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 consulBasilius. 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 Trinitarianstate church of the Roman Empire.
Of East Germanic descent, according to most opinions, 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 OstrogothTheoderic the Great who was menacing the borders of the Eastern Empire, to be king of Italy, turning one troublesome, nominal vassal against another. Theoderic 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; Theoderic 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 opinions 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; while a minority opinion holds that he was a Hun.
Reynolds and Lopez explored the possibility that Odoacer was not Germanic in their 1946 paper published by The American Historical Review, 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"). Other sources believe the name Odoacer is derived from the Germanic Audawakrs, from aud- "wealth" and wakr- "vigilant". 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-).
Odoacer's identity as a Hun was then accepted by a number of authorities, such as E. A. Thompson and J. M. Wallace-Hadrill—despite Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen's objection that personal names were not an infallible guide to ethnicity. Subsequently, while reviewing the primary sources in 1983, Bruce Macbain proposed that while his mother might have been Scirian and his father Thuringian, in any case he was not a Hun.
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. This suggestion has been accepted by some scholars; it appears to explain why Lewis Thorpe named this person "Odoacer" in his translation of Gregory's work.
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. 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.Procopius describes him as one of the Emperor's bodyguards.
Romulus Augustus resigns the Crown (from a 19th-century illustration).
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). However, Orestes proved to be ambitious, and before the end of that year Orestes had driven Nepos from Italy. Orestes then proclaimed his young son Romulus the new emperor as Romulus Augustus, called "Augustulus" (31 October). 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 and 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.
Odoacer solidus struck in the name of Emperor Zeno, testifying to the formal submission of Odoacer to Zeno.
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 observing "the Western Romans had received two men from the Eastern Empire and had driven out one and killed the other, Anthemius." The Eastern Emperor 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, 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 his image. Following Nepos's murder in 480, Zeno legally abolished the co-emperorship and ruled as 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.
In 476, the barbarian warlord Odoacer founded the Kingdom of Italy as the first King of Italy, initiating a new era over Roman lands. Unlike most of the last emperors, he acted decisively. 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 to him Sicily. 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. "One wonders at [Ennodius'] brevity," observes Cook. "To 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 Theoderic. 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." The biography of Pope Felix III in the Liber Pontificalis openly states that the pontiff's tenure fell during Odoacer's reign without any complaints about the king.
In 487, 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.
As Odoacer's position improved, Zeno, the Eastern Emperor, increasingly saw him as a rival. According to John of Antioch, Odoacer exchanged messages with Illus, who had been in revolt against Zeno since 484. Thus Zeno sought to destroy Odoacer and promised Theoderic 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, Theoderic had his own reasons to agree to this offer: "Theoderic had enough experience to know (or at least suspect) that Zeno would not, in the long term, tolerate his independent power. When Theoderic 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, Theoderic 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. Theoderic followed him and three days later defeated him again. While Odoacer took refuge in Ravenna, Theoderic continued across Italy to Mediolanum, where the majority of Odoacer's army, including his chief general Tufa, surrendered to the Ostrogothic king. Theoderic 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 Theoderic suffered his first serious defeat on Italian soil." Theoderic 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 Theoderic 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. Theoderic 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 Theoderic 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 Theoderic'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 Theoderic 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 Theoderic intervened in person in late August, 491, his punitive acts drove Fredericus to desert with his followers to Tufa. Eventually the two quarreled and fought a battle which led to both being killed.
By this time, however, Odoacer had to have lost all hope of victory. A large-scale sortie out of Ravenna on the night of 9/10 July 491 ended in failure with the death of his commander-in-chief Livilia along with the best of his Herulian soldiers. 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 Theoderic and Odoacer to occupy Ravenna together and share joint rule. After a three-year siege, Theoderic entered the city on 5 March; Odoacer was dead ten days later, slain by Theoderic while they shared a meal. Theoderic 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, Theoderic drew his sword and struck him on the collarbone. In response to Odoacer's dying question, "Where is God?" Theoderic cried, "This is what you did to my friends." Theoderic was said to have stood over the body of his dead rival and exclaimed, "There certainly wasn't a bone in this wretched fellow."
