Who Was Emperor Zeno and How Did He Deal with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire?

Peter Crawford

6 mins

23 Sep 2019

Emperor Zeno is an interesting figure in Roman history. Being Isaurian, many saw him as an ‘internal barbarian;’ he is one of the few rulers in history to have succeeded his son; he was one of the few emperors to regain the throne after being deposed and he was reputedly buried alive.

However, the most well-known fact about Zeno is that he was the Eastern Roman emperor when the deposition of Romulus Augustulus extinguished the last glimmers of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

What caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire?

The end of the western empire had been coming.

The territorial losses it had suffered in Britain, Spain, Africa and Gaul led to chronic resource shortages. This manifested most seriously in the inability to pay the Italian field army.

Western and Eastern Roman Empire in 476. Image Credit: Ichthyovenator / Commons.

On 23 August 476, the soldiers therefore elected one of their own – Odoacer – to force cooperation from the Roman hierarchies. Within a fortnight, the rebel army had overwhelmed imperial forces, dethroned Romulus and established Odoacer as rex Italiae – ‘king of Italy’.

Odoacer’s embassy goes to Constantinople

Despite the totality of his victory, Odoacer recognised that his actions might bring the enmity of the eastern empire upon him. He therefore sent an embassy to Constantinople in the hope of establishing good relations.

It might be imagined that the emperor would have reacted angrily to the overthrow of his imperial colleague; however, even if he was angry, Zeno faced his own problems.

19th Century illustration depicting Romulus Augustulus relinquishing his throne to a triumphant Odoacer.

When word of Romulus’ deposition and Odoacer’s elevation arrived, Zeno had only returned to the eastern throne a few weeks prior after being ousted by his in-laws in early 475. His restoration saw him beholden to numerous untrustworthy generals – Armatus, Illus, Theoderic the Amal – and distracted by other internal problems, so he was in no position to act against Odoacer.

The embassy still acted with deference, declaring that

“there was no need of a divided rule and that one, shared emperor was sufficient for both territories.”

They presented Zeno with a letter of resignation and the imperial vestments of Romulus. The embassy also suggested that Odoacer be entrusted with the administration of Italy, serving as Zeno’s viceroy.

The deferential tone of this embassy and the semblance of subservience from Odoacer likely encouraged Zeno to accept this proposal, particularly as military intervention was largely out of the question in 476.

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Julius Nepos intervenes

However, before these negotiations were completed, another embassy arrived. It was from Julius Nepos, the predecessor of Romulus who had been forced to flee Italy in 475.

From his position in Dalmatia, Nepos sought help from Zeno for his own restoration. Nepos had initially been put on the western throne by Zeno’s father-in-law, Leo I, whose widow, Verina, now encouraged Zeno to continue that imperial support.

Emperor Zeno’s response

Faced with two competing plans for Italy, Zeno attempted to accommodate both. He recognised Odoacer’s pre-eminence in Italy, but demanded that he accept Julius Nepos as western emperor.

Technically, this did happen as Odoacer minted coins depicting Nepos and Zeno, but there was no move to re-establish Nepos in Italy. Odoacer was in firm control of Italy, and he would remain so until ousted militarily.

Coins issued by Odoacer with Zeno’s name and face depicted on them.

Despite that reality, Odoacer continued to show deference to Constantinople, which along with his own continued distractions at home, saw Zeno tolerate the rex Italiae.

This tolerance even survived Odoacer’s conquest of Dalmatia, following the murder of Julius Nepos on 9 May 480. Against expectations, Dalmatia was not reintegrated as a Roman province; instead it became part of Odoacer’s realm.

Tensions build

After this, the emperor may have begun to view his ‘viceroy’ with some suspicion as Odoacer was frequently mentioned as a potential ally for Zeno’s enemies. While there is little evidence that Odoacer offered them any support, the emperor may have been wary of the fact that Odoacer’s territory had become something of a haven for escaped eastern rebels.

A deterioration in relations can be detected in 486/487, when Odoacer’s army crushed the forces of the Rugian king Feletheus along the Middle Danube. The elimination of a Germanic kingdom seems little to do with Zeno, but there was much more to this episode.

