Odoacer is a name that is little known and little celebrated. This episode illuminates the career of the soldier who closed the book on the Roman empire, who he was, and why don’t we know him better?
Not a huge amount of bonus material in this post, it has to be said.
Hello and welcome to the Dark Ages Podcast, today’s episode: The Usurper.
Hey everyone, we’re back to the main narrative again, ready to get back into politics and the affairs of nations. We also are finally into the years that I personally think of as “The Dark Ages”, so that’s exciting, no more introductory material. I get to tell stories that haven’t already been gone over by other extremely successful podcasts. Not naming names of course.
Our subject today is Odoacer. For a guy who finished off an empire of 500 years duration, he doesn’t get a lot of attention. He is overshadowed by the man who replaced him, but he reigned in Italy relatively effectively for thirteen years, and laid the groundwork for his more famous successor. I think he deserves an episode to himself, does he not?
All that having been said, this has been a difficult episode to write. In fact when I first conceived of the show, I tried to write this episode first, and ran into such a wall that I found I had to rewind a full hundred years in order for the thing to make any sense at all. Nothing of that first draft remains in today’s episode. All of that gives me a nice little opportunity to talk about the problem of source material a little later on. The man reigned for over a decade, and yet what we have available about him is so thin that I have not been able, in all the books on my shelf, to find one with a whole chapter devoted to Odoacer. Older authors take the lack of source material as evidence of his unpopularity, but there may be something else at play. I’ll come back to that, but keep it in the back of your mind as I tell this slightly sparse story with as much detail as I’m able to cobble together. It is, as you may already have noted, a relatively short episode nonetheless. I will almost certainly make up for it next time, if the length of my outline is anything to go on.
Odoacer most probably belonged to a Germanic tribe called the Sciri, who were one of the many tribes that had lived under the umbrella of Attila the Hun’s empire, he’s sometimes called a Hun himself, he probably wasn’t by birth. Odoacer’s father, Edeko, was a member of the Scirian royal house, the Turcilingi. If that name Edeko is firing some pattern-recognition neurons, it’s because I’ve mentioned him a couple times. He was one of Atilla’s secretaries, as well as bodyguard and man of some status among the Huns. The argument about whether Edeko was a Scirian or a Hun is, as Herwig Wolfram puts it, as meaningless as arguing about whether someone is a Californian or an American. Odoacer was born around 433, so he would presumably have grown up in Hunnic camps and around Attila’s court. He had an older brother named Hunnulf, though we don’t know how much older.
After Attila’s death, his empire flew apart with spectacular rapidity, culminating first at the Battle of Nedao in 455, where the domination of Attila’s sons was rejected and the Huns empire was officially dead. Gepid hegemony in the Carpathian basin was established, and other tribes either had to accept submission or be pushed to the south and west in search of new employment opportunities in the Roman Empire.
As is often the case in these scenarios, the newly independent tribes fought one another for dominance, culminating in a battle at a place called Bolea in 469. The Ostrogothic bands fought a coalition of other tribes who were supported by the eastern Roman emperor Zeno. In spite of imperial support, the coalition was defeated, and the Ostrogoths established their dominance over Pannonia on the Roman side of the Danube. Edeko was killed in the battle, and his two sons were forced to make new arrangements for themselves. Hunnulf went East, and found a position in the regular army. He would eventually rise to become the magister militum of Illyricum, the position once held by Alaric the Goth.
The victorious Goths now in control of Pannonia threw off the balance of power in the east in ways that would be significant, both for the Eastern empire and for Odoacer personally, but we’ll come to that.
Odoacer meanwhile took a large band of loyal followers, a mixed group of Sciri, Rugii, and probably Herules and some Huns, and went west. They passed through Noricum and according to the life of Saint Severinus, met that holy man at his hermitage in the mountains. Severinus predicted great things for Odoacer, saying “You who are now clad in wretched hides, you shall soon distribute rich gifts to many!” I told that story already in episode 13 of last season, the Apostle of Noricum, which I really placed too early. Regret is the hardest thing to live with.
Odoacer – whose name you will also commonly see as Odovacer, BTW – and his men had little trouble finding a place in the armies of Italy. Odoacer himself was their natural leader, as a member of a royal family. Not technically a king, he nonetheless commanded the loyalty of the troops underneath him, and he rose in reputation until he and his men formed an important part of the imperial guard. When the simmering hostility between Anthemius and Ricimer broke out into open conflict in 472, Odoacer took his force over to Ricimer’s side, and his defection was one of the triggers for Anthemius’ fatal decision to leave Rome and attempt to flee.
