Ricimer, Odovacar & the last phantom Emperors in the Roman West – German colonisation of Italy

Even if there had been united councils in Italy, the task of ubiquitous defence would have been beyond the power of the government; but the government went to pieces, and thereby hastened the dismemberment.

Our attention to two main points: first, the Vandal danger which embarrassed the Italian government during these years; and, secondly, the power behind the imperial throne. This power behind the throne is of great significance. It was wielded by a German general, Ricimer, of Suevian race. He was the successor of the German Stilicho and of the Roman Aetius as the defender of the Empire. The circumstances in which Ricimer had to act were indeed different from the circumstances of Stilicho and of Aetius. They differed in two main particulars. First, while the activity of Stilicho and of Aetius reached beyond Italy to the other western provinces, the activity of Ricimer was practically confined to Italy and the Italian seas: this was due to the powerful hostility of the Vandals. Secondly, Stilicho and Aetius had been the ministers of emperors who belonged to the well-established dynasty of Theodosius; and although those emperors, Honorius and Valentinian III., were personally weak and worthless, yet their legitimacy gave their thrones stability; so that Stilicho and Aetius could feel that, though they might fall themselves, they had a secure throne behind them. It was not so in the case of Ricimer. The male line of Theodosius was extinct; Valentinian III. had left no sons: and it devolved upon Ricimer to provide the imperial authority which he was to serve. He became through circumstances an emperor-maker; and his difficulty was this. If he set up too strong a man, his own power would have probably been overridden; his own fall would have been the consequence; while on the other hand weak upstarts were unable to maintain their position for any length of time, since public opinion did not respect them. The difficulties of Ricimer’s position can hardly be over-stated, and he may be held to have made a serious and honest attempt to perform the task of preserving a government in Italy and defending the peninsula against its formidable enemies.

Romulus Augustus

The fact of Ricimer’s being a German was a significant and determining factor in the situation. If he had not been a German, the situation would have been much simpler; for he could have assumed the imperial purple himself; the real and the nominal power would have been combined in the same hands; and the problem of government would have been solved. His German birth excluded this solution. This is a very remarkable thing. Germans like Stilicho and Ricimer, who attained to the highest posts in the imperial service, who might even intermarry with the imperial house, could not venture to take the last great step and mount the imperial throne. Just so much, just at the pinnacle, they were still outsiders. And they fully recognised this disability themselves. An Emperor Ricimer would have seemed to all men, and to Ricimer himself, impossible. This disability still resting upon men of pure German descent within the Empire, and their own deference to the prevailing sentiment, are highly significant.

It is also to be noted that in the intervals between the reigns of the emperors whom Ricimer set up and pulled down, when there was no emperor regnant in Italy, it did not mean that there was no emperor at all. At such times the imperial authority was entirely invested in the eastern emperor who reigned at Constantinople, the Emperor Leo; and this, too, was fully acknowledged by Ricimer, who indeed selected two of his emperors by arrangement with Leo.

Ricimer died in 472 and the march of affairs after his death shows how difficult his task had been. The events of these next few years have often been misconceived in respect of the exact nature of their importance. Ricimer’s nephew Gundobad seemed marked out to succeed to the place of his uncle—as the head of the military forces in Italy, and as the power behind the throne. Gundobad belonged to the royal family of the Burgundians and was a son of the reigning Burgundian king; but he had entered the imperial service. The Emperor Olybrius, Ricimer’s last creation, recognised Gundobad’s position and raised him to the rank of patrician. But Olybrius died before the end of the year, and a crisis ensued. For Gundobad and the Emperor Leo could not agree as to who should succeed to the purple. Leo’s candidate was Julius Nepos, and Gundobad set up an obscure person named Glycerius. This situation illustrates, I think, a great merit of Ricimer, viz. his diplomatic success in dealing with the court of Constantinople, and in keeping on good terms with Leo. The importance of this part of his policy is conditioned by the common danger from the Vandals, which the eastern provinces had to fear as well as the western, though to a smaller extent.

