What happened in 476?
When I was at school, 476 CE was the accepted date for the “Fall of Rome.” But Rome didn’t “fall.” It’s still there, I’ve seen it.
So why is 476 said to be the Big Date? As the empire grew more and more dependent on barbarian mercenaries, emperors (in whose names the coinage was issued) were reduced to figureheads – aristocratic puppets under the control of tough Germanic warriors.
In 475, Orestes, the commander of the Roman army (magister militum) staged a coup in the capital.
Orestes had once been an assistant to Attila the Hun. After Attila’s death, Orestes joined the service of the western empire quickly achieving a senior position. In 474 emperor Julius Nepos made him ‘Master of Soldiers’ and raised him to the rank of patrician.
In this elevated position Orestes enjoyed far greater support by the troops than the emperor himself. For by now almost the entire garrison of Italy consisted of German mercenaries
When Orestes marched his troops on Ravenna, Julius Nepos,fled across the Adriatic to his stronghold in Dalmatia.
Orestes placed his own son, Romulus, on the throne. The boy may have been as young as 8 or as old as 14. Because Romulus was born in Rome to a Roman mother, Orestes –part barbarian himself – might have considered his son more acceptable to the Senate and the Roman elite.
Gold solidi and tremisses were struck in Romulus’ name at Ravenna, Milan, Rome and (very rare) Arles in southern France.
For over a century, portraits on Roman coins had been generic images of an ideal emperor, with no attempt to represent the incumbent’s actual features, but on the best tremissis dies, we can imagine the engraver was trying to depict a child.
Romulus Augustus was a target of much mockery in his own day. His very name begged for ridicule. Romulus, the legendary first king of Rome, Augustus its glorious first emperor.
The public had their own names for the little emperor. ‘Romulus‘ was changed to Momyllus, which means ‘little disgrace’ and ‘Augustus‘ was turned into ‘Augustulus‘, meaning ‘little Augustus’ or ‘little emperor’. The latter version stuck with him throughout history, with many historians today still referring to him as Romulus Augustulus.
On August 23, 476, German mercenaries led by Odovacer overthrew and killed Orestes. Little Romulus was deposed and exiled to Campania.
His new home was a large villa at Misenum and he was given an annual pension of six thousand solidi. A more than generous pension for the Boy Emperor.