this portion of the ground. He was perhaps the first scholar who thoroughly apprehended the fact that the Empire fell, not before an invasion but before a mutiny of its own troops. Gibbon, with his wonderful historic instinct, followed Mascou's guidance.

 p507  It will at once be seen that throughout the whole of this chapter large use has been made of the labours of the industrious Pallmann (Geschichte der Völkerwanderung, vol. II).

Ennodius' account of the Revolution of 476. 'While Epiphanius, with this severe self-discipline, was approving himself a workman of Jesus Christ that needed not to be ashamed, the old Enemy of our race, that restless Schemer of Evil, was busy adding affliction to affliction, and devising new sufferings wherewith to torment the soul of the saint. With this view he stirred up the army against the Patrician Orestes, and sowed the seeds of discord and suspicion between him and them. He excited the minds of abandoned men with the wild hope of revolution; he breathed the desire for sovereign power into the soul of Odovacer. And then, in order that the calamity might fall upon the city of Ticinum [Pavia], he allured Orestes thither to take shelter under its strong fortifications.'

So writes the episcopal biographer of the Bishop of Pavia. We may not share his intimate acquaintance with the counsels of the Prince of Darkness, but we are bound to express our gratitude for the information which he, all but a contemporary, has given us in this paragraph concerning the immediate cause of the final catastrophe of the Western Empire. Fortified by this authority, we can unhesitatingly assert that Rome fell at last, not by an invasion of the Herulians or any other Transalpine nation, but by a mutiny of the troops who were serving under her own eagles, and were paid out of her own military chest. We are thus carried back to the remembrance of the time, a century before that which we have now reached, when the Goths on a large scale entered the Roman armies as foederati,​2 and at  p508 the risk of a little repetition we may again consider the same subject.

Rome's use of non‑Roman soldiers. Few things in the upward career of Rome are more wonderful than the skill with which she made her last-vanquished enemies the instruments of achieving yet another conquest. By the help of the Latins she subdues the Samnites; with Italian soldiers she conquers Spain; the dwellers around the Mediterranean shore carry her standards through Gaul; the Romanised Gaul beats off the German. In our own country, on the desolate moorlands between the Solway and the Tyne, were encamped Batavians from Holland, Asturians from Spain, Tungrians from the Rhine, and many another representative of far‑distant lands, from which, even in these days of quickened intercourse between nations, not one in a century now sets foot beside 'the Barrier of the Lower Isthmus.' From the point of view of the subjugated and tamed provincial, this constant interchange of military service throughout that enormous Empire had much to recommend it, as bringing many widely-scattered nationalities face to face with one another, as breaking down the barriers of race and creed, and as enabling one thought to vibrate unchecked from the Euphrates to the Atlantic. But viewed from the stand-point of a nationality not yet subdued, and still fighting hard for liberty, the use which Rome made of the arms of her conquered foes may well have seemed the device of some malign deity, bent on darkening the whole heaven and on destroying the happiness of the human race. Especially must this thought have forced itself on the mind of the barbarian patriot when he heard that the people of Rome itself, the men who preëminently styled themselves Quirites,  p509 and who shouted for wars and triumphs, no longer served in the legions themselves, but passed their useless lives between the Bath and the Amphitheatre, leaving all the toil of the ceaseless campaigns with which Rome vexed the universe, to men who knew the seven hills of Rome but as some cloud-built city in a dream.

Part which they played in hastening the ruin of Rome. Amply would such a barbarian patriot — an Arminius, a Caractacus, or a Decebalus — have been avenged, could he have foreseen the part which these same auxiliaries were to play in completing the ruin of Rome. We have seen the young Alaric learning his first lessons in the invasion of Italy as an Irregular in the army of Theodosius. We have seen the Hunnish forerunners of the host of Attila introduced as auxiliaries into the heart of Gaul by Aetius — the same Aetius who was afterwards to behold them in their myriads arrayed against him on the Catalaunian plains. We are now to see the death-blow dealt at the doting Empire by men of Teutonic speech and origin, who had taken the sacramentum, the military oath of allegiance, and had been enlisted as defenders of Rome.

Proportion of barbarians in the army enormously increased. The meagre annals of the fifth century do not enable us to state what were the relative proportions of native Italians and of barbarians in the armies of Valentinian III and his successors. We may conjecture however that the former had become a very slight ingredient in the mass, and that the Germans no longer served merely as 'auxiliaries' in the wings of the army, but were now the backbone of the Legion itself. We have a few slight indications of the progress of this change. The reader may remember that one of the vexations which made the short-lived Emperor Maximus  p510 sigh for the fate of the happier Damocles was 'the turbulence of the foederati.'​3 When war broke out between Anthemius and Ricimer, the men in authority and the mob of Rome clave to the former, but 'the multitude of naturalised barbarians'​4 (evidently soldiers) to the latter. And now, in the passage quoted at the beginning of this chapter, we find 'the army' spoken of as rising collectively against Orestes, though, as we shall soon see, the ground of quarrel was that they as Barbarians made a demand which he as a Roman could not grant. As before said, therefore, it may be conjectured, if it cannot be absolutely proved, that in the year 476 a very small number of true Roman citizens were serving in the dwindled armies of the Western Empire.

