Thursday, June 24, 2021

Who was the last Roman Emperor?

Yesterday's post about Roman numbers didn't quite scratch my Pedantic itch, so here's another.  One of the really interesting things about history is that there are multiple answers to most questions, even questions that seemingly are straight forward.  I mean, the Roman Empire existed, and was ruled by an Emperor.  At some point, the Empire no longer existed and so there must have been a last Emperor, right?

Simple.  Except maybe not so much.  Let's look at things.

Romulus Augustulus.  The traditional date for the fall of the Roman Empire is 476 AD when the barbarian chief Odoacer deposed the boy Emperor Romulus Agustulus (the "Little Augustus").  That's his face on the coin here.  Romulus seems to have been pensioned off to an estate in Campania (south of Rome) where he lived out the rest of his days in peaceful obscurity.  Compared to the violent end that most Emperors had met for the better part of a century, we can imagine his gratitude at his good fortune.

But things are never as simple as this.  Romulus' dad was the general Orestes, who had chased off the previous Emperor, Julius Nepos.

Julius Nepos.  Nepos is typically listed as the penultimate Emperor, being deposed in 474 AD.  But he fled to the Adriatic coast of what is now Croatia, where he lived on, plotting his return to power.  This was inconvenient to Odoacer (to say the least), and so Nepos was assassinated in 480 AD, ending the line of Roman Emperors.

Or did it?  Odoacer packaged up the Imperial Regalia (crown, robes, etc) and sent it to the Emperor Zeno in Constantinople along with a note saying basically that the West didn't need a new Emperor and that Odoacer would govern the West in Zeno's name.

I hear some of you muttering about what the heck "Emperor Zeno" was.  Well, he was a Roman Emperor.  You see, after the death of Emperor Theodosius the Great in 395 AD, the Empire was divided in two.  One part was the western provinces that we just saw fall to barbarians, but the eastern half kept on as a going concern.  In fact, it kept on going for another thousand years until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.  This is a lot better argument for the real last Roman Emperor.

Constantine XI.  There really wasn't much left of the Roman Empire by the 1400s.  While the Romans were famous for their ability to take a punch, they had taken a lot of punches in the 1000 years since Romulus Augustulus.  Constantinople was the best fortified city in the world but the times were changing.  The Turks had cannon which were new, and among these cannon was the biggest ever constructed up until that date.  The cannon battered the famous Theodosian Walls of the city until big gaps were punched in them, and then a massive Ottoman army swept the few defenders - including Constantine - away.  This was essentially the end of the Empire, as the Ottomans replaced Roman law with their own law codes, and Roman social structures with their own.

If you really pinned me down, I'd say that Constantine XI was the last person who was indisputably Roman Emperor.  But there is an Honorable Mention category for the Eastern Roman Empire, just like Julius Nepos gets honorable mention for the west.

David Komnenos, Emperor of Trebizond.  When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, little slivers of the Roman Empire still remained free.  The one of these that lasted the longest was the Empire of Trebizond (a city on the southern coast of the Black Sea).  This was ruled by David Komnenos, a descendent of the Komnenos family who had been Emperors 300 years previously.

But there was no standing up to the Ottomans, or their cannons.  Trebizond fell in 1461 AD, and David got pensioned off (like Romulus Augustulus) to an estate in Adrinople.  Unlike Romulus, he didn't end his days in peaceful obscurity, but was rather executed for a plot against the Ottoman Sultan in 1463.  And so passed the line of Roman Emperors for good.

Err, or not.

Andreas Palaiologos.  One of those slivers of the Empire that briefly survived the fall of Constantinople was the Despotate of Morea in Greece.  It was ruled by the nephew of Constantine XI until it was swallowed by the Ottoman Empire in 1460 AD.  The son of its ruled (and the grand-nephew of Constantine XI) was Andreas Palaiologos, who fled to Italy.  He styled himself the "Emperor of Constantinople" by blood descent - although of course he had no Roman lands and more or less bummed a living from the Great and the Good of Italy.  He ended up selling his rights to the Roman throne to French King Charles VIII in 1494 which ends our story with a whimper rather than with a bang.

But we're still not (quite) done, although by now we're well into the obscure.

When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, he took not just the Roman lands but the Roman title as well.  He styled himself not just Sultan, but also Kayser-i Rûm (Caesar of the Romans).  The Ottoman Empire was a true empire; rather than a nation-state of a single people like we are used to today, it was an empire of many peoples ruled over by a Sultan.  The Ottomans had a Millet system where individual subject peoples were allowed their own court system (limited self rule for day to day activities).  Their former Roman subjects were part of the Millet-i Rûm (Roman Millet) and the Sultan was the Caesar that ruled over the.  Looked at this way, the Ottoman Sultans were the Roman Emperors, by right of conquest.  

