Flavius Odoacer King Coin of Odoacer, Ravenna, 477, with Odoacer in profile, depicted with a "barbarian" moustache. Reign 476–493 Predecessor None Successor Theodoric the Great Father Edeko Born c.433 Died 493
Flavius Odoacer (433–493), also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the first King of Italy. His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of Julius Nepos and, after Nepos' death in 480, of the Emperor in Constantinople. Odoacer is referred to as a king (Latin rex) in many documents and he himself used it at least once and on another occasion it was used by the consul Basilius. Odoacer introduced few important changes into the administrative system of Italy. He had the support of the Senate at Rome and was able to distribute land to his followers without much opposition. Unrest among his warriors led to violence in 477–478, but no such disturbances occurred during the later period of his reign. Although Odoacer was an Arian Christian, he rarely intervened in the affairs of the Roman Catholic church.
Probably of Scirian descent, Odoacer was a military leader in Italy who led the revolt of Herulians, Rugians, and Scirians that deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus on 4 September AD 476. In 480 Odoacer invaded Dalmatia (in present Croatia) and within two years conquered the region. When Illus, master of soldiers of the Eastern Empire, asked for Odoacer’s help in 484 in his struggle to depose Zeno, Odoacer invaded Zeno’s westernmost provinces. The emperor responded by inciting the Rugi of present Austria to attack Italy. During the winter of 487–488 Odoacer crossed the Danube and defeated the Rugi in their own territory. In 488, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, who was appointed king of Italy by Zeno in order to prevent the Ostrogoths from raiding in the Eastern Empire. Theodoric invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on March 5, 493; Theodoric invited Odoacer to a banquet and there killed him.
Odoacer is the earliest ruler of Italy for whom an autograph of any of his legal acts has survived to the current day. The larger portion of a record of Odoacer granting properties in Sicily and the island of Melita on the Adriatic coast to Pierius, and issued in 488, was written in his reign.
Except for the fact that he was not considered "Roman", Odoacer's ethnic origins are unknown. Both the Anonymus Valesianus and John of Antioch state his father's name was Edeko; however, it is unclear whether this Edeko is identical to one—or both—men of the same name who lived at this time: one was an ambassador of Attila to the court in Constantinople, and escorted Priscus and other Imperial dignitaries back to Attila's camp; the other, according to Jordanes, is mentioned with Hunulfus as chieftains of the Scirii, who were soundly defeated by the Ostrogoths at the river Bolia in Pannonia sometime in the late 460s. Since Sebastian Tillemont in the 17th century, all three have been considered to be the same person, while ignoring the corollary that Odoacer was a Hun and assuming he was a member of one of the subject Germanic tribes of Attila's empire. Jordanes describes Odoacer as king of the Turcilingi (Torcilingorum rex). However, Jordanes in his Romana also describes him as a member of the Rugii (Odoacer genere Rogus). The Consularia Italica calls him king of the Heruli, while Theophanes appears to be guessing when he calls him a Goth. Marcellinus Comes calls him "the king of the Goths" (Odoacer rex Gothorum).
However, Reynolds and Lopez explored the possibility that Odoacer was not Germanic in their 1946 paper published by the American Historical Review, making several convincing arguments that his ethnic background might lie elsewhere. One of these is that his name, "Odoacer", for which an etymology in Germanic languages had not been convincingly found, could be a form of the Turkish "Ot-toghar" ("grass-born" or "fire-born"), or the shorter form "Ot-ghar" ("herder"). "If Ratchis could become Radagaisus, why could Ot-toghar or Ot-ghar not have become Odoacer or Odovacer?" they ask.
Odoacer's identity as a Hun was then accepted by a number of authorities, such as E.A Thompson and J.M. Wallace-Hadrill—despite J. O. Maenchen-Helfen's reasonable objection that personal names were not an infallible guide to ethnicity. Then in reviewing the primary sources in 1983, Bruce Macbain pointed out several uncomfortable silences in the primary sources, and proposed that while his mother might have been Scirian and his father Thuringian, in any case he was not a Hun.
