Flavius Odoacer (// OH-doh-AY-sər; (c. 433–493 AD), also known as Flavius Odovacer or Odovacar (Latin: Odoacer, Odoacar, Odovacar, Odovacris), was a barbarian statesman who deposed Romulus Augustus and became King of Italy (476–493). His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire.
Coin of Odoacer, Ravenna, 477, with Odoacer in profile, depicted with a "barbarian" moustache.
|King of Italy|
|Predecessor||None (Title created after abolition of Western Roman Empire)|
|Successor||Theodoric the Great|
Pannonia, Western Roman Empire
|Died||15 March 493 (age 60)|
Ravenna, Kingdom of Italy
Part of a series on the
|History of Italy|
Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of the emperor in Constantinople. Odoacer generally used the Roman honorific patrician, granted by the emperor Zeno, but is referred to as a king (Latin: rex) in many documents. He himself used it in the only surviving official document that emanated from his chancery, and it was also used by the consul Basilius. Odoacer introduced few important changes into the administrative system of Italy. He had the support of the Roman Senate 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 Trinitarian state church of the Roman Empire.
Likely of East Germanic descent, Odoacer was a military leader in Italy who led the revolt of Herulian, Rugian, and Scirian soldiers that deposed Romulus Augustulus on 4 September AD 476. Augustulus had been declared Western Roman Emperor by his father, the rebellious general of the army in Italy, less than a year before, but had been unable to gain allegiance or recognition beyond central Italy. With the backing of the Roman Senate, Odoacer thenceforth ruled Italy autonomously, paying lip service to the authority of Julius Nepos, the previous Western emperor, and Zeno, the emperor of the East. Upon Nepos's murder in 480 Odoacer invaded Dalmatia, to punish the murderers. He did so, executing the conspirators, but within two years also conquered the region and incorporated it into his domain.
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 first by inciting the Rugii of present-day Austria to attack Italy. During the winter of 487–488 Odoacer crossed the Danube and defeated the Rugii in their own territory. Zeno also appointed the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great who was menacing the borders of the Eastern Empire, to be king of Italy, turning one troublesome, nominal vassal against another. 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 5 March 493; Theodoric invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and there killed him.
Except for the fact that he was not considered Roman, Odoacer's precise ethnic origins are not known. Most scholars consider him to be of Germanic descent, from one of several East Germanic tribes such as the Turcilingi, Scirii, Heruli, Rugii and Gothi, or possibly also of partial Thuringii descent. Medieval scholar, Michael Frasetto, reports that Odoacer was of Scirian heritage, as do others; while historian, Erik Jensen, avows that Odoacer was born to a Gothic mother and that his father, Edeco, was a Hun. Historians Robert L. Reynolds and Robert S. Lopez explored the possibility that the name Odoacer was not Germanic, making several 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"). This form finds a cognate in another Germanic language, the titular Eadwacer of the Old English poem Wulf and Eadwacer (where Old English renders the earlier Germanic sound au- as ea-).
Others suggest that the name Odoacer is derived from the Germanic Audawakrs, from aud- "wealth" and wakr- "vigilant" or combined, "watcher of the wealth." In his Getica, Jordanes describes Odoacer as king of the Turcilingi (Torcilingorum rex). The Consularia Italica calls him king of the Heruli, while Theophanes appears to be guessing when he calls him a Goth. After reviewing the primary sources, Bruce Macbain argues that "The ancient sources exhibit considerable confusion over Odovacer's tribal affiliation, identifying him variously as a Skirian, a Rogian and/or Torcilingian, a Herul, and even a Goth;" he subsequently concludes that "not a single source calls him a Hun." Historian Penny MacGeorge points out that the confusion about Odoacer's ethnicity is exaggerated and that the claims he was a Hun "can almost certainly be dismissed;" she asserts instead that Odoacer was "surely Germanic."
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.
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 respects 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. Despite that Odoacer was an Arian Christian and Severinus was Catholic, the latter left a deep impression on him. 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. In his capacity as a soldier suddenly pitted against Anthemius, since he had switched sides to join with Ricimer, Odoacer had "hastened the emperor's downfall."
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). Under the command of Orestes were significant contingents of Germanic peoples made up mostly of Rugii and Heruli tribesmen. Before the end of that year Orestes had rebelled and driven Nepos from Italy. Orestes then proclaimed his young son Romulus the new emperor as Romulus Augustus, called "Augustulus" (31 October). At this time, Odoacer was a soldier rising through the ranks. However, Nepos reorganized his court in Salona, Dalmatia and received homage and affirmation from the remaining fragments of the Western Empire beyond Italy and, most importantly, from Constantinople, which refused to accept Augustulus, Zeno having branded him and his father as traitors and usurpers.
About this time the foederati, who had been quartered in Italy 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 along with 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's youth and his beauty to not only spare his life but give him a pension of 6,000 solidi and sent him to Campania to live with his relatives.
Following Romulus Augustus's deposition, according to the historian Malchus, upon hearing of the accession of Zeno to the throne, the Senate in Rome sent an embassy to the Eastern Emperor and bestowed upon him the Western imperial insignia. The message was clear: the West no longer required a separate Emperor, for "one monarch sufficed [to rule] the world". In response, Zeno accepted their gifts and this essentially brought to end any puppet emperors in the West, with Nepos banished and Anthemius dead. The Eastern Emperor then conferred upon Odoacer the title of Patrician and granted him legal authority to govern Italy in the name of Rome. Zeno also suggested that Odoacer should receive Nepos back as Emperor in the West, "if he truly wished to act with justice." Although he accepted the title of Patrician from Zeno, Odoacer did not invite Julius Nepos to return to Rome, and the latter remained in Dalmatia until his death. Odoacer was careful to observe form, however, and made a pretence of acting on Nepos's authority, even issuing coins with both his image and that of Zeno. Following Nepos's murder in 480, who was killed while waiting in Dalmatia, Zeno became sole Emperor.