Bronze coin with Ricimer’s monogram

But hardly had the deadlock arisen between Gundobad and the Emperor Leo, when Gundobad disappeared from the scene. A new ambition was suddenly opened to him, more alluring than the government of Italy, viz. the government of his father’s Burgundian realm—a realm which was still nominally an imperial dependency. His father had died, and Gundobad withdrew to Burgundy to endeavour to secure his own election. He succeeded, and we shall meet him hereafter on the Burgundian throne. After his departure the Emperor Julius Nepos, Leo’s candidate, landed in Italy and deposed Glycerius. But Nepos was not equal to the situation. He very wisely negotiated a peace with Euric, king of the West Goths; and he then appointed a certain Roman, Orestes by name, to be commander-in-chief, magister militum, in Gaul, to defend the Roman territory there. Orestes had been in Attila’s service: he had lived much with barbarians of all kinds, and Nepos thought that he was making a very clever choice in selecting Orestes to command an army of barbarian soldiers. After the break-up of Attila’s empire there had been an immense influx of barbarian mercenaries into the Roman service. The army which Orestes now commanded was composed not only of Germans drawn from families long settled in the Empire but also of these new adventurers who had drifted into Italy through Noricum and Pannonia. Nepos was deceived in Orestes; Orestes was ambitious, and instead of going to Gaul, as he had been told, he marched on Ravenna. Nepos immediately fled to Dalmatia. Italy was for the moment in the power of Orestes. He did not seize the Empire himself, he preferred the double arrangement which had prevailed in the time of Ricimer, though there was not now the same necessity for it. Keeping the military power himself, he invested his child-son Romulus Augustulus with the imperial purple. But before Orestes had established his government he was surprised by a new situation. His host of barbarian soldiers, who were largely Heruls, suddenly formulated a demand. They were dissatisfied with the arrangements for quartering them. Their wives and children lived in the garrison towns in their neighbourhood, but they had no proper homes or hearths. The idea occurred to them that arrangements might be made in their behalf in Italy similar to those which had been made in Gaul, for instance, in behalf of the Visigoths and the Burgundians. Why should not they obtain permanent quarters, abiding homes, on the large estates, the latifundia, of Italy? This feeling prevailed in the host, and the officers formulated a demand which they laid before Orestes. The demand simply was that the normal system of hospitalitas should be adopted in Italy for their benefit, i.e. that a third part of the Italian soil should be divided among them. The sympathies or prejudices of Orestes were too Roman to let him entertain this demand; Italy had so far been sacrosanct from barbarian settlements. He refused, and his refusal led to a revolution. The mercenary soldiers found a leader in an officer who was thoroughly representative of themselves, an adventurer who had come from beyond the Danube to seek his fortunes, and had entered the service of the Empire. This was Odovacar: he was probably a Scirian, possibly a Rugian (there is a discrepancy in the authorities), at all events he belonged to one of the smaller East German peoples who had originally come from regions on the lower Oder, had formed part of Attila’s empire, and had partly settled on the middle Danube, partly entered Roman service after the fall of that empire. Odovacar now undertook to realise the claim of the soldiers, and consequently there was a revolution. Orestes was put to death, and his son the Emperor Romulus Augustulus abdicated. The power in Italy was in the hands of Odovacar. We are in the year 476.

