Saturday, August 25, 2007


With the release of "The Last Legion", I thought people might be interested in a little of the real history behind the legend.

"Odoacer (or Odovacar), the first barbarian ruler of Italy on the downfall of the Western empire, was born in the district bordering on the middle Danube about the year 434. In this district the once rich and fertile provinces of Noricum and Pannonia were being torn piecemeal from the Roman empire by a crowd of German tribes, among whom we discern four, who seem to have hovered over the Danube from Passau to Pest, namely, the Rugii, Scyrri, Turcilingi and Heruli. With all of these Odoacer was connected by his subsequent career, and all seem, more or less, to have claimed him as belonging to them by birth; the evidence slightly preponderates in favor of his descent from the Scyrri.

His father was Aedico or Idico, a name which suggests Edeco the Hun, who was suborned by the Byzantine court to plot the assassination of his master Attila. There are, however, some strong arguments against this identification. A certain Edica, chief of the Scyrri, of whom Jordanes speaks as defeated by the Ostrogoths, may more probably have been the father of Odoacer, though even in this theory there are some difficulties, chiefly connected with the low estate in which he appears before us in the next scene of his life, when as a tall young recruit for the Roman armies, dressed in a sordid vesture of skins, on his way to Italy, he enters the cell of Severinus, a noted hermit-saint of Noricum, to ask his blessing. The saint had an inward premonition of his future greatness, and in blessing him said, "Fare onward into Italy. Thou who art now clothed in vile raiment wilt soon give precious gifts unto many."

Odoacer was probably about thirty years of age when he thus left his country and entered the imperial service. By the year 472 he had risen to some eminence, since it is expressly recorded that he sided with the patrician Ricimer in his quarrel with the emperor Anthemius. In the year 475, by one of the endless revolutions which marked the close of the Western empire, the emperor Nepos was driven into exile, and the successful rebel Orestes was enabled to array in the purple his son, a handsome boy of fourteen or fifteen, who was named Romulus after his grandfather, and nicknamed Augustulus, from his inability to play the part of the great Augustus. Before this puppet emperor had been a year on the throne the barbarian mercenaries, who were chiefly drawn from the Danubian tribes aforementioned, rose in mutiny, demanding to be made proprietors of one-third of the soil of Italy. To this request Orestes returned a peremptory negative. Odoacer now offered his fellow soldiers to obtain for them all that they desired if they would seat him on the throne. On the 23rd of August 476 he was proclaimed king; five days later Orestes was made prisoner at Placentia and beheaded; and on the 4th of September his brother Paulus was defeated and slain near Ravenna. Rome at once accepted the new ruler. Augustulus was compelled to descend from the throne, but his life was spared.

Odoacer was forty-two years of age when he thus became chief ruler of Italy, and he reigned thirteen years with undisputed sway. Our information as to this period is very slender, but we can perceive that the administration was conducted as much as possible on the lines of the old imperial government. The settlement of the barbarian soldiers on the lands of Italy probably affected the great landowners rather than the laboring class. To the herd of coloni and servi, by whom in their various degrees the land was actually cultivated, it probably made little difference, except as a matter of sentiment, whether the master whom they served called himself Roman or Rugian. We have one most interesting example, though in a small way, of such a transfer of land with its appurtenant slaves and cattle, in the donation made by Odoacer himself to his faithful follower Pierius. Few things bring more vividly before the reader the continuity of legal and social life in the midst of the tremendous ethnical changes of the 5th century than the perusal of such a record.

The same fact, from a slightly different point of view, is illustrated by the curious history (recorded by Malchus) of the embassies to Constantinople. The dethroned emperor Nepos sent ambassadors (in 477 or 478) to Zeno, emperor of the East, begging his aid in the reconquest of Italy. These ambassadors met a deputation from the Roman senate, sent nominally by the command of Augustulus, really no doubt by that of Odoacer, the purport of whose commission was that they did not need a separate emperor. One was sufficient to defend the borders of either realm. The senate had chosen Odoacer, whose knowledge of military affairs and whose statesmanship admirably fitted him for preserving order in that part of the world, and they therefore prayed Zeno to confer upon him the dignity of patrician, and entrust the "diocese" of Italy to his care. Zeno returned a harsh answer to the senate, requiring them to return to their allegiance to Nepos. In fact, however, he did nothing for the fallen emperor, but accepted the new order of things, and even addressed Odoacer as patrician. On the other hand, the latter sent the ornaments of empire, the diadem and purple robe, to Constantinople as an acknowledgment of the fact that he did not claim supreme power. Our information as to the actual title assumed by the new ruler is somewhat confused. He does not appear to have called himself king of Italy. His kingship seems to have marked only his relation to his Teutonic followers, among whom he was "king of the Turcilingi", "king of the Heruli", and so forth, according to the nationality with which he was dealing. By the Roman inhabitants of Italy he was addressed as "dominus noster", but his right to exercise power would in their eyes rest, in theory, on his recognition as patricius by the Byzantine Augustus. At the same time he marked his own high pretensions by assuming the prefix Flavius, a reminiscence of the early emperors, to which the barbarian rulers of realms formed out of the Roman state seem to have been peculiarly partial. His internal administration was probably, upon the whole, wise and moderate, though we hear some complaints of financial oppression, and he may be looked upon, as a not altogether unworthy predecessor of Theodoric.