Recruiting ground beyond the Danube. The chief recruiting ground for auxiliaries during the quarter of a century after the death of Attila, seems to have been the lands on the further side of the middle Danube, including parts of Bohemia, Moravia, the archduchy of Austria, and the kingdom of Hungary. Here dwelt (in positions which are approximately indicated on the accompanying map) four nations with the uncouth and harsh-sounding names of the Rugii, the Scyri, the Turcilingi, and the Heruli.​5 The antecedent  p511 history of these tribes, even during the second and third centuries of the Christian era, is not clearly ascertained. According to some ethnologists the island of Rugen in the Baltic still preserves the name of the first. A more certain memorial of the second tribe is furnished by an inscription found at Olbia (in the South of Russia, near Odessa),​a which shews that as early as the second century before the Christian era, the inroads of the Scyri were formidable to the Hellenic settlers round the shores of the Black Sea. Though a comparatively unimportant tribe, they are thus brought into contact with the world of classical antiquity considerably earlier than the Goths themselves. Of the Turcilingi we really know nothing. The Heruli were the most widely extended of the four nations. In the latter part of the third century, we are told, they sailed with 500 ships forth from the Sea of Azof to the shore of Pontus, and thence through Bosphorus and the Dardanelles to the coasts of Attica, when Athens itself suffered conflagration at their hands.​6 At the time of the Fall of the Western Empire they appear to have been settled on the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, the most easterly in position, and the most powerful of the four tribes.

 p512  Fortunes of the Rugii, Scyri, Turcilingi, and Heruli, after the death of Attila. Whatever may have been the previous fortunes of these races, they were probably for a time subject to the loosely-jointed dominion of the Huns; and in fact, we met with the names of some of them among the invaders of Gaul under the banner of Attila. After his death they may very likely have taken part in the great War of Independence which culminated in the battle of Nedao; at any rate, they shared in its reward, the breaking of the Hunnish yoke from off their necks. The Gepidae, whose king Ardaric had been the leader in the work of liberation, occupied the wide expanse of Dacia; the Ostrogoths took Pannonia; to the north and north-west of these two great nations stretched the domains which, as has been already said, were occupied by the four tribes with whose fortunes we are now concerned. On their southern frontier their strong Teutonic neighbours interposed an invincible obstacle to the wandering and predatory impulses which were partly instinctive, partly the result of contact with and subjection to the Huns. But on the south-western horizon no such barrier presented itself. There, at a distance of perhaps a week's march, lay Venetian Italy; the fortress of Aquileia which had once been its defence, was still the ruined heap to which Attila had reduced it; and thither stretched the still undestroyed Roman roads over the passes of the Wipbach-thal, the Predil, Pontebba, and the Sexten-Thal. To reach this Land of Promise the Rugian or Herulian mercenary had but to cross the Province of Noricum (Styria, Salzburg, Carinthia); and that unhappy Province, not wholly cast off by the Empire nor regularly appropriated by the barbarians, was in the same relation to them which unpartitioned Poland  p513 occupied towards Russia, in the days of the Empress Catharine, 'My door‑mat upon which I tread whenever I wish to visit Europe.'

These tribes flocked into Italy as adventurers. We may therefore imagine, during all the sixteen years of Ricimer's ascendancy, bands of the strongest and most restless-spirited of the warriors of the four tribes, streaming south-westwards through Noricum, under the shadow of the high rock of Juvavum​7 or over the fair plain of Virunum,​8 and so on out of the last defiles of the Julian Alps into the broad valley of the Po, their final goal being Ravenna, Rome, or Milan; any place where the great Patrician had set up his standard, and where the Tribune or the Centurion — himself perhaps a barbarian kinsman — would be in readiness to receive the young Teuton's 'Sacramentum.' It seems pretty clear that whatever differences of costume or of arms may have separated these four tribes from one another, they all bore a general resemblance to the great Gothic nation, and spoke the Gothic language, for which reason some of the Byzantine historians call their leader a Goth, and confuse the heterogeneous kingdom which they established, with the purely and truly Gothic monarchy which succeeded it.

but not strictly as invaders. It was not then an invasion in the strict sense of the word, this slow infiltration of the Heruli and their neighbours into the Italian peninsula. They came ostensibly to succour and to serve Rome. But so did the Swedes and the French come to help Germany in the two last decades of the Thirty Years' War; and we may well imagine that, unwelcome as the troopers of Turenne and Wrangel were in Germany in the year  p514 1648, even more unwelcome to the Italian citizen (when he could speak his mind freely without fear of being overheard by the myrmidons of Ricimer) was the continuous advent of these many-nationed deliverers from beyond the Danube. It was not an invasion in form, but in substance perhaps it was not greatly different.

