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Romulus Augustus

Reigned from A. D. 475 - 476

This image is of the reverse of a coin struck by the Eastern emperor Marcian. A gold solidus of Romulus Augustus is an extreme rarity bringing several tens of thousands of dollars at auction on the few occasions they do turn up for sale. The artistic styles used on Roman coinage at this time were so stereotyped that often one can only attribute a coin based on the emperor's name. The reverse image might be similar or the same for any one of several mid Fifth Century emperors.

Romulus Augustus was the son of the emperor Julius Nepos' Pannonian master general Orestes. He is perhaps better known by his diminutive nickname, Romulus Augustulus, which means, Little Augustus". It is one of the odd coincidences of history that Rome's first and last emperor, in the West at least, should be named Augustus.

Earlier in the year 475, Orestes revolted against Nepos, who fled to Salona. Orestes put his son on the throne instead of claiming it himself because he had no Roman blood but, having married a Roman noblewoman, had a son in whose veins flowed at least some Roman blood. The boy, Romulus, became the Roman emperor Romulus Augustus.

Orestes was in turn betrayed by his master general Odovacer, a barbarian of German descent. Orestes fled to Placentia but Odovacer caught up with him and had him beheaded. The boy Romulus was allowed to live because he was an inoffensive and good looking youth. Odovacer sent hi into comfortable retirement at a Campanian villa and even provided him with a pension of 6,000 gold solidi a year. The boy lived to see the next century, and died in 507.

Such was not the case with the Roman Empire of the West. Odovacer politely informed the Eastern emperor Zeno that the West had no need of a separate emperor, and shipped the diadem, sceptre, and the rest of the imperial regalia off to Constantinople. Zeno didn't do anything to stop Odovacer from becoming in reality the first German king in Italy. It is doubtful that Zeno could have done anything even if he had wanted to, since he would have to send an army over hundreds of miles through hostile territory or risk the perils of a massive invasion by sea. Instead, he very congenially bestowed the title of Patrician on the barbarian king and went back to governing the East.

During the first few hundred years of its existence, Rome defended herself against neighboring tribes and barbarians from Gaul who wanted to overrun and plunder the small Italian town built on seven hills along the River Tiber. That little city grew to control a vast empire, first in Italy and Gaul, later encompassing most of Europe, Asia Minor, and parts of Africa and the Middle East. During the last fifty years of its existence, Rome dwindled to become once again a small Italian city surrounded by hostile neighboring kingdoms.

The population of the city had been steadily dwindling since the first decade of the Fifth Century. Alaric the Visigoth had taken the city by force and stayed for three days to plunder her wealth. Forty - five years later, Gaiseric the Vandal again took the city and the cowardly emperor Petronius Maximus chose to flee instead of defending the city. The invaders entered the gates unopposed, and stayed for two weeks this time raping, plundering, and wreaking massive destruction. After the Vandals left, the impoverished people that remained were only a fraction of the city’s former population. In 457, the Western emperor Majorian looked out over his city, saddened by the fact that the populace were stripping the magnificent buildings that remained of marble and limestone for building materials. Even though he passed a law providing severe penalties for this activity, people continued to mine the ruins of the city even through the Eighteenth Century. Sheep and cows grazed in the forum where Cato the Elder, Cicero, Julius Caesar Mark Antony, and Octavian once stood to deliver their speeches.

Rome still retained much of her splendor, though, up until the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent Belisarius at the head of an army to retake the West. The destructive fighting between Byzantine and Ostrogoth virtually destroyed the city, throwing down the walls and cutting the remaining aqueducts. Belisarius sent an impassioned plea to the Ostrogothic king Witiges to refrain from carrying out his promise to reduce the city to a pile of rubble, but the plea was not heeded. Actually, the Byzantine soldiers were responsible for as much destruction as the Ostrogoths.

Today, we can visit the remains of this once proud city. Pollutants in the air carry on the destruction of the buildings and monuments started by the Vandals and helped along by the farmer who quarried the building materials to build a new sheep corral. The silent marble columns and lofty arches that are left lead us to believe that the Romans were a very pompous people, seemingly even themselves carved out of marble. The coins of the late emperors are very rigidly stylized, with portraits of faces gazing into another world or stiffly attired in ceremonial armor, holding a symbolic spear or sceptre. But the brightly mosaics unearthed from the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the elegant coin portraits of many of the ladies, and the lovely villas excavated in Campania and Sicily tell a story of a fun - loving people much like ourselves. They ate, laughed, made love, played games of chance, and wrote poetry. Mothers and fathers had high hopes for their children, and their grief at the death of a child is eloquently preserved for us on their monuments. In many ways, there is no way we can totally understand their politics and culture because nobody living today was alive during the time of the Romans. In more substantial ways, they were a people just like us. The events and people portrayed in this work of history will make us aware of their uniqueness, but to a much greater degree, through our study of them we can see how much they were just like us.


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