Portrait of a Pope: The Reign of Odovacer in Italy15-min read (inc. footnotes)

“For the great mass of the inhabitants of Italy, the old order of things remained unchanged.”

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction
The End of Imperial Rome
The Reign of Odovacer in Italy


More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

Image: The Consummation, Thomas Cole, (Wiki Commons CC). The city of Rome was still prosperous in the fifth century.

In the previous part of this series on St Gregory the Great we looked briefly at the events leading up to the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 AD. In the upcoming instalments we will examine the period between 476 and 535 when a still prosperous Italy was ruled over by Germanic monarchs. In so doing we will come to understand the Italy into which the future pontiff was to be born, around the year 540.

Romans and Germans: enemies and confederates 

If we are to understand how Italy, the most important province of the Empire, and with it the great imperial city of Rome itself, fell under the control of Germanic rulers, we must first understand the role played by Germanic forces and their leaders in the years following the Visigothic migrations across the Danube, and into the Roman Empire, in 376.

The Roman state had for centuries deployed troops from various parts of the empire – who fought in their own accustomed manner – as auxiliary troops fighting alongside the Roman legions. Rome also had a long tradition of forming alliances with other peoples, many of whom were eventually subsumed into the imperial system. 

During the fourth century, it became commonplace for men from the Germanic nations to serve as soldiers in the Roman army, before either settling in the empire or returning home. 

We must not therefore think of the Roman border with Germania as the border between a civilised empire on the one hand and an unknown wilderness on the other – there was in fact a significant amount of movement between the two, and Germanic soldiers were an important part of the Roman military machine. It is also important to note that by this date many Germans had converted from paganism to the Arian heresy.

However, as the barbarian migrations became uncontrollable in the early fifth century, the empire needed new ways to remain in control of, and leverage, non-Roman forces.

In the winter of 406, large numbers of non-Roman peoples – armed masses of men, women and children – poured across the Rhine frontier and into the empire. They consisted mostly of Germanic speaking Alamanni, Suevi and Vandals, and Iranian speaking Alans. They were moving west under the pressure of the Huns, who were advancing from the Eurasian steppes into central Europe. These peoples preferred to risk war and possible destruction by the Roman Empire, than conquest and subjugation at the hands of the Huns.

This movement of people would lead, over the coming decades, to the establishment of new kingdoms in Britain, Gaul, Spain and North Africa. We cannot here present a detailed narrative of these events, but what is of significance to us how the Romans responded to this invasion, after the imperial armies had failed to halt its advance. 

The Romans adopted a policy of granting concessions and making alliances with some invading groups, in an effort to re-establish a measure of control, and use them against other groups. For example, the Visigoths were recruited to fight in southern Gaul for the Romans, who gave land to them in the area around Toulouse in 418/19. 

These alliances were always unstable, however. The Visigoths were back in conflict with the Romans soon enough, attacking the city of Arles in 425.

This is an early example of a pattern that would repeat continually in the last century of the western Empire’s existence: a perpetual cycle of alliances and wars, as both the imperial authorities and Germanic leaders attempted to turn the situation to mutual advantage. The cycle however worked in manner that was unfavourable to Rome, as imperial control and influence weakened over the decades.

In many ways the last century of the western empire’s life is a reverse of its rise. During its period of expansion Rome used alliances with other peoples as a way bringing their territory under her control. During her last century, the Germanic peoples used alliances with Rome as a way of establishing themselves as rulers of independent kingdoms in what had once been her territory.

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Germanic Romans?

Another important feature of the late Empire is the significant role played by figures of Germanic origin who exercised great political power and influence within the state.

Pre-eminent among these figures stands Flavius Stilicho (c359-408), the son of a Vandal father, who served as an officer in the Roman army, and a Roman mother. He rose through the ranks, and was favoured by the Emperor Theodosius I, who gave him his adopted niece Serena in marriage. He was one of the most powerful figures at the court of the young emperor Honorius from his accession in 395, marrying his own daughter to the emperor in 398. He was the effective ruler of the empire until his assassination in 408. Stilicho was thoroughly Roman in culture and loyalties, and almost certainly a Catholic given the high rank he attained. 

