Here's an excerpt from a textbook I've written for one of my classes:
This brings us at last to a discussion of the traditional end of the Roman empire in 476. As mentioned so many pages ago, the traditional story is that the German warlord Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and sent the trappings of empire back to Constantinople. Well, Odoacer did that. But that’s not the whole story.
The death of Ricimer introduced a quick period of many quick Western emperors and really no one strong enough to take control, either as a leader of armies or of the government apparatus. Eventually, a man named Orestes became leader of Rome’s armies. Little is really known of his background. It is believed that he was part Roman, part Germanic. It is known that he served as a secretary for Attila and was sent twice to Constantinople on Attila’s behalf. After the death of Attila and the breakup of the Hunnic federation, Orestes returned to the empire and over the years rose up the ranks until he was appointed head of the armies by the Western Emperor early in 475. It only took Orestes a few months to take over the government; the emperor fled. Orestes was ineligible by birth to become emperor. So he appointed his 12 year old son to the throne, Romulus. Orestes had married well. The point, however, is that Orestes was in no position to appoint an emperor. Thus, by Roman law, Romulus was not an emperor. And though he had fled from Orestes, there was a living emperor legally installed still living in exile. So what I am saying here is that the first problem is that Romulus was not a Roman emperor, giving the lie to the traditional 476 tale. But while the Eastern Empire pointed out this fact, they could not do anything about it since there were two men vying for the Eastern throne on the battlefield, and neither wanted to spare the troops or time from their civil war to put down Orestes.
Enter Odoacer. Odoacer is another barbarian military leader who rose through the ranks to top of the Roman ladder. His ethnicity has been much debated over the years and is far from certain. What is clear is that the Romans did not consider him to be Roman. Not much is known about him before 470. When Orestes became leader of the Roman forces, Odoacer became leader of the German allied forces in Italy. To these forces Orestes had promised land as well as money. This was not merely a bribe. The catastrophe in the late 460s of the failed mission against the Vandals bankrupted the Western Empire, as mentioned. This resulted in an inability to pay or feed the troops for long periods of time. Orestes’ promise of land meant that soldiers could settle their families on land, farm it, feed themselves and their children regardless of the state of the treasury. The German troops did support Orestes. They were disappointed. Orestes reneged on the deal. He minted money, causing inflation, had no food stores to distribute, and did not anger the Roman senatorial class from whom those promised lands would be taken.
Needless to say, hungry, cheated, and angry Germanic soldiers are not the sort of neighbor one wants. They elected Odaocer their king, and marched on Orestes. To make a long story short, they won. Orestes was killed; Odaocer deposed the young Romulus and sent him home to his family. He then sent to the Emperor of the East with a simple message: the West did not need a second emperor. There was only one emperor, he was in the East, and Odoacer served him and him alone. And that last important detail is what is too often overlooked in the traditional tale of 476. Odoacer deposed an illegal ruler and swore allegiance to the empire. As we will see in chapter three, he did a great deal to stabilize and uphold the Empire over the next two decades. The significant change from our point of view is that Italy, the last real stronghold of Roman power in the West, was now ruled by a German supporting the Eastern Roman Empire.
It must be made clear that from the point of view of the average person in the late fifth century, the change here meant practically nothing. After nearly twenty years of instability, the promise of a longer ruler who at least was pledged to Rome rather than his own power was something of a relief. Other than that, day to day life remained the same. To the Romans, this event was rather insignificant. And it should be for us as well."
Odoacer asked the eastern emperor to have no more intermediaries between West and East, they needed only one emperor, the one in Byzantium. Though he styled himself as "king of Italy", in large part because his men so declared him, it was clear that Odoacer considered himself a Roman acting in Rome's interests. The Roman Senate supported him throughout his reign; he convinced Gaiseric the Vandal king to cede Sicily to him making the Mediterranean passage once again safe for Roman shipping. When the retainers of Julius Nepos murdered him, Odoacer took it upon himself to pursue them, try, and execute the murderers of a Roman emperor....of course extending his reach into Dalmatia in the process. Odoacer made treaties with the other Roman and Germanic leaders in the West. In the East, Odoacer and the Emperor Zeno had a difficult relationship. Odoacer, though quite eager to avenge the death of Julius Nepos, refused to recognize Nepos as Western Emperor, a point in direct violation of Zeno's commands. Later, a rival of Zeno's asked Odoacer for help which Odoacer gave attacking Zeno's forces. Zeno responded by getting a tribe called the Rugians to attack Odoacer's territory. Odoacer was swift, defeated the Rugians, and then sent the spoils and booty to Zeno There were other successes on behalf of the empire as a whole, enough that Zeno became concerned that he had another rival for the throne in the making. Zeno turned to his childhood friend now leader of the Goths, Theodoric, and sent him off to Italy to deal with Odoacer.
In other words, the events to which Gibbon pointed in 476 as the "fall" of the Roman Empire, the last Roman born emperor being deposed is false. In theory, the Western Empire served the emperor in the East: each of the subsequent kingdoms save the Vandals in North Africa was in some way recognized by the East in an official capacity as "Roman", like Odoacer and his title as Roman Patrician. In reality, the Roman empire in the West over the course of the fifth century had politically transformed: the provinces in Britannia had been abandoned, large sections of Gaul and Hispania had been ceded to Germanic tribes as reward for services rendered. The problem with the latter policy is that this means taxes from those ceded areas would no longer flow into the central govt's coffers but instead stayed local. But this was new: this practice of client kings and ceding territory was Roman policy from the Republican expansion period all the way through the empire. While this practice was usually done at the edges of the empire, the Romans simply continued their own policies. I'll return to these notions later.
Returning to Odoacer, J. J. O'Donnell in a recent book assessed Odoacer as too Roman, too traditional and simply not Germanic enough for his followers to succeed in the long run. Rather than ending the rule of Rome in the West, Odoacer continued it, protected it, and tried to extend it through both military and diplomatic means. So if Rome "fell" it was not because of Odoacer replacing Romulus Augustulus who was never a valid emperor anyway.
In fact, one can certainly detect a certain kind of racism and classism in Gibbon's take and in those who still take their cues from him. Their concern that Romulus Augustulus was the last "Roman born" emperor in the West shows a concern that had little to no meaning in the late Roman Empire: race. Certainly such questions mattered to the elite who were interested in maintaining power within their families: but one could be of a different race and marry into these families and be accepted. Being an Arian was of more concern than being German. In any case Odoacer was born in the empire, was a Roman citizen, married a Roman citizen, and like Diocletian, emperor in the late third century, worked his way through the ranks to become the head of the Roman government in the West. Rather than being a usurper and a Germanic king, he was a Roman Patrician whose career and whose rule was too Roman for the times.
That part of the myth taken care, next post we'll look some other arguments regarding the political "fall" of the empire.