The miseries of Noricum assuaged by Saint Severinus. We return for an instant to the half-ruined Province of Noricum, through which these swarms of Rugian and other adventurers were yearly pouring. The long-continued suffering of the inhabitants during thirty years of anarchy (from about 453 to 482) was somewhat soothed by the beneficent activity of Saint Severinus, a holy man who suddenly appeared amongst them, none knew from whence, and who, by his gentle wisdom and by the ascendancy which the simple earnestness of his nature obtained for him over the minds of the barbarians, was often able to interpose for the help of the plundered provincials. In his little cell on the banks of the Danube, round which, in the course of time, other hermits, his disciples and imitators, built their lowly dwellings, he practised all the regular austerities of a monk of the fifth century, fasting till he had reached the utmost limits of emaciation, and walking barefoot when even the Danube was a mass of ice. Here, in his lonely meditations, the Saint was believed to be sometimes filled with

'The spirit of the fervent days of old

When words were things that came to pass, and thought

Flashed o'er the future, bidding men behold

Their children's children's doom already brought

Forth from the abyss of things that were to be.'​9

 p515  and amid the visible wreck and ruin of the kingdoms of the world, Severinus, it was thought, could foretell something of the form and fashion of those which were to succeed them.

He predicts the exaltation of Odovacar. A band of young soldiers of fortune from across the Danube, on their way to Italy, came one day to the cell of this holy man to receive his blessing. They were Christians, though of the Arian type, and the candidates for enlistment in the Imperial army evidently did not fear the Saint's condemnation of their enterprise. Among them was a young man, with thick yellow moustache,​10 in sordid garb, but of commanding height, and, it may be, with something in his mien which marked him out as a born leader of men. As soon as this young man stepped inside the cell, (the lowly roof of which obliged him to bow his head in the presence of the Saint), Severinus, it is said, perceived by an inward intimation that the youth was destined to achieve high renown. The blessing was given and the young Teuton said 'Farewell.' 'Fare forward,'​11 answered the Saint, 'fare forward into Italy; thou art now covered with a mean raiment of skins, but who shalt soon bestow on men the costliest gifts.'

Odovacar's name. The name of the tall recruit who received and fulfilled this benediction was Odovacar, commonly called Odoacer, the son of Edecon. The name has a Teutonic ring about it, and is thought by the great German philologist Grimm to signify 'rich in watchfulness,' or  p516 'a good watcher.'​12 He suggests that it may have been a favourite name for a watch‑dog, and thence transferred to a man‑child in whom vigilance in war was looked for by his barbarian parents. It seems better to retain, as the German historians generally do, the Odovacar of the contemporary authorities in all its primeval ruggedness, instead of softening it down with later historians (chiefly the Byzantine annalists) into the smooth and slippery Odoacer.

Odovacar's origin. The origin and ancestry of the young soldier, who stalked into the cave of Severinus, are among the unsolved riddles of history. He is called by the Annalists and by Jordanes a Goth, a Rugian, and a Scyrian,​13 and his name is also sometimes coupled both with the Turcilingi​14 and the Heruli, as if he were their especial leader.​15 The conclusion which it seems best to draw from all these conflicting testimonies is that he was a Teuton (and that fact alone, according to Byzantine usage, would entitle him to be called a Goth); that he was not of royal descent (and here the story of the mean appearance which he presented in the cave of Severinus comes in as an additional confirmation), and that, for this reason, after he had by an unexpected stroke of fortune attained to one of the foremost positions in the world, each of the four tribes which formed his motley host claimed him as of its own especial kindred.

 p517  Was Edecon the father of Odovacar the same as Edecon the courtier of Attila? This view does not absolutely preclude the commonly received opinion that Odovacar was the son of the same Edecon who was associated with Orestes in the embassy to Constantinople, and who listened, or seemed to listen, with too favourable an ear to the scheme for the assassination of Attila. It is true that in the wrangle about precedence between the two ambassadors, the interpreter Vigilas said that the secretary Orestes was 'not to be compared in social position with Edecon, a mighty man of war and a Hun by birth.' But these last words need not, perhaps, be interpreted with ethnological precision. Priscus himself speaks of the discontented Roman who had turned Hun, and in the same way probably any of the Teutonic warriors — Gepidae, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Herulians — whose fathers or grandfathers had accepted the rule of that 'Anarch old,' the Hunnish King and Generalissimo, would, by comparison with a Roman provincial, be spoken of as 'a Hun by birth.' And if this be the true account of Odovacar's parentage, the breaking‑up of the Hunnish power after Attila's death might easily cause such a change in the position of the courtier, Edecon, as to account for the humble garb in which his son presented himself before the Saint of Noricum. It must be confessed that there is a touch of dramatic completeness in the working out of the squabble for precedence between Edecon and Orestes in the persons of their sons, the first barbarian King and the last Roman Emperor in Italy, which, until the theory can be actually proved to be untrue, will always commend it to the artistic instincts of the Historian.16