Flavius Aetius (c391-454), sometimes termed the “Last of the Romans”, was one of the last great political figures who strove to hold the Empire together. A man of Roman birth, he built an alliance of Roman and Germans, to confront the invasion of Attila the Hun. When Aetius came face to face with Attila at the great battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451, the majority of his troops were German confederates, peoples who had invaded the empire, and were allying with her against a joint foe.

Meanwhile in the Eastern Empire, Flavius Ardabar Aspar (c400-471), a general of Alanic and Gothic descent, was for many years one of the most significant political figures in Constantinople.  As an Arian, he would not have been accepted as emperor, but he was an powerful general and kingmaker for a period of nearly forty years.

Back in the west, Flavius Ricimer (c418-472) was effective ruler of the Western empire between 461 and his death in 472. He was the son of a Suevic father and a Visigothic mother and possibly of royal blood on both sides. Yet for more than a decade he was he power behind the Roman throne, selecting and overthrowing emperors, and striving – amid plots and schemes – to maintain and restore imperial authority. 

Why do I labour this point?

Because without understanding the significant role played by Germanic forces and leaders of Germanic origin, we will not be able to understand what happened in 476 AD – the peaceful acquiescence of the great imperial city of Rome herself to the rule of a German leader of mercenaries. This astonishing event is only comprehensible when we see it as the culmination of a process that had gone on for a full 100 years.

The rule of Odovacer (476-493)

During its final years the Western Empire was riven by infighting and civil wars. In 476 what was left of the Empire was divided between two claimants – Julius Nepos and Romulus Augustulus – the latter being only a child, the real power being his father, Orestes.  A Germanic general named Odovacer [alternative spellings include Odoacer and Odovacar] took advantage of the situation. Rallying to himself mutinying troops – many of whom, perhaps most, were Germans – he killed Orestes and deposed his son.

The path was open to him to follow the path of an Aspar or Ricimer and exercise power behind the scenes. But Odovacer took a different path: he exercised power directly himself, and in so doing was able to bring the infighting and wars to an end. He was careful however not claim the imperial purple himself. He positioned himself as ruling Italy on behalf of the Eastern Emperor Zeno and was, for a time, tolerated by Constantinople.

The beginning of his rule in Italy saw transfer of one-third of the land to his armed followers, but he left the entire system of Roman law, bureaucracy and tax collecting intact. 

A modern historian of the period wrote:

“For the great mass of the inhabitants of Italy, the old order of things remained unchanged. Justice was still administered according to Roman laws by Roman magistrates. The taxes of the Empire were still collected by Roman Rationales. There were still Praetorian Prefects, Counts of the Sacred Largesses, Counts of the Domestics, Masters of the Offices, and all the rest of the administrative and courtly hierarchy introduced by Diocletian and fully developed under Constantine. Only, the centre and mainspring of all this elaborate organisation was no longer a Roman imperator, but a nondescript barbarian chief, King in relation to his followers, Patrician in his dealings with the Senate, a man not wearing the imperial purple nor crowned with the diadem, a man who could do everything except say by what right he ruled there.”[1]

Very little contemporary evidence survives to tell us about the rule of Odovacer, but it seems clear that he was broadly supported by the Roman senatorial elite, and that his government was generally stable and moderate. Many prominent aristocratic figures served in his government, such as Cassiodorus, the father of the famous scholar of the same name, and Basilius to whose superintendence Pope Simplicius entrusted the papal election of 483, which was to result in the elevation of Pope St. Felix III.

One of the few sources for the period is a Life of St Ephiphanius of Ticinium, which paints Odovacer in a favourable light, portraying him as responsive to the saint’s appeals on behalf of the poor. Odovacer, like so many other Germans was an Arian, but not only was there no persecution of Catholics under his reign, he seems to have maintained good relations with the Catholic Church.

The papacy was at this time establishing itself as a major political influence in Italy. The non-Catholic historian quoted above remarks:

“It is a marvellous sight to see how, as the political power of Rome in the provinces of the Empire ebbs away, the ecclesiastical power of her bishops increases. The Tribunes and the Centurions disappear, but the Legate of the Pope comes oftener, and is a mightier personage each time of his return. So, too, with the outward splendour of the Papal Court: it grows brighter as that of the Caesars wanes. While…the civil edifices were every year putting on more the appearance of squalor and desolation, the shrines of the martyrs and the saints were glowing with ever-fresh splendour before the eyes… of the Christian Quirites [an ancient alternative name for the Romans].”[2]

The relationship between Odovacer and the papacy was generally good, something that was assisted by the conflict that emerged during his reign between the papacy and the see of Constantinople. 

The conflict between Rome and Constantinople is important for us to consider for two reasons: (i) it helps us to understand why Catholic Italians were alienated to some degree, at least for a time, from the imperial authorities in Constantinople and (ii) it provides crucial context for events that we have to consider in detail when we turn to the papacy of St Gregory the Great. 

The Popes and Constantinople

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, after the papal legates and many other bishops had left, a group of remaining bishops passed a resolution, “the 28th canon”, which stated:

“The fathers [of an earlier council at Constantinople] rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the one hundred and fifty most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of new Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honoured by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equalling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her.”[3]

There is a twofold error here. First, the reason given for the prerogatives of the See of Rome is false. The Bishops of Rome possess the primacy because they are the successors of St Peter, not because Rome was an imperial city. Secondly, on the basis of this false reasoning the bishops assert that because Constantinople is the capital of the Eastern division of the Roman Empire, and therefore equal in political status, it must also be “apportioned equal prerogatives” in the ecclesiastical sphere. All that is left to the Successors of St Peter here is a limited primacy of honour, which is little different to the pious respect still given to the city of Rome by the east, in acknowledgement of her role as the birthplace of their shared culture and institutions 

Catholic theology holds that it is the approval of the Roman Pontiff which makes the acts of a council magisterial and authoritative: without this approval, they are without force and are by no means guaranteed against error or even heresy. Further, the Pope is not obliged to approve decrees in their totality, but rather can reject or modify certain parts whilst approving the rest. 

The 28th canon was rejected by Pope St Leo the Great, and the Church has always rejected any assertion that it forms part of the teaching of the ecumenical council of Chalcedon.

It was however to prove a stimulus for Patriarchs of Constantinople to seek independence from, or equality with, the Church of Rome. 

The rise of Constantinople

The relationship of Constantinople with Rome and the other patriarchates had been tense for decades. The three ancient patriarchates – Rome, Antioch and Alexandria – all derived their status from their connection with St Peter. Rome was the see presided over by his successors in the primacy. Antioch was the church of which he had first been bishop, and thus the Patriarchs of Antioch were also successors of St Peter, though not of his primacy. Finally, the great church of Alexandria in Egypt was founded by St Peter’s disciple St Mark.

Constantinople was a latecomer as a patriarchate, as was Jerusalem, and it had achieved its status because of its importance as an imperial capital. And while many of the patriarchs were men of greatness, and some – such as St John Chrysostom – men of great holiness, there were nevertheless a significant number of patriarchs who were too much under the control of the emperors. During the centuries of the great trinitarian and christological heresies, unorthodox emperors often deposed or exiled Catholic patriarchs, and appointed their own. Or the patriarchs might conform to the desires of emperors of their own accord. Pope St Gregory the Great would later write:

“We know of a truth that many bishops of Constantinople have fallen into the whirlpool of heresy and have become not only heretics but heresiarchs.”[4]

And even Catholic patriarchs often sought to increase the power and influence of their see at the expense of the more ancient patriarchates, and even of Rome herself.

This trend – already evident in the fourth century – would eventually lead to a series of schisms, and ultimately to the schism of 1054, which has still not been healed. The first of these – the Acacian schism – took place during the rule of Odovacer in Italy, and may have helped to secure his reign, and that of his successor, Theodoric the Great.

The Acacian schism  

For many decades the Church had been assailed by the heresy of Monophysitism, a doctrine that we do not have space to discuss here, except to note that it was widespread in the east and destructive not only to souls but also to the stability of the empire. In 451 the Council of Chalcedon had accepted and made its own the teaching of the Roman Church presented in the “Tome” of Pope St Leo the Great, but during our period, in many provinces of the eastern empire, and especially in Egypt, the heresy was still in the ascendant. 

In order to effect a compromise, for the political benefit of the empire, the Emperor Zeno and Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, drew up a doctrinal statement called the Henotikon. This text, while not containing explicit heresy, made no reference to the Council of Chalcedon, seeking unity in adherence to the earlier councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Constantinople. Its purpose was to provide common ground around which it was hoped Catholics and heretics could unite – an early form of ecumenism. The document was promulgated by Zeno on 28 July 482.

In March 483 St. Felix III – the great-great-grandfather of Pope St Gregory the Great – was elected pope. He is said to be the first pope elected from the Roman senatorial aristocracy. Pope St. Felix III had to deal with the fallout from the Henotikon and the interference of Patriarch Acacius in the church of Alexandria, which had led to the ousting of the legitimate and Catholic patriarch of that see, John Talaia, in favour of a Monophysite known as Peter Mongus – “the Stammerer” – who had agreed to sign the Henotikon. The pope acted decisively, sending an embassy to Constantinople to demand that Acacius appear before a synod in Rome to answer the charges of Talaia. These papal ambassadors were first arrested, and then persuaded to communicate with both Acacius and Peter Mongus. 

The “Sleepless Monks” and the excommunication of Acacius 

There was however a group of monks in Constantinople who were zealous both in their adhesion to the Council of Chalcedon and to the Successors of St Peter. They were known as the “Sleepless Monks” due to their practice of maintaining constant liturgical prayer in their churches, sleeping only in shifts. These monks now informed the pope of the treachery of his legates. On their return to Rome the legates were tried, convicted, excommunicated and deposed by a synod of bishops on 28 July 484, exactly two years after the promulgation of the Henotikon. 

The same Roman synod condemned Acacius as promoter of heretics, and excommunicated him, cutting him off “as a putrid limb from the body of the Church.” 

On 1 August 484, Pope St. Felix III wrote to the Emperor Zeno himself, giving him a stark choice: he must choose between St Peter and Peter Mongus. Meanwhile, the “sleepless monks” publicised the news of Acacius’s excommunication, going so far as to pin the notice of excommunication to his vestments during the Divine Liturgy. Acacius responded by “excommunicating” Pope St. Felix III. The first schism between Rome and Constantinople had begun. It would not end until all of Rome’s demands were met in 519, including the striking out of the names of Acacius and Peter Mongus from the diptychs used in the sacred liturgy.

As noted above, I draw attention to the Acacian schism in this context for two reasons: (i) it provides crucial context for St Gregory the Great’s own dispute with Constantinople and (ii) conflict with Constantinople gave the Catholics of Italy a reason to tolerate, or even support, the reign of a Germanic warlord like Odovacer who respected the Church, rather than seek to undermine him and restore the power of imperial authorities in Constantinople who were compromising with heresy.

Odovacer succeeded for fourteen years in ruling over Italy in place of the emperors. However, despite his successes, he has been overshadowed by the extraordinary achievements of the man who would seize his prize and usher in a last age of prosperity for a united Italy. 

It is to this man, King Theodoric the Great, that our attention must turn next.

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction
The End of Imperial Rome
The Reign of Odovacer in Italy


More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow us on Twitter, Telegram, Facebook and Gab.

Don’t forget!

See here for the full WM Review Reading List.


[1] Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders: Volume III(London, 1896), p130-31. (UK: here). Available to read free online here.

[2] Hodgkin, Italy, p135-36.

[3] Translation taken from the texts of the Council at Chalcedon found at https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum04.htm.

[4] Quoted in Richards, Jeffrey, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476-752(London, 1979), p12. (UK: here)

Leave a Reply