Romulus Augustulus was born around 463 in Pannonia, modern-day western Hungary. His father Orestes, a one-time secretary – notarius – to Atilla the Hun, was a senior military commander known as a magister militum, who seized power from the incumbent emperor Julius Nepos. Instead of taking the throne himself, Orestes proclaimed his young teenage son as the last emperor of the Roman Empire.
Romulus Augustulus - The Early Years
Very little is known about his childhood before he acceded to the throne when he was about 14, and possibly as young as ten. Although it is assumed that given his father’s senior position in the government, it’s likely he received a formal education.
While not much else about him is fascinating, his name certainly is. Whether by coincidence or design, Emperor Romulus Augustus (as he was originally known) is derived from two of Rome’s greatest men. Romulus was the founder of Rome and its first king, and Augustus was the first emperor of Rome and one of history’s greatest leaders.
On his accession as the last Roman emperor, he was given the nickname Augustulus, meaning ‘little Augustus’ and he was often referred to as ‘momylus’, a derisory nickname that translates to ‘little disgrace.’
Was Romulus Augustulus the Last Emperor of the Roman Empire?
This is a subject of much debate and conjecture among historians. If we go by the list of emperors of ancient Rome in chronological order, then yes, Romulus Augustus comes at the very end. However traditionally, usurpers, where power was seized through force, haven’t been recognised as legitimate emperors and that’s exactly how Romulus Augustulus made it to the throne.
In addition, Romulus’s reign was never recognised by the Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed his authority was disputed beyond Italy and his reign was seen by many as illegitimate. In fact Julius Nepos fled to Dalmatia on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea and continued to claim the title of emperor. Therefore it is Nepos that should really be known as the last Western Roman emperor. It remains one of the most contentious subjects in the rich and complex history of ancient Rome.
The Reign of Emperor Romulus Augustulus
Almost no records survive detailing his reign, likely because there were no records to keep. He was on the throne for ten months and by then, the game was up. The Western Roman Empire was in tatters. Almost all its political power was gone, as was its land, and the rulers in the East were more powerful and richer. An invasion was imminent.
Romulus was nothing more than a puppet for his father whose grip on power was in its death throes. He passed no laws, made no important decisions and there are no monuments dedicated or inscriptions ascribed to him. It seems he had very little interest in politics and he was more or less inconsequential. His lasting legacy was a few coins minted in Rome, Ravenna and Milan. The reign of the last emperor of the Roman Empire was nothing but a sad end to a once great institution.
The Fall of the Western Roman Empire
By the end of Romulus’s reign, there was nothing left. Roman landowners outside Italy had been forced to give up their property to the Germanic armies composed of the Herules, Scirians and Turcilingians encroaching on Italy. Orestes in a last, desperate attempt to cling on to the final vestiges of power promised Italian land to the approaching hordes if they would help him finally depose Julius Nepos. His promises were rescinded.
Orestes was on his own and Emperor Romulus Augustulus was powerless. There was no army left to defend Rome. Orestes hid behind the fortified walls of the city of Ticinum – modern-day Pavia – and on 28 August 476, Odoacer, the leader of the invading troops, captured Orestes after a short battle and executed him.
A week later, Odoacer and his troops took Ravenna and captured and subsequently deposed the last Western Roman Emperor.
One story says that Odoacer – who installed himself as the first King of Italy – sent Romulus’s imperial regalia to Emperor Zeno in the East. Another version suggests Odoacer forced Romulus to send it himself along with a letter of resignation stating that the Roman Empire needed only one ruler, from Constantinople.
What Happened to Emperor Romulus Augustulus?
In an unusual act of leniency for the time, Odoacer is said to have spared the young man’s life thanks to his youth. He was given an annual pension equal to the usual income of a rich Roman senator – 6,000 solidi – and was given an estate in Campania, a region of southwestern Italy. Then it was called castellum Lucullanum. Today it is known as Castel dell’Ovo.
After moving to Campania, history falls silent. Academics are generally agreed he was still alive between 507 and 511 when Theodoric the Great wrote a letter to a man named Romulus concerning his pension. It’s possible he could have survived into the early 530s – he would have been around 70 years of age – but that’s where the story of Romulus Augustulus, Rome’s last emperor, ends.