The ‘Donation of Odoacer’ Part II: Documenting the Donation

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vs_optWe saw last time that the career of Pierius must have been significant enough before his appearance in the historical record for Odoacer to promote him to his chief bodyguard, comes domesticorum. The wars of Odoacer’s reign – against the Vandals, Dalmatians, Rugians and Goths will also have provided Pierius with further opportunity to give sufficient service for the rex Italiae to feel that he warranted reward in the shape of significant lands in his kingdom.

The specific ‘Donation of Odoacer’ was written on papyrus shortly after the grant was made on 18 March 489 and despite its survival, it has not come through the intervening 15 centuries unscathed. The opening section is missing and the document has been divided into two parts. There is virtually no light to be shone on the first millennium of the document’s existence, but one could imagine it gathering dust in the archives of Ravenna or Syracuse, before the rejuvenation of interest in antiquity during the Renaissance.

Francesco Scipione

Francesco Scipione, the 17th/18th century marchese of Maffei and antiquarian, suggested that the document was previously owned by Giovanni Pontano, a leading 15th century Italian humanist and poet. By this point, the introductory section of the document had been lost, and it may also have already been divided into two pieces. During the 1660s, the latter part of the document was in the possession of Cardinal Pasquale de Aragon during the 1660s, only for the two halves to be reunited in the library of the Monastery of St. Paul in Naples in 1702. In 1718, the second part was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, through whom the fragment found its way to the Imperial Court Library in Vienna, which is now the Austrian National Library. The first part resides in the collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples. Despite these repeated movements, the division into two parts and the missing introduction, the bulk of text has survived.


The background to the document is a promise made by Odoacer to Pierius of land with an income to the value of 690 solidi. At some point before 18 March 489, the rex Italiae had made good on a substantial portion of this promise. The comes domesticorum had already received estates with an annual income of 650 solidi – the collection of fundi farms/estates called the massa Pyramitana near Syracuse in Sicily, which was worth 430 solidi per annum, and the Dalmatian island of Melita, modern Mlijet in Croatia, worth 200 solidi per annum.

It has been suggested that the massa Pyramitana took its name from and was therefore quite close to the offshore island-turned-promontory of Thapsus to the north of Syracuse. There was seemingly a pyramid at Thapsus right up until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1542 (Marini (1805), nos.82-83), which could have given its name to this massa. That said, the name could reflect that of a previous owner (Jones (1964), 786, who also gives a brief look at the meaning of massa and fundus, highlights that while several fundi could be grouped together to form a massa, “massae were not necessarily continuous blocks of land, but rather a group of fundi under one management”).

Charles VI

The papyrus document comprising the ‘Donation of Odoacer’ is actually the rex Italiae completing his promise by giving his ‘vir inlustris ac magnificus‘ slightly more than the outstanding 40 solidi per annum in lands adjoining the massa Pyramitana – the fundus Aemilianus (18 solidi p.a.), a portion of the fundus Dubli (15¾ solidi p.a.) and part of the fundus Putaxiae (7 solidi p.a.), for a total of 40¾ solidi and an overall total of 690¾ solidi per annum.

The text itself, in the hands of the notarius Marcian and the magister officiorum Andromachus (or members of their staff), combines the dry legalese of the Late Roman bureaucracy with the pomp and ceremony of the Christianised Roman world, even at a time when the Western Roman Empire was no more.

This combination provides a document where “the writing is cursive, of a bold and flowing character, without any spaces between the words, and quite undecipherable except by an expert” (Hodgkin (1885), III.165).

While spawned at the ‘royal/imperial’ court of Odoacer at Ravenna and being a direct donation to an underling, Odoacer himself did not sign the document, leaving Marcian and Andromachus to witness the donation. Could this be because the barbarian rex Italiae could not write?

Imperial Court Library, Vienna

With the document generated at Odoacer’s court, the matter was then placed in the hands of the actores or agents of Pierius (these may have been freedmen of Pierius as they refer to him as their patronus). These actores presented the deed of donation to officials at Ravenna, who obtained from Marcian confirmation that he and Andromachus, who had departed for Rome, had witnessed the grant by Odoacer to Pierius.

With this authentication, the matter then moved to the courts of Syracuse, the city in whose jurisdiction Pierius’ new lands came under. Gregory the chartarius and Amantius the decemprimus were dispatched from Syracuse with Pierius’ actores to the estates, where they interacted with the tenants and slaves attached to the lands (although a flaw in the document means that we are not sure what is said or done to them – were they merely being informed of the identity of their new master?). The actores are then given a tour of the estates, before returning to Syracuse where they take formal control of these new lands on behalf of their patron. They express his willingness to take on the fiscal responsibilities that came with the land and arrange for Pierius’ name to replace that of the former owner on the public register. Once this is done, Amantius added his signature to the document and the ‘Donation of Odoacer’ to Pierius was complete. The comes domesiticorum now had full rights to dispense with the lands as he saw fit and leave them to his descendents.