Odoacer seems to have been one of those characters in history who has that vital combination of prescience and flexibility, as he maintained a position near the top of the military establishment of Italy through the rapid-fire successions of the next few years. After Ricimer’s undeserved natural death, Odoacer rode out the rise and fall of Glycerius and Julius Nepos, always managing to end up on the winning side. When Orestes forced Nepos to flee and placed Romulus on the throne, Odoacer was right there, in command of all the federate forces in Italy. That one is interesting to me, because in Orestes we have another former pillar of Attila the Hun’s court. Orestes knew Odoacer’s father quite well, probably as a rival. Odoacer would almost certainly have met Orestes in that context when he was young. It makes me wonder what kind of relationship there was between them prior to the events of 476.
As I think I’ve made clear, the federate forces in Italy constituted at least half of the total military force in the peninsula, and very possibly more. But they weren’t paid the same way, didn’t have the same rights, and couldn’t expect the same kind of land grants that the regular army did. Their status was also lower than that of the regular army, in spite of their clear and very real value. That rankled. With the rise of Orestes, there was some hope that the situation would be corrected, but when the troops asked, Orestes couldn’t comply. His excuse was that what was left of the empire simply couldn’t afford it. The tax base had been whittled down to nothing with the progressive loss of territories, and just about all the land in Italy, along with the revenue it generated, was spoken for. Not to mention there had always been a tradition that foreign federates who were granted land never received it within Italy itself. But there were no lands left outside Italy that Orestes could have offered.
None of that cut any ice with the army. Whether Odoacer saw an opportunity and put himself at the head of the resulting mutiny, or his troops pushed him to the head of the mob, depends on what you read. He was certainly the most natural choice, as a “king” of his people. The rising was immediately successful. Orestes and the forces loyal to him were caught and defeated at Piacenza, where Orestes was killed. After the victory the Germanic troops, along with a fair number of the italian soldiers, proclaimed Odoacer rex italia. Romulus, and presumably his handlers, holed up in Ravenna, though what they could have hoped to achieve I can’t imagine. Ravenna was an impregnable fortress, surrounded by marshes that channelized any attempt at an assault. All well and good, but when your enemy controls all the territory outside the fortress, and there is no help on any horizon, an impregnable fortress becomes not much more than a cage.
Because there was no help coming. The Eastern court remained committed to supporting Julius Nepos, and even if Nepos hadn’t been in the picture, a succession crisis had broken out in Constantinople that precluded any direct action in the immediate future. That particular digression leads to our next episode, so I’ll not go down that road just now. The point is that Romulus and whoever was left around him were up a certain creek with no means of propulsion, and they knew it.
There is no record of any resistance being offered when Odoacer turned up with his army outside Ravenna. I have a mental image of the Barbarian conqueror striding through the rooms of the imperial palace looking for Romulus, his father’s blood still on his sword. That part is ridiculous, of course, there are quite a few miles between Piacenza and Ravenna, I assume Odoacer wiped his sword on the way.
When the terrified eleven year old was found, it was made clear that he would not be killed. Instead, as a last official act, he was compelled to write a letter to Zeno. In it, he abdicated the western throne, stating that there was no longer any need for two emperors. He requested that Odoacer be named patrician, as he had been acclaimed by the army and senate as their choice to rule Italy in Zeno’s name. The letter was packed up with the imperial robes and diadem and sent back to Constantinople in the care of a few senators who were to make the situation clear.
Imagine Emperor Zeno’s dilemma. In killing Orestes and pushing Romulus aside, Odoacer had, as far as the east was concerned, simply overthrown an illegal usurper; he couldn’t really be punished for that. He acknowledged the emperor’s continued supremacy, and in a triumph of diplomatic doublespeak, he tacitly acknowledged Julius Nepos, without actually recognizing him as having any direct authority – Odoacer was ruling in Zeno’s name, not Nepos’. Also Odoacer offered, in return for that title of patricius, to renounce the title of king that had been forced upon him (totally forced!) by his men. Zeno was none to secure on his own throne at the time, and had to accept the situation, in spite of emissaries from Nepos and Syagrius of Soissons arriving in short order to register their disgust, and in spite of his own temperament. I’ll talk about Zeno in much more detail in the next episode, but just letting things go was not really in his personal toolbox.
