Monthly Archives: September 2012

Odoacer, first barbarian King of Italy

Previously I have tried to look through the Holy Roman Empire and try and get an understanding to the system of Electoral Emperors and the system throughout central Europe.  To gain a true feeling  and to broaden my knowledge I have often try to distinguish where to start and to look at to try and work out how this complex kingdom came about and worked its way together.

Previously this has led me through time to Otto I (November 23, 912 – May 7, 973) and the beginning of the Ottonian dynasty, but still even this far back Otto doesn’t give me the beginning as I wish to look at it.  So pushing even further back I have picked out a name that flashes with lights to me Charlemagne (c. 742 – January 28, 814).  A complex character with four wives, numerous concubines and over ten children I still felt that I  was not getting  a true beginning as I was looking for.   So I kept pushing back until I reached the middle of the 5th Century and now I believe a starting point at where I can start to try and look at the building of a nation that monopolized central Europe for over a thousand years.

In 476 the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was complete.  A barbarian was now termed ‘King of Italy’.  Flavius Odovacer ‘Odoacer’ a Scirian (Eastern European Germanic tribe) was to become the first of a new generation of Kings and be the lynch pin between the old and the new Empires.

The believed first mention of Odoacer is from a fragment of a chronicle preserved in the Decem Libri Historiarum of Gregory of Tours.  Part of his work recalls the battles of King Childeric I of the Franks, Aegidius, Count Paul and ‘Adovacrius’ or  ‘Odavacrius’.  It is believed the fragment tells the story of Aegidius’ victory over the Visgoths with occurred in 463 if this is so then the ‘Odavacrius is believed to be the same as Odoacer the later King of Italy.  The first definite mention of Odoacer is by Eugippius in his Life of Saint Serverinus.  This records how a group of barbarians stopped to their respect to the holy man on their way to Italy.  As Odoacer left Serverinus made one final comment that would come to fruit, ‘Go to Italy, go, now covered with mean hides; soon you will make rich gifts to many.’  Which is what he did.

There are many different theories on Odoacer’s exact links with the Roman army.  By 470 it is believed that he was an officer and John of Antioch states that he was on the side of Ricimer at the beginning of his battle with Anthemius in 472.  While Procopious goes as far to say that he was actually part of the bodyguard for the Emperor.  Jordanes contradicts Odoacer’s loyalty to the Roman army by calling him the ‘leader of Sciri, the Heruli and allies of various races’ that invaded Italy.  I suppose the question is which came first.  Maybe he was a invading commander who was brought round onto the side of the Roman way of thinking and because of this was then given office within the Army.  The invading army thought would tie in with Eugippius story of Serverinus as well.

In 475 he was appointed head of the Germanic foederati (section of troops from the Scrian and Herulic tribes based in Italy) by Orestes the Magister militum of Emperor Julius Nepos.  Orestes revolted and looked to gain power himself, driving Nepos from Italy before the end of year and appointing his own son Romulus Augustus as the new Emperor.  At this point the foedrati were becoming restless with service in Rome and wished for better things.  They petitioned Orestes for rewards with grants of land for their service.  Orestes refused and the foederati turned to Odoacer for leadership.  Osrestes was murdered outside Ravenna by Paulus his brother, leaving the door open for Odoacer.  Odoacer and the Germanic foederati and a large section of the Roman army marched on Ravenna in 476 and Odoacer forced Romulus to abdicate on the 4th September.  The army then declared Odoacer ‘rex Italiae’ King of Italy.

The senate of Rome backed Odoacer and even though the Senate first appointed Zeno (Eastern Emperor at the time) as Emperor reuniting the two sides of the vast Empire once more it seemed that the power was with Odoacer.  This is further backed up with Zeno appointing Odoacer as Partician.  Zeno suggested that Odoacer invited Julius Nepos back from Dalmatia to become Emperor once more, but Odoacer did not take this piece of advice.  This leads me to believe that Zeno only truly acted as an advisor to Odoacer and he had the final say on matters of state.

Coin of Odoacer, Ravenna, 477

Odoacer acted quickly to try and establish his power base and extend his control over Italy.  He managed to persuade the Vandal King Gaiseric to cede Sicily to him in c.September/October 476 and on the death of Julius Nepos (May, 480) the former Emperor who had ran to Dalmatia, Odoacer quickly pushed his control and own rule her also.

In 487 Odoacer led an army against the Rugians of Noricum taking their King Feletheus into captivity.  Feletheus’ son Fredericus fled back to Noricum Odoacer sent his brother Onoulphus against him.  The Rugiuns then fled and took refuge with the Ostrogoths while Onolphus settled the remaining Romans back into Italy for their own safety.  The abandoned province was then settled by the Lombards by 493.

In 489 Theodoric led the Ostrogoths across the Julian Alps and into Italy.  Within a space of a week Odoacer was taking refuge within Ravenna after being defeated twice.  Theodoric went to Mediolanum where part of Odoacer’s army and chief general Tufa surrendered.  The following summer the Visigothic King Alaric II sent military aid to Theodoric and the two clashed again at the Adda River.  Once more this led to defeat for Odoacer.  Odoacer then retreated once more to Ravenna where Theodoric now laid siege.  Odoacer was losing hope and he led a unsuccessful push from Ravenna on the night 9/10 July 491.  Odoacer then went back to Ravenna where the siege continued till 25th February 493 when John, Bishop of Ravenna  negotiated a truce where both Odoacer and Theodoric ruled together.

Theodoric entered Ravenna on the 5th March 493 and within ten days of the truce Odoacer was dead  killed by Theodoric whilst feasting together.  Odoacer’s wife Sunigilda was stoned to death and his brother was shot by archers while taking refuge in a church.  His son Thela was exiled to Gaul, but on later after trying to re-enter Italy Theodoric had him killed also.

So the first barbarian King of Italy was dead.  The Roman Emperors as we know them had eneded, the Lombards had entered Italy.  Odoacer reign and time I beleive is as important as a changing point as that of Charlemagne or Otto I and he definatly deserves to be mentioned along side them as important a figure in the future and making of Europe.