Who’s Really the Last Roman Emperor?
The exact timing of the Roman Empire is a subject of considerable debate. When did the Roman Empire actually end? Who has the best claim as the Roman Emperor? Depending on who you are, or which historian you choose to believe, you could have very different answers to other people to answer these two questions. Today History Republic looks into some of the Emperors who have claims to being the last Emperor of the Roman Empire.
There’s two main choices that historians would give as the last Roman Emperor. The first of these two choices is Julius Nepos, a man who was semi-independently ruling Damaltia in 474 and was then appointed as the Western Roman Emperor by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Leo I. At that time there was an Emperor in Italy, Glycerius, whom Leo viewed as an illegal usurper. After his appointment, Julius Nepos would then sail to Italy from Damaltia and Glycerius would surrender the throne immediately. Julius Nepos only ruled for one year as Emperor, starting in June 474. As a relatively capable man, he tried to consolidate the remaining imperial territory still clung on to by Rome: Illyria, Italy and a few parts of Roman Gaul. He managed to restore the Provence region of Gaul to the Empire, but despite his diplomatic successes, Nepos was not a popular Emperor. The Roman Senate, for example, disliked him because Nepos was too close to the Eastern court.
Nepos would finally be overthrown by Orestes, a Roman general of Germanic origin. Nepos was forced to flee back to Damaltia, where he would continue ruling as the de jure Western Roman Emperor until 480. The Eastern Roman court at Constantinople would continue to recognize Nepos as the legitimate Western Roman Emperor. In 480, however, Nepos would be assassinated by his own troops.
Some historians view Nepos as the last Roman Emperor because, despite the fact that he was overthrown before the real last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, Augustulus’s position was unconstitutional and never recognized by the East. However, an interesting historical speculation would be what would happen had Nepos not been overthrown. Would the Western Roman Empire have at least survived longer with an energetic and capable Emperor on the throne? Perhaps by then it was simply too late, but it’s interesting nontheless.
The real last Western Roman Emperor, and the one more commonly known, is Romulus Augustus; known to history as ‘Romulus Augustulus’ (Little Augustus) due to the fact that he became Emperor at the age of 12. Appointed by his father Orestes, the man who overthrew Julius Nepos, Romulus would be a puppet Emperor with no real power at such a young age. As Emperor for a year from 475 to 476, his father ruled on his behalf.
His reign would come to an end when the German warlord Odoacer revolted and captured and executed Orestes. Odoacer made his way towards Milan, leading to the surrender of the city and the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. The teenager who had been an emperor was packed off into retirement and offered an annual pension, after which he disappears from all historical records. The Roman Senate would then send a letter to Zeno, then Eastern Roman Emperor:
The majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and protect, at the same time, both East and West. The west no longer required an emperor of its own; one monarch sufficed for the world.
The majority of historians mark the deposition of Romulus Augustulus as the date of the end of the Western Roman Empire. After the fall of Romulus, there would never be a ruling Western Roman Emperor again.
It’s important to remember, though, that when the Western Roman Empire fall, the Eastern Roman Empire did not. Being
renamed by historians as the Byzantine Empire, it would survive for a thousand years longer than its Western counterpart. The borders would continuously expand and contract according to the pressure of its teeming enemies, however, and by 1453, the Byzantine Empire was little more than just the city state of Constantinople. It still had an Emperor, of course; Constantine XI.
But Constantine was hardly an Emperor. Ruling from Constantinople, he only had Constantinople. The city itself was surrounded by the growing power of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed decided to besiege the city. For a thousand years, the formidable defenses of Constantinople protected it from enemies, allowing a continued flourishing of the Byzantine Empire from the times of Constantine up to then. In fact, a direct line of succession could be traced from Augustus to Constantine XI- meaning, of course, that Constantine XI was no less a legitimate ‘Roman Emperor’ than any of the classical Roman ones.
This means, of course, that the Roman Empire ended not with the deposition of a boy-emperor but in an epic battle between Muslim Turkish forces, who used cannon and gunpowder, and the last of the forces of Imperial Rome. The walls were finally breached by Sultan Mehmed’s army and Constantine disappeared from history after throwing himself into the last stand of fighting.
But there are people who would not consider Constantine as a real last Roman Emperor. The reason lies mainly with whether or not they feel the Byzantine Empire was, by then, still a ‘Roman Empire’. Of course, it was a direct continuation of the Roman Empire of the classical era, but by then its character was Greek. So was the heroic and tragic Constantine XI the last Roman Emperor? This continues to be disputed.
But even after Constantine died, there were still people who could claim to be a Roman Emperor. Before the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, a relative of the imperial family had seized the city of Trebizond and declared it as an independent state, while also claiming the imperial title of ‘Emperor of the Romans’ for himself. By 1461, Trebizond was in a similar state to the Byzantine Empire: weak and surrounded by the Ottomans.
Sultan Mehmed also decided to take down this Christian outpost. David Komnenos, the Emperor of Trebizond, while negotiating for military aid from the West, asked Mehmed to remit the tributary his predecessor had paid to the Ottomans. Mehmed was offended and began to take military action, soon surrounding Trebizond and forcing its surrender. David was captured and executed in 1463, thus ending the life of the last man who could still claim to have a line of succession from the Caesars of old.
Or maybe he wasn’t a Roman Emperor. After all, one of his predecessors had actually renounced the claim to be Emperor of the Romans, and if the Byzantine Empire wasn’t considered Roman, would the Trapezuntine one also be Roman?
It all comes down to your own opinion, really, on who you’d view as the last Roman Emperor. Now that we’ve told you a bit about each person, you can make an informed choice. Maybe it’d be nice to have a little vote here at HR.
Thanks for reading.
Edit: A follow up post, ”More ‘Last’ Roman Emperors“ was written as an extension of this list.