Monday, June 23, 2008

The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West

“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.” - Author Adrian Murdoch

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