In the history of the papacy Odoacer figures af the author of a decree promulgated at the election of Felix II in 483, forbidding the pope to alienate any of the lands or ornaments of the Roman Church, and threatening any pope who should infringe this edict with anathema. This decree was loudly condemned in a synod held by Pope Symmachus (502) as an unwarrantable interference of the civil power with the concerns of the church.

The chief events in the foreign policy of Odoacer were his Dalmatian and Rugian wars. In the year 480 the ex-emperor Nepos, who ruled Dalmatia, was traitorously assassinated in Diocletian's palace at Spalato by the counts Viator and Ovida. In the following year Odoacer invaded Dalmatia, slew the murderer Ovida, and reannexed Dalmatia to the Western state. In 487 he appeared as an invader in his own native Danubian lands. War broke out between him and Feletheus, king of the Rugians. Odoacer entered the Rugian territory, defeated Feletheus, and carried him and "his noxious wife" Gisa prisoners to Ravenna. In the following year Frederick, son of the captive king, endeavored to raise again the fallen fortunes of his house, but was defeated by Onulf, brother of Odoacer, and, being forced to flee, took refuge at the court of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, at Sistova on the lower Danube.

This Rugian war was probably an indirect cause of the fail of Odoacer. His increasing power rendered him too formidable to the Byzantine court, with whom his relations had for some time been growing less friendly. At the same time, Zeno was embarrassed by the formidable neighborhood of Theodoric and his Ostrogothic warriors, who were almost equally burdensome as enemies or as allies. In these circumstances arose the plan of Theodoric's invasion of Italy, a plan by whom originated it would be difficult to say. Whether the land when conquered was to be held by the Ostrogoth in full sovereignty, or administered by him as lieutenant of Zeno, is a point upon which our information is ambiguous, and which was perhaps intentionally left vague by the two contracting parties, whose chief anxiety was not to see one another's faces again. The details of the Ostrogothic invasion of Italy belong properly to the life of Theodoric. It is sufficient to state here that he entered Italy in August 489, defeated Odoacer at the Isontius (Isonzo) on the 28th of August, and at Verona on the 30th of September. Odoacer then shut himself up in Ravenna, and there maintained himself for four years, with one brief gleam of success, during which he emerged from his hiding place and fought the battle of the Addua (11th August 490), in which he was again defeated. A sally from Ravenna (10th July 491) was again the occasion of a murderous defeat. At length, the famine in Ravenna having become almost intolerable, and the Goths despairing of ever taking the city by assault, negotiations were opened for a compromise (25th February 493). John, archbishop of Ravena, acted as mediator. It was stipulated that Ravenna should be surrendered, that Odoacer's life should be spared, and that he and Thedoric should be recognized as joint rulers of the Roman state. The arrangement was evidently a precarious one, and was soon terminated by the treachery of Theodoric. He invited his rival to a banquet in the palace of the Lauretum on the 15th of March, and there slew him with his own hand. "Where is God?" cried Odoacer when he perceived the ambush into which he had fallen. "Thus didst thou deal with my kinsmen", shouted Theodoric, and clove his rival with the broadsword from shoulder to flank. Onulf, the brother of the murdered king, was shot down while attempting to escape through the palace garden, and Thelan, his son, was not long after put to death by order of the conqueror. Thus perished the whole race of Odoacer."

Political Propoganda in The Aeneid

by Gregory Elder, professor of history and humanities at Riverside Community College, Redlands, California

"Unlike Homeric literature or "Gilgamesh," which were produced orally over a long period of time, "The Aeneid" was a composition by one man. At the end of the Roman civil war, shortly before the time of Christ, the emperor Octavian Caesar Augustus hired Virgil to write a poem to rival the great epic sagas of Greece to glorify the Roman state, and in the process glorify Caesar as well.

Virgil's task was all the more difficult, because Augustus Caesar had ended five centuries of republican democracy and replaced it with a military monarchy, which is a hard feat to legitimize. Virgil accepted the commission for a million gold coins and spent the rest of his life writing poetry. He was almost done when he took ill and died, but before his death he ordered the manuscripts burned. Caesar intervened and the imperialist manuscript was saved for posterity. For the next four centuries of the Roman Empire it was the required study of all educated people, and it remained popular in the Middle Ages right down to the modern day.

To glorify the emperor, Virgil avoided tacky subjects such as Caesar's mass executions and proscriptions or Roman war fleets sending their fellow Romans down to the bottom of the sea. Instead, he wrote a poem of the founding of the Roman people in remote antiquity by the alleged ancestor of Augustus, Aeneas, the last surviving prince of Troy. To justify the emperor, Virgil praised the emperor's ancestor who had lived 12 centuries before.