Romulus and his mother were sent off into exile in Campania, by tradition at a villa outside Naples, with a pension that allowed him to live as a member of the senatorial class – so not a small amount. It’s possible that he is the same Romulus as a person later mentioned in passing around 511, when he would have been 45 or 46. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the last Roman emperor lived a full life of comfortable obscurity and died in his own bed – and that has to be some kind of achievement on its own.
So what exactly had happened? There is an argument to be made that the answer is: not very much. If Odoacer had set up his own puppet emperor, he would have simply appended himself onto the end of the long list of military strongmen who ruled the empire through an imperial cypher. No different from Stilicho, Aetius, or Ricimer. But he didn’t do that. He ruled directly. The title of patrician placed him nominally in the hierarchy of the Roman empire, and could smooth things over with the upper crust of the Italian nobility that made up the senate. But it was clear that Odoacer took orders from no one, and when he gave orders it was in his own name.
Julius Nepos never renounced his claim to the western purple, and he was acknowledged as the legitimate ruler by Constanitnople until his death. That would be a threat, if anyone could ever get their act together and raise some kind of military force against Italy, but for a long while nobody could.
The presence of Julius Nepos, over in Dalmatia, was in another way an advantage to Odoacer. He was over there, with absolutely no practical authority, but Odoacer could and did pay lip service to him as an emollient when the senate or Constantinople seemed to be getting antsy. He even minted coins in Nepos’ name, but in reality Nepos was pretty much totally ignored. To the senate, he Odoacer was patricius, and they gave their obedience to him under that title, to the army, he was a tribal king, and he received their obedience under that one.
I want to talk about those senators a little, and specifically their attitude toward this whole thing, because it gives me a chance to explore a question that’s been bothering me for months. When the Roman empire in the west came to an end, what did people think about it? In the last episode of last season, I suggested that of course people noticed, they’re not stupid, whether it mattered to them was probably another matter entirely. But in the case of the Italian aristocracy, there’s an interesting case of two-brainedness happening.
The central thing to remember is that the people of Italy did not wake up on the morning of September 5, 476, stand up, stretch, and say, “you know, suddenly garum seems really disgusting, I think I’d rather have some nice marinara”, and not just because the tomato wouldn’t be introduced for over a thousand years. No, they went to bed thinking of themselves as Romans, and woke up the next morning still thinking of themselves as Romans. Because romanitas was a way of life and a way of thought, independent of whatever the political arrangements were. Romanitas was, in this self-conception, ruled by reason developed through education, which prepared the Roman to live under rational Roman law. That was the fundamental difference between Roman and barbarian, the barbarian would always be ruled by his passions and unable to understand the real freedom that could be had by embracing rationality. None of that went away, just because some eleven year old had been sent off to the country. So the senators and bishops that were the backbone of Italian, and indeed most other formerly Roman societies, were able to rationalize that while the imperium – the military power of absolute command – had passed into new hands or disappeared entirely, the res publica – the community of the Romans living under rational law and with divine favor – remained to them, as their patrimony. Put another way, the empire may have withered, but romanitas remained. Any new leader who arrived in Italy, no matter where he came from, would have to appeal to and even demonstrate that romanitas if they were to have the support of the senate or the church.
Odoacer seems to have done a credible enough job of this, though I have no doubt that his accession was accompanied by the sort of carrot-and-stick demonstrations you’d expect from this kind of takeover. Jordanes, our old friend, mentions that one senator named Bracila was executed in order to intimidate the other aristocrats, and if that’s all it took then it doesn’t say much for their collective backbone. He did have to do something, because he had been made king by the soldiers, and still had the same problem that Orestes had had. How to settle these men in such a way as to avoid too much direct rancor was a problem that needed to be solved. Unfortunately the details of how exactly this transition, which would have represented a fairly massive transfer of property, are completely lost to us. It would have been impossible though without the administrative apparatus and skills of the senatorial and clerical classes. Odoacer certainly understood the value of the senatorial class to him, and he issued coins marked SC, for Senatus Consultio, the first time such coinage had been struck since the third century. He regularly nominated Italian senators as consuls – still a mark of high status and connection to Constantinople, though no longer carrying any official duties.
The church too, had to be kept on side, not just because here was essentially the mass-media of the day, but because already bishops were as much landowners and players in politics as their aristocratic cousins. Often literally they were cousins. In spite of his personal Arian beliefs, Odoacer seems to have had no problem getting the orthodox church on his side. There’s not much hint of any contemporary objection to his heretical beliefs, and even less indication that he moved against orthodoxy in any way.
