Odoacer (433-493 CE, reigned 476-493 CE) also known as Odovacar, Flavius Odoacer, and Flavius Odovacer, was the first king of Italy. His reign marked the end of the Roman Empire; he deposed the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, on 4 September 476 CE. He was a soldier in the Roman army who ascended through the ranks to general and was then chosen to rule after the mercenary general Orestes refused to grant land in Italy to his soldiers, and they proclaimed Odoacer as their leader. The Roman senate approved Odoacer's leadership and awarded him the honorary status of a patrician. He provided his soldiers with the land he had promised, ruled in accordance with the precepts of the Roman Empire, and governed Italy judiciously until he was defeated in battle and then assassinated by Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths (475-526 CE). Although some historians have regarded his reign as uneventful and claim he introduced no innovations, he was successful in maintaining order, culture, and the last vestiges of the civilization of the Roman Empire which, considering the time in which he reigned, was an impressive achievement.
Early Life & Rise to Power
Nothing is clearly known of Odoacer's early life. His ethnicity is generally regarded as Germanic, but who his parents were, how he was raised, or even where, is a matter of debate among historians. It is generally agreed among scholars, however, that he was the son of Edico the Hun, king of the Germanic Sciri tribe, and trusted advisor to Attila. It was Edico, who had been sent by Attila as an ambassador to Rome, who revealed to Attila the Roman plot to assassinate him and so foiled the plan. After Attila's death, and the dissolution of the Hun Empire, Odoacer is thought to have fought for his father before joining the Roman army, ascending through the ranks, and finally assuming power. While it seems clear enough that Odoacer was Edico's son, the problem historians argue over is `Which Edico?' The 6th century writer Jordanes claims that Odoacer's father was Edica of the Sciri tribe but in no way associates him with Edico of the Huns. Much of Jordanes' work has been questioned by modern scholarship, however, and most historians agree that Edico of the Huns was the father of Odoacer. Historian Hyun Jin Kim describes Odoacer as "Edico's famous son" and notes his military skill as comparable to that of the Huns (96). The historian Peter Heather agrees, writing:
What's so exciting about Edeco is that he became king of the Sciri after Attila's death, even though he himself was not one. He probably owed his claim to the throne to having married a high-born Scirian lady, since his children, Odovacar and Onoulphous, are said to have had a Scirian mother. But Edeco himself is dubbed variously a Hun or a Thuringian (228).
Still, there are other historians who dispute these claims and suggest that Edico the Hun was not the father of Odoacer and that his father's name was Edica, of the Sciri tribe, who had nothing to do with Edico. As the majority of scholarship sides with historians such as Hyun and Heather, however, Edico has been identified as Odoacer's father, who was married to a noble woman of the Sciri.
Odoacer first appears in history in a minor role as a soldier called Odovacrius, fighting the Visigoths in 463 CE. He is also mentioned in the Life of Saint Severinus by Eugippius (5th century CE), where it is stated that he, with a band of followers, stopped by the saint's home to ask his blessing, and Severinus prophesied to Odoacer, "Go on to Italy - though now covered in mean hides, soon you will make rich gifts to many". While this prophecy proved to be true, it is unclear whether Eugippius wrote this anecdote before or after Odoacer had come to power. The story may be a later insertion into the life of the saint, written to lend him the gift of prophecy.
However that may be, by the year 470 CE Odoacer was an officer in the dwindling Roman army stationed in Italy. Julius Nepos (430-480 CE) had been appointed emperor of the west by the eastern Byzantine emperor Leo I (401-474 CE). Nepos appointed a general named Orestes as head of the army against the wishes and advice of the Roman senate. The senate did not trust Orestes because he was not of patrician stock and had fought for the armies of Attila against Rome. He was also, they felt, far too popular with the troops he had come to lead. The historian Gibbon writes:
These troops had been long accustomed to reverence the character and authority of Orestes, who affected their manners, conversed with them in their own language, and was intimately connected with their national chieftains by long habits of familiarity and friendship (547).
