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The Last Western Ruler


Romulus Augustus. AD 475-476. AV Tremissis (14mm, 1.47 g, 6h). Mediolanum (Milan) mint. D N ROMVLVS AGVSTVS P F (AV)G, pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / Cross within wreath; COMOB. RIC X 3419; Lacam Type 1, 34-5 and 37 (same dies); Depeyrot 43/2 corr. (obv. legend); Toffanin 541/1. EF. Very rare. An excellent example for type.

The task of ruling the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century AD was devoid of the glory that once accompanied the office. Gone were the days of conquest and firm imperial power. In their place were consistent threats on the Empire’s crumbing borders, a corrupt bureaucracy, and the ever-present threat of violent insurrection and usurpation. During this fraught time in Rome, on 31 October AD 475, a new emperor was proclaimed — Romulus Augustus.

Romulus was the young son of the Western Empire’s magister militum, Orestes, who had deposed the Emperor Julius Nepos via military coup. Nepos fled to Dalmatia in exile, while the rogue Orestes elected to put Romulus, about 14 years old, on the throne. With his son as his puppet, Orestes went about his own agenda while trying to fulfill the expected functions of government in Italy, which was largely all that remained of the Western Roman Empire. Unfortunately for Orestes and Romulus, the presence of the Eastern Roman Empire, far more wealthy and powerful, could not be ignored. To gain legitimacy, they needed the recognition of Constantinople. Unfortunately for them, the Eastern Empire was undergoing its own ruling crisis between the rival emperors Zeno and Basiliscus, and both claimants still considered the exiled Julius Nepos as the legitimate western ruler.

Nepos wielded no real power in exile, leaving Romulus Augustus as the de facto emperor in the west. However, his time was destined to be short. Early in AD 476, a group of barbarian foederati, mercenaries in Rome’s employ, demanded a third of the arable land in Italy in payment for their services. Orestes refused their demands. Led by one Odovacer, the mercenaries marched on Ravenna. Orestes and his personal guard tried to stop them, but he was defeated and killed at Ticinum. On 4 September AD 476, Odovacer seized Ravenna. Young Romulus, alone and friendless, sat on the throne wearing his diadem and purple cloak, holding the imperial scepter and orb, awaiting his fate. Odovacar elected to spare his life, but ordered that he hand over the ruling regalia and forced him sign an instrument of abdication, which he sent on to Zeno in Constantinople. Romulus Augustus, whose name combined those of the first king and emperor of Rome, had reigned just under 11 months. Odovacar proclaimed himself King of Italy and informed Zeno that he would rule as viceroy of the Eastern Roman emperor; Zeno politely insisted that Julius Nepos was still the legitimate Augustus of the West. Nepos, however, never set foot in Italy again and was murdered in AD 480, eliminating the last legitimate Western Roman ruler.

Romulus who had survived his own overthrow was sent to the countryside to live out his days on a yearly pension of 6,000 solidi. He was still alive in AD 507 when he had a brief correspondence with Theodoric the Great, who had replaced Odovacar as king.

The sad episode of Romulus Augustus is considered by most historians to mark the end of the Western Roman Empire. The famous historian Edward Gibbon popularized this verdict in his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon had this to say of the unremarkable, but historic Romulus Augustus. “The son of Orestes assumed and disgraced the names of Romulus Augustus; but the first was corrupted into Momyllus, by the Greeks, and the second has been changed by the Latins into the contemptible diminutive Augustulus. The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement.” Ultimately, due to the brief nature of his reign, the coinage of Romulus Augustus is quite rare and highly sought after for its historical significance. This example is a particularly excellent and high grade specimen.