This is actually not as dumb as it sounds.  The Romans had changes of location, language, and religion before.  The old Italian Emperors who spoke Latin and who worshiped Jupiter, Greatest and Best gave way to eastern Emperors who spoke Greek and worshiped Kristos Pantokrator under the Orthodox Rite.  A Turkish speaking Emperor who worships Allah isn't really much different.  Which would lead us to the last Roman Emperor.

Mehmed VI.  This is a photograph of a Roman Emperor (well, at least under this pretty obscure view).  Mehmet VI was the last Ottoman Sultan who ruled until 1922 - only 99 years ago.  He was deposed by Ataturk and lived out his days on the Italian Riviera, dying in 1926; maybe this fate wasn't so different from little Romulus Augustulus.  He did have a son who outlived him (Şehzade Mehmed Ertuğrul, who died in 1944, but nobody seems to have considered him a pretender to the throne, so we can just wrap this up here.

I'm pretty fascinated at the idea of the Roman Empire lasting in one form or another all the way to the 20th Century.  Certainly some of the inhabitants of land that was annexed into the Greek Kingdom in the first decade of the 20th Century considered themselves not Greek, but Roman i.e. subjects of the Millet-i Rûm.  That would make Rome a going concern for around 2500 years.

Yeah, they could take a punch.

UPDATE 25 June 2021 10:24:  Toirdhealbheach Beucail leaves a comment pointing to the Principality of Theodoro in the Crimea which held on until 1475 AD.  This would make its Prince Alexander the claimant for last Emperor, rather than David Komnenos.


Old NFO said...

Interesting take on it, and as believable as anything else out there...

Pachydermis2 said...

Some of the Gothic kings who ruled in Italy after the Western Empire fell kept up 99% of the Imperial traditions. To be polite they called themselves kings, or Rex on the coinage. Life under them was probably better than in the twilight of the Emperors. But things got ugly when the Eastern Empire managed one last true revival and sent Belisarius to reconquer the Eternal City.


ambisinistral said...

It's a real stretch to say the Ottoman Empire was an extension of Byzantium -- that's like saying Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón, the current President of Spain, is also the Emperor of the Aztecs. :)

GregMan said...

I have always drawn the distinction between the Eastern Roman Empire (Constantinople) and the Western Roma Empire (Rome), so I would vote for Romulus Augustulus. Julius Nepos could have plotted all he wanted but he wasn't Emperor any more after he got booted out in 474.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Borepatch, I will see your obscure principality and raise you one: The Principality of Theodoro, a Byzantine Rump state in the Crimean Principality. The last prince, Alexander, was defeated and province brought into the Ottoman Empire in 1475, a full 24 years after the fall of Constantinople.

Aesop said...

When you don't rule Rome, you ain't the Roman Emperor. One may have noticed that English Kings no longer include the title "...of France" in their pedigree either. Same idea.

And Emperor of What's Left Over isn't nearly as catchy.

The fact that half the former empire, just like chickens, was able to strut around without a head for some time doesn't undo the salient point: no Rome, no Roman Emperor.

No sale.

But the history is always interesting.

libertyman said...

All this time I thought it was Biggus Dickus. I saw that in a documentary somewhere, I think.

Beans said...

Then there's the lines of Holy Roman Emperors that lasted in Western Europe for centuries, and who have a better claim on the Holy Roman empire than some trumped up semi-Kurdish Ottoman.

Richard said...

As Voltaire said, the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy, Roman or an Empire. So I vote for Constantine XI.

But if you really want to get down in the weeds, the Tsars always claimed to be the 3rd Rome and had some dynastic claims. So under that theory, the last would have been Nickolas II. One wonders if Putin might have some aspirations there too.

Pachydermis2 said...

Actually it did not take that much to become a genuine Roman Emperor. A bunch of troops to all yell "Ave! Ave!", a purple cloak, the ability to mint some dubious coins and to survive when the guy who came to power the same way last year marched against you.

This of course speaks to the later, chaotic Empire and is just what The Founding Persons were worried about when they drafted, uh, That Thing....

I guess nowadays you would not even have to crank out that debased coinage. Stimulus checks drawn on your grandchildren's future are easier to generate.

Otherwise not that much has changed...