- (d. 491)Eastern Roman emperor (r. 474-491) whose reign witnessed the so-called fall of the Roman Empire in 476. His own reign demonstrates the flaw in the traditional argument about the "fall of Rome," and his continued interest in the affairs of Italy after 476 reveals the importance of the entire empire to the emperors in Constantinople. Zeno's reign was marked by the ambitions of a number of generals, both Roman and barbarian, who sought control of Italy. It was also marked by his own efforts to strengthen the position of the Eastern Empire in the face of the advance of various Germanic peoples, and the conclusion of a treaty with the Vandals that was the first of its kind for Rome and the barbarians.Since 395 the Roman Empire had been ruled by two emperors in two capitals, one in Constantinople and the other in one of several cities in Italy. In the 470s that situation continued, but it was threatened by the powerful and ambitious generals in Italy. In 475, Orestes, the highest ranking officer in the Western Empire, rose up against the emperor Julius Nepos, who fled into exile. Orestes made his son, Romulus Augustulus, emperor, but Zeno rejected this claim and continued to support Julius Nepos as his legitimate colleague in the west. The situation was complicated for Zeno in the following year when Orestes and Romulus Augustulus were overthrown by Odovacar, a German tribal leader who was serving in the Roman army, who led a revolt of German soldiers against the western emperor. Odovacar executed Orestes but merely deposed Romulus and allowed him to retire with his family. Odovacar also sent word of his actions to Zeno and requested that Zeno grant him the title Patricius (patrician) so that he could rule Italy legitimately. Zeno was told by Odovacar's representatives, who returned the imperial insignia to Zeno, that there should be only one emperor-Zeno-and that Odovacar would rule as his representative. But Zeno stood by his exiled colleague, Julius Nepos, and informed Odovacar that the legitimate authority in the Western Empire was Julius. Nevertheless, Zeno did confer the office of Patricius on Odovacar, and thus began a long period of uncertain relations between the two rulers. The situation was clarified somewhat by the murder of Julius Nepos in 480, but no formal treaty was ever signed by Zeno and Odovacar.While Odovacar ruled as the imperial representative in Italy, Zeno faced another powerful and ambitious barbarian general, Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths. Indeed, Zeno was particularly in Theodoric's debt because the Goth rescued the emperor at a critical period in his reign. In 475, the Gothic commander, Theodoric Strabo, forced Zeno from the throne, and with the aid of Theodoric the Great Zeno was able to seize back the imperial throne. Theodoric was richly rewarded for his efforts and promoted in the ranks of the Roman military. But Theodoric also used his position to improve the position of his Gothic peoples and threatened the stability of Zeno's control of the Eastern Empire in the mid-480s. Zeno's resources as emperor, however, turned out to be too great for Theodoric to overwhelm, even though his rebellion was quite serious. Instead, Zeno offered Theodoric the opportunity to march against Odovacar in Italy as the emperor's representative in Italy. Zeno intended to ease the pressures in his own part of the empire and use Theodoric to correct the uncertain situation in Italy. Although the exact nature of the political establishment Theodoric was to create and the relations of Italy and Constantinople that were to follow remain unclear, it is certain that Zeno intended to use Theodoric to end Odovacar's reign in Italy. In fact Theodoric claimed the title of king once he had established himself in Italy, but the murder of Odovacar and the creation of a new Gothic kingdom in Italy took place after Zeno's death. The emperor was, however, responsible for guiding the empire through uncertain times and establishing new and innovative relations with various barbarian peoples.See alsoBibliography♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.♦ ---. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.♦ Lot, Ferdinand. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginning of the Middle Ages. 1931. Reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1961.♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a.d. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.