Possibly the earliest recorded incident involving Odoacer is from a fragment of a chronicle preserved in the Decem Libri Historiarum of Gregory of Tours. Two chapters of his work recount, in a confused or confusing manner, a number of battles fought by King Childeric I of the Franks, Aegidius, Count Paul, and one "Adovacrius" or "Odovacrius". If this is an account of Aegidius' victory over the Visigoths, otherwise known from the Chronicle of Hydatius, then this occurred in 463. Reynolds and Lopez in their article mentioned above, suggested that this "Adovacrius" or "Odovacrius" may be the same person as the future king of Italy. This suggestion has been accepted by some scholars; it appears to explain why Lewis Thorpe named this person "Odoacer" in his translation of Gregory's work.
The first certain act recorded for Odoacer was shortly before he arrived in Italy. Eugippius, in his Life of Saint Severinus, records how a group of barbarians on their way to Italy, had stopped to pay their respect to the holy man. Odoacer, at the time "a young man, of tall figure, clad in poor clothes", learned from Severinus that he would one day become famous. When Odoacer took his leave, Severinus made one final comment which proved prophetic: "Go to Italy, go, now covered with mean hides; soon you will make rich gifts to many."
Leader of the foederati
By 470, Odoacer had become an officer in what remained of the Roman Army. Although Jordanes writes of Odoacer as invading Italy "as leader of the Sciri, the Heruli and allies of various races", modern writers describe him as being part of the Roman military establishment, based on John of Antioch's statement that Odoacer was on the side of Ricimer at the beginning of his battle with the emperor Anthemius in 472. Procopius goes as far as describing him as one of the Emperor's bodyguards.
When Orestes was in 475 appointed Magister militum and patrician by the Western Roman Emperor Julius Nepos, he became head of the Germanic foederati of Italy (the Scirian – Herulic foederati). However, Orestes proved to be ambitious, and before the end of that year Orestes had driven Nepos from Italy to exile at Salona in Dalmatia (28 July). Orestes then elevated his young son Romulus to the rank of Augustus, to become emperor as Romulus Augustus (31 October).
About this time the foederati, who had been quartered on the Italians all of these years, had grown weary of this arrangement. In the words of J. B. Bury, "They desired to have roof-trees and lands of their own, and they petitioned Orestes to reward them for their services, by granting them lands and settling them permanently in Italy". Orestes refused their petition, and they turned to Odoacer to lead their revolt against Orestes. Orestes was killed at Placentia and his brother Paulus outside Ravenna. The Germanic foederati, the Scirians and the Heruli, as well as a large segment of the Italic Roman army, then proclaimed Odoacer rex Italiae ("king of Italy"). In 476 Odoacer advanced to Ravenna and captured the city, compelling the young emperor Romulus to abdicate on 4 September. According to the Anonymus Valesianus, Odoacer was moved by Romulus' youth and his beauty to not only spare his life but give him a pension of 6,000 solidii and sent him to Campania to live with his relatives.
Soon after Romulus Augustus' deposition, upon hearing of the ascension of Zeno to throne, according to the historian Malchus (historian) the Senate in Rome sent an embassy to bring him the message that they had no need of a separate empire, "but that a single common emperor would be sufficient for both territories." They also brought the imperial decorations and insignia as proof of their sincerity of their intentions. In response, Zeno accepted their gifts observing "the Western Romans had received two men from the Eastern Empire and had driven out one and killed the other, Anthemius." He offered to make Odoacer a Patrician, and suggested that Odoacer should receive Nepos back as Emperor "if he truly wished to act with justice." Although he accepted the title of Patrician, Odoacer did not invite Julius Nepos to return to Rome, and the latter remained in exile until his death.