 p518  Odovacar rises in the Imperial service. Odovacar was born in the year 433,​17 but we are not able to fix the precise date of his first appearance in Italy and entrance into the Imperial service. It was probably, however, between 460 and 470, since by the year 472 he had risen so high that his adhesion to the party of Ricimer against Anthemius is considered worthy of special mention by the historian Johannes Antiochenus.​18 For four years from that time we hear  p519 no more of him, but his name evidently became a word of power with his countrymen in the Imperial army.

The Foederati demand a third of the land of Italy. Soon — we know not precisely how soon — after Orestes had placed the handsome boy, his son Romulus, upon the throne of the exiled Nepos, his own troubles began with the army, whose discontent he had so skilfully fomented. The foederati presented themselves before the Patrician at Ravenna, with a startling demand. 'Assign to us,' said they, 'one third of the land of Italy for our inheritance.' The proportion claimed was, no doubt, suggested by the Imperial system of billeting, according to which the citizen upon whom a soldier was quartered was bound to divide his house into three compartments, of which he kept one himself, his unbidden guest was then entitled to select another, and the third portion as well as the first remained in the occupation of the owner. It may be said also that the four tribes were more reasonable in their demands than some of their Teutonic kinsfolk, since the Visigoths had claimed two‑thirds of the lands of Gaul; the Vandals had not limited themselves even to that portion, and even the Burgundians, although the mildest and most civilised of the invaders of the Empire, had taken half of the moorland, orchards, and forests, and two‑thirds of the arable land.19

 p520  The demand refused. But whatever arguments may be urged to give a certain plausibility to the demand of the foederati, it was none the less a demand which no Roman statesman with a shadow of self-respect could possibly grant. Analogies drawn from the conduct of the Visigoths in Gaul and the Vandals in Africa, only proved what every Emperor since Honorius had tried to turn away his eyes from seeing, that the so‑called Roman army was in fact a collection of aliens and enemies to Rome, trained, it might be, with some of the old legionary discipline, and armed from the Italian arsenals, but only so much the more dangerous to the country which it professed to defend.

Orestes, who ended his career with more dignity than he had displayed in any previous portion of it, utterly refused to despoil the subjects of his son in order to enrich the mercenaries. Possibly he placed some dependence on old habits of military obedience in the army and on the mutual jealousies of the foremost officers, the result of which might be that the mutineers would remain without a head. But in this calculation he was mistaken. The Foederati rebel and proclaim Odovacar their king. Odovacar came forward and offered, if he were made leader, to obtain for the soldiers the land for which they hungered. The bargain was at once struck. On the 23rd of August, 476, Odovacar was raised upon the shield, as Alaric had been raised eighty‑one years before, and from that day the allegiance to Augustulus of the barbarians, the backbone of the Roman army, was at an end.

Ticinum besieged and taken. Events marched rapidly. In twelve days the whole campaign — if campaign it could be called — was over.  p521 Orestes took refuge within the strongly-fortified city of Pavia (or, as it was then called, Ticinum), the city of which the saintly Epiphanius was Bishop. The defence must have been an extremely short one, but the biographer of Epiphanius (our sole authority here) gives us no details concerning it. Everything, however, seems to indicate that the army, when the barbarian adherents of Odovacar were subtracted from it, was a miserably feeble remnant, utterly unable to cope with the revolters. The barbarians burst into the city, plundering, ravishing, burning. Both churches and many houses of Pavia were consumed in the conflagration. The sister of Epiphanius, a nun, whose reputation for holiness was almost equal to his own, was dragged off by the soldiers into captivity. The chiefs of many noble families shared the same fate. At first there seems to have been some disposition to treat Epiphanius himself with harshness, on account of the insufficiency of the sum which he offered for his ransom. The soldiery could not understand that a Bishop of Ticinum could be so poor as his continual almsgiving had made him. 'Oh, wickedness! that crude barbarity sought the treasures upon earth which he had sent forward to the recesses of heaven.' Soon, however, the transparent holiness of his character exerted its wonted influence even upon these infuriated plunderers. 'He rescued his venerable sister before the fatal light of that day glided into evening;' and he also procured by his earnest intercessions the liberation of many of the citizens, exerting himself especially to lessen the horrors of that terrible time for the women who were about to become mothers.