According to one account, "That same day, all of Odoacer's army who could be found anywhere were killed by order of Theoderic, as well as all of his family." Odoacer's wife Sunigilda was stoned to death, and his brother Onoulphus was killed by archers while seeking refuge in a church. Theoderic exiled Odoacer's son Thela to Gaul, but when he attempted to return to Italy Theoderic had him killed.
Document of Odoacer’s donation to Pierius
Odoacer is the first ruler of Italy for whom the original text of any of his legal acts has survived. This is a grant by Odoacer to Pierius of properties in Sicily near Syracuse and on the island of Melita in Dalmatia, worth in total 690 solidi. The grant itself was made on 18 March 488, but this document, which is on papyrus, was written shortly afterwards. The opening section is missing and the text is in two parts, one now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples and the other in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, but the bulk of the act itself and the subscriptions by witnesses and officials survive.
Pierius, comes domesticorum, was given these properties as a reward for his achievements in the war against Theoderic.
Pierius' grant is the lone surviving document which has survived from the civic scriptorium of Syracuse prior to the Byzantine reconquest.Scipione Maffei made the unconfirmed assertion that both pieces were owned by the poet Giovanni Gioviano Pontano; it had already lost the beginning by then. The second part is known to have been in the possession of Cardinal Pasquale de Aragon during the 1660s, but Tjäder notes the two parts were reunited at the library of the Monastery of San Paolo in Naples in 1702. In 1718, the second part was presented to Emperor Charles VI through whom that fragment found its way to Vienna.
^"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.
^Voyles, Joseph (1992). Early Germanic Grammar: pre-, proto-, and post-Germanic Languages. Academic Press. p. 141. ISBN0-12-728270-X.
^"Communications", American Historical Review, 53 (1947), p. 836. Reynolds and Lopez in the same issue point out Maenchen-Helfen restated "so patently the position of the unflinching Germanizer, to whom it appears self-evident that every barbarian who distinguished himself must have been a German in his inner being, no matter how deeply influenced by Huns or Alans as to children's heads and weapon" (p. 841), then carefully respond to his other objections.
^Macbain, Bruce (1983). "Odovacer the Hun?"(PDF). Classical Philology. 78 (1): 323–327. Archived(PDF) from the original on 3 July 2018. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
^Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, translated by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 174
^Eugippius, Commemoratorium Severinus, chapter 6. Translated by Ludwig Bieler, Eugippius, The Life of Saint Severin (Washington: Catholic University, 1965), pp. 64f. 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."
^John of Antioch, fragment 209; translated by C. D. Gordon, Age of Attila, p. 122
^History of the Wars, 5.1.6. Text and translation in H.B. Dewing, Procopius (London: Heinemann, 1968), vol. 3 p. 5.
^J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1923), vol. 1 p. 405
^John of Antioch, fragment 214a; translated by C. D. Gordon, Age of Attila, pp. 182f. Both the Anonymus Valesianus (11.55) and Andreas Agnellus (Liber pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis, ch. 39) place the murder in Ad Laurentum. Herwig Wolfram explains Theoderic's claim of avenging his "friends" as revenge for the death of the Rugian royal couple—"it apparently did not matter that their son was at that very moment in open rebellion against Theoderic" (Wolfram, History of the Goths, p. 283)
^John of Antioch, fragment 214a. However Wolfram writes that Sunigilda was starved to death. (History of the Goths, p. 283)
^Unless otherwise stated, this section is based on Jan-Olof Tjäder, Die Nichtliterarischen Lateinischen Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit (Lund: Gleerup, 1955), vol. 1 pp. 279–293. An English translation of this document is in Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders (Oxford, 1880–1899), vol. 3 pp. 150–154.