Book Reviews at roman history books and more…
The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the The Decline of the West
by Adrian Murdoch
“It is valid to ask whether one should attempt to write something that purports to be a biography about a character of whom we know so little. The answer has to be yes for three reasons. The first is that the drawn-out collapse of the Western empire makes it easy to forget the human aspect. All too often, historians get lost in the sweep of events, the broad brush strokes of barbarian settlements, military retrenchment and economic turmoil. Focusing on Romulus and his family gives a different and more personal perspective to the fall of the Roman Empire.
“The second reason is a growing interest – popular rather than just scholarly – in this period of late antiquity. It is an era that has always attracted poets and a smattering of novelists. The much-cited 1876 novel Der Kampf um Rom (‘The Fight for Rome’) by Felix Dahn is set in the first half of the sixth century. Despite its huge popularity, wild success and continuing availability, I must confess I fail to see its charms. Its 750 plodding pages have beaten me on several occasions. But the last few years have seen the later Roman Empire as a theme of films, books and computer games. The 2004 Antoine Fuqua-directed film King Arthur and the 2007 Doug Leffler film The Last Legion both have explicitly late Roman themes, the latter a fantasy on Romulus himself (they are both discussed in the final chapter of this book), while the latest addition to the immensely successful Rome: Total War computer game series is set around the barbarian invasions. There is increasingly a recognition among the public that this is a period in its own right.
“The third aim of the book is to make the case that 476 was important. It may seem arrogant almost to the point of lunacy to take the stand against some of late antiquity's greatest historians … [it] is not enough to argue for Romulus’ importance from the point of common usage, its canonisation, if you will. The Last Roman argues not just that something changed in AD 476, but that it was felt to have changed. The empire had been declining for decades, some would say centuries. Certainly, different Roman provinces declined at different rates. … There was no single moment. But 476 was what the sociologist and journalist Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point – a pivotal event after which it became impossible to return to the previous status quo. No matter how young he was, how little he affected his citizens or even how faint a historical footprint he left, Romulus Augustulus was the last Roman emperor. It was the end of autonomous Roman rule in the West. When he was forced into retirement, the baubles of imperial rule left Rome. Although Italy's new leaders continued to wear a toga for a few more years, they emerged as new types of rulers.
“The idea of decline had become so contagious by the time Romulus was placed on the throne that it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
So writes Adrian Murdoch in the Introduction to his book. And he certainly attains these aims in this lively written, easy to comprehend book, aimed at persons with a general interest in Roman history. It's a comparatively small one (190 pages in my review copy), but densely packed with information.
It's the End of the World as We Know It, the introduction, expounds on the third aim and makes the argument that the collapse of society was “dramatic, violent, unpleasant and brutal,” giving several examples. It lays out the subsequent chapters. (The chapter titles grate a bit, but I guess that's a generational thing, and I might as well get used to it. However, the actual writing style is excellent, as opposed to Peter Heather's The Fall of Rome: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, whom Mr. Murdoch cites and whose language at times is atrociously sloppy.) There is also a discussion of 5th and 6th century sources, which have become more and more accessible in the English translation.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner discusses the first barbarian encroachments, the Goths and the battle of Adrianople, the Saxon invasion of of Britain, and the loss of Africa to the Vandals and the resultant loss of revenue and taxation problems for the Western Empire. We are introduced to Stilicho and Aetius and their influence over the emperors, and finally to Attila, who again changed the equation.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do is the longest chapter. Until 440, the Huns were a minor threat. But that all changed when Attila and his brother Bleda came to power. Mr. Murdoch gives a delicious description of the duplicitous embassy from Byzantium to Attila via Priscus of Panium, whose travelogue survived. Thereafter, Attila moved west, and the consequences are laid out. This also allows to introduce Orestes, the father of Romulus Augustulus, who at the time was part of Attila's entourage and after the latter’s fall oozed back into the picture. The story then moves on to the multitude of emperors quickly succeeding each other, either through murder or forced retirement, and the men who where the power behind them, foremost of them Flavius Ricimer, the successor, so to speak, of Stilicho and Aetius, who “made and broke emperors.” The Visogoths appear and put their pressure on imperial Gaul, and space is given to Euric’s repeated raids of Clermont, well known to us through Sidonius Apollinaris’ letters. This again sapped Rome and ended in the sacrifice of the Auvergne for the Provence by the emperor Julius Nepos. And back we get to Orestes, by then commander-in-chief, who disposes of Nepos and brings his family to rule the western empire through his son Romulus Augustulus, however briefly. As befits the book title, the events of that period are given their appropriate space. Mr. Murdoch poses the unanswerable question as to what Orestes might have done had his regime survived, and what would have been the role of Romulus. “Had he lived, Orestes would have moved into new political territory. There was no precedent there for him to follow.” The chapter ends with the rise of Odovaker and the deaths of Orestes and his family, with the exception of Romulus Augustulus himself and his mother, who are sent into comfortable retirement at Misenum, in the Lucullanum, so called because it was originally Lucullus’ country villa in the time of the Republic.
