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Friday, July 17, 2009

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. 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”. I say this because his show ended 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 just how sorry his empire would end up, he might have rolled over in his grave, if he still had one. He didn't, because the barbarians 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 just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and 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.Now, Nepos is Latin for "nephew", and - what a surprise - that is also the root of the term “nepotsm”, which tells you almost everything you need to know about this guy.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. Instead Nepo took him prisoner and shipped him off to Salona, the largest port back in Dalmatia. There he figured his spies could keep an eye on Glycerius, since he also had him ordained as a Bishop, giving him a steady income. Nepos was assuming, I guess, that 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 A.D., with the barbarians carrying off half the Roman forum in a fire sale, the capital had been moved first to Milan, and then to this port 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 Western Empire fallen that the next invading hoard didn’t even have to invade, because they were already there. Half the army Nepos hired to defeat Glyceriys was made up of German barbarians – er, I mean, mercenaries - about 30,000 of them who had been fighting for Glyceriys. These Germans were led at this opportune moment by an ambitious man who had been a secretary to "Atilla the Hun", named Orestes. And he does not seem to have been very bright. And that is probably why the new Emperor, Nepos, figured that Orestes would not catch when he ordered him take all his German troops and march off to defend Gaul. But Orestes had a Roman wife. I suspect it was she who explained to Orestes what Nepos was really up to, i.e. getting the Germans out of Italy and away from the center of power. Wives have a way of pointing out to their 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 could be stolen from the Roman patricians who currently owned them. So he did.Which is why, on August 28, 475, the Germans marched off not to Gaul but to Ravenna. Emperor Nepos could have stayed and fought, but then he would not have been Nepos. Our hero jumped ship in the harbor and sailed home for Dalmatia, taking his purple robes with him. Behind Neops' unglorious exit, Orestes walked into the capital, where, instead of crowning himself as Emperor, he did something so smart I suspect it was his wife’s idea; he put the crown and the purple robes on his son.The twelve year old boy was crowned Emperor Romulus Augustus, on October 31, 475 A.D.– on what would eventually become Halloween, for anybody with a sense of irony. Of course Orestes was still the power behind the throne, but this was 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 nasty telling political joke which graffiti artists had been scrawling on the alley walls of Rome for a thousand years. And it is 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 of talking to any guy on any streetcorner in ancient Rome. 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. Of course the Roman Patricians paid him off. But did he think all 30,000 Germans were not going to notice? Again, I suspect, the answer is that poor old Orestes was just not very bright. The Germans noticed. They 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 for it. He stayed and fought (badly) and was captured just outside the city, and duly executed.On September 4, 476 A.D. “Little Romulus” handed over his crown to Odoacer. Romulus was thus, 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 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 in Dalmatia, repaying Glycerius by appointing him Archbishop of Milan. Odoacer then settled down to run his little empire, but he never made the mistake of declaring himself Western Emperor.Still, Emperor or not, it was the Dalmatian land grab which attracted the suspicions of the new Byzantium Emperor, Zeno (above), 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, bloody 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 with his bare hands strangled him to death. The repetition of the stupity and violence is a bit depressing, I agree.Little Romulus would outlive most of them but only because he was younger to start with. 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 a happy, life.
Amino Domina, Roman Empire.
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