Contrast to the mutiny of Roman soldiers at Ticinum in 408. An interval of just two generations had elapsed since  p522 Pavia saw a somewhat similar scene of mutinous riot, robbery, and murder. That was in the year 408, when the intrigues of the party of Olympius against Stilicho burst forth into a flame. Then the cry was 'Down with the barbarians! Down with the Vandal, Stilicho! Slay the foederati!' And so the best bulwark of the Empire was sacrificed to the unworthy jealousy of the Roman party who were utterly unable to replace him by any tolerable substitute. In a certain sense it might be said that the evil deed of 408 brought about the punishment of 476, and that Odovacar avenged the blood of Stilicho.

Sack of Ticinum. For part of two days, apparently, the work of devastation went on in Pavia, and all the time the perpetual enquiry of the enraged soldiery was 'Where is Orestes?' At length news was brought that the Patrician, who had escaped from the city, had been discovered at Placentia, and with that the tumult subsided, and something like peace was restored to the plundered city.

Death of Orestes and his brother Paulus. It was upon the 28th August, 476, only five days after the elevation of Odovacar, that Orestes was taken at Placentia, and being taken was at once beheaded with a sword. His brother Paulus for a few days longer defended the lost cause at Ravenna, but apparently had too few men under his command to hold even that almost impregnable fortress. On the 4th of September, Paulus, who was perhaps trying to make his escape by sea, was slain by order of Odovacar, 'at the Pineta outside Classis by Ravenna.'​20 Within the walls of that city Odovacar found his helpless boy‑rival  p523 Augustulus. Augustulus spared and sent to Campania. Pitying his tender years, and touched with admiration of the beautiful face of the purple-clad suppliant, the successful Teuton, who was now strong enough to be merciful, spared the 'little Augustus,' and assigned to him a palace and a revenue for the remainder of his life. The splendid villa which, at a lavish cost, Lucius Lucullus, the conqueror of Mithridates, had erected for himself near the city of Naples, was allotted as the residence of Romulus, with the members of his family whom the war had spared; and an annual pension of 6,000 solidi (equal to £3,600 sterling, and perhaps corresponding to about twice that amount in our own day) was granted for his maintenance. Our ignorance as the to the close of his career. How long his pension was drawn, how many years the son of Orestes lived among the woods and fish-ponds of the 'Lucullanum,' whether he saw the downfall of his conqueror, or even, as he may very possibly have done, survived that conqueror's conqueror, Theodoric,​21 on all these points History is silent,​22 and her silence is an eloquent testimony to the utter insignificance of the deposed Emperor.

The details, few and imperfect as they are, which we possess respecting the seventeen years' reign of Odovacar in Italy will be best given in connection with the history of that Ostrogothic invasion which brought it to a premature and bloody close. But a few words remain to be said as to transactions which happened at Carthage and Constantinople at the time or soon after the time when these events were occurring in Italy.

Death of Gaiseric. Early in the year 477, only half a year after the  p524 dethronement of Augustulus, died the king of the Vandals, Gaiseric. For more than fifty years had he been warring against Rome, and as if the energy of his hate had sustained him under the infirmities of age, now that the Western Empire was dead he died also. It was soon seen how largely the might of the Vandal name had been due to his destructive genius and tenacity of purpose. The strength of the kingdom rapidly declined under his son and grandson, and little more than half a century after his death it fell an easy prey to the arms of the Emperor Justinian. Gaiseric had destroyed the fortifications of all the cities in his dominions, in order to prevent their giving harbourage to rebellious Africans or invading Byzantines; 'a measure,' says Procopius, 'which was greatly praised at the time, and which seemed in the safest way possible to have promoted the tranquillity of the Vandals. Afterwards, however, when the absence of walled towns so greatly facilitated the invasion of Belisarius, Gaiseric was the subject of much ridicule, and his vaunted prudence was accounted foolishness. For men are perpetually changing their minds as to the wisdom of any given course, according to the light which Fortune throws upon it.' These words of Procopius would have been fittingly spoken of some of the fluctuations of European opinion in our own century, veering wildly round from the extravagance of glorification to the extravagance of contempt.

Byzantine affairs. The years which witnessed the elevation and the fall of Augustulus in the West saw also the climax of the long struggle between Zeno and Basiliscus in the East. Aided by the stratagems of the ever-intriguing Empress Verina, his sister, Basiliscus succeeded (475) in dethroning  p525 his rival who fled to his native Isauria, among the mountains of Asia Minor. Final triumph of Zeno over Basiliscus. Two years after, by the treachery of the general Harmatius, who was sent to destroy him, Zeno succeeded in turning the tables on his antagonist, and found himself again reigning, as undisputed Augustus, in the palace by the Bosphorus. The promise which he had given to save the life of the deposed Basiliscus was fulfilled by sending him, his wife, and children, in the depth of winter, to banishment in Cappadocia, where, deprived of every comfort and almost of necessary sustenance, they soon perished miserably of cold and hunger.

