Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Last Days of Romulus Augustulus

On September 4th, AD 476, the boy Emperor Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate his throne to Odoacer and the Roman Empire came to an end in the West. The Eastern/Byzantine Empire would survive another thousand years. According to the chronicler Anonymus Valesianus, Odoacer spared the life of young Romulus, sent him to live with family in Campania and even ordered an annual pension to be supplied to the former and last emperor.

And after that, Romulus Augustulus vanishes into the mists of history.

So what became of this momentous figure of history? First of all, what a perfect name for the Western Empire to have for its final emperor! Some historians want to call Julius Nepos, the man usurped by Romulus Augustulus, the final emperor because he had not given up his claim to the title even after 476. But, c'mon! Romulus, first King of Rome and last Emperor as well. That just sings.

One obscure reference may suggest that Romulus Augustulus was still alive in 507 (by then he would only be in his forties). King Theodoric wrote a letter to a Romulus, confirming continuation of a pension (Cassiodorus, Variae 3.35). The letter is titled "King Theodoric to Romulus (Romulo Theodoricus Rex). The historian Thomas Hodgkin, who translated the Variae into English, comments in 1886 that:

[It is surely possible that this is the dethroned Emperor. The name Romulus, which, as we know, he derived from his maternal grandfather, was not a very common one in Rome (it must be admitted there is another Romulus, ii. 14). And is there not something rather peculiar in the entire absence of all titles of honour, the superscription being simply 'Romulo Theodoricus Rex,' as if neither King nor scribe quite knew how to address an ex-Emperor?] (Hodgkin, p. 215)

Hodgkin's suggestion that the lack of any title of honor may be evidence for this, in fact, being the former emperor is interesting. I decided, as my humble contribution to scholarship on this matter, to test his hypothesis against the data. In this particular case, whether the lack of a title of honor is significant will be proven by a complete study of the use--or not--of such titles in the corpus of Cassiodorus as a whole.

And here's what emerges. Almost as a matter of course, people addressed in the corpus are given some type of a title or honorific.

Common examples are:

King Theodoric to Emperor Anastasius (1.1)
King Theodoric to Cassiodorus, Illustrious Man and Patrician (1.3)

Now, it should be admitted that by definition the king is not troubled with matters that require him to write letters to untitled people. By analogy, on a typical day, President Obama probably talks to people with the titles "Senator," "Congresswoman," "General," and "Governor" more than people with the titles "Librarian" and "Private." Even so, the overall percentage of times Cassiodorus' collection includes letters without titles is significant to the claim that the lack of a title is important data on the identification of Romulus.

Letters addressed to people without titles are not unknown in the corpus. In addition to the letter "To Romulus," other examples include:

King Theodoric to Domitianus and Wilias (1.18)
King Theodoric to Adeodatus (3.46)

Here's what emerges from the data. Of the 379 letters in the collection, I count 15 that address people without a title. The 15 include cases where a letter is addressed to one titled person along with an untitled person:

King Theodoric to Count Luvirit, and Ampelius (5.35)

It also includes a letter addressed to a person with the title "senator" in other epistles:

King Theodoric to Gemellus (3.18)
King Theodoric to Senator Gemellus (3.16, 3.32)

At any rate, letters addressed to untitled persons account for 3.9 percent of the corpus.

And this tiny fraction would at least suggest that letters to untitled persons are either, in and of themselves outside the norm, or there must generally be a reason for a person to not be named with a title or honorific.

Hodgkin's hypothesis would seem bolstered by the fact that untitled letters are conspicuous in their paucity. 

Intriguingly, some of the cases of untitled recipients clearly involve examples where the king is writing with displeasure. In "King Theodoric to Brandila" (5.32), the king is addressing a man on the matter of Brandila's wife having severely assaulted a woman she learned was having an affair with her husband. In "King Theodoric to Wandil" (3.38), the king is charging a man with doing a better job of keeping his troops in good discipline in Gaul.

Most intriguing to the case of Romulus, however, is the curious fact that people in exile are addressed without title:

King Theodoric to Crispianus (1.37) [Crispianus is mentioned as being in exile for manslaughter]
King Theodoric to Adeodatus (3.46) [In this letter the king orders Adeodatus' banishment for rape]

Romulus Augustulus was living in exile, albeit in the Lucullan Villa in Campania.

In the final analysis, a letter addressed to an untitled man named Romulus on the matter of a financial pension is very probably addressed to the former emperor Romulus Augustulus. It would not be appropriate to address him with any title, both because of the awkwardness of his former status as well as his perpetual state of internal exile.

Even before 507, the site of Romulus' exile became a monastery housing the remains of Saint Severinus, who had previously been an acquaintance to Romulus' family. In all likelihood, Romulus Augustulus lived out a long life attached, formally or informally, to the monastic community of the Saint's disciples.

Requiescat in pace, Romule. Et ora pro me.

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