On Halloween Day in Ancient History — The Last Roman Emperor
When we think of the Roman Empire, we’re usually thinking of what historians call the Western Roman Empire. In 395 CE, the Roman Empire split into the Western and Eastern empires. The Western empire consisted of roughly Italy and everything (according to the Romans) west of that. It’s worth noting that the Romans didn’t think of the empire as split. They thought of it as one Roman empire with two imperial courts because it wasn’t possible to run a massive empire in the world before smartphones (or paved roads or good ships).
Be that as it may, the Roman Empire as we think of it was the Western Roman Empire; they spoke Latin, they were related to Brutus and Julius Caesar, and they were governed from Italy. The Eastern Roman Empire is called the Byzantine Empire by historians, and they were more Greek than Roman (though they called themselves Roman for another 1000 years or so. For example: Romania).
It Was a Dark and Stormy Fall of Western Civilization
On October 31st, 475 CE, Romulus Augustulus was crowned the emperor of the Western Roman Empire. He was probably about 16 years old when he was crowned. As with every Roman emperor, he adopted the name “Augustus” in honor of the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. However, since he was only a kid, he was derisively called “Augustulus,” which means Little Augustus.
Lil Augustus’s father, Orestes, was a high-ranking military officer under Julius Nepos, the previous emperor. As Romans are wont to do, he staged a coup and overthrew the emperor. He placed his teenage son on the throne on Halloween Day. Halloween was not a holiday yet, but Celts throughout Lil Augustus’s empire were celebrating harvest festivals that would eventually evolve into our modern Halloween.
Ding-Dong, The Empire’s Dead
Lil Augustus didn’t remain Roman Emperor for very long. In 476 CE, a barbarian named Odoacer sacked Rome, conquered Italy, and deposed the emperor. It’s not clear where Odoacer came from, but he was a leader of the Germanic foederati. The foederati were tribes allied with the Romans. By the late Western Empire, they formed a large part of the Roman army. Even though they were a critical component of the Roman army, they were still treated poorly because they weren’t ethnic Romans.
By 476, the foederati had been kept encamped in Italy for years and years. Obviously, they wanted to go back to Germania or, barring that, they wanted land to settle down. Odoacer and his troops asked for land to settle in Italy. The emperor denied them. So, as barbarians are wont to do, they smashed all of Rome’s nice things and threw out the emperor. However, Odoacer spared Lil Augustus because the emperor was so young and so good-looking (He was a teenager. Gross.).
Lil Augustus exits history at this point. He probably went to Campania in southwestern Italy. Historians aren’t sure what happened to him after this.
Odoacer declared himself King of Italy. The Western Roman Senate sent a letter to the Eastern Roman Empire asking him to take control of the Western Roman Empire, considering there was no eligible emperor anymore.
The Eastern Roman Emperor gladly accepted a few million square miles for his empire. Then, in recognition of basic reality, he declared Odoacer the ruler of Italy (under the authority of the Emperor, of course). However, the Byzantine Emperor was the emperor of the west in his mind only.
The Eastern Roman Empire would last for about another one thousand years, but the Western Roman Empire effectively ended on Halloween 475 CE when they crowned a teenager. Augustulus, the last Roman emperor.