Embassies to Zeno from the Roman Senate. Soon after the return of Zeno to his palace two embassies waited upon him to express their congratulations on his restoration to the throne. First of all appeared the deputies of the Roman Senate, sent by the command of Augustulus, which evidently was in truth the command of Odovacar, to say 'that they did not need a separate royalty, but that Zeno himself as sole Emperor would suffice for both ends of the earth. That Odovacar, however, a prudent statesman and brave warrior, had been chosen by them to defend their interests, and they themselves requested Zeno to bestow on him the dignity of Patrician, and entrust to his care the diocese of Italy.' In confirmation of their message and as a visible proof that the sovereignty was to be henceforth lodged at Constantinople, these Western deputies brought with them the Ensigns of Imperial dignity.23

and from Nepos. A few days after arrived from Salona the ambassadors of the titular Emperor Nepos (these events happened  p526 two years before his assassination), and they, while also congratulating Zeno on his restoration, besought him to sympathise with their master, like him expelled from his lawful sovereignty, and to grant him supplies of men and money to enable him to reconquer the Empire of the West.

It would seem that each embassy touched a responsive chord in the soul of the Eastern Potentate. The thought that the world needed no other Emperor but him gratified his vanity, but the fugitive's appeal to his brother fugitive excited his sympathy. He therefore, in true diplomatic style, gave an answer which was no answer, lecturing the weak, flattering the strong, and leaving the whole question in the same uncertainty in which he found it.

Ambiguous reply of Zeno. To the messengers from the Senate he replied, 'You have received two Emperors from the East, Anthemius and Nepos, one of whom you have killed and the other you have driven into banishment. What your duty prescribes you know very well. While Nepos lives there cannot be two opinions about the matter; you ought to welcome his return.'

The precise nature of the reply to Nepos is not stated, but a message was sent to Odovacar praising him for his judicious subservience to the wish of the Roman Emperor, exhorting him to seek the much-desired title of Patrician from Nepos, and to work for the return of that sovereign, but expressing, at the same time, the willingness of Zeno to grant him the title if Nepos should persist in withholding it. Odovacar recognised as Patrician. And, after giving all this admirable advice, he sent by the ambassadors a private letter with the superscription, 'To the Patrician Odovacar.' An extraordinary mystification  p527 truly, and a piece either of great vacillation or of great duplicity, but which is perhaps susceptible of explanation when we remember that Ariadne the wife, and Verina the mother-in‑law of Zeno, were related to the wife of Nepos and zealous on his behalf. The admirable legitimist sentiments, and the exhortations to everybody to co‑operate for the return of the Dalmatian, were probably uttered aloud in presence of those Imperial ladies. The private note with the all‑important superscription, which was meant to mitigate the hostility of the terrible barbarian, was no doubt delivered to his ambassadors at some secret interview in the final moments before their departure.24

Contemporaries did not recognise that Roman dominion in the West was at an end. It would be a mistake to see in this curious scene at the Court of Byzantium only a solemn farce enacted by Odovacar and Zeno, to amuse the people of Italy, and soothe them with the thought that they still remained under Roman dominion. The minds of men were really unable to grasp the fact that so vast and perdurable a structure as the Roman Empire could utterly perish. If it seemed to have suffered ruin in the West it still lived in the East, and might, as in fact it did under Justinian, one day send forth its armies from the Bosphorus to reclaim the provinces which the City by the Tiber had lost. This belief in the practical indestructibility of the Empire, and the consequences which flowed from it, three centuries after the deposition of Augustulus, in the elevation of Charles the Great, have been re‑established in their proper place,25  p528 one might almost say, have been re‑discovered, by the historical students of our own times, and the whole history of the Middle Ages has been made marvellously clearer by this one central fact.