But the soldiers were the heart and soul of Odoacer’s power. Lands were granted to the federate soldiers, and Odoacer ensured that their status would never be overshadowed by the old “regular army” again, by dissolving the regular army. The federates, the outsiders, who had been the majority and the backbone of military forces for some time, now became the only military force in Italy, and the Germanic warriors were both de jure and de facto masters of the Roman heartland. Notions of romanitas notwithstanding, that right there, for me, marks the end of the Roman empire.
All of this would obviously have resulted in huge and fascinating changes, as the top layers of society re-oriented themselves to the new realities. There must have been thousands of deals made dealing with the transference of all that land and position, but we will never have any details of any of it.
The re-ordering was just as in evidence on the international stage.
Odoacer scored an early victory in his negotiations with Gaiseric, the king of the Vandals. The island of Sicily has loomed large in our narrative, as the local breadbasket of Italy, and its loss to the Vandals had been a severe blow to the Romans. Somehow Odoacer managed to induce the return of most of the island to Italian control. How and why the extremely savvy Gaiseric agreed to this is yet another mystery. He was getting on by 476, well into his eighties, and would die early the next year. It’s possible he recognized that his successors would be unable to hold the island, and so he gave it up under the best possible terms he could get. Those terms included a reasonably large recurring tribute payment, and the maintenance of a toe-hold on the western end of the island, so it’s not so difficult to see the wisdom of Gaiseric’s move.
In the west, there was less that could be done. Euric of the Visigoths appears to have made a play to extend his control over Provence, but was beaten back by a pair of Odoacer’s generals, and the Alpine border was confirmed. Odoacer acknowledged Euric as an independent king, and that was that.
In 480, the situation shifted, when Julius Nepos was assassinated, probably in Salona, by two members of his own retinue. No scholar I’ve read comes right out and says that Odoacer was involved in the murder, and the fact that there’s not much debate about it just highlights the complete void of information we have, but to me the odds seem 50/50 at best. If he was, the trigger might have been word of a plan, still in its infancy, to put Nepos back on the throne of Italy with help from the Pannonian Goths, but the plan fizzled upon Nepos’ murder. Regardless of the facts, Odoacer played the role of avenger with gusto. In the power vacuum left in Nepos’ absence, Rugians and Goths looked to be making plays for the territory. Odoacer rushed in with his army, defeated the Rugians and arrested and executed Nepos’ murderers (who probably felt pretty dumb at that moment – don’t let yourself be the patsy, folks, it never works out for them).
Once all that was done, Odoacer … just hung around. Dalmatia had always technically been in the western sphere of influence, though in practice authority over the region passed back and forth between Rome and Constantinople, and was actually the object of many of Stilicho’s civil wars with the east, all those episodes ago. For a long while Dalmatia’s governors were effectively independent, but Nepos’ death put an end to that. Odoacer re-asserted western control, and Dalmatia was incorporated into the kingdom of Italy. And still Constantinople could do nothing.
Though they made no headway in Dalmatia, the Rugians remained a problem. Occupying territory perilously close to the passes through the Julian Alps – the land route between Italy and the East, they ranged along the northern edge of the alps and the Danube Valley without much opposition. These are the barbarians that were represented in the Life of Saint Severinus. Eventually, Odoacer had had enough, and in 487 or 88 he led an expedition against them. He defeated and captured their king, named Feletheus and returned with him to Italy. But in the ensuing chaos it became clear that he would be unable to hold on to the territories. The far parts of Noricum and Raetia were evacuated and abandoned to barbarian control. Communities, like the one established by Saint Severinus, relocated to Italy. In that specific case, they founded a church and abbey in Naples, which remains there to this day.
In a very real way, Odoacer’s rule in Italy depended on the weakness or distraction of his neighbors. He had the cooperation of the aristocracy, but not their love. The army was his, but probably could prove flexible should a better option appear on the horizon. We as usual have no knowledge of how the vast body of the populace felt about all that had been going on, but if I had to guess it would just be to be happy that for a while no one was trampling the crops. He was living on borrowed time, is what I’m saying.
