A Continued Collapse
The Empire disintegrated further throughout the fifth century. It lost Carthage to the Vandals in 439 and was at the mercy of Attila the Hun during the 440s and early 450s. After successful campaigns against the Eastern Empire, he turned his attention to the West, and while he suffered defeat at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, he invaded Italy. Attila accepted a favorable peace treaty but planned to invade Italy once again before his death in 453.
After a brief resurgence under the rule of Emperor Majorian (457-461), the Empire once more plunged into chaos. A Germanic general called Ricimer entered Rome in 472, but he died just six weeks later. Over the next four years, the Western Empire had a succession of Emperors who were little more than puppets for barbarian warlords.
A Sad End
In 475, a man named Orestes drove the Emperor Julius Nepos out of the capital Ravenna and declared his 16-year-old son as Emperor Romulus Augustus. The teenager was never recognized as the ruler outside Italia, and when his father refused to grant federated status to the Heruli, its leader Odoacer launched an invasion. He chased Orestes to Pavia and then Piacenza where the Emperor’s father was executed on August 28, 476.
On September 4, 476, the Senate compelled Romulus Augustus to abdicate, and it is typically on this day that the Western Roman Empire is said to have officially fallen. The unfortunate boy remained in Ravenna, but instead of executing him, Odoacer showed mercy by sending him to live in Campania. The fate of the last Emperor of the West is unknown because he disappears from the historical record.
Although 476 is used as a convenient date to mark the end of the Empire, it is a little more complicated. The deposed Julius Nepos continued to claim that he was the Emperor of the West until he was murdered in 480. In the meantime, Odoacer began negotiations with Zeno, the Emperor of the East. Although Zeno accepted Odoacer as viceroy of Italia, he insisted that the barbarian continue to recognize Julius Nepos as the Emperor in the West.
Odoacer invaded Dalmatia when he learned of Nepos’ murder while in 488, Zeno authorized the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great’s invasion of Italia. After five years of indecisive fighting, Odoacer and Theodoric agreed to rule jointly, but the Ostrogoth betrayed his new ‘ally.’ At a banquet celebrating their new arrangement in 493, Theodoric’s men slaughtered Odoacer’s troops, and he cut his rival in half.
And so one of the greatest Empire’s in history ended not with a fearsome battle, but with a sorry capitulation. Its hold on the East lasted for almost 1,000 years after that, and while the Byzantine Empire also fell apart meekly, the final battle at Constantinople was at least more befitting of a regime’s downfall than the slow, painful demise of Rome.