On this date in 476, the father of the very last Roman emperor was put to death by a Germanic chief … a week before that last emperor was forced to abdicate his throne and the whole Roman experiment with it.
The final generation of Roman Emperors comprise a parade of nondescript interregnums, but the very last regnum fell to 16-year-old Romulus Augustulus whose destiny it was to seal the long fall of the (western) Roman Empire.
This youth with the apt nomen had been plopped in the purple by his dad, a Pannonian-born general named Orestes. Orestes had made his bones in the court of Attila the Hun before signing on as a free agent with Rome when the Hunnic polity collapsed after Attila’s death; he accordingly enjoyed the regard of the heavily-Germanic enlistees of Rome’s armies — a simpatico that constituted a great asset for Rome and a great danger for her sovereign. Our opportunistic general was able to turn this force against the previous emperor,* but as Gibbon notes, “having now attained the summit of his ambitious hopes,” Orestes encountered the danger of his disloyal soldiery from the opposite end of the spear.
[H]e soon discovered, before the end of the first year, that the lessons of perjury and ingratitude, which a rebel must inculcate, will be resorted to against himself; and that the precarious sovereign of Italy was only permitted to choose, whether he would be the slave, or the victim, of his Barbarian mercenaries. The dangerous alliance of these strangers had oppressed and insulted the last remains of Roman freedom and dignity. At each revolution, their pay and privileges were augmented; but their insolence increased in a still more extravagant degree; they envied the fortune of their brethren in Gaul, Spain, and Africa, whose victorious arms had acquired an independent and perpetual inheritance; and they insisted on their peremptory demand, that a third part of the lands of Italy should be immediately divided among them. Orestes, with a spirit, which, in another situation, might be entitled to our esteem, chose rather to encounter the rage of an armed multitude, than to subscribe the ruin of an innocent people. He rejected the audacious demand; and his refusal was favorable to the ambition of Odoacer; a bold Barbarian, who assured his fellow-soldiers, that, if they dared to associate under his command, they might soon extort the justice which had been denied to their dutiful petitions. From all the camps and garrisons of Italy, the confederates, actuated by the same resentment and the same hopes, impatiently flocked to the standard of this popular leader; and the unfortunate patrician, overwhelmed by the torrent, hastily retreated to the strong city of Pavia, the episcopal seat of the holy Epiphanites. Pavia was immediately besieged, the fortifications were stormed, the town was pillaged; and although the bishop might labor, with much zeal and some success, to save the property of the church, and the chastity of female captives, the tumult could only be appeased by the execution of Orestes.
As for the young puppet-emperor Romulus Augustulus himself, the conqueror who now proclaimed himself King of Italy wasn’t a vindictive man. “The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement.” This gesture of charity did not save Odoacer from suffering a violent death in his own turn.
* Julius Nepos has a claim on being the last Western Roman Emperor, insofar as Orestes’s revolt did not kill him but chased him to an exile where he pathetically maintained an ineffectual claim to the purple until his assassination in 480. It was only with Nepos’s death that the Western Roman Empire was formally abolished.