Although Bury disagrees that Odoacer's assumption of power marked the fall of the Roman Empire, "It stands out prominently as an important stage in the process of the dismemberment of the Empire. It belongs to the same catalogue of chronological dates which includes A.D. 418, when Honorius settled the Goths in Aquitaine, and A.D. 435, when Valentinian ceded African lands to the Vandals. In A.D. 476 the same principle of disintegration was first applied to Italy. The settlement of Odovacar's East Germans, with Zeno's acquiescence, began the process by which Italian soil was to pass into the hands of Ostrogoths and Lombards, Franks and Normans. And Odovacar's title of king emphasised the significance of the change."
King of Italy
In 476, Odoacer became the first Germanic King of Italy, initiating a new era. Unlike most of the last emperors, he acted decisively. According to Jordanes, at the beginning of his reign he "slew Count Bracila at Ravenna that he might inspire a fear of himself among the Romans." He took many military actions to strengthen his control over Italy and its neighboring areas. He achieved a solid diplomatic coup by inducing the Vandal king Gaiseric to cede to him Sicily. Noting that "Odovacar seized power in August of 476, Geiseric died in January of 477, and the sea usually became closed to navigation around the beginning of November", F.M. Clover dates this cession to September or October 476. When Julius Nepos was murdered by two of his retainers in his country house near Salona (May, 480), Odovacar assumed the duty of pursuing and executing the assassins, and at the same time established his own rule in Dalmatia.
As Bury points out, "It is highly important to observe that Odovacar established his political power with the co-operation of the Roman Senate, and this body seems to have given him their loyal support throughout his reign, so far as our meagre sources permit us to draw inferences." He regularly nominated members of the Senate to the Consulate and other prestigious offices: "Basilius, Decius, Venantius, and Manlius Boethius held the consulship and were either Prefects of Rome or Praetorian Prefects; Symmachus and Sividius were consuls and Prefects of Rome; another senator of old family, Cassiodorus, was appointed a minister of finance." A.H.M. Jones also notes that under Odoacer the Senate acquired "enhanced prestige and influence", in order to counter any desires for restoration of Imperial rule. The most tangible example of this renewed prestige was that, for the first time since the mid-third century copper coins were issues with the legend S(enatus) C(onsulto). Jones describes these pieces as "fine big copper pieces", which were "a great improvement on the miserable little nummi hitherto current", and not only were copied by the Vandals in Africa, but formed the basis of Anastasius' currency reform in the Eastern Empire.
Although Odoacer was an Arian Christian, his relations with the Roman Catholic church hierarchy were remarkably good. As G.M. Cook notes in her introduction to Magnus Felix Ennodius' Life of Saint Epiphanius, he showed great esteem for Bishop Epiphanius: in response to the bishop's petition, Odoacer granted the inhabitants of Liguria a five-year immunity from taxes, and again granted his requests for relief from abuses by the praetorian prefect. "One wonders at his [Ennodius'] brevity," observes Cook. "To the thirteen years of Odovacar's mastery of Italy... a period which embraced nearly half the episcopate of Epiphanius -- Ennodius devotes but eight sections of the vita (101-107), five of which are taken up with the restoration of the churches." Cook uses Ennodius' brevity as an argumentum ex silentio to prove Odoacer was very supportive of the Catholic Church. "Ennodius was a loyal supporter of Theodoric. Any oppression, therefore, on the part of Odovacar would not be passed over in silence." She concludes that Ennodius' silence "may be construed as an unintentional tribute to the moderation and tolerance of the barbarian king." The biography of Pope Felix III in the Liber Pontificalis openly states that the pontiff's tenure fell during Odoacer's reign without any complaints about the king.