As soon as Orestes was elevated to commander-in-chief of the army in 475 CE, he marched them against Nepos who fled into exile. The troops then encouraged Orestes to declare himself emperor, but he declined and instead had his teenage son Romulus Augustulus (c. 460-500 CE) declared emperor. For their service to Orestes in deposing Nepos, and to augment the back pay they felt they deserved, the soldiers requested that a third of the lands of Italy should be given to them as homesteads. The problem with this request was that there were already people living on those lands who would have had to be re-located, and many of them were Roman citizens. Gibbon writes:
Orestes, with a spirit which, in another situation, might be entitled to our esteem, chose rather to encounter the rage of an armed multitude than to subscribe to the ruin of an innocent people. He rejected the audacious demand and his refusal was favourable to the ambition of Odoacer, a bold barbarian, who assured his fellow soldiers that, if they dared to associate under his command, they might soon extort the justice which had been denied to their dutiful petitions (547).
The soldiers went over to Odoacer's camp, and Orestes fled to the city of Pavia and mounted a defense. Odoacer marched on the city and, when it seemed it would fall, Orestes escaped and re-formed an army at Piacenza. Odoacer pursued him there, defeated him in battle, and had him executed. He was then declared king of Italy on 23 August 476 CE. The remnants of the Roman army, however, refused to accept him, and a final engagement, known as the Battle of Ravenna, was fought on 2 September 476 CE from which Odoacer emerged victorious. Two days later, on 4 September 476 CE, Romulus Augustulus was deposed and the Roman Empire in the west was finished. He was sent away to Campania under a kind of house arrest with a fixed annual allowance and disappears from history. The Roman senate, which was still a functioning entity, approved of Odoacer and wrote to the emperor in the east (who, at this time, was Zeno) that they no longer felt a western emperor was necessary in Rome, and the empire could easily be ruled from Constantinople in the east and by a king in the west. Regarding this situation, historian Guy Halsall writes:
Zeno's response was sharp. He reprimanded the Roman senate for having killed one emperor sent by the east (Anthemius) and exiled another (Julius Nepos) and urged them to accept Julius back. If Julius wished to bestow the patriciate upon Odoacer, that was for him to decide. Odoacer had no wish to see Julius return and so, rebuked by the imperial court and left with no other means of legitimation, he did what more than one military commander had done before in that situation: he declared himself king (281).
Although he had already been declared king by his troops, and his position approved by the Roman senate, Odoacer's personal declaration was made as an acceptance of this honor and, also perhaps, to send the message that he felt himself worthy to be king on equal standing with any other monarch. This may have been especially directed toward Zeno in order to make clear that Odoacer intended to rule as he pleased in accordance with the precepts of the Western Empire and was not seeking Zeno's explicit approval. Though initially displeased with what appeared to him to be lawlessness, Zeno recognized that having a barbarian king in the west, instead of a co-emperor, would greatly increase his prestige as sole ruler of the Roman Empire and so approved Odoacer's reign (no doubt with the thought in mind that he could always find a way to rid himself of Odoacer later). Odoacer, at around the age of 42, was now the most powerful man in Italy.
Throughout his reign he is thought to have called himself "King of Italy" only once in correspondence and was referred to by his subjects as simply Dominus Noster ("our lord") and by others as king of whatever tribe or region was under discussion at that moment. His relationship with the troops, whom he had established with land and homes throughout the country, continued to be one of mutual respect and admiration, and he was noted for his humility. Even so, his first act as king was to destroy those who might oppose him and establish himself as a monarch to be feared and obeyed. In October 476 CE he acquired Sicily through a treaty with the Vandals, and throughout 477 CE he consolidated his rule and strengthened the borders of the new Kingdom of Italy. When Julius Nepos was assassinated in his villa in Dalmatia in 480 CE, Odoacer marched to subdue the assassins, killed them, and then annexed Dalmatia (the modern-day eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea) into his kingdom.
