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date: 23 October 2019

Fall of the Western Empire

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Jonathan ArnoldJonathan Arnold

Fall of the Western Empire 

The years 476–80 saw the coup of the barbarian commander Odoacer against the patricius Orestes and the deposition of Orestes' young son, the puppet-emperor Romulus Augustulus. In hindsight and in traditional accounts these events marked the end of independent imperial authority in the western half of the Roman Empire.

Orestes had revolted in 475, driving the Western Emperor Julius Nepos to Dalmatia and elevating Romulus in his place. The true power behind the throne, Orestes soon encountered difficulties with the soldiers of Italy, many of them of barbarian origin, when he refused their request to be given land on which to settle. By August 476, their protests had developed into a full-scale revolt led by Odoacer, whom the soldiers proclaimed king (rex). Odoacer defeated and killed Orestes at Piacenza (Placentia) and neutralized all remaining opposition by September. He then took the fateful step of deposing Romulus Augustulus and notified the Eastern Emperor Zeno that the West no longer required its own emperor. Placing the West under Zeno’s authority, he offered to rule as the emperor’s representative in Italy and requested the rank of patricius.

Conventionally, these developments ended the Western Empire, but Zeno’s response and Odoacer’s future actions demonstrate the ambiguity of the situation. Addressing Odoacer as a patricius, the emperor nonetheless instructed him to receive his rank from Julius Nepos, whom he still regarded as the legitimate reigning Western emperor. Moreover, and though de facto ruler of Italy, Odoacer obeyed Zeno to some extent, minting coinage in the name of Nepos. In 480 Nepos was assassinated and Odoacer invaded Dalmatia as Nepos’ avenger. With Nepos dead, the West truly did lack its own emperor, but the idea that this constituted the Fall of the Western Empire gained prominence only in the era of Justinian I.

Jonathan Arnold


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