No one could have known that this legal right of inheritance would be activated within 17  months of the ‘Donation of Odoacer,’ as Pierius was killed at Adda River (Anon Val XI.53; Auct. Prosp. Haun. s.a. 491)

“The length of the documents relating to so small a property, the particularity of the recitals, the exactness with which the performance of every formality is described, the care with which the various gradations in the official hierarchy are marked, the reverence which is professed for the mandate of Odovacar, all show us that we are still in presence of the unbroken and yet working machinery of the Roman law: though the hand, not of a Roman citizen, born on the Mediterranean shores, but of a full-blooded barbarian from the Danube, is that which must, at the last resort, control its movements” (Hodgkin (1896), III.154)

Biblioteca Nazionale, Naples

Odoacer’s choice of lands to reward Pierius may not be entirely random. We may be seeing the rex Italiae playing political games of loyalty and defence with various individuals and groups within his realm. Perhaps Odoacer was attempting to give Pierius a direct personal stake in the defence of certain regions of the Italian kingdom. Sicily and Dalmatia had only recently been taken over by Odoacer and were still threatened by neighbouring powers – the war of 491 shows that the Vandals had not given up on Sicily, while Dalmatia was claimed by Constantinople, likely raided by barbarians and by 488 in the firing line of Theoderic the Amal. Could it even be that Pierius had some pre-existing connection to either Sicily or Dalmatia, making him even more likely to fight to protect these lands?

As the Goths wintered on his eastern frontier, Odoacer was forewarned about Theoderic’s arrival and he may have done more with that forewarning than just prepare his main army to intercept the Goths at Isontius. He may have attempted to make sure that Theoderic could only enter Italy by the land route. It was suggested that Theoderic initially aimed to cross the Adriatic, only to be unable to find sufficient boats to ferry his forces to Italy (Procopius BG I.1.13). Could it be that Odoacer succeeded in maintaining control of whatever Adriatic fleet resided in Dalmatia through grants of land such as the island of Melita to Pierius?

That the grants to Pierius did not contain any land in Italy itself might hint at another of Odoacer’s political concerns – the backing of the Italian upper classes. Their unwillingness to pay their share in cash, materiel and manpower had been a significant problem in the final decades of western imperial rule. And once the imperial balancing act between the Italian aristocracy and barbarian troops became impossible, the western empire fell apart.

However, while Odoacer initially was able to force aristocratic quiescence to his taking of land for his followers through the strength of his Italian field army (Procopius, BG V.1.8), in the face of Theoderic’s impending invasion, Odoacer could not risk upsetting the Italian aristocracy by taking more of their land. Perhaps this is part of the reason why when he felt the need to reward Pierius, he gave him land in Sicily and Dalmatia.

Is there any potential evidence for any such policies of ensuring loyalty from his underlings actually working? Pierius himself did give his life in service to Odoacer, while even in the face of certain defeat following the Battle of Adda River, many of his men stayed loyal to the rex Italiae during the blockade of Ravenna. Sicily did stay loyal throughout Theoderic’s invasion, including after the Vandal attack in 491, while Dalmatia failed to provide Theoderic with sufficient ships to cross the Adriatic in 488. The Adriatic shipping lanes became increasingly important as the war with Theoderic dragged on. It was not until Theoderic gained control of the fleet at Arminium, modern Rimini, on 29 August 492, that he was able to put adequate pressure on Odoacer’s position in Ravenna to bring the war and ultimately Odoacer’s reign to an end.

The ‘Donation of Odoacer’ is not only an important document as the earliest original text of a ruler of Italy, it also provides an intriguing window into the still heavily Romanised kingdom of a potentially illiterate barbarian. Over a decade since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the imperial hierarchies and bureaucracy continued to exist – positions and titles like ‘vir inlustris ac magnificus‘, notarius, magister officiorum are all mentioned while Odoacer is shown using the legal framework of the empire he overthrew, with the land grant to Pierius carried out through proper legal channels in Ravenna and Syracuse.

However, this ‘Donation’ provides just enough information to raise many largely unanswerable questions about its background on the eve of a major conflict between two barbarian powers for control of Italy. The gaps in the historical record leave us with mostly mere speculation about Pierius’ career, his origins, and potential connections to Odoacer, the last western emperors and the regions in which he was given land.

[The ‘Donation of Odoacer’ may provide the first original document from a ruler of Italy, but there is a document preserved in Egypt which contains the handwriting of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (408-450) –


P. Ital. 10-11 = FIR III², n.99

Clover, F.M. ‘A Game of Bluff: The Fate of Sicily after A.D. 476’, Historia 48 (1999), 235-244

Crawford, P.T. The Emperor Zeno: The Perils of Fifth Century Power Politics in Constantinople. Barnsley (2019)

Heather, P. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History. London (2006)

Hodgkin, T. Italy and her Invaders Vol III: The Ostrogothic Invasion. Oxford (1885)

Tjäder, J.-O. Die Nichtliterarischen Lateinischen Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit. Lund (1955), vol. 1 pp. 279–293

Jones, A.H.M.  Later Roman Empire 284-602. Oxford (1964)

Marini, G. Papiri Diplomatici. Rome (1805) Nos. 82-83

Spangenberg, E. Juris Romani Tabulae Negotiorum Solemnium. Leipzig (1822)

Stickler, T.  ‘The Foederati’ in  Erdkamp, P. (ed.)  A Companion to the Roman Army. Oxford (2007) 495-513

Whittaker, C.R. Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study. London (1994)

Wolfram, H. History of the Goths. Berkeley (1990)

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