It couldn’t last forever. Eventually political conditions in the east would shift, and Constantinople would be able to make a move against him. And that’s exactly what happened in 490. With the support of Zeno, the Pannonian Goths invaded Italy to usurp the usurper and reclaim Italy for the empire … that was probably what Zeno had in mind, anyway. He was about half right, as it would turn out. That story, the story of Theodoric the Amal, aka Theodoric the Ostrogoth, aka Theodoric the Great, I will begin next time. We’ll also reach the end of the reign of Odoacer Turcilingis. No spoilers, but it will be messy. There will be some very unhappy banquet staff.
I started this episode saying that the material available to the historian is thin gruel. That wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t just the vagaries of time. We can’t really know whether Odoacer was a good king or a tyrant or something in between, because of the man who replaced him. Next time I’ll introduce Theodoric the Great in great detail, and talk about his early life and the twists and turns that brought him to Italy to challenge Odoacer. It’s proper history, it’s a narrative, and that’s because when he came to challenge Odoacer, Theodoric won. The cliche of history is that it’s always written by the victors – that’s not always true, by the way, it’s written by the people who can write, and those aren’t always the same people. In the case of Theodoric vs. Odoacer though, it’s as true as it can possibly be. Theodoric would have three decades to cement his legacy, justify his actions, and completely overwrite the story of the man he’d replaced. The old perspective on Odoacer is that the absence of sources is evidence of his unpopularity and failure. I don’t really buy that. Theodoric was a successful king, who consciously used the administrative and cultural heritage to his own advantage. He had personal experience with that heritage from a youth spent in Constantinople, but he also had the substrate of an administration in Italy that had learned how to work with this new kind of leader. The Roman state had learned to work for a Germanic king, while maintaining its self-image and efficiency. Had Odoacer been ineffective, he would have ended up on the point of some other adventurers’ spear much earlier, as Orestes had. Had Odoacer been a tyrant, he had thirteen years, plenty of time to tear the heart out of the Roman system for his own short term benefit – which is what tyrants do. Neither thing happened. Odoacer left for Theodoric an armature onto which Theodoric could build his own sculpture. And in return, the Scirian received erasure and obscurity. I hope I have done enough in some small way to correct that injustice.
Some business before I go. First and most important, warm thanks and one of those endearing two-handed handshakes to Vic, Tim, AG, Atzi, and Charlie, who all donated through ko-fi.com, which is apparently supposed to rhyme with “no fee”, whatever. Thank you all, and Charlie, all I can say is, dude seriously, thank you.
One thing I didn’t talk about when I was setting up the season in the last episode is the little matter of scheduling. Last season, the release day changed several times, and there were a few times where there were long gaps between episodes, sometimes I had a good reason, sometimes I really didn’t. I can’t promise absolute consistency going forward, this whole project is still fundamentally a hobby, and I’m a father of three, with all that goes into that, but what I can promise is that episodes will consistently drop on Monday mornings. If I have a really good week, it’s possible I might be able to pull off two mondays in a row, though I suspect the average will be closer to every other week. I will try very hard not to let it go any longer than that, except around the holidays. Thank you all so much for your patience with me.
If you haven’t already, take a second to rate the show on whatever podcast app you’re using and make sure you’re subscribed to the show there as well, that can make a big difference in visibility for me and is personally very gratifying. If your platform of choice lets you leave a review, I would love to hear your feedback, thank you to Rancidaggro who left a review on apple podcasts over the break, thanks very much Mister/Ms Gro, I do have to question your word choice though, That’s a typo, surely.
There’s also the Facebook page, which has grown enormously recently. It’s very exciting, I suppose I should start posting stuff on it a bit more, but I’m always nervous about clogging people’s feeds. Twitter, which I’m very streaky at but occasionally I’ll unleash little flurries, and the contact page on www.darkagespod.com to send an email directly to me. I love seeing messages pop up in any of those places. Just search for Darkagespod, all one word, on any of those and you should find me. Unless it’s hate mail, in which case, go take a shower and a few deep breaths before you hit send, I promise you’ll feel better. Or brush your teeth, you’d be surprised how much that helps.
That’s all for now, until next time, take care.
Bury, John B. 1967. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. Edited by Fossey John C. Hearnshaw. New York: Norton.
Eugippius. 1965. Commemoratorium Severinus. Translated by Ludwig Bieler. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.
Frassetto, Michael. 2003. Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe: Society in Transformation. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Goldsworthy, Adrian K. 2009. How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Heather, Peter J. 2014. The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wolfram, Herwig. 1997. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Translated by Thomas Dunlap and Thomas R. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press.
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0