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The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West by Adrian Murdoch

Book Review by Decimus Caesar

“Although I know their names well, I won’t mention them at all…they only lived a short while…and as a result accomplished nothing worth mentioning.” So wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea of the last emperors of Rome.

His opinion has been shared by many people ever since, and as a result, the last decade of the Western Empire has been largely ignored outside of academic circles. It is therefore a breath of fresh air to come across a title like ‘The Last Roman’. For in this book, Adrian Murdoch has attempted to write the first popular history of Romulus Augustulus – a difficult job considering, as Murdoch tells us:

“It is not known when he was born ; it is not known when he died; it is not known where he was buried. No speeches, pronouncements or epigrams have survived. There is no hint of his likes or dislikes; there is not hint of sexuality, conventional or otherwise, to add a frision of historical excitement; there is not even any particularly gory violence.”

Some might ask how on earth can this be a biography if we know so little of the man? While others might be put off in the belief that a biography of this type would be dull and lacking in substance. The truth is different. For this is not strictly a biography of one character rather than a kaleidoscope view of the lives of the last western emperors and their generalissimos.

Murdoch starts his work by giving us a short overview of events from the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378 to the arrival of Attila the Hun’s horde on Gallic soil in AD 450. Many characters and events are briefly covered in this section, including Honorius, his general Stilicho and the Gothic leader Alaric. Murdoch believes it’s important to show the failures of the Roman state and the break-up of the empire before he moves on to the crux of his work. Following in the vein of Heather and Ward-Perkins, he dismisses Peter Brown’s ideas on late antiquity and shows the ruin brought on the empire by barbarian tribes. He uses Britain as an example of this, combining the works of Gildas with the latest archaeological excavations to show the extent of the damage caused by rampaging Saxon pirates.

We then move forward to the court of Attila the Hun to meet two people, Attila’s Roman secretary – Orestes and his trusted Scirian lieutenant - Edeco. These two men will play an important part in the tale. We follow their dealings with a Roman embassy through the eyes of Priscus, a Greek diplomat from Constantinople. Priscus writings are among the most interesting of the late Roman period, as they give us an intimate portrayal of the workings of the Hun court, and how the emperor Theodosius II planned on assassinating Attila. The plan was thwarted after Edeco – the would be assassin – revealed the Roman treachery to the Hun king. Attila then sent Orestes to the eastern emperor with a threatening message. An event that would give the secretary an understanding of power and authority - knowledge that would come useful in his later life.

Orestes and Edeco followed Attila as he rampaged through the western empire and after his death, Edeco became the leader of his people, the Scirians, while Orestes disappeared for many years. When he does reappear he has a son: Romulus Augustulus. Although we can never truly be sure what Orestes was up to in these years, Murdoch presents us with some compelling ideas about his whereabouts.

Murdoch turns his attention away from Orestes to the events unfolding in Italy. Ricimer and his successor Gundobad were two powerful figures who overshadowed the rulers of Ravenna; these emperors were in effect puppets to their generals. The author does a good job of explaining the Byzantine politics as the generalissimos try to balance the power between themselves, the puppet emperors and the eastern Roman emperor’s attempt to get Anthemius, his own puppet ruler, on to the Roman throne.

It is through these machinations that Orestes is finally able to place his son in power, thanks largely to his connections to Julius Nepos. Romulus Augustulus, Murdoch tells us, managed to do good works the short while he was emperor. Yet his reign was not to last. Odovacer, head of the palace bodyguard attempted to petition the emperor to give the German foederati farm land in Italy. When the emperor sent an embassy to Pavia to deal with foederati, they reacted violently, plundering the town and setting off a civil war. Within a week Odovacer had subdued Italy and declared himself king. Orestes was executed and Romulus was deposed. Odovacar spared his life as he took pity on the boy. It is one of the ironies of history that Odovacer was the son of Edeco, Orestes old companion.

What became of Romulus? This is where the author attempts some detective work. He comes across some mention of a ‘Romulus’ in a text from North Africa - correspondence between a bishop and his friend. This text was sent to Lucullanum, the place where Romulus was exiled. Could it be him? The author is not convinced, and any other text that mentions men called Romulus from this period almost certainly do not refer to the emperor. Despite these disappointments the author likes to believe that Romulus outlived his enemies, perhaps dying during the reign of Theoderic the Amal – a man whose intriguing reign is given much attention in the last few chapters of the book, along with the contempory events of his reign; namely his restoration of Roman civitas and the later decline in relations between Italians and Goths.

The book’s closing chapter ‘Imitation of Life’ looks at this period in popular culture. As such we are given overviews of German poems, Wagnerian operas, television shows and ‘The Last Legion’, both the Valerio Massimo Manfredi novel and the upcoming film. This chapter is an interesting addition on the themes followed in the book, and it might encourage some readers to seek out the material that’s discussed.

The Last Roman is easily the most readable book on the last years of the Western empire, and it stands as a great introduction to this obscure period. Murdoch’s prose is lucid and, his descriptions are vivid. It is one of the most well written works I’ve read on the Roman Empire in recent times; the author manages to successfully turn what could otherwise be an impenetrable academic work into something that could be easily understood by the layman. The book is well researched, and the addition of excerpts from rare late Roman sources, such as Ennodius’ description of the sack of Pavia in 476, are great additions that will interest those whose main primary sources for the later Roman empire consist of the works of Ammianus Marcellinus.

I highly recommend it to anyone who is curious about this period of Roman history, or would like to learn more about the declining years of the Western Roman Empire.

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Book Review of Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West - Related Topic: Byzantine Emperors


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