Odoacer, the first barbarian King of Italy

The annals of history bear witness to the rise and fall of countless individuals, but only a few stand as prominently as Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain whose life and achievements have left an indelible mark on the Ancient World. He was a Germanic soldier and statesman who became the first barbarian king of Italy after overthrowing the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 AD.

In this article, we embark on yet another tour through history regarding Odoacer’s extraordinary journey, tracing his path from humble origins to the pinnacle of power as the conqueror of Rome in the late 5th century.


Early Life and Origins

Odoacer was born in 433 in Pannonia, an important Roman province at that time because it was located in the heart of Europe. For decades, this was the cultural hub of the empire due to its diverse and dynamic environment. The fifth century was marked as a tumultuous period for the Western Roman Empire, characterized by political instability, economic woes, and a series of external threats, and all those things were of vast importance to his origins.

He grew up witnessing the empire’s gradual disintegration and would have been exposed to the cultural mixture of Roman and Germanic influences that defined his life. The Western Roman Empire was deemed to fail, and the scientific analysis of Odoacer’s early life and origins seeks to unravel the intricate tapestry of his upbringing and illuminate the factors that propelled him from obscurity to the zenith of power in the Western Roman Empire.

Rise to Prominence

Military career and service

From an early age, Odoacer showed a natural aptitude for warfare, which led him to enlist in the Roman army. Within the structured confines of the Roman military, his exceptional skills became evident, and he rapidly ascended through the ranks. Odoacer’s early experiences in the Roman army exposed him to the rigors of military life, honing his physical prowess and instilling a deep understanding of Roman military tactics and strategies.

These formative years on the battlefield not only cultivated his combat skills but also forged the unwavering loyalty of those who served alongside him. As a result of his reputation as a skilled and resourceful warrior, Odoacer embarked on a path of mercenary service, where he lent his expertise to various Roman leaders.

These services led him to different regions of the Roman Empire, exposing him to a wide array of cultures, strategies, and battlefield challenges. Odoacer’s adaptability and capacity to thrive in these ever-changing environments contributed significantly to his development as a formidable military leader.

The Ravenna Posting

The pinnacle of Odoacer’s rise came when he was assigned to the strategically critical city of Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna served as the capital of the Western Roman Empire at the time and held immense political and military significance. As a trusted commander stationed in this pivotal city, our hero commanded not only with the loyalty of his troops but also with respect from the key figures within the Roman establishment. His leadership and ability to navigate the complex political landscape of the time solidified his influence. 

Odoacer, the first barbarian King of Italy
odoacer, the first barbarian king of italy 5

Conquest of Rome

At that time, Rome wasn’t even a mere shadow of what it used to be, and Odoacar was the one to finish it. Because his mercenary army didn’t receive pay, he led his troops to take control of the city. There are numerous reasons why Rome stopped being a powerhouse nation, and among many, the most important ones were political instability, economic crisis, barbarian threats, and there were no more great leaders.

That was when the opportunity appeared. In 476 AD, he deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, and decided to keep the throne for himself.

He wanted to take control and consolidate power for himself, believing he could provide more effective governance and stability. From his point of view, Odoacer’s decision to depose Romulus Augustulus can be understood as a strategic move to regain control and restore order in Italy. He didn’t want to destroy the empire but reorganize it under his rule.

Still, historians mark this event as the end of a long period of decline for the Western Roman Empire and the end of its sovereignty in Italy. Odoacer became the King of Italy.

Odoacer, the first barbarian King of Italy
Coin from Ravenna, Odoacer, year 477AD

Odoacer as the King of Italy

After removing Romulus Augustulus, Odoacer sought recognition from the Eastern Roman Emperor from Constantinople. Now officially “King of Italy,” Odoacer got legitimacy. 

Odoacer wanted to maintain the stability and functionality of governance. He allowed the Roman Senate to continue its activities, which granted him the support of many Roman citizens. He permitted freedom of worship for Christians and pagans without fear of persecution. Odoacer’s diplomatic efforts aimed to maintain peace and security within his realm. He was prepared for a long rule, but fate had other plans.


His first military campaigns went great when he conquered Dalmatia in 480 AD and most of that region, but soon, Odoacer entered the conflict that sealed his fate. Theodoric the Great, leader of the Ostrogoths, had long coveted control of Italy under Odoacer’s rule. Tensions lead to full conflict.

Theodoric’s ambition to seize Italy reached its zenith when he laid siege to Ravenna, the capital of Odoacer’s realm, in 489 AD. The siege dragged on for several years, causing considerable suffering and hardship for the inhabitants of Ravenna, so in 493 AD, a fragile truce was negotiated between Odoacer and Theodoric. Under the terms of this agreement, both leaders were to rule jointly, sharing power in Italy.

To commemorate the truce, Theodoric invited Odoacer to a banquet in Ravenna. This banquet was seemingly a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation between the two leaders. During the banquet, Theodoric suddenly turned on Odoacer and personally killed him, putting an end to their rivalry. The exact circumstances of the assassination vary in different historical accounts and some state that Theodoric used poison. 

Either way, with Odoacer’s death, Theodoric the Great assumed undisputed control of Italy. Theodoric’s rule became what Odoacer’s should have been.


Although he didn’t rule for a long time Odoacer was one of the first who established religious tolerance, something that many nations couldn’t do even a millennium and a half later. He was the man of the hour who saw the opportunity and decided to take it. By marking the end of the Empire that shaped the World today, Odoacer forever sealed his name in the history books. Not bad for someone Romans considered as a Barbarian.