History Files

European Kingdoms

Ancient Italian Peninsula



According to legend, Rome was founded as a city state by the Latin prince, Romulus on 21 April 753 BC. He was the city's first king, but after his death, the city was drawn under Etruscan rule in the form of a 'Kingdom of Rome'. The Etruscans governed large areas of the Italian peninsula to the north of Rome, and ruled the city as the southernmost of a chain of semi-independent city states, although there were further Etruscan settlements in the Campania region to the south.

When the weakening Etruscans were ejected in 509 BC, a 'Republic of Rome' was founded in its place, although there was for a time stiff opposition from a body of monarchists. Rome gradually began to established the greatness which would be the 'Empire of Rome' from the first century AD. The empire survived until the last quarter of the fifth century AD, when it was replaced by a Gothic kingdom which strived for continuity. By that time Rome was no longer the capital, having been found to be hard to defend.

Europe had changed a great deal in that time. The Germanic tribes now dominated large swathes of the continent in the west and central regions, while the east was fast becoming home to waves of nomadic Turkic invaders from the east. Rome's western empire failed to survive the speed and ferocity of the changes, but its Eastern Roman empire continued for another millennium.


Gothic Kingdom of Italy
AD 476 - 493

The Roman empire had essentially ceased to be an empire quite some time before its final emperor was deposed in AD 476. Gradually denuded of men, materials, and taxes by wave after wave of barbarian invasion and settlement in former imperial territories, Rome's horizons drew ever closer and its resources dwindled ever lower. Even the emperor himself no longer lived in Rome. The end came with more of a whimper than a bang. No great invasion - just the removal of a figurehead who held no real power and a replacement of the true, usually Germanic, power at the top.

The Heruli were a subject tribe of the Goths who had followed them and their later Ostrogoth division until the latter were destroyed by the Huns in 375. After the fall of the Huns in 454 they set up a short-lived Roman foederati kingdom of their own in what is now southern Slovakia near the Rivers March and Theiss. These foederati were used by the final magister militum, Orestes, to depose Emperor Julius Nepos in 475, but Orestes reneged on his promise of land for them. The Scirian general, Odoacer, with Eastern Roman backing, subsequently invaded Italy and killed Orestes.

Odoacer subsequently ruled Italy as a continuation of the Roman state with the blessing of Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. His people - Heruli, Rugii, and Scirii - gained the land they were promised in Italy. In reality, the Eastern Romans were in no position to do more than object vocally. The empire even in the east was weakened by more than a century of turmoil, and it would be a further sixty years or so before Constantinople could begin to retake some of the lost western territories. Until then it attempted to rule Italy through proxies such as Odoacer (the name is pronounced oh-dough-a-ker, with heavy emphasis on the last syllable).

Rome's colosseum

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Complete Works of Tacitus, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, & Lisa Cerrato (1942), from Roman History by Cassius Dio, translation by Earnest Cary (1914-1927), from Germania, Tacitus, from Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD, Lindsay Powell, from Geography, Ptolemy, from Slovenska zgodovina do razsvetljenstva, Peter Štih & Simoniti Vasko (1996, in Slovenian), from The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, Byzantine and Near Eastern History, AD 284-813, Cyril Mango & Roger Scott (1997), from Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit, Volume 1, Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Claudia Ludwig, Thomas Pratsch, & Ilse Rochow, and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

476 - 493

Odoacer / Odovacar

Scirian magister militum. Patrician of Italy. Murdered.

476 - 480

Odoacer asks the Eastern emperor Zeno to legalise his position as patricius of the Roman empire and Zeno's viceroy in Italy. Zeno does so, but insists that he recognise Julius Nepos as western emperor. Odoacer agrees, and even issues coins in Nepos' name throughout Italy. A similar situation obtains in the Roman domain of Soissons in northern Gaul where the Roman general Syagrius mints coins in Nepos' name until his defeat in 486. By a collusion of convenience the Western Roman empire continues to exist after 476, but only as a legal formality.

Romulus Augustus being romveed from office by Odoacer
The boy emperor Romulus Augustus was formally removed from office by Odoacer in AD 476, and despite Odoacer's governance of Italy being no different from that of any recent emperor (albeit he was no one's puppet), this date is still viewed as being the end of the Roman empire

A contemporary account by the historian Malchus states that former Emperor Glycerius is involved in a plot which results in the murder of Juilius Nepos, either in April or May, and most likely with Odoacer's cooperation. The surviving historical evidence to confirm this is meagre.


Odoacer destroys the Germanic tribe of the Rugii, who had formerly been subjugated by the Huns and were long-time allies of the Ostrogoths (and his own allies too). Many of their number are drawn to follow Odoacer back into Italy. The Langobards initially fill the vacuum this migration creates, until they themselves conquer much of Italy in 568, and then a new confederation, the Bavarii, forms in their place.


The Ostrogoths, settled in Pannonia and nominally Eastern Roman allies, are problematic at best. Their restlessness is creating increasing frustration in their management for Emperor Zeno. Working with their leader, Theodoric, to find a solution, the emperor invites him to invade Italy and overthrow the troublesome Odoacer. The Ostrogoths immediately win the Battle of Isonzo on 28 August 489, close to Aquileia, and Odoacer is forced to withdraw. A second battle is fought at Verona in the same year.

Theodoric coin
Shown here is an example of the coinage which was minted in Italy during the reign of Theodoric

490 - 493

A further battle is fought on the River Adda in 490, and in 493 Theodoric takes Ravenna. On 2 February the same year, Theodoric and Odoacer sign a treaty which divides Italy between them, but at a banquet to celebrate the terms, Theodoric murders Odoacer with his own hands.

Now unopposed, he is able to found a Romanised Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy based at the imperial capital of Ravenna. His accession is viewed by most Italians, Roman and Gothic, as a legitimate succession. The city of Rome is sidelined politically, but it becomes the centre of Roman Catholicism and eventually the Papal States.

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