In 487 Odoacer led his army to victory against the Rugians in Noricum, taking their king Feletheus into captivity; when word that Feletheus' son, Fredericus, had returned to his people, Odoacer sent his brother Onoulphus with an army back to Noricum against him. Onoulphus found it necessary to evacuate the remaining Romans and resettled them in Italy. The remaining Rugians fled and took refuge with the Ostrogoths; the abandoned province was settled by the Lombards by 493.
Fall and death
As Odoacer's position improved, Zeno, the Eastern Emperor, increasingly saw Odoacer as a rival. According to John of Antioch, Odoacer exchanged messages with Illus, who had been in revolt against Zeno since 484. Thus Zeno sought to destroy Odoacer, and promised Theodoric the Great and his Ostrogoths the Italian peninsula if they were to defeat and remove Odoacer. As both Herwig Wolfram and Peter Heather point out, Theodoric had his own reasons to agree to this offer: "Theodoric had enough experience to know (or at least suspect) that Zeno would not, in the long term, tolerate his independent power. When Theodoric rebelled in 485, we are told, he had in mind Zeno's treatment of Armatus. Armatus defected from Basilicus to Zeno in 476, and was made senior imperial general for life. Within a year, Zeno had had him assassinated."
In 489, Theodoric led the Ostrogoths across the Julian Alps and into Italy from the west. On 28 August, Odoacer met him at the Isonzo, only to be defeated. He withdrew to Verona, reaching its outskirts 27 September where he immediately set his men to throwing up a fortified camp. Theodoric followed him and three days later defeated him once again. While Odoacer took refuge in Ravenna, Theodoric continued across Italy to Mediolanum, where the majority of Odoacer's army, including his chief general Tufa, surrendered to the Visigothic king. Theodoric had no reason to doubt Tufa's loyalty and dispatched his new general to Ravenna with a band of elite soldiers, Herwig Wolfram observes. "But Tufa changed sides, the Gothic elite force entrusted to his command was destroyed, and Theodoric suffered his first serious defeat on Italian soil." Theodoric recoiled by seeking safety in Ticinum. Odoacer emerged from Ravenna and started to besiege his rival. While both were fully engaged, the Burgundians seized the opportunity to plunder and devastated Liguria. Many Romans were taken into captivity, and did not regain their freedom until Theodoric ransomed them three years later.
The following summer, the Visigothic king Alaric II demonstrated what Wolfram calls "one of the rare displays of Gothic solidarity" and sent military aid to help his kinsman, forcing Odoacer to raise his siege. Theodoric emerged from Ticinum, and on 11 August 490, the armies of the two kings clashed on the Adda River. Odoacer again was defeated and forced back into Ravenna, where Theoderic besieged him. Ravenna proved to be invulnerable, surrounded by marshes and estuaries and easily supplied by small boats from its hinterlands, as Procopius later pointed out in his History. Further, Tufa remained at large in the strategic valley of the Adige near Trent, and received unexpected reinforcements when dissent amongst Theodoric's ranks led to sizable desertions. That same year, the Vandals took their turn to strike while both sides were fully engaged, and invaded Sicily. While Theodoric was engaged with them, his ally Fredericus, king of the Rugians, began to oppress the inhabitants of Pavia, whom the latter's forces had been garrisoned to protect. Once Theodoric intervened in person in late August, 491, his punitive acts drove Fredericus to desert with his followers to Tufa. Eventually the two quarreled and fought a battle which led to both being killed.
By this time, however, Odoacer had to have lost all hope of victory. A large-scale sortie out of Ravenna on the night of 9/10 July 491 ended in failure, with the death of his commander-in-chief Livilia along with the best of his Herulian soldiers. On 29 August 492, the Goths were about to assemble enough ships at Rimini to set up an effective blockade of Ravenna. Despite these decisive losses, the war dragged on until 25 February 493 when John, bishop of Ravenna, was able to negotiate a treaty between Theodoric and Odoacer to occupy Ravenna together and share joint rule. After a three-year siege, Theodoric entered the city 5 March; Odoacer was dead ten days later, slain by Theodoric while they shared a meal. Theodoric had plotted to have a group of his followers kill him while the two kings were feasting together in the palace called Ad Laurentum ("At the Laurel Grove"); when this plan went astray, Theodoric drew his sword and struck him on the collarbone. In response to Odoacer's dying question, "Where is God?" Theodoric cried, "This is what you did to my friends." Theodoric was said to have stood over the body of his dead rival and exclaimed, "There certainly wasn't a bone in this wretched fellow."