There were two legitimate emperors, the Emperor Zeno at Constantinople, and the Emperor Julius Nepos (who was in Dalmatia). In the eyes of the government of Constantinople, Romulus Augustulus was a usurper. This usurper had now been deposed by a military revolution; the leader of that revolution, Odovacar, had shown no disloyalty to the eastern emperor, whose authority he fully acknowledged. There was no thought here of any dismemberment, or detachment, or breaking away from the Empire. Odovacar was a Roman officer, he was raised by the army into the virtual position of a magister militum, and his first thought, after the revolution had been carried through, was to get his position regularised by imperial authority, to gain from Zeno a formal recognition and appointment. Odovacar was in fact the successor of the series of German commanders who had supported the Empire for eighty years: and when he came to power in 476, there was not the least reason in the actual circumstances why the same kind of regime should not have been continued as in the days of Ricimer. But Odovacar had statesmanlike qualities, and he decided against the system of Ricimer, which had proved thoroughly unsatisfactory and unstable. His idea was to rule Italy under the imperial authority of Constantinople, unhampered by a second emperor in Italy, whom recent experiences had shown to be worse than useless. There would have been no difficulty for Odovacar in adopting this policy, if there had existed no second emperor at the time; but Julius Nepos was still alive, and, what was most important, he had been recognised at Constantinople. Odovacar was determined not to acknowledge the authority of Nepos. It is very important to understand this element in the situation, because it directly led to the peculiar position which Odovacar afterwards occupied. He first addressed himself to the Roman senate, and caused that body to send envoys to Constantinople, bearing the imperial insignia, and a letter to the Emperor Zeno. The purport of the letter was to suggest that one emperor, namely Zeno himself and his successors at Constantinople, sufficed for the needs of the whole Empire, and to ask that Zeno should authorise Odovacar to conduct the administration in Italy, and should confer on him the title of Patricius, which had been borne by Ricimer. The Emperor was not a little embarrassed. Julius Nepos was at the same time demanding his help to recover Italy, and Nepos had a legitimate claim. The Emperor wrote a very diplomatic reply. He insisted, in the most definite and correct terms, on the legal claim of Nepos; he, however, told Odovacar, whom he praised for the consideration he had shown in his dealings with the Italians after the revolution, that he would confer  upon him the title of Patricius, if Nepos had not already done so.

Coin of Odoacer, Ravenna, 477 A.D.

This limited recognition was not what Odovacar had hoped for; the express reserve of the rights of Julius Nepos was most unsatisfactory; there was always a chance that those rights might at a favourable moment be enforced. Accordingly, while he accepted the patriciate from Zeno, and so legitimised his position as an imperial minister in the eyes of Italy, he fortified himself by assuming another title which must have expressed his relation to the barbarian army, viz. the title of king, rex. We do not know what solemnity or form accompanied the assumption of this title. But its effect was to give Odovacar the double character of a German king as well as an imperial officer. A close parallel to this double position is that of Alaric at the close of the fourth century. He was king of the Goths, but at the same time he was magister militum in Illyricum. So Odovacar was king of the Germans who through him obtained settlements in Italy, while he was also a Patricius, acting under the authority of the Emperor Zeno. There was thus theoretically no detachment of Italy from the Empire in the days of Odovacar any more than there had been a detachment of Illyricum in the days of Alaric. The position of Odovacar was still further regularised a few years later (480) by the death of Julius Nepos.

The death of Julius Nepos is an event which has some significance; it marks the cessation of a separate line of emperors in the west. This event, though of importance in the history of Italy, has not the importance and significance which has been commonly ascribed to it. The year 476 has been generally taken as a great landmark, and the event has been commonly described as the fall of the Western Empire. This unfortunate expression conveys a wholly erroneous idea of the bearings of Odovacar’s revolution. The expression ‘Western Empire’ is constitutionally improper; it may be convenient as a loose expression for the western provinces of the Empire which, since Theodosius the Great, had been ruled by an emperor at Rome or Ravenna; but there was only one empire, and at the time no one would have dreamed of talking of two. On several occasions during the fifth century the death or deposition of an emperor at Rome or Ravenna had been followed by a considerable space of time in which no successor was elected. During such time the supremacy and authority of the emperor at Constantinople were always acknowledged. Now at any of those times it would have been quite possible for the emperor at Constantinople to have asserted his authority in the western provinces, or for Italy and the western provinces to have said to him: “We do not want a second emperor; you are sufficient.” And if such a thing had happened, no one could have possibly described it as a fall of the Western Empire. Yet what happened in 476 was exactly analogous. In the second place, this event concerns specially the history of Italy, in the same way as the settlements of the Visigoths and Burgundians concerned the history of Gaul; and the settlement of the Germans in Italy does not directly affect the western provinces as a whole. It is then a misleading misuse of words to speak of a fall of the Western Empire in 476: the revolution of that year marks but a stage, and that not the last stage, in the encroachments of the barbarian settlers in the western provinces.