Yet Odovacar did not rule Italy solely as Patrician appointed by Zeno. But we must not allow ourselves to consider Odovacar, even after this Byzantine embassy, as the mere lieutenant of Zeno, ruling with an authority delegated from Byzantium. It was well pointed out by Guizot​26 that in Mediaeval Europe we scarcely ever find one theory of life or of government worked out to its logical end, and allowed to dominate uncontrolled, like the eighteenth century theories of the Rights of Man, or the nineteenth century theories of the Rights of Nationalities. In the Middle Ages, upon which, after the year 476, we may consider ourselves to be entering, fragments of political theories, which are opposed to one another, and which should be mutually destructive, subsist side by side, neither subduing nor subdued, and often in apparent unconsciousness of their irreconcilable discord. So it was with the position of Odovacar, so, in part at least, with his far greater successor, Theodoric. Among the barbarians, the warrior who had conquered Orestes and deposed his son would be known as Thiudans, 'the King,' simply. If any further definition were asked for he would perhaps be called the king of the Rugians, or the king of the Herulians, the king of the Turcilingi, or the king of the Scyri, according to the nationality which happened to be most largely represented in the camp of the mercenaries when the discussion was going forward. But it is more likely that all would contentedly acquiesce in an appellation  p529 which would be understood by all, though it might not be consistent with strict ethnological accuracy, 'Thiudans Gut‑thiudos,' 'The King of the Gothic people.'​27 It is not certain that the title 'King of Italy' was ever assumed by him. On the other hand, among the Latin-speaking inhabitants of Italy, the vast majority of his new subjects, Odovacar probably preferred to be known as 'the Patrician,' and it would be in this capacity that he would control the organisation and wield the powers of the still undestroyed bureaucracy of Imperial Rome.

The de facto claim of the Barbarian and the de jure claim of the Emperor were both blended in Odovacar. Looking back, as we now do, over an interval of fourteen centuries at Odovacar's position in history, we find it impossible to assign him a place exclusively in the old order of things, or exclusively in the new; to say whether he was in truth the successor of Aetius and Ricimer, or the forerunner of the Kings of Italy, Pepin, Boso, and Victor Emmanuel. And if this be our doubt now, we may be sure that at least an equal doubt existed in the minds of his contemporaries, not lessened by the fact that there was always, for the space of at least one generation, a chance that the old order of things might after all be restored, and that the rule of the Teuton king might turn out to have been only an interregnum between two Emperors, such as had occurred more than once under the ascendancy of Ricimer. At the time of the embassy to Zeno there were still in the world three men who had worn the Imperial purple, and coined money as Emperors of Rome. We have reason to believe that one at least of these deposed Emperors lived through the whole reign  p530 of Odovacar, perhaps to a much later period. Let us now transfer to the subjects of the new Teutonic king some of the same feelings of unsettlement and of half-acquiescence in change, with which a large part of the English nation regarded 'the Protestant Succession' during the reigns of Anne and the First George, or the feelings with which we ourselves have witnessed the establishment of a new French Republic with three hostile dynasties sitting as angry watchers by its cradle; and we shall a little understand the mental attitude, partly of perplexity, partly of listless unconcern, which contemporary statesmen assumed towards an event which seems to us so momentous as the Fall of the Western Empire.

Insignificance of the actual events of 476. For, in truth, the facts of the final struggle had little in them to attract the attention of bystanders. The sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 sent a shudder through the whole civilised world, and the echo of her dirge was heard even in the caves of Bethlehem. The nations held their breath with affright when in 452 Attila wreaked his terrible revenge upon Aquileia. In comparison with these events, what was the short flurry of the citizens of Pavia, or the death of Paulus in the pine-wood by Ravenna? Indisputably we ourselves have witnessed catastrophes of far greater dramatic completeness than this, far better calculated, according to the old definition of Tragedy, 'to purify the emotions by means of Pity and Terror.' It is not a storm, or an earthquake, or a fire, this end of the Roman rule over Italy: it is more like the gentle fluttering down to earth of the last leaf from a withered tree.

and infinite importance of their results. And yet the event of 476 was, in its indirect consequences, a Revolution, which affected most powerfully  p531 the life of every inhabitant of Mediaeval and even of Modern Europe. For by it that political centre of gravity was changed from the Palatine to the Lateran, and the Bishop of Rome, now beyond comparison the most important personage of Roman descent left in Italy, was irresistibly invited to ascend the throne, and to wrap himself in the purple, of the vanished Augustus.

The Author's Notes:

1 Head of the monastery of the Lucullanum (near Naples), who is said to have written this book about 510.

2 See Vol. I p313.

3 See p202.

4 'τῷ δὲ Ῥεκίμερι τὸ τῶν οἰκείων βαρβάρων πλῆθος συνεμάχει' (Joannes Antiochenus, frag. 209).

5 The position assigned to the Turcilingi on the map is purely conjectural. The other tribes are in the quarters marked out for them by Pallmann (Geschichte der Völkerwanderung, vol. II), whose guidance I have also chiefly followed in the few remarks made as to the earlier history of these races. His theory of the existence of two portions of the Heruli, an Eastern and a Western, seems to lessen some of the difficulties in the ordinary accounts of the migrations of that puzzling people. But Pallmann's own learned and exhaustive treatise failing, as I think it fails, to give any clear and thoroughly satisfactory explanation of the history of these tribes in the fourth and fifth centuries, is an argument the more for that scientific coördination of the labours of antiquarian enquirers for which he so justly pleads. I would add another preliminary work as an indication to antiquaries what they have to look for; an edition of Tacitus' 'Germania,' and a commentary on the 'De Rebus Geticis' of Jordanes, at once more accurate and more exhaustive than any that we have yet had.

