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Monday, October 13, 2008

BLIND AMBITION

I believe that ambitious people tend to be unhappy people. Take Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus as an example, (or Caesar Augustus, for short) ,who was the first Roman Emperor, beginning about 27 B.C. He was the most ambitious man of his age. He invented the Roman Empire. And he lived longer than all but a couple of the Emperors who followed him. And he had a big funeral in 14 A.D. That's something you get only if you are very ambitious.

Augustus’s last words were, “Did you like the performance?” To which my response is, “In retrospect, it was just okay” because the show ended with two emperors, and in a huge bloody confusing mess which I shall now attempt to explain as best I can. Suffice it to say that if Augustus had seen how sorry his empire would end he might have rolled over in his grave, if the barbarians hadn’t scattered his ashes in 420 A.D. as they burned Rome the first time. That is just one of the ways they earned the title of barbarians. Anyway, the really messy part starts with Julius Nepos.Nepos was governor of Dalmatia and he got the job as Western Emperor in 474 A.D. because he was married to the niece of Leo I, the Byzantium Emperor, and because he was willing to pay for an army to defeat Glycerius, the guy who had knocked off the previous western Emperor. In fact Nepos is Latin for nephew, and - what a surprise - is also the root of the term “nepotsm”, which tells you almost everything you need to know about this schmuck.

Nepos was supposed to bring peace and order to the capital of the Western Empire, which was then at Ravenna, Italy, and boy did he ever screw that up. He started out badly by not killing Glycerius, but instead shipped him off to Salona, the largest port in Dalmatia, where he figured his spies could keep an eye on him. Nepos even made the guy a Bishop in the Church, assuming, I guess, this act of charity would win Glycerius’ loyalty. But as they say in the Emperor business, no good deed goes unpunished.Caesar Augustus (him again) had established the port of Ravenna in the first century B.C. as the home for the Roman fleet. By the fourth century, with the barbarians carrying off half the forum in a fire sale, the capital had been moved first to Milan, and then to the port city because Ravenna was surrounded by swamps and marshes, which offered protection from the invading hordes, of which there were plenty around at the time. But so low had Rome fallen by that time that the next invading hoards didn’t even have to invade, because they were already there. Half the army Nepos used to defeat Glyceriys was made up of German barbarians – er, I mean mercenaries, about 30,000 of them, led at this opportune moment by an ambitious German commander, married to a Roman woman. His name was Orestes, and although he had been secretary to Attila the Hun, he does not seem to have been very bright: just ambitious. And that is probably why Nepos figured that Orestes would not catch on when the new Emperor ordered Orestes to march off to Gaul with all of his German mercenaries. I suspect it was Orestes wife who explained to him what Nepos was really up to, getting the Germans out of Italy and out of the way. Wives have a way of pointing out to husbands when they are being particularly dense. Anyway, it was probably she who suggested that Orestes should offer the Germans their own villas and farms in Italy, which would be stolen from the Roman patricians who owned them. So he did.

Which is why, on August 28, 475, the Germans marched off not to Gaul but to Ravenna. Nepos could have stayed and fought, but then he would not have been Nepos. The schmuck jumped ship in the harbor and sailed home for Dalmatia, taking his purple robes with him. And Orestes walked into the capital, where, instead of crowning himself emperor, he put the crown on his son’s head. And again I suspect this was his wife’s idea.

The twelve year old boy was crowned Emperor Romulus Augustus, on October 31, 475 – what would eventually become Halloween, for anybody with a sense of irony. Of course Orestes was still the power behind the throne (Romulus was 12 years old), which is why the graffiti artists labeled their new Emperor “Romulus Augustulus”, which is the Latin diminutive version of the name – meaning “Little Romulus”. It was the kind of sly, nasty political joke which graffiti artists had been scrawling on the alley walls of Rome for a thousand years. It’s further proof of the old adage that historians spend centuries struggling to learn from dusty records and scratches on walls what they could have discovered in five minutes by talking to the any guy on any streetcorner in ancient Rome. And one of histories’ greatest mysteries, unexplained by the dusty records, is why, having won such power and wealth so easily, Orestes then went back on the promise to his mercenaries and refused to hand over the patrician’s lands to them. Did he think all 30,000 Germans were not going to notice?
They noticed. And quickly rose up under their new commander, Odoacer. And this time they were joined by a lot of the Roman soldiers, and together, in 476, they all marched on Ravenna. Unlike Nepose, brave, couragous, dull headed slow thinking Orestes didn’t have the common sense to run. He was captured just outside the city, and duly executed. Thus fares most dolts in history.

And on September 4, 476 A.D. “Little Romulus” handed over his crown to Odoacer. Romulus was, according to most historians, the last Roman Emperor, having been emperor for barely 10 months. His puberty lasted longer than his nobility. Some stories say that Odoacer gave Romulus a pension, but that seems a little unlikely to me. Odoacer was not a stupid man. I think he likely packed up the little-last Emperor and his entire family and shipped them off to prison in Campania, in Southern Italy. And I have to say I hope Romulus was contented there. You see, history seems at times to be the story of ambitious people getting everybody else into trouble, and this kid never had a chance to be ambitious, even if he were so inclined.The truth is, almost nobody got out of this particular story by natural causes. Poor old Nepos was murdered by his own servants, probably in the pay of Glycerius, on April 25, 480 A.D. Odoacer rushed in to fill the political vacuum, repaying Glycerius by appointing him Archbishop of Milan. And Odoacer settled down to run his little empire.

But such land grabs attracted the suspicions of the new Byzantium Emperor, Zeno, who, being Emperor, was suspicious of anybody as ambitious as himself. So he offered a pile of gold to the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric, if he would cut Odoacer down to size. Theodoric laid siege to Ravenna for three long years. Finally, with both armies suffering from hunger and plague, Theodoric offered Odoacer a truce, which Odoacer agreed to. However, at the celebratory banquet on February the second, 493 A.D., Odoacer said something offensive and without warning Theodoric fell on Odoacer and strangled him with his bare hands. I guess Ocoacer had never heard of the Trojan horse. The repetition here is a bit depressing, I agree.

Little Romulus would outlive most of them but only because he was younger. Legend says he died about 509 A.D., not yet 35 years old, but still residing in his prison outside of Naples. And considering the fate of all the ambitious people in this story, that was a long if not happy, life. Amino Domina, Roman Empire.


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