Although modern historians are rightly suspicious of Edward Gibbon's 18th century CE work (as Gibbon tends to take those sources which suit his view of history at face value and reject others, no matter how substantial, that contradict him), his evaluation of Odoacer's reign is accurate. Gibbon writes how Odoacer received his position from the Roman senate and how he enjoyed their continuous support throughout his reign. Instead of deviating from the model of Rome, Odoacer embraced it and conducted himself as a Roman ruler, even adopting the prefix "Flavius". Gibbon writes:
The laws of the emperors were strictly enforced, and the civil administration of Italy was still exercised by the Praetorian prefect and his subordinate officers. Odoacer devolved on the Roman magistrates the odious and oppressive task of collecting public revenue; but he reserved for himself the merit of seasonable and popular indulgence. Like the rest of the barbarians, he had been instructed in the Arian heresy; but he revered the monastic and episcopal characters; and the silence of the catholics attests to the toleration which they enjoyed (549).
That Odoacer, who was raised as an Arian, should allow Trinitarianism to be practiced throughout his kingdom without problems is a testament to the wisdom and tolerance of his reign. The Arian heresy was the belief that Jesus was a created being, not equal to God, and therefore Arians did not believe in the trinity. Constantine the Great had so hated the Arian heresy that he ordered all the Arian works burned. Troubles between Arian Christians and Trinitarian Christians (Catholics) had erupted into public disturbances in the past, as they would also later on. Odoacer's tolerance of Trinitarianism and his continuation of other practices and policies of Rome show his prudence in that, ultimately, he only ruled by the senate's approval and by their intercession on his behalf with Zeno in Constantinople.
Theodoric & the Death of Odoacer
The consent of the senate notwithstanding, it was ultimately Zeno who held the greatest power over Odoacer's rule and fate. In 487 CE, Odoacer invaded the Danube Valley (which was under his control) to curtail the power of the Rugii tribe who had been increasingly gaining influence there. He defeated the Rugii and took their king Feletheus and his wife Gisa as prisoners to Ravenna, where they were executed. Frederick, Feletheus' son, raised an army to win the kingdom back but was defeated in battle by Odoacer's brother Onoulphous. Frederick survived the battle and took refuge with the king of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric. Odoacer, no doubt, felt secure in his kingdom after the Rugian War, but it would provide Zeno with the justification he was looking for to depose the king of Italy. Since the only reason Odoacer could give for attacking the Rugii was their increasing influence (not a rebellion) Zeno could say that Odoacer was acting like a tyrant who needed to be removed and so justify military action against him.
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Zeno had agreed to the Roman senate's request only with the understanding that Odoacer was more or less a stand-in for Julius Nepos and that he would step aside should Nepos return. With Nepos dead, Odoacer's reign was uncontested, and his campaigns in Dalmatia troubled Zeno because he took them as evidence of Odoacer's growing power and independence from Rome. Further irritating Zeno was Odoacer's support of the general Illus, who had revolted against Zeno's rule and caused him multiple problems. The historian Herwig Wolfram comments on this, writing, "The precarious relations between Constantinople and the Italian kingdom deteriorated further when [Odoacer] prepared for an intervention in the East on the side of the anti-Zeno party" (278). After the Rugian War, Zeno saw his opportunity to rid himself of Odoacer and entered into a treaty with Theodoric of the Goths, which stated that "after the defeat of Odovacar, Theodoric, in return for his efforts was to rule Italy for the emperor until he arrived in person" (Wolfram, 279). Whether the initial suggestion to invade Italy and depose Odoacer came from Zeno or Theodoric is debated but most scholars believe it was Zeno who suggested it and the evidence concerning their relationship seems to confirm this.