The saga opens with a storm, wrought by the blind fury of the goddess Juno, the vengeful queen of heaven. Juno was still angry at the Trojans because their prince, Paris, had favored Venus in the famous beauty contest of the goddesses. Juno also knew that her favorite people, the Carthaginians, would one day be destroyed by the heirs of the Trojans, the Romans. And so the furious goddess summoned her brother Neptune to call forth a great ocean storm, which pulverized the fleet and washed the survivors onto the shores of Africa, far from Rome and far from home. Virgil's gods and goddesses are quite simple: angry women, idiotic bimbos and wise men. Its not a subtle stereotype to use.

Once he survived the storm, pious Aeneas rallies his fellow survivors of the shipwreck and discovers the city of Carthage and its widow queen, Dido. Matronly Dido assists the shipwrecked Trojans and welcomes them at a banquet, which turns out to be her undoing. Dido asks Aeneas to tell the story of his adventures and he replies with the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of his city by the cunning Greeks. Romans who heard this story would have doubtless smiled, for it justified their own recent conquest of Greece as appropriate payback. In the tale, Aeneas would have preferred to go down with his kinsmen fighting to the end, as all Romans should, but the gods commanded him to flee the doomed city and to found a new city in the west. As the hero tells the tale, Cupid, that most dangerous sniper of the gods, fires one of his arrows of love into the queen's heart and she falls in love with the Trojan Aeneas. After a short courtship, they end up in a "committed relationship," as we would say these days.

But this love affair irritates Jupiter, the king of the heavens. The high god has ordained that from the Trojan bloodline a people will be raised up to dominate the world forever, and bring order and law to savage peoples from Arabia to Britain, from Germany to Africa. For the Romans, love was a kind of madness, a weakness, which prevented men from clear thinking. Were they right in this, I ask my students" To remind the hero of his duty, Jupiter sends Mercury, the messenger god, to order Aeneas back to active duty and to abandon his love. Aeneas attempts to do this secretly, but his lover discovers his plans to abandon her in the night. She pleads with him and reminds him of their love. Aeneas replies that he never really regarded the relationship as permanent and decides to go. Apparently, men have not changed significantly since this tale was written. But when Aeneas turns to go, Dido curses him and his descendants and prophesies the Punic wars as vengeance, which will bring vast suffering to Rome in the third century B.C.

After many trials, Aeneas and his men land in Italy. But Aeneas knows, as all Romans believed, that dad is always right. But the hero was unable to consult his father because the old man had died. But in order to obey the will of the gods, he still had to speak with the old man. The solution he found, after consulting a prophetess, was to find the path to the land of the dead and visit his father in the underworld. Crossing the river Styx, he meets the dead, including many of the fallen heroes of the Trojan war, and sadly also meets the soul of Dido, who has taken her own life. When he attempts to comfort her, she scorns him and flees into the gloom. At this point in the poem, my female students generally agree that he deserved the snub.

But entering the sunny, grassy fields of Elysium, where heroes are to be found, he meets his father, who shows him a long line of great souls waiting to be born. Aeneas" father points out all the great heroes of Roman history yet to come, except the ones Augustus disliked. Aeneas then sees Caesar Augustus himself, the divinely favored crown of all Roman history. Setting such political propaganda on one side, it's worth noting that the actual Caesar Augustus is the same chap who gets a cameo mention in the New Testament's Christmas story, when "in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled." This decree, the Scripture tells us, caused Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, and there Christ was born. (Luke 2:1) There is an irony here that Virgil's prophecy of an abiding religious empire to be founded in the days of Caesar did indeed come true, but not in the way Virgil or Augustus could have possibly imagined.

After all of this grand prophesy, the hero's father reminds his son of Rome's unique destiny, which was greater than all other nations. He writes, "Others will cast more tenderly in bronze Their breathing figures, I can well believe, And bring more lifelike portraits out of marble Argue more eloquently, use the pointer To trace the paths of heaven accurately And accurately foretell the rising stars.

Roman, remember your strength to rule Earth's peoples " for your arts are to be these to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud." ("The Aeneid" VI: ll.1145-1154, Fitzgerald translation) Six more chapters of war and conquest will follow this prophecy, but one note remains to be considered while Aeneas is in the underworld. When the time comes to leave the dead and return to the earth, Aeneas is confronted with two doors, one of ivory and one of horn. Through these doors dreams are sent out to the minds of sleeping men, prophetic and true dreams through the door of horn and false dreams through the door of ivory. Virgil tells us that Aeneas took the ivory door, the door of falsehood.

It is odd that Virgil makes the noble ancestor of great Augustus pass through the door of lies before returning to earth to found the Roman line. But it is just a stray verse and one hardly notices it. Indeed, the verse is just small enough to get past the emperor's censors. Perhaps Virgil was sending a quiet message to his more perceptive readers that the whole of his message extolling Augustus and his "divine mission" was actually a lie and a fantasy. Political propaganda, however magnificent and beautiful, and even from the pen of the greatest of authors, remains only that " propaganda. There is a lesson here for modern readers to heed."