The role of betrayal in and after the fall of the Roman Empire | by Tim Gebhart | March 2022

Where would history be without betrayal and murder?

Illustrations of Odoacer and Theodoric the Great in the Nuremberg Chronicles (Wikimedia Commons)

JJhe so-called fall of the Roman Empire is a milestone in Western history. Yet the betrayals that often marked Rome’s transfer of power did not disappear. The betrayal gave birth to the last Western Roman emperor in 475 and, on March 15, 493, to the Ostrogothic domination of Italy which would last 60 years.

Julius Nepos became Western Emperor in 474, appointed by Eastern Emperors Leo I and Zeno. Nepos placed Orestes, a former official of Attila the Hun, in command of Roman troops to fight off the rebelling Barbarian allies in southern Gaul. Orestes had other ideas. He sent the army to march on Ravenna, the capital of the western empire, and on August 28, 475, Nepos fled from the empire.

The famous historian Edward Gibbon The story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire said “some secret motive” was behind Orestes who had his son Romulus proclaimed emperor. As Romulus was then only 12 to 15 years old, he was called Romulus Augustulus, the latter term meaning “little Augustus”. The boy was only a figurehead while Orestes wielded imperial power. The rule did not last long.

In 476, the Germanic barbarian troops of the Roman army revolted, led by Odoacer (also known as Odovacer or Odovacar). Odoacer’s forces defeated, captured and executed Orestes, and on September 4, 476 they captured Ravenna and Romulus. Considering the boy’s age, Odoacer not only spared him, but granted him a pension to live in exile. The soldiers declared Odoacer king.

Romulus Augustulus cedes power to Odoacer (Wikimedia Commons)

The following year, the Roman Senate sent a delegation to Constantinople to inform Zeno that they were now ruled by Odoacer, but neither he nor they considered Odoacer emperor. They also said that Rome was not giving up allegiance to the Eastern Roman Empire. Zeno accepted this fact, but for Odoacer it was form rather than substance. “For it was the will of Odoacer that was obeyed in the land, and not the will of his titular superior at Constantinople,” famous British historian Charles Oman wrote in The Dark Ages, 476–918.

Keeping Rome’s form of administration in place, Odoacer ruled successfully for 17 years. Among other things, he collected taxes, appointed officials and intervened in the election of the bishops of Rome. As if that weren’t enough to irritate Zeno, the Eastern Emperor saw Odoacer as a potential rival who supported a rebellion against Zeno.

In 487, Zeno and Constantinople were besieged by Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths. Theodoric’s inability to take Constantinople and Zeno’s desire to get rid of the Ostrogoths led the two men to common ground. Considering himself emperor of the entire Roman Empire, Zeno agreed to appoint Theodoric to replace Odoacer if the Goths invaded the west and overthrew Odoacer.

Theodoric invaded Italy in 489 and routed Odoacer’s forces in northern Italy. The war, however, lasted several years, during which Ravenna was besieged for two and a half years. In late February 493, Odoacer and Theodoric signed a treaty under which the two would rule together. “But Theodoric had no desire to share the peninsula with another king, and there can be little doubt that when he swore the treaty he had every intention of breaking his oath”, according to JB Bury. History of the Lower Roman Empire. “Odovacar’s days were numbered.”

12th century illustration of Theodoric the Great (Wikimedia Commons)

Theodoric entered Ravenna on March 5, 493. Ten days later Theodoric hosted a banquet to celebrate the treaty. The seventh-century chronicler John of Antioch provides the only account of what happened. He reported that when Odoacer arrived,

two of [Theodoric’s] henchmen came forward like suppliants and seized Odovacar’s hands. Then those hiding in ambush in the chambers on either side rushed in with their swords. They panicked at the sight of their victim, and when they did not attack Odovacar, Theodoric himself rushed forward and struck him with a sword on the collarbone.

When [Odoacer] asked, “Where is God? Theodoric replied, “That’s what you did to my friends.”

At this point, according to 19th-century British historian Thomas Hodgkin Biography of Theodoric, Theodoric used his broadsword to “cleave his rival from shoulder to loin”. Consumed by “barbaric frenzy.” . . and with a wild laugh of his own too impetuous blow, he cried as the corpse fell to the ground: “I think the weakling never had a bone in his body.”

Not only did Odoacer painfully discover that betrayal circulates and returns, but John of Antioch also reports that Theodoric had Odoacer’s entire family killed. According to Gibbon, members of Odoacer’s mercenary army were “universally slaughtered”. Theodoric proclaimed himself king and ruled Italy until his death in 526 from dysentery.

Historian Oman said Theodoric “deliberately lured ‘Odoacer into his camp’ with the firm intention of putting him to death”. Yet Oman called Odoacer’s assassination “almost the only vile and wicked crime in Theodoric’s long and glorious career”.

He became known as Theodoric the Great. Ravenna and the Italian peninsula enjoyed peace and prosperity during Theodoric’s reign, leading some to call it a golden age. He also created a Gothic empire that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Danube. Although the Ostrogothic kingdom continued to be ruled by descendants of Theodoric, it collapsed in 553.

David C. Barham