Julius Nepos is often classified as the last official Roman Emperor in the West. He reigned from 474 to 480 but spent most of his time dodging daggers. Julius was a pedantic bore, the dry, unimaginative stick of an emperor who was unable to deal with a rival or persuade anyone of the justice of his cause. Julius Nepos was by all accounts a failure.
Julius Nepos grew up on a puppy farm in Dalmatia. In these inhumane times, this was a line of business that was considered quite normal. Whilst the rest of the Roman Empire in the West curled up and died, at least in Dalmatia they were proud and spotted to be the Sons of Caesar.
Julius's uncle was Marcellinus, a commander of the local Roman army and navy. Marcellinus declined to follow imperial orders after 461 with the murder of Emperor Majorian and instead cultivated strong links with the Eastern Empire. To the north of them was a collapsing Hun Empire which offered the chance of some juicy trinkets.
In 468 Marcellinus was persuaded to join in an attack on the Vandals in North Africa by the Western Roman emperor Anthemius. Marcellinus sailed to Sicily (then occupied by the Vandals) but got rubbed out by the Mafia. Julius inherited his uncle's position as Head Honcho in Dalmatia.
Marriage and a Package Tour Offer
Julius Nepos continued to support Anthemius until the latter was killed in 472. He declined to recognise either Olybrius and Glycerius when they were shoved onto the imperial seat by the German born commander Ricimer and his nephew Gundobad. Nepos instead cultivated links with Emperor Leo I in Constantinople and probably journeyed there in sometime around 473. It was there he was commissioned by Leo to be 'his man' in the West and also received a bride, a niece of Empress Verina. Her name is now lost but was probably something like 'Julia' or 'Virtuoso'.
With his orders in a saddle bag, Julius Nepos was given a small force from the Eastern Romans to invade Italy in 474. The struggle was oddly protracted. No one appears to have been keen to support Julius Nepos but then nor were any prepared to take a sword in the guts for Glycerius. His boss Gundobad bunked off out of Italy, leaving Glyercius (remember he was classified as an illegal emperor) to face Julius Nepos.
Julius Nepos showed unexpected mercy for Glycerius. He was obliged to hand over his imperial regalia to Julius Nepos and was posted to Salona (in Dalmatia) as Bishop of Salona. Nepos only trusted his Dalmatians to keep on eye on a deposed rival. Nepos was now emperor in name as well as title.
The Roman Empire in the West carried on shrinking. The last remains of Imperial Gaul were sacrificed for peace by Nepos. All other claims to Spain, North Africa and other lost provinces were abandoned by Nepos. It seems Nepos was by this time alone. Where his wife had died or left him is not known. More of a problem was that Nepos was regarded as a Greek tool and a skinflint. The Roman army in Italy hadn't been paid and were ready to rebel. This was they did in 475 and Julius Nepos ran back to Dalmatia like a kicked dog. In his place a kid called Romulus Augustulus became Roman Emperor under the direction of Romulus's father Orestes and uncle Pauley.
Exile and Hopes of a Return
Nepos was obliged to cool his sandals for at least a year. Thanks to turmoil in the Eastern Roman Empire, Julius Nepos lacked allies to restore him. In August 476 this changed when Romulus Augustulus's father was killed and he was obliged by the German born commander of the Roman army - a tough guy called Odoacer - to resign as emperor.
In the meantime Zeno had been restored as Roman Emperor in the East. Nepos was a tricky position as his support had come from Empress Verina. She was a mortal enemy of Zeno but was now in hiding. So when an embassy from Nepos arrived in Constantinople at the same time as one was there from Rome, Emperor Zeno had to choose two options. Since Romulus Augustulus had been a usurper, the true Western Emperor was Julius Nepos, something Zeno pointed out to the embassy from Rome. However Odoacer also wanted to run Italy on his own and offered to control Italy (and the other bits) as a 'Patrician' for Zeno.
Emperor Zeno came up with compromise. Julius Nepos was his imperial colleague but was also banned from going to Italy. He would have to stay in Dalmatia. Romulus Augustulus was pensioned off with extra pocket money whilst Odoacer ran the ancient home of the Roman Empire as his own business. It was a messy compromise.
For the next four years the stand-off between Odoacer, Julius Nepos and Zeno was allowed to stand. Nepos complained privately to Zeno for not intervening but the latter had more problems close to home. Odoacer was also keep to expand his territories but less keen to go up against the Visigoths or Vandals.
Julius Nepos eventually decided to make a comeback in 480. Calculating that Italy was fed up being controlled by a dirty German, he tried to make an appeal based on his own name. Julius Caesar had conquered Rome and remade it five centuries ago, Julius Nepos would do the same.
Perhaps because of distractions or forgetfulness, Nepos didn't notice his former rival Glycerius was finding allies to attack Nepos. Being a bishop didn't stop Glycerius and in around April 480, soldiers who were loyal only to themselves stabbed Nepos to death in his palace in Salona. Another general took over but Odoacer then invaded Dalmatia to 'avenge Julius Nepos'. He killed off Nepos's assassins and perhaps also took the opportunity to bump off Glycerius as well to tidy up any loose ends.
Julius Nepos's death in 480 marked the formal end of the separate Western Roman Empire. The fiction that what was left had 'reunited' with the Eastern Roman Empire was allowed to stand. Nepos was soon forgotten, not really an interesting person who had died at the hands of a couple of hired thugs. So like Julius Caesar, Julius Nepos was murdered but with less drama.