Odovacar was not hampered, as Ricimer had been, by the nominal authority of a resident emperor; he was able to pursue his own policy without any embarrassment, and to act as an independent ruler. His policy was one of peace; he was entirely averse from aggression. It must be noted, too, that his position was much easier than that of Ricimer, because the Vandal hostilities had ceased. Gaiseric had died in 477; and two years before his death he had made peace with Rome, and Odovacar had induced him to restore Sicily in return for a yearly payment. The cessation of the Vandal danger was of immense importance for Odovacar’s government; the only task before it which involved warfare was to meet a danger which threatened on the northern frontier of Italy. This danger sprang from the kingdom of the Rugians on the Danube, to the north of Noricum. The Danubian provinces were completely disorganised; government had practically ceased; and the provincials were exposed not only to the oppression of the Rugians but to the incursions of other Germans—Alamanni, Thuringians, and Heruls. There is a famous work which gives a very vivid picture of the condition of Noricum and the adjacent lands at this period. It is the Life of St. Severinus, written a few years later by Eugippius. Severinus was the only protection the provincials had, except the walls of their towns; he was a powerful protector, for he exercised immense influence upon the barbarians. This influence, due to his strong personality and his devoted life, was increased by a belief in his miraculous powers and prophetic faculty. But though the self-sacrificing efforts of this monk did something to alleviate the condition of those lands and to restrain the cruelties of the barbarians, the miseries of the time in that quarter of Europe can hardly be exaggerated. Odovacar came to the rescue. He overthrew the Rugian kingdom, which had no elements of strength, and he removed the Roman provincials from the dangerous frontier to the shelter of Italy.

Solidus of Emperor Julius Nepos; mint in Ravenna, 474-5 A.D.

Let’s return to the settlement of the barbarians in Italy which was carried out by Odovacar. Two-thirds of their estates were left to the Italian proprietors; one-third was taken from them and assigned to the German soldiers, who were thus distributed throughout Italy. These soldiers were mainly East Germans; there was thus an East German colonisation of Italy. It differed from the settlements of the Visigoths and Burgundians in Gaul, in so far as the German settlers were limited to no special provinces, but were scattered throughout the peninsula among the inhabitants. These divisions of land among the barbarians were simply an extension of the old Roman system of quartering soldiers. For the continuity comes out with special force in the case of Odovacar’s land-division in Italy. In the time of Stilicho, and throughout the fifth century, urban householders were obliged by law to vacate a third part of their houses to the soldiers who were stationed in the towns. This law was passed by Arcadius and Honorius; it was reinforced by Theodosius II. and Valentinian III.; it was afterwards received into the Code of Justinian. The troops therefore who were commanded by Orestes must have been quartered in the Italian towns on this principle. When therefore they demanded a third part of the land they were simply demanding an extension of the quartering system, the hospitalitas—an extension such as had already been carried out in other provinces. This case therefore illustrates with particular clearness the great and important principle that these concessions of land are all based on the military quartering system of Rome.

It is obvious that the order of things introduced by Odovacar could hardly be permanent. His position was essentially weak. He was a patrician and he was a king, but in neither capacity had he any firm support. He had received from Constantinople only a reserved recognition; and as a German king he had no people. For the Germans to whom he owed his elevation were a mixed company of adventurers, fragments of many folks; there was no close or intimate bond among them, no national feeling. Odovacar, however, attempted and not unsuccessfully to found his power on closer co-operation with the senate.

The regime was in its very nature transitory. Its significance is twofold; on the one hand as a continuation of the regime of Ricimer—this side is represented by Odovacar in his character of patrician; on the other hand, as preparing for the foundation of a true German kingdom in Italy—this side is represented in his character as king.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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