They called him the ‘Little Emperor’. Romulus Augustus — better known as Romulus ‘Augustulus’ (‘Little Augustus’) — was the last Western Roman Emperor. He assumed the throne at the age of 16 during a period of unprecedented strife. There had been 8 emperors in the previous 20 years. Like his predecessors, the Little Emperor’s reign was short. It lasted less than a year. In 476 CE, Augustus was deposed and the Western Roman Empire came to an end.1
One wonders what Augustus said to his followers during his reign. As little more than a proxy for his military-general father, Augustus left no monuments and made no decisions. But what might he have said in private? Perhaps he promised to ‘make Rome great again’. …
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We are perennially fascinated with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Why? Likely because its collapse cast such a long shadow on Western Europe. Once the center of civilization, the Roman collapse sent Western Europe into a dark age. It would take a millennia to recover.
Interestingly, the Roman elite seemed to be the last to recognize the empire’s decline. True, during Augustus’ reign the elite probably knew that the empire was a shadow of its former self. But elites were too busy squabbling over power to care much for the long arc of history. In their eyes, a return to Roman ‘greatness’ was probably forever on the horizon.
Perhaps the best characterization of this elite attitude comes not from history, but from science fiction. In his Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov imagines a galactic empire that sits on the verge of collapse. Scientist Harry Seldon sees the writing on the wall. But the leaders of the galactic empire do not. They’re too busy squabbling amongst themselves.
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