6 Georgius Syncellus (fl. about 800) I.717 (Bonn edition), quoted by Pallmann.

7 Salzburg.

8 Now the Zoll Feld near Klagenfurt.

9 Byron, The Vision of Dante.

10 The shape of the moustache, infrequent on purely Roman faces, is pourtrayed on Odovacar's coins. The colour is of course the conventional 'flavus' of the Goths.

11 'Vade' for 'Vale.'

12 Audags, Gothic for 'rich' or 'blessed;' vakir, Gothic for 'watcher.'

13 Dahn (Könige der Germanen, II.35) pronounces in favour of the Scyrian origin of Odovacar.

14 Jordanes, de Rebus Geticis, 'Odovacer rex Turcilingorum.'

15 Prosper's continuator calls him 'rex Erulorum.'

16 The point is, and Pallmann insists upon it with due emphasis, that no one author mentions the Edecon of the Embassy and the  p518 Edecon, father of Odovacar, and says or implies that they are the same person. Priscus gives us the first, the 'Anonymus Valesii' the second, and they may be speaking of two different persons.

There is yet a third, Edica, king of the Scyri, mentioned by Jordanes, whose history Gibbon (following Buat, Histoire Ancienne des Peuples) has combined with that of Attila's ambassador and Odovacar's father. It is very difficult to believe that this combination is the true one, though there are also great difficulties De Rebus Geticis, cap. liv. (chiefly arising from the mention of a certain Onulf, son of Edecon or Edeca, and brother of Odovacar) in rejecting it. At present the whole question seems so hopelessly entangled — being, moreover, one of secondary importance — that I have not thought it necessary to trouble the reader with it at length. But it is right that he should know that the smoothly-flowing narrative of Gibbon as to the early history of Odovacar rests upon two combinations, one unproved and the other highly improbable.

I cannot think that Pallmann has made out even a primâ facie case for the Rugian origin of Odovacar. Jordanes states it in one of his works (De Regnorum Successione), but contradicts it in the other (De Rebus Geticis). Joannes Antiochenus (fragment 209) says that he was 'of the nation of the Scyri.' The passage which Pallmann has inadvertently quoted from the same author in defence of the Rugian theory (fragment 214) says that the Emperor Zeno 'stirred up against Odovacar the nation of the Rugians' ('Ὁ Ζήνων πρὸς τὸν Ὀδόακρον τὸ τῶν Ῥόγων ἐπανέστησε γένος'). It is precisely this bitter war of Odovacar with the Rugians, 486‑7, which, to my mind, makes it most improbable that that should have been the tribe from which he really derived his origin.

17 This we know from Johannes Antiochenus (fr. 214), who tells us that he was sixty at the time of his death in 493.

18 Fragment 209.

19 This important fact, of the barbarian soldiers' demand for a division of the lands of Italy, is made known to us by Procopius (De Bello Gotthico, I.1): 'In proportion as the barbarians increased in consideration, did the credit of the Roman soldiers decline; and under the specious name of alliance the State fell under the tyrannical sway of the intruders. Thus many acts of unrestrained violence were perpetrated by the latter on their unresisting entertainers, and at length they demanded a settlement upon the soil of Italy. Of this they ordered Orestes to give them one third, and when he asserted that he would do nothing of the kind, they straightway slew him.'

20 Anonymus Valesii, 37.

21 Odovacar was slain in 493 by Theodoric, who died in 526.

22 But for one doubtful allusion in the letters of Cassiodorus (Variarum, III.35).

23 Ornamenta Palatii (Anon. Vales. 64).

24 We owe our information concerning this curious diplomatic encounter to Malchus (Byzantine Historians, pp235‑6, Bonn edition). Candidus also makes a slight allusion to it (Ibid. p476).

25 Pre‑eminently by Mr. Bryce, in his 'Holy Roman Empire.'

26 Lectures II and III on the History of Civilisation in Europe.

27 Of the annalists, Bishop Marius and Marcellinus call Odovacar 'rex Gothorum.' The reader will remember that both are nearly contemporary authorities.

Thayer's Note:

a Olbia is not in Russia, nor is Odesa. They are in Ukraine, even if that country was occupied by imperial Russia at the time Hodgkin wrote. As often in the 19c, "southern Russia" vel sim. are Tsarist Russian designations — uncritically adopted by Western writers — for Ukraine, which isn't Russia at all.

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