According to one account, "That same day, all of Odoacer's army who could be found anywhere were killed by order of Theodoric, as well as all of his family." Odoacer's wife Sunigilda was stoned to death, and brother Onoulphus was killed by archers seeking refuge in a church. Theodoric exiled Odoacer's son Thela to Gaul, but when he attempted to return to Italy Theodoric had him killed.
The events around the Battle of Ravenna were used in the Germanic heroic saga of Dietrich von Bern (Theodoric of Verona). The event in which Theodoric kills Odoacer with his own hands is mirrored in the saga in the episode in which Dietrich kills the Dwarf King Laurin.
Odoacer's donation to Pierius
Odoacer is the first ruler of Italy for whom the original text of any of his legal acts has survived. This is a grant by Odoacer to Pierius of properties in Sicily near Syracuse and on the island of Melita in Dalmatia, worth in total 690 solidi. The grant itself was made 18 March 488, but this document, which is on papyrus, was written shortly afterwards. The opening section is missing and the text is in two parts, one now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Neapolis and the other in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, but the bulk of the act itself and the subscriptions by witnesses and officials survive.
Pierius, comes domesticorum, was given these properties as a reward for his achievements in the war against Theodoric. None of the parties involved in this transaction—not Pierius, Odoacer, nor the witnesses—could foresee that the recipient would die the following year in the battle of the Adda River.
Pierius' grant is the lone surviving document which has survived from the civic scriptorium of Syracuse prior to the Byzantine reconquest. Scipione Maffei made the unconfirmed assertion that both pieces were owned by the poet Giovanni Gioviano Pontano; it had already lost the beginning by then. The second part is known to have been in the possession of Cardinal Pasquale de Aragon during the 1660s, but Tjäder notes the two parts were reunited at the library of the Monastery of San Paolo in Neapolis in 1702. In 1718, the second part was presented to Emperor Charles VI in 1718, through whom that fragment found its way to Vienna.
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- ^ Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 2, s.v. Odovacer, pp. 791 – 793
- ^ "Odoacer was the first barbarian who reigned over Italy, over a people who had once asserted their just superiority above the rest of mankind." Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XXXVI
- ^ Marcellinus, Cassiodorus, and some Papal documents, which come the closest to implying official use of the title, all refer to him as rex (or one of its declensions). Jordanes at one point refers to him as Gothorum Romanorumque regnator: ruler of the Goths and the Romans. He is called an autokrator (autocrat) and a tyrannos (usurper, tyrant) in Procopius' Bellum Gothicum. The only reference to Odoacer as "King of Italy" is in Victor Vitensis: Odouacro Italiae regi.
- ^ Priscus, fragments 7 and 8, translated by C.D Gordon, The Age of Attila: Fifth Century Byzantium and the Barbarians (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1966), pp. 70 - 93. Jordanes, Getica, ch. 277
- ^ a b Jordanes, Getica 242
- ^ Jordanes, Romana 344
- ^ McGeorge, Penny (2002). Late Roman warlords. Oxford University Press. p. 284. ISBN 9780199252442.