Bury, however, 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
Kingdom of Italy
The Kingdom of Italy (under Odoacer) in 480 AD.
|Status||Vassal state of the Eastern Roman Empire|
• 476–493 AD
|Historical era||Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages|
|2 September 476|
• Romulus Augustulus abdicates
|4 September 476|
• Theodoric the Great assassinates Odoacer
|2 February 493|
|ISO 3166 code||IT|
In 476, the barbarian warlord Odoacer founded the Kingdom of Italy as its first king, initiating a new era over Roman lands. 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 Sicily to him. Noting that "Odovacar seized power in August of 476, Gaiseric died in January 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), Odoacer 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. As the most tangible example of this renewed prestige, for the first time since the mid-3rd century copper coins were issued with the legend S(enatus) C(onsulto). Jones describes these coins as "fine big copper pieces", which were "a great improvement on the miserable little nummi hitherto current", and not only were they copied by the Vandals in Africa, but they formed the basis of the currency reform by Anastasius in the Eastern Empire.
Although Odoacer was an Arian Christian, his relations with the Chalcedonian 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. The biography of Pope Felix III in the Liber Pontificalis openly states that the pontiff's tenure occurred during Odoacer's reign without any complaints about the king being registered.
In 487/488, 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 him as a rival. Odoacer exchanged messages with Illus, who had been in open revolt against Zeno since 484. Switching allegiances, Zeno subsequently sought to destroy Odoacer and then 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 him assassinated."
In 489, Theodoric led the Ostrogoths across the Julian Alps and into Italy. On 28 August, Odoacer met him at the Isonzo, only to be defeated. He withdrew to Verona, reaching its outskirts on 27 September, where he immediately set up a fortified camp. Theodoric followed him and three days later defeated him 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 Ostrogothic 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, "[b]ut 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 Theodoric 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.
By this time, however, Odoacer had to have lost all hope of victory. A large-scale sortie he sent out of Ravenna on the night of 9/10 July 491 ended in failure, during which his commander-in-chief, Livilia, along with the best of his Herulian soldiers were killed. 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 on 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 imperial palace of Honorius "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, "The man has no bones in his body."
Not only did Theodoric slay Odoacer, he thereafter had the betrayed king's loyal followers hunted down and killed as well, an event which left him as the master of Italy. Odoacer's wife Sunigilda was stoned to death, and his brother Onoulphus was killed by archers while 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. However, Wolfram writes that Sunigilda was starved to death. Despite the tragic ending of his domain, followers, and family, Odoacer left an important legacy, in that, he had laid the foundations for a great kingdom in Italy for Theodoric to exploit.
- "Odoacer". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
- "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.
- For more on this, see: Stefan Krautschick, "Zwei Aspekte des Jahres 476", Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 35 (1986), pp. 344–371.
- Both the Anonymus Valesianus and John of Antioch state his father's name was Edeko (Edika). 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 Battle of Bolia in Pannonia about 469. See: 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
- However, in his Romana, the same author defines him as a member of the Rugii (Odoacer genere Rogus). Jordanes, Romana 344.
- Likewise, the sixth-century chronicler, Marcellinus Comes, calls him "the king of the Goths" (Odoacer rex Gothorum). Marcellinus Comes, Chronicon, s. a. 476.
- 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."
- Also See: John of Antioch, fragment 209; translated by C. D. Gordon, Age of Attila, p. 122. Procopius describes him as one of the Emperor's bodyguards, only agreeing to this position if placed in charge of them.
- Also see: 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
- See:Malchus, fragment 10, translated in C. D. Gordon, The Age of Attila, pp. 127–129.
- Cook writes, "One wonders at [Ennodius'] brevity," adding that during "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 that Odoacer was very supportive of the Church. "Ennodius was a loyal supporter of Theodoric the Great. 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."
- Also see: John of Antioch, fragment 214; translated by C. D. Gordon, Age of Attila, p. 152.
- For several years the armies of Odoacer and Theodoric march back and forth as they vied for control of Italy.
- See also: 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.
- Also See:Anonymus Valesianus, 11.52.
- Wolfram suggests that sometime in 492 or 493, Fredericus and Tufa quarreled and fought a battle against one another, which led to both being killed. To this Wolfram adds, that the Rugians "rejoined the Gothic king" (by whom, he means Theodoric).
- John of Antioch, fragment 214a; translated by C. D. Gordon, reports the statement as, "There certainly wasn't a bone in this wretched fellow." Age of Attila, pp. 182f. Both the Anonymus Valesianus (11.55) and Andreas Agnellus (Liber pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis, ch. 39) places the murder in Ad Laurentum. Herwig Wolfram explains Theodoric's claim of avenging his "friends" as recompense for the death of a Rugian royal couple—"it apparently did not matter that their son was at that very moment in open rebellion against Theodoric."
- See:Anonymus Valesianus 11.56
- 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."
- See: John of Antioch, fragment 214a.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Odoacer.|. The American Cyclopædia. 1879.
as Western Roman Emperor
as Western Roman Emperor
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Theodoric the Great