Theodoric had also been causing problems for Zeno. Raised and educated at the court in Constantinople, Theodoric understood how military might translated to political power. After Zeno had employed him and his Goths to defeat Illus, Theodoric wanted more power and, as Halsall relates, "the Goths threatened Constantinople and ravaged the Balkans but could not take the capital, whilst Zeno, secure behind the city's famous triple line of walls, was unlikely to drive the latter completely from his territories. A solution was required, agreeable to both parties, and found: for Theodoric's Ostrogoths to move to Italy and dispose of the "tyrant" Odoacer" (287). Theodoric marshalled his forces and marched on Italy and Zeno was rid of his problem with the Goths. Whether Odoacer killed Theodoric or Theodoric deposed Odoacer did not seem to matter much to Zeno; whichever one emerged from the war could be dealt with later.
Theodoric ravaged the countryside and encountered his first resistance from the Gepid people at the Vuka River in 488 CE. It is unknown whether they were allied with Odoacer or simply protecting their lands from invasion, but they were quickly defeated and slaughtered by Theodoric's forces. Theodoric marched on and met Odoacer's forces in battle at the Isonzo Bridge 28 August 489 CE, where Odoacer was defeated. He retreated to Verona with Theodoric in pursuit, and they clashed again on 29 September 489 CE; Odoacer was again defeated. He then fled to Ravenna and prepared the city's defenses, while Theodoric continued his conquest of the country. Wolfram writes:
Theodoric's march to Italy seemed destined for a fast and decisive victory. In Milan, which Theodoric captured after Verona, secular and ecclesiastical dignitaries welcomed him as the emperor's representative. Even Odovacar's commander-in-chief, Tufa, and large numbers of the defeated army joined the victor (281).
Trusting Tufa's gesture of submission and allegiance, Theodoric sent him in command of his elite troops to Ravenna to capture Odoacer. Tufa had only been feigning loyalty to the conqueror, however, and betrayed the troops to Odoacer's soldiers; the elite force was destroyed and "Theodoric suffered his first serious defeat on Italian soil" (Wolfram, 281). Odoacer left Ravenna and took the battle to the enemy who repeatedly repelled him. Tufa met Frederick of the Rugii in battle in August of 491 CE in which both were killed. Hostilities continued until 25 February 493 CE at which time John, the bishop of Ravenna, brokered a treaty by which Odoacer and Theodoric would rule jointly. Theodoric rode into Ravenna 5 March 493 CE and, on 15 March, at a formal dinner held to celebrate the treaty, Odoacer was murdered by Theodoric who stabbed him to death. His last words were, "Where is God?" to which Theodoric replied, "This is what you have done to my people" in reference to Odoacer's alleged tyranny and his destruction of the Rugii tribe, a people related to Theodoric's Goths. Wolfram describes the aftermath of Odoacer's death:
The deliberate and methodical nature of Theodoric's act is clearly revealed by the subsequent events: Odovacar was not allowed to receive a Christian burial and his wife Sunigilda was starved to death. Odovacar's brother Hunulf sought refuge in a church and was used as a target by Gothic archers...On the day of Odovacar's murder his followers and their families were attacked. Wherever the Goths could lay hands on them they met their deaths. In the course of the year 493 Theodoric had become the unchallenged master of Italy (284).
Odoacer's reign was then largely eclipsed by that of Theodoric (who would come to be known as Theodoric the Great) and his accomplishments forgotten. Under Odoacer, however, the country was secured during an extremely chaotic time in its history. He guided the country through famine, defended it against foreign invasions, and enlarged it through military conquest. His last words, "Where is God?" have been interpreted by scholars for centuries as questioning the justice of his murder after leading such an illustrious and pious life. The historian Will Durant once wrote, "It is easier to explain Rome's fall than to account for her long survival" (670). A part of her survival, in so far as the culture she gave rise to, is due to Odoacer and his preservation of Roman civilization and values throughout his reign.