- ^ Marcellinus Comes, Chronicon, s. a. 476
- ^ a b Robert L. Reynolds and Robert S. Lopez, "Odoacer: German or Hun?" American Historical Review, 52 (1946), p. 45
- ^ Bruce Macbain, "Odovacer the Hun?," Classical Philology, 78 (1983), pp. 323-327
- ^ Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, translated by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 174
- ^ Eugippius, Commemoratorium Severinus, chapter 6. Translated by Ludwig Bieler, Eugippius, The Life of Saint Severin (Washington: Catholic University, 1965), pp. 64f. Bieler explains in a footnote that "make rich gifts to many" refers to the custom of Germanic war leaders giving lavishly to their followers, because "generosity was one of the virtues which a king was supposed to have."
- ^ John of Antioch, fragment 209; translated by C.D. Gordon, Age of Attila, p. 122
- ^ History of the Wars, 5.1.6. Text and translation in H.B. Dewing, Procopius (London: Heinemann, 1968), vol. 3 p. 5.
- ^ J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1923), vol. 1 p. 405
- ^ a b Bury, History, vol. 1 p. 406
- ^ Anonymus Valesianus, 8.38. Text and English translation of this document is in J.C. Rolfe (trans.), Ammianus Marcellinus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), vol. 3 pp. 531ff
- ^ Malchus, fragment 10, translated in C.D. Gordon, The Age of Attila, pp. 127-129
- ^ a b Bury, History, vol. 1 p. 409f
- ^ Jordanes, Getica 243
- ^ Clover, "A Game of Bluff: The Fate of Sicily after A.D. 476", Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 48 (1999), p. 237
- ^ Bury, History, vol. 1 p. 410
- ^ Jones, The Later Roman Empire: 284 - 602 (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1986), pp. 254f
- ^ Sr. Genevieve Marie Cook, The Life of Saint Epiphanius by Ennodius: A translation with an introduction and commentary (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1942), pp. 12f
- ^ Translated in Raymond Davis, The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis) (Liverpool: University Press, 1989), pp. 41f
- ^ Eugippius, Commemoratorium Severinus, chapter 44
- ^ Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum, 1.19. Translated by William Dudley Foulke, History of the Lombards, 1904 (Philadelphia: University Press, 1974), p. 31-33
- ^ John of Antioch, fragment 214; translated by C. D. Gordon, Age of Attila, p. 152
- ^ Peter Heather, The Goths (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 217
- ^ Anonymus Valesianus, 11.50f. This follows how Thomas Hodgkins explains this confusing chronology of the Anonymus Valesianus; Italy and her Invaders (Oxford, 1885), vol. 4 p. 214
- ^ Anonymus Valesianus, 11.52
- ^ a b Wolfram, History of the Goths, translated by Thomas J. Dunlap (Berkeley: University of California, 1988), p. 281
- ^ History of the Wars, 5.1.18-23
- ^ Heather, The Goths, p. 219
- ^ Wolfram, History of the Goths, p. 282
- ^ Wolfram, History of the Goths, p. 283
- ^ John of Antioch, fragment 214a; translated by C. D. Gordon, Age of Attila, pp. 182f. Both the Anonymus Valesianus (11.55) and Andreas Agnellus (Liber pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis, ch. 39) place the murder in Ad Laurentum. Herwig Wolfram explains Theodoric's claim of avenging his "friends" as revenge for the death of the Rugian royal couple -- "it apparently did not matter that their son was at that very moment in open rebellion against Theodoric" (Wolfram, History of the Goths, p. 283)
- ^ Anonymus Valesianus 11.56
- ^ John of Antioch, fragment 214a. However Wolfram writes that Sunigilda was starved to death. (History of the Goths, p. 283)
- ^ Unless otherwise stated, this section is based on Jan-Olof Tjäder, Die Nichtliterarischen Lateinischen Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit (Lund: Gleerup, 1955), vol. 1 pp.279-293. An English translation of this document is in Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders (Oxford, 1880–1899), vol. 3 pp. 150-154.
- ^ Anonymus Valesianus, 11.53
- ^ Tjäder, Nichtliterarischen Lateinischen Papyri, vol. 1 p. 35
- Thompson, E. A. Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982. ISBN 0 299 08700 X.
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