To Be Beside the Seaside begins with a look back to Lucullus’ Rome and mores and the fate of the villa – which was still imperial property at the time of Romulus – over the centuries. At the time of our story, the villa was both an administrative and military center and the home of a monastery associated with the cult of St. Severinus. Romulus does not fully disappear into oblivion: it appears that he took holy orders, and his mother Barbaria remained influential. There is a reference in the following chapter that gives evidence of Romulus still being alive and well and esteemed under Theoderic, and that he may have reached at least the age of 60. There follows an excellent description of the life and times of St. Severinus, known to us through his biographer Eugippius, and the fate of the province of Noricum, another example of the societal collapse in the provinces. Barbaria had connections to Noricum, and it was she who built the mausoleum at the Lucullanum, where the saint’s remains were eventually buried. The Lucullanum became a literary center of Italy for several centuries. Mr. Murdoch then moves back to real-time history, to Odovacer, and the early rise of Theoderic, which sealed the fate of the Western empire as we knew it.
No More Heroes takes a closer look at Theoderic who became emperor in all but name. Mr. Murdoch paints a fascinating picture of the man and the ruler. He writes: “What characterizes Theoderic’s rule above all was his ability to use the past to look forward, Rome’s heritage was something to be nurtured, cherished and rebuilt.” Theoderic created a new economic stability, greatly assisted by the praetorian prefect Liberius (Petrus Marcellinus Felix Liberius). However, as Mr. Murdoch writes:
If in the end Romulus was a child playing at being emperor, then, even more so than Odovacer, Theoderic was a small boy, dressed in a toga, pretending to be a Roman. Not only was little to remain of his heritage, his attempts at multiculturalism, for Goth and Roman to live side by side, soon vanished without trace too. As the Goths left Italy in 552, Procopius chillingly writes: ‘they made it an incident of their progress to destroy without mercy the Romans who fell into their hands’. The massacre of 300 child hostages from Campania was only the worst of their atrocities.
All too soon, the imperial insignia that Romulus Augustulus had proudly worn for his coronation in October 475 had left the West once more. The golden brooch hung with jewels, which had been given to Emperor Zeno then passed back to the West under Theoderic, was finally captured in Ravenna and taken back in Byzantium. Justinian is wearing it on his right shoulder in the famous mosaic in San Vitale in Ravenna. The last glimpse we have of it is at the accession of Emperor Justin II in 565. The imperial jewels were never again to return to the West.
The British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor notes that after the murder of Boethius ‘there was nothing but candles and plainsong left to lighten the shadows’. Certainly the playful world of Ovid and Martial was left behind, and Western society had nothing to look forward to but the darkness of Beowulf.
Imitation of Life. In the final chapter, Mr. Murdoch looks at the modern treatment of the era, of Odovacer and Theoderic, Attila, and Romulus Augustulus, from the 9th century Hildebrands Lied through opera, paintings, novels, and plays to the recent movie The Last Legion. This includes brief excerpts from the play by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Romulus Der Große (Romulus the Great). There is a lot of this indeed, and the chapter invites further exploration. The chapter concludes with a a brief but balanced discussion of the relevance of the Roman Empire to our current era. And this is the author’s conclusion of his book:
Romulus Augustulus shows us that it is rarely a single cataclysm that causes an implosion; instead, it is always a slow process of decline over time. Romulus remains a symbol of a world that has been lost. He is the point, the signifier from which it is possible to look back and recognise that the empire was over. The East did a much better job at realising the significance of the young emperor the first time round. The question that the West must ask itself is whether it would recognise Romulus this time if he were to come again.
When reading the apocalyptic poetic masterpiece ‘Second Coming’, few spare a thought for W.B. Yeats's falconer as anarchy is loosed upon the world. Romulus Augustulus is important, precisely because he was the last to see the falcon fly off the glove, to hear the tinkle of its bells grow fainter and fainter. What had been the empire founded by Romulus and built by Augustus was now something else. ‘And with that’, to quote the valedictory line from Dürrenmatt's play, ‘the Roman Empire has ceased to exist.’
This book provides an excellent and succinct overview of the 5th century AD for those who want to be informed but do not have the time or inclination to read heavy tomes on the decline of the Western empire, and I highly recommend it. It is also an entertaining read.
Adrian Murdoch’s Blog: Bread and Circuses
A personal note: Mr. Murdoch talks about Ein Kampf um Rom by Felix Dahn. He says he fails to see its charm. As I child, I devoured the book, and I like to think that it kindled my interest in Roman history. I have to add that the book was greatly promoted in the Third Reich, though ours dated earlier. The old book has come down again to me recently, and I have to agree: it’s totally boring! However, for those who read German and want to take a peek, here is the online version.© 2007 Irene B. Hahn
The Last Roman:
Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West*
by Adrian Murdoch
Sutton Publishing, 224 pages
List Price: £18.99
*available on only via Amazon UK at this time.
Other books on the era worth reading:
The Fall of Rome: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather
The Fall of Rome And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins
Other Books by Adrian Murdoch:
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group