Rather than an expansionist invasion, Odoacer’s attack on Feletheus was more a pre-emptive strike on a hostile Rugian king. Any hostility from Feletheus had imperial roots, with Zeno encouraging him to invade Italy. The emperor wanted rid of Odoacer and had turned to the Roman strategy of playing barbarian enemies off against one another. War between Odoacer and Feletheus would weaken at least one of the belligerents, if not both.

As it was, the conflict saw to the elimination of the Rugian kingdom, reducing the number of imperial opponents.

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Despite this, the outward pretence of cooperation between rex and Augustus continued, with Odoacer sending another embassy to Constantinople to present the emperor with his share of the Rugian loot.

One can imagine Zeno’s feigned smile when faced with the defeat of his manipulations and the hollowness of Odoacer’s fealty.

Theoderic the Amal enters the fray

Having had Armatus assassinated, outlived Theoderic Strabo and defeated Illus, the only internal threat left to the Eastern Emperor was the Gothic leader: Theoderic the Amal. Zeno decided to use him against Odoacer.

The details would be contentious, but Zeno and Theoderic were satisfied with the basic outline: Theoderic got to strike out on his own, while the emperor rid himself of an enemy by playing him off against another opponent.

Even if Theoderic failed to defeat Odoacer, the war would weaken both sides; if the Goths limped back to imperial territory, they may have been sufficiently weakened for Zeno to defeat them.

Theoderic the Amal, in a 12th century German manuscript.

Theoderic’s Goths move west

It took a year to prepare a Gothic mass – perhaps up to 100,000 – to move west before Theoderic set off in autumn 488. Roman forces likely shadowed them until they passed out of imperial territory.

After wintering on the imperial frontier with Odoacer’s Dalmatia, Theoderic’s army entered Italy through the Julian Alps in summer 489.

The progression of Theoderic’s war with Odoacer, reported by an embassy in autumn 490, made for good listening for Zeno and not strictly because of the battlefield results. The emperor will have been just as happy with the unravelling of Theoderic’s position in late 489 as he was with Theoderic’s victories at Isontius and Verona earlier in the year.

This was because it meant that the Goths were fully engaged in the struggle with Odoacer, one that would end in victory or crushing defeat. Either outcome meant that Theoderic would not be returning to east.

Word of the decisive Gothic victory at Adda River on 11 August 490 and subsequent blockade of Ravenna will have galvanised Zeno’s belief that he was rid of Theoderic for good.

Indeed, the Gothic embassy of 490 had already looked to address Theoderic’s constitutional position, which was a little premature, for Odoacer would not be killed until 15 March 493.

Teodorico_re_dei_Goti_(493-526) – Theoderic the Great (Palazzo Massimo, Rome).

Emperor Zeno dies

These negotiations went nowhere, perhaps because Zeno did not wish to give Theoderic any recognition, although the more definitive roadblock was Zeno’s illness and death in April 491.

Constantinople then descended into civil war between the two halves of Zeno’s family over the succession, leaving it in no position to impose control on Gothic Italy.

Zeno’s death left any plans he had for Italy up in the air, leading to much speculation about his ultimate aims. Were the Goths acting on their own behalf? Was Zeno just looking to replace one viceroy with another, while reducing his enemies? Did he plan to use Theoderic to reintegrate Italy into the empire?

It would not be until 497 that there was some semblance of agreement over Theoderic’s position in Italy with Zeno’s successor, Anastasius I. Even then it was a recognition of Theoderic’s rule of Italy in his own right; a rule he would pass to his descendants.

It would be over forty years before the Roman Empire overturned that fait accompli.

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Zeno’s reaction to Odoacer’s overthrow of the western empire was dictated by the weakness of his own position. Had it not been for his internal distractions, Zeno may well have initiated an imperial campaign to oust the rex Italiae.

Constantinople had a history of involving itself in Italy, having established Valentinian III, Anthemius and Julius Nepos on the western throne. Zeno’s legacy in the west was his inaction at the initial abolition of the Western Roman Empire, and his facilitating the Gothic conquest of Italy.

Dr Peter Crawford gained a PhD in Ancient History at Queen’s University Belfast under the tutelage of respected classicist Professor Brian Campbell. The Emperor Zeno: The Perils of Power Politics in Fifth-century Constantinople, is his most recent book, published by Pen and Sword on 4 February 2019.

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