Hollywood has just released its own version of the story of Romulus, The Last Legion, so perhaps it is best to begin with a discussion of The Last Roman.
Barely pubescent, Romulus ruled for only ten months as a mouthpiece for his father, a power-brokering general in the Roman army. The child-emperor, easily removed by a barbarian warlord, is an apt image of the empire at its end. Even his nickname—Augustulus, “little Augustus”—suggests the puniness of fifth-century Rome compared to its first-century glory.
Murdoch traces Romulus’s movements through the rest of his probably long life. The former emperor seems to have retired to a monastery well stocked with books, ending his life as “an old man in a library in Campania, corresponding with leading intellectuals of the day, his early life and elevation to power becoming an increasingly indistinct memory.”
Since so little is known about Romulus, Murdoch must sketch his life in chiaroscuro, finding the boy’s life, and then the man’s, in the shadows of the barbarian conquerors Odovacer and Theoderic. And the shadows are dark indeed. Against recent historians who argue that the transition from Roman to barbarian rule went fairly smoothly for common folk, Murdoch counters that it was close to catastrophic, beginning with pillage and ending in lawlessness.
Murdoch is at his best when describing battles, raids, campaigns, and diplomatic missions. Religion he declares beyond the scope of his study, though he does touch lightly on the differences between the Arian barbarians and the Catholic Romans, and how these played out in the decades after the fall. Along the way he tells the tragic story of Boethius, the most famous victim of Theoderic’s growing suspicion of Nicene Christians.
All the ancient voices in this book sound human, a rare quality attributable to Murdoch’s ease with ancient languages and his ability to turn a phrase in English. He manages even to replicate wordplay: “Cattily, the poet Martial wrote that women would arrive in the region as a Penelope, the famously chaste wife of Odysseus, and leave a Helen, the much chased wife of Menelaus.”
The full review here.