By the time of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305), the idea that the Roman Empire had grown so large that it would be better managed by two co-ruling emperors, rather than one, had become established. After various divisions were made throughout the 4th century, the empire was firmly and permanently divided into a western and eastern sphere of imperial administration from the death of emperor Theodosius I (r. 379–395) in 395 onwards.
Though modern historians typically use the terms Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire to describe the new political situation, the Romans themselves never considered the empire to have been formally divided, still viewing it as a single unit, although most often having two rulers rather than one. Over the course of the 5th century, the western empire experienced a period of catastrophic decline. Not only were many of the rulers in the west generally lacking in competence, but they also faced enormous problems. In comparison with the eastern provinces, much of the west was more rural, with fewer people and a less stable economy. An increasing number of Germanic barbarian invasions and settlements throughout the west only added to these issues.
In 410, the Visigoths under Alaric I had sacked Rome and in 455, the last western emperor of Theodosius’ dynasty, Valentinian III (r. 425–455), was deposed and murdered. That same year, Rome was sacked again for the second time in less than fifty years, this time by the Vandals. The Roman army became increasingly reliant on barbarian mercenaries and after Valentinian’s murder, the most powerful barbarian generals, such as Ricimer (c. 418–472), became politically dominant, ruling through proclaiming puppet emperors. In the twenty years between the death of Valentinian and the accession of Romulus Augustus, eight different emperors ruled in the west. By 475, the western empire was in critical condition. Outside of Italy, authority was only exercised in Raetia and some regions of Gaul.
The ruling emperor in 475 was Julius Nepos, who had been in power for less than a year. Nepos had been appointed western emperor in 474 by the eastern emperors Leo I (r. 457–474) and Zeno (r. 474–491), but had little real support in the west. In 475, Nepos named Orestes as a patrician and magister militum (‘master of soldiers’; effectively commander-in-chief), replacing the previous holder of that office, Ecdicius.
Romulus Augustus (c. 465 – after 511?), commonly known by the nickname Augustulus, was Roman emperor of the West from October 31, 475 until September 4, 476. Romulus was placed on the imperial throne by his father, the magister militum Orestes, and, at that time still a minor, was little more than a figurehead for his father. After Romulus ruled for just ten months, the barbarian general Odoacer defeated and killed Orestes and deposed Romulus. As Odoacer did not proclaim any successor, Romulus is typically regarded as the last western Roman emperor, his deposition marking the end of the Western Roman Empire as a political entity. The deposition of Romulus Augustulus is also sometimes used by historians to mark the transition from antiquity to the medieval period.
Very few records survive of Romulus’ reign. There are no known policies, laws or inscriptions of significance of the emperor, which leaves the impression that he was a shadowy and relatively inconsequential figure. The nickname ‘Augustulus’ means “little Augustus” and was a derisive nickname referencing his young age. Romulus’ immediate family, including his father and possibly his mother, and maybe both his paternal and maternal grandparents, were from the Roman province of Pannonia, and many of his family members had military backgrounds.
Romulus came to power through usurpation of his predecessor, Julius Nepos (r. 474–475 in Italy) in 475.
Nepos fled to Dalmatia and continued to claim the imperial title in exile, which hampered Romulus’ legitimacy and ensured that he was never recognised by the eastern Roman emperor Zeno. In 476, the barbarian foederati (ally troops) in Italy demanded Italian lands to settle on, which was refused by Orestes. Under their leader Odoacer, the foederati defeated and killed Orestes and deposed Romulus, whereafter Odoacer became the first king of Italy and accepted emperor Zeno as his nominal suzerain.
Romulus’s life was spared by Odoacer, and he was allowed to retire to the castellum Lucullanum, a great fortress in Campania, near Naples. Little certain information is known concerning Romulus’s life in exile. He might have played a role in founding a monastery at castellum Lucullanum in the 480s or 490s, dedicated to Saint Severinus of Noricum. Romulus could have been alive as late as 507 or 511, when Theodoric the Great, Odoacer’s successor, wrote a letter to a “Romulus” concerning a pension. Romulus was likely dead before the mid-530s, as accounts of the eastern Roman invasion of Italy at that time do not mention him.