Legend of the Lost

I adored classical Rome. I studied it out of passion. I studied it formally. I love the architecture. The legend. The Technicolor grandeur. The armour, the dignity, the Senate, the pomp. I wanted it reborn.

My Italian heritage came from Lombardy and Liguria. But that had nothing to do with my desires to imagine the glories reborn. Although heritage doesn’t mean much when young, I nevertheless got a twinge of chagrin, or perhaps fatalistic irony,  when I recalled that I was undeniably descended of the barbarian chiefs who eventually overran the empire in the West. I may have Romans in my past. Maybe not. It is unquestionable, however, that my Italian ancestors were Germans.

Perhaps my fascination with ancient Rome is quite due to my Lombard background. It seems to have been a German thing. Fascinated and educated by The Roman Way, in concept the Germans had always been in a position to maintain it. Even during the last 100 years of the empire in the West, German generals were a major power behind Caesar. When it was clear the fragmented empire could still fit back together, Germans tried to glue it.

Thus was born The Holy Roman Empire. It was and it was not the Roman Empire. It was the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” It was kind of like NATO. An agreement between the German clans who had now occupied the old empire– the Franks in France, the Visigoths in Spain, the Lombards and Burgundians in Italy, the Allemanni and Suebian north of Switzerland, the Ostrogoth in Italy and Austria. The illusions gave Germans more control, more a sense of unity, more of a common defense against the Eastern Roman Emperor.

Frederick Barbarossa  gave my ancestor Ingo Della Volta, son of Conrad,  the name Cattaneo– “captain of the empire.” Not only this, they remained rather grand folk and remained German. Since recorded history they married into other German families of the Holy Roman Empire.

Through Cattaneo della Volta’s marriages with other Genovese notables comes the House of Candia. It is said that this is derived from Candiaco and in turn from Gundioc, King of the Burgundians. Through ancient marriages, it is said we descend of Theodosius the Great. That’s nice. But it seems far more certain that Alaric is back there somewhere, the Visigoth king who dared sack Rome for the first time in 410 AD and set the city in an irretrievable downward spiral until the Renaissance 1,000 years later.

Every family has its black sheep.


The burial of Alaric with the spoils of Rome.

By the end of the 5th century the Ostrogoth were settling in. Theodoric was their king. In 476 AD the Senate presented to him the Imperial insignia, implicitly allowing him to be the first German Emperor Caesar of the West. German Generals had sought it before, especially Flavius Ricimer. But it was still too controversial even 30 years before. To the surprise of everybody, Theodoric declined. He wasn’t going to play the game of maintaining the fictional power of Rome and Caesar.  He proclaimed himself King of Italy. The Senate informed Zeno at Constantinople that he was now sole emperor. Zeno could do nothing. He was strapped.

The Germans were fascinated by the sedentary order and grandeur that was Rome, and loved the weather and fruits of Italy even more.  When Belisarius drove the Goths out after a 100 years of occupation, the Italian peninsula was still not secure. The Burgundians refused to budge in Savoy and a precarious truce followed. Plagues came and weakened Belisarius’ re-conquest in the 6th century and my direct ancestors, the Langobards, poured in.  The Goths said “Yeah, team!” and turned around and came back in. The common Italian name Gotti still recalls how many settled in. The Lombards refused to leave and continued to conquer, settling in and giving their name to Lombardy, their power centered in Mediolanum, today’s Milano.

Wars and skirmishes followed for centuries. Constantinople could only hold on to a corridor in Italy from Ravenna in the north to Rome, thus preserving precariously a fragment of the Roman Empire in the West where it had all begun. Technically, Rome still was under the authority of Caesar at Constantinople.  Locally, however, the Pope basically ran everything. Yet he couldn’t even get a public building turned over to him without permission. In 608 AD Emperor Phocus allowed the Pope to have the Pantheon for a church. The Pope raised a column in his honor in the dilapidated forum, once the center of Rome. In 667 I believe the last emperor from Constantinople visited Rome. It was the last time an unbroken line of Caesars would visit the ancient capitol of a now-fragmented empire and culture.

Because it was turned into a church in 608 AD, the Pantheon remains the most intact ancient Roman temple. The inscription reads: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, built this in his third consulate.”


Slow but sure the concept of the Roman Empire was reborn in the West. First with Charlemagne (800 AD), then later with more German kings from the north. Frederick  II (circa 1220) was particularly fond of the idea and ordered artists to make busts of him in the image of Caesar Augustus. In a time of medieval crusades and uninspired and rigid medieval art a German king suddenly appeared quite classical.

Frederick, left, compared to a classical bust of Augustus Caesar.

Politically the Holy Roman Empire was an advantage in the West, but it also kept the old idea of common civil wars between East and West as a means of solving issues. For instance, when Charlemagne was made Emperor of Rome, the Eastern Roman Emperor refused to accept it. He said Charlemagne could be an emperor but not of Rome. He entrenched and prepared for civil war, thinking Charlemagne would naturally attack him to become sole emperor. There was no such ability in the fragmented West.

There were reasons for the East to be shocked by Charlemagne’s coronation. It completely removed Constantinople’s nominal hold on the corridor from Ravenna to Rome. The coronation told Constantinople to bug off. Then the Pope finally told any emperor to bug off by producing a document saying, conveniently, he’s in charge. Thus was born the Papal States. Caesar at Constantinople lost everything remaining in Italy. When Charlemagne’s empire faded away, Constantinople was largely out of the picture and so were emperors. The Pope was in charge. So they thought.

Strife came and went in Italy for centuries. The Commune of Rome chased Pope Eugene III out.  Thereafter the popes would recognize German kings as emperor so long as they kept the East off their back and the Romans in order. Arian IV rigged Frederick I Barbarossa as emperor so long as Frederick could keep him in Rome. Barbarossa, delighted to be emperor, obliged but sadly had to massacre 1,000 Romans at his coronation for rioting.

In all this squabbling, Rome and Italy were reduced to lawless ruins. Moreover,  there was never a chance to find what happened to all the treasure Alaric took with him from Rome hundreds of years before. It vanished with him in the south of Italy in 410 AD.

When he died months after the sack of Rome, near Cosentia, the Gothic warriors faithfully buried their chief in a deep, elaborate tomb with the most precious of the spoils. They dammed up the Busento River, it is said. Here under the river bed they buried him. They then let the dam break the river flow over the spot again. Pretty clever way to seal a tomb . . . and even more so all the treasures with him. It is perhaps the richest burial in history.

What was buried? Imagine all the grandeur that was Rome. It is, in fact, not imaginable. But a few things have been suggested from ancient times. The breastplate, greaves and helmet of Alexander the Great. Caligula had them rooped from Alexandria so he could wear them in a horse race across the countryside while he was Caesar. Many more fabulous splendors must have been buried.  One in particular you have heard about.


Cosentia, modern Cosenza, overlooking the Busento, near the confluence of the Crathis River.

The menorah, table of showbread, and the other golden instruments of the Temple at Jerusalem were taken as prize by Titus in 70 AD. They were marched in triumph through Rome and placed in his father Vespasian’s Temple of Peace. If they had survived all the fires of Rome, then it seems Alaric’s winged Goths would have taken them too.

Others say no. They believe that Christian Rome, in which the Pope had huge power even during the late stