Who was the last Roman Emperor?

Well, that’s an easy question to answer, right? Just grab a list of all the Roman Emperors and see whose name comes last! Well, that’s easy… let’s see here… looks like it was Romulus Augustus who reigned from AD 475-476. Shortest Cat Flag blog ever!

Except, no, of course it’s not that easy. I wouldn’t have written this blog if it was.

History books count Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor for three reasons. First, after reigning in Rome for less than a year, he was deposed by the barbarian leader Odoacer who decided not to become emperor or appoint a puppet emperor to rule in his place, and instead declared himself the first King of Italy. Second, it’s kind of poetic that the last Roman Emperor would be named after the founder of Rome and its first emperor. Third, tables, charts, and lists have to have a finite ending point, and they don’t handle complicated mitigating factors very well.

See, counting Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor is a bit problematic. While he ruled in Rome – or rather, his father ruled in his name, as he was only a child at the time – his power was limited to Italy itself and his legitimacy as “emperor” is disputed. Historically, the Roman Empire wasn’t initially a monarchy in the modern sense, as the Romans had been a republic for centuries and had a distaste for kings. So while some emperors were able to pass power down to their sons peacefully, a few men became emperor through rebellion, military coup, or assassination. One guy even won the title at auction! Thus historians tend to consider emperors as “legitimate” Roman Emperors if they controlled the entire Roman Empire at some point and/or were accepted as emperor by the Roman Senate. Romulus Augustus could make neither claim; by these criteria, he was a usurper.

Indeed, the man he usurped the throne from, Julius Nepos, was still around, continuing to reign in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia) as the accepted legitimate emperor until his death in 480. So it was Julius Nepos who was the last Roman Emperor, right? Well, he was the last emperor in the west. In the eastern half of the empire, though, it was another story.

Okay, I’m guessing by now you are totally confused. So, let me back up a bit and explain what’s going on. After the Crisis of the Third Century (short version: the empire suffered 50 years of civil war and anarchy as everyone and their uncle fought for power), a man named Diocletian took over and decided the best recipe for stability was to split the empire up between four “emperors” that were each responsible for one part of the empire. Under his plan, there would be two senior emperors and two junior emperors. When a senior emperor died or abdicated, his junior emperor would be promoted to senior emperor and would appoint a new junior emperor. This plan failed spectacularly, leading to even more civil wars that led Constantine the Great to reunite the empire under his rule. Constantine was most famous for doing two things: (1) beginning the process of converting the Roman Empire to Christianity, and (2) moving the capital of the Roman Empire to a city that was not Rome. This new city, built on the site of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, came to be known as Constantinople.

After Constantine, the empire would be divided and reunified several more times until Theodosius the Great became the last man to reign over a united Roman Empire. When Theodosius died in 395, the empire was “permanently” divided into a western empire based in Rome and an eastern one based in Constantinople. The eastern empire is often called the Byzantine Empire by modern historians in order to distinguish it from the older empire it sprung off of, but at the time, people who lived there still called it “The Roman Empire”, considered themselves “Romans”, and considered their ruler to be the Roman Emperor.

So, it made sense that after Julius Nepos died, the emperor in Constantinople at the time, Zeno, simply declared the empire to be “reunited” under a single emperor (himself, of course) once again. Functionally, all this did was annex Dalmatia to the Byzantine Empire, as the rest of the west had now fallen to barbarian tribes and was divided into the proto-feudal kingdoms that would give rise to medieval Europe. These kingdoms still technically considered Zeno to be their overlord, but functionally they were independent.

This arrangement lasted for a few decades, but then a new emperor came to power in Constantinople:

Justinian may be listed as a Byzantine Emperor, but I would argue he was the last Roman Emperor in the sense we tend to think of Roman Emperors. He reconquer many of the Roman imperial lands that had once been lost to barbarian invaders, reclaiming North Africa, Spain, and Italy itself. He was the last Roman Emperor who actually controlled Rome. However, he also reigned during the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, AKA the Black Death, killing 25 million of his subjects and leaving the empire unable to consolidate his gains. In the centuries that followed, Muslims would conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain while the Germanic Lombards would invade Italy and Slavic tribes would take over most of the Balkans.

Yet even though it was now much, much smaller, the Byzantine Empire would continue to endure to the very end of the Middle Ages, finally coming to an end in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. This means that the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was the last man to claim the title of Roman Emperor.

Wait, no, that’s not right. Sorry, I forgot about the Holy Roman Empire.

In the late 8th century, the Vatican was in deep trouble. The Lombards were attacking and seizing control of Catholic land in Italy, and the Pope needed help. Luckily, the King of the Franks, a military genius named Charlemagne, was a devout Catholic and happily came to the Pope’s aid, crushing the Lombards and conquering Italy. Pope Leo III was so grateful for this service that he gave Charlemagne a surprise Christmas present: crowning him Emperor of Rome.

This wasn’t just a symbolic gesture, either. See, just three years earlier, a woman, Irene of Athens, took the throne of Constantinople and became empress in her own right. Until this point, the Popes had consistently accepted whomever was the reigning Byzantine Emperor as the legitimate Roman Emperor. But a woman? Perish the thought! By crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III was directly challenging Irene’s legitimacy. His hope was that Charlemagne and his heirs would restore the Roman Empire in the west and return Europe to its former glory.

Of course, this didn’t happen. As Voltaire famously said, “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” In practice, it was a collection of petty feudal kingdoms, duchies, and principalities as well as some city-state republics in central Europe. Its “emperors” were just ceremonial figureheads elected by a collection of the most important nobles and bishops, known as the “prince-electors”. That’s not to say a Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t be powerful, some were very powerful, but their power was based on what realms they held in their own right apart from their fancy title. A Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t enforce his will on the other kings, dukes, or princes unless his armies defeated them in battle.

Still, on paper, these so-called “emperors” claimed to be the heirs of the ancient Roman Emperors of old until the whole thing was abolished by Napoleon in 1806, with the Austrian Hapsburg monarch Francis II being the final Holy Roman Emperor.

We’re still not quite done, though. Skipping back over to Constantinople for a bit, we soon find out that after the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 they didn’t abolish the title of Roman Emperor. They adopted it for themselves. That’s right, for centuries, the Ottoman Sultans claimed to be the modern Roman Emperor, along with other titles they claimed like Caliph of all Islam and Protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultans loved long, fancy lists of titles. Thus, the last Ottoman sultan to claim the title of Roman Emperor was, well, the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI.

Right. Now we’re definitely done, right? Actually, you might be surprised to learn that, as I type this, there is actually a man, right now, who can claim the title of Roman Emperor. Yes, there actually is a current Roman Emperor! Here he is:

I am talking about King Felipe VI of Spain, whose royal title is a bit interesting. See, while he usually just uses the title “King of Spain”, according to the Spanish constitution, he has the right to use any other title that historically “corresponds to the Crown”.

The founders of modern Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, may be most famous for sending Christopher Columbus on his journey across the Atlantic in 1492, but they did a great many other things during their reign as well. One of those things was help out Andreas Palaiologos, the nephew of Constantine XI Palaiologos, who was flat broke at the time. They purchased the Byzantine imperial title from him. Technically, no Spanish monarch has ever formally given up this title, meaning it is one of the titles that King Felipe VI is entitled to claim and use if he so chooses.

Who says the Roman Empire is dead?


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