Around Aug. 23, A.D. 476 , the German military leader Odoacer was proclaimed King of Italy by his army. This event is generally considered to be end of the Roman empire in the west.
In the early third century, the emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in order to have a more strategically secure city. Additionally, the Eastern Empire, the crossroads of civilizations, had always contained the more wealthy and dynamic provinces. By moving his seat to Constantinople, Constantine ensured that the lucrative east would no longer subsidize western backwaters in France, Britain and Spain as it had in the past.
Given the vast distances of the empire, Constantine's successors often divided the empire between two emperors. While Rome had an emperor once again, often he acted as a deputy to the eastern emperor and served at his pleasure, though occasionally wars did break out between the two. Western autonomy waxed and waned for much of the next century.
Though barbarians had raided the empire on occasion for centuries, the Visigoth invasion in A.D. 376 signaled the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire. Initially invading the Eastern Empire, by A.D. 410 the Germanic Visigoths had sacked Rome and settled in France, essentially as a foreign nation within the borders of the empire.
Further barbarian invasions followed. Attila's Huns invaded Italy and threatened Rome in the 440s and early 450s, and the Vandals sacked Rome again in 455. These repeated invasions exacerbated the Western Empire's already fragile military, economic and political positions.
Unlike the days of the Roman republic and early empire, most fourth- and fifth-century Romans did not see honor in serving in the military. Consequently, the Roman military (in both west and east) frequently suffered manpower shortages and increasingly came to rely on Romanized Germans for commanders and soldiers. The western economy likewise was falling apart. Without subsidies from the east, the urban breakdown that accompanied a lack of patrons to invest in infrastructure and never-ending problems of debasing coinage (leading to inflation), the Western Roman economy was stretched to the limit.
The year after the sack of Rome in 455, the Germanic General Ricimer gained increasing power within the empire. With the title Magister Militum (Master of Soldiers), Ricimer exercised vast authority from behind the scenes even as a series of emperors sat on the throne. When Ricimer had a disagreement with an emperor, a coup was staged and the emperor replaced.
In the book “The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000,” historian Chris Wickham noted that after an unsuccessful campaign against the Vandals: “Ricimer concentrated on Italy, which he defended effectively, and left the rest of the empire largely to its own devices. Ricimer is hard to assess through the sources that are both hostile and sketchy, but there is no sign that he had political interests or ambitions which extended beyond Italy; he is a clear sign that imperial horizons were shrinking.”
A brief power struggled ensued after Rimicer's death in 472, and eventually Orestes, a Roman citizen of German stock who served as a secretary to Attila, rose to the rank of Magister Militum. Launching a rebellion against the Western Emperor Nepos, Orestes continued the tradition of ruling from behind an imperial puppet and named his son, the teenager Romulus, to the purple. Soon Romulus was known by the nickname Augustulus, “Little Augustus.”
Since Orestes, like Rimicer before, did not rule legitimately, but only through the fiction of serving the emperors they dominated, his power rested upon the loyalty he commanded from his troops. Such loyalty often came at a price and the soldiers tended to back those commanders that gave into their demands. Orestes proved unpopular with his troops when he failed to deliver them more land and pay, and after only 10 months of his son's rule, they murdered the military leader in 476. The army's loyalty had shifted to Odoacer, a German-Roman soldier of the Scirian tribe.
In the book, “How Rome Fell,” historian Adrian Goldsworthy wrote: “(Romulus Augustulus was) merely deposed and allowed to live out his life in comfortable seclusion. He was not worth the trouble of killing. Nor did Odoacer feel that it was worth creating a new emperor to replace him. Instead, the imperial regalia was formally sent to Constantinople. Officially the empire was united again, with Zeno and his successors ruling as sole emperors from Constantinople. In practice, the lands of the former Western Empire would go their own way, as a number of separate kingdoms.”
For whatever reason, Odoacer did not seek the imperial title himself, though his troops begged him to proclaim himself king, perhaps wanting their leader to have some form of legitimacy in their eyes. The Eastern Emperor Zeno granted Odoacer the title Patricius, or Patrician, another fiction that Constantinople continued to rule Rome. Odoacer was content to appear to submit to Zeno, though he acceded to his troops request.
Critically, Odoacer did not style himself King of the West, King of Rome or King of the Romans. Odoacer's choice of title acknowledged the new political reality: he ruled only the Italian peninsula and therefore styled himself King of Italy. Around 500 B.C. the Romans had cast off the hated Rex and formed their republic. Now, nearly 1,000 years later, the Romans had a king once again.
Many living in Italy noticed little practical difference in their lives. Government and administration, such as it was, continued to function normally, and the Colosseum even underwent significant repairs in the 480s. The emperors in the west had long been figureheads with little practical power; the German military commanders were the true power in the peninsula. Now all openly acknowledged what had long been fact. If you had informed the average Roman on the street in A.D. 477 that his empire had just fallen apart he most likely would have shrugged with indifference. His life hadn't changed.
The stability of Rome, which had increasingly become a fable agreed upon over the course of the fifth century, at last gave way to the enormous pressures pulling it apart. In the east, what would become known as the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople ruled until A.D. 1453. The western empire was dead, however, and the kingdoms of Western Europe began to flourish. The light of Rome had given way to the Dark Ages.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org