Flavius Odoacer was a soldier who went on to become the King of Italy. Also known as Flavius Odovacer or Odovacar, his reign marked the end of Western Roman Empire. The Germanic commander became the first non-Roman King of Italy in 476 C.E, after defeating the last Roman king, Romulus Augustus. With the support of the Senate, Odoacer successfully brought in a few important administrative changes during his time. For instance, his land distribution system was well-received amongst the commoners. As a warrior, Odoacer had successfully conquered regions like Dalmatia, Sicily, regions near Danube, etc. He was eventually defeated and later killed by Theoderic the Great. When Odoacer had taken shelter in Ravenna, Theoderic invited him to settle things amicably, but when Odoacer reached Theoderic’s camp, he was killed by him.
Early Life & Scholarly Mentions
There is a lot of confusion regarding the origin of Odoacer. Many learned scholars believe that Odoacer was born in 433 C.E, and belonged to Scirian descent.
In 1983, after reviewing primary sources, it was concluded that his mother was of Scirian descent and his father was of Thuringian descent. It was also concluded that Odoacer was born into a Germanic tribe.
He was said to be the son of Edeko. But confusions arose when scholars found out that there were two persons by the name Edeko. While one served as the ambassador of Attila, another served as the chieftain of Scirii, an East Germanic tribe.
In 17th Century, it was surmised that both the identities were of the same person and it was confirmed that Edeko was the father of Odoacer.
Jordanes, an Eastern Roman bureaucrat, had referred to Odoacer as the ‘King of Turcilingi’. However, Jordanes had also mentioned in his ‘Romana’ (a Latin book) that Odoacer was a member of Rugii, an East Germanic tribe.
He was also mentioned as the king of the Heruli in ‘Consularia Italica’. Theophanes, a famous chronicler, called him ‘the king of the Goths.’
The earliest record of Odoacer’s existence is preserved in a chronicle called ‘Decem Libri Historiarum’. It was reckoned by scholars like Reynolds and Lopez that ‘Adovacrius’ or ‘Odovacrius’ might be other names of Odoacer, and that he could’ve served as a soldier, fighting the Visigoths in 463 C.E.
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In a book titled ‘Life of Saint Severinus’ by Eugippius, there is a mention of a group of young men marching towards Italy. It’s written in the book that the group had stopped to pay their respect to a holy man named Severinus.
Severinus speaks about blessing a young man (possibly Odoacer) with a prophecy that he will become famous in Italy.
Odoacer, along with the Scirians, entered Italy around 470 C.E, and became a part of the Roman military establishment. Odoacer and his army of Germanic warriors remained loyal to a Germanic general named Ricimer during the battle with Emperor Anthemius in 472.
It was also claimed by a scholar named Procopius that Odoacer was the bodyguard of the emperor. The Germanic warriors aided Ricimer in his struggle to make Olybrius the emperor. It so happened that both Ricimer and Olybrius died earlier than expected, and gave Orestes an opportunity to become the Magister militum in 475 C.E.
Odoacer as the Leader of Foederati
While Orestes was appointed as the patrician by the infamous Western Roman Emperor, Julius Nepos, Odoacer had his chance to become the leader of the Germanic foederati.
The Senate and the army were not happy with Nepos’ decision since Orestes didn’t seem trustworthy. Orestes had even fought against Rome in a battle between the Roman Empire and the army of Attila. Orestes didn’t take too long to prove them right.
Orestes marched his troops into Italy and deposed Nepos from his position. When Nepos fled fearing for his life, Orestes was encouraged by his soldiers to claim the position of the emperor which was left vacant by Nepos.
Orestes refused their suggestion but declared his son Romulus Augustus as the new emperor. After Nepos’ exile, the soldiers requested the emperor to distribute Italy amongst them for their services. They also said that this move would drive Nepos out of Italy.
The proposal was more of a reward which the soldiers felt they deserved. They also knew that the grant would allow them to live securely in those lands. But Augustus paid no heed to their petition and that caused a rage among the army.
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Rise of Odoacer
After Augustus declined the soldiers’ request, the soldiers turned towards Odoacer to throw Augustus off his throne. As soon as Augustus came to know about the revolt, he fled to Pavia for shelter.
Odoacer marched into the city, only to find that Augustus had escaped and had formed an army at Piacenza. Nonetheless, he defeated and captured Augustus in no time.
On August 23, 476 C.E, Odoacer was crowned as the first barbarian king of Italy. To prove his worth as a king, Odoacer fought the Battle of Ravenna and emerged victorious.
September 4, 476 C.E marked the official end of the Western Roman Empire. However, Odoacer could not kill a young person like Augustus, so he quit the thought of killing him and sent him to Campania where he was put under house arrest.
Odoacer as the King of Italy
After being chosen as the king by his army, Odoacer released a personal declaration which mentioned that he would be honored to become the king of Italy.
Meanwhile, Zeno was declared as the Emperor of the East. The Senate sent an embassy to the emperor to congratulate him on his status.
It was also a way to let the emperor know about the new king of Italy. Even though Odoacer hadn’t sought the approval of Zeno, the latter honored him by bestowing on him the title ‘Patrician’.
Zeno also advised the king of Italy to invite Nepos back to the kingdom. Meanwhile, Nepos had established another court in Salona and was accepted at the remaining areas of Italy, especially at Constantinople, which labelled Augustus as the father of traitors.
Odoacer didn’t pay any attention to Zeno’s advice, but used Nepos’ image to issue coins in his kingdom. In 480 C.E, after the murder of Nepos, Odoacer abolished co-emperorship and became the sole ruler of Italy.
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Odoacer was 42 when he was at the peak of his reign. He soon became the most powerful man in Italy.
Reign of Odoacer
Odoacer was known to be a kind king. His humility was admired throughout the country. But he was also a feared monarch.
His first conquest was Sicily which he acquired in 476 C.E through a treaty with Vandals. For the next few years, he focused on improving the conditions of Italy.
In 480 C.E, he annexed Dalmatia right after Nepos was assassinated. He conquered the land after surmounting the assassins of Nepos.
Though he was raised as an Arian Christian, he did not force his religion and beliefs on his people. A majority of his subjects were Trinitarian Christians and they were allowed to follow their own religious beliefs. A few Arian Christians opposed the presence of the Trinity and were despised by Constantine the Great.
Fall & Death of Odoacer
In 487 C.E, Zeno developed hostility towards Odoacer. The main reason behind Zeno’s resentment was Odoacer’s growing friendship with Zeno’s rival, Illus.
The Rugians of Norcam were said to have been instigated by Zeno to attack Italy. Odoacer, however, marched into their territory and defeated the Rugians.
Zeno then turned towards Theodoric, the king of Ostrogoths, to dethrone Odoacer. He appointed Theoderic as the king of Italy in 488 C.E.
Theodoric invaded Italy and captured the whole area within a year. Odoacer had to flee to Ravenna to take refuge.
On 5th March 493 C.E, Theodoric entered Ravenna and found Odoacer within ten days. He invited Odoacer for a feast and killed him there.
Personal Life & Legacy
Odoacer’s wife, Sunigilda, was stoned to death after the demise of her husband. Odoacer and Sunigilda had a son.
Their son, Thela, was forced to go on exile to Gaul. Unfortunately, he too, was killed by Theodoric when he tried to enter Italy.
Odoacer’s brother Onoulphus was also killed in a church where he had taken refuge.