castel dell ovo

This imposing-looking fortress in the harbor of Naples, Italy is called the Castel dell’Ovo, has been a fortress, a monastery and a prison since Roman times. In addition to being very cool looking, it’s noteworthy as the place to which Romulus Augustus (also known as “Augustulus”), the last Western Roman Emperor, was exiled 1,537 years ago today, on September 4, 476 A.D.

The castle didn’t look like this at that time. It was much smaller, then called Lucullan Villa, and the high walls of the present structure date from the 15th century. But historical sources, although sketchy on what ultimately happened to Romulus Augustulus, do agree that he lived here after he gave up the throne. He may have died here, but we don’t know. He had only been Roman Emperor for a few months, and in fact was only 14 when he abdicated.

There are a lot of myths about the “fall” of Rome. While it is true that Odoacer, a leader of some Germanic tribe that had served as mercenaries to the Roman Empire, captured Ravenna and forced Romulus Augustulus to abdicate, it did not happen as a result of a climactic military “sack” of Rome, the Visigoths were only tangentially involved, and no one at the time really noticed what had happened. Historians of later years seized upon Romulus’s abdication as a significant event because there was, technically, no Western Emperor who followed him. (Odoacer didn’t put himself on the throne the way previous conquerors of Rome had). But there was an Eastern emperor–his name was Zeno (no, not the same one who invented the famous paradox)–and in fact the Eastern half of the Roman Empire continued on for another nearly 1,000 years. That’s the civilization that more modern historians have called Byzantium.

Is Romulus Augustulus buried here, at Castel dell’Ovo? We have no idea. It’s possible, but we’ll never know. He was a pretty forgettable figure at the time, and his grave has long ago been lost in the mists of history. Still, it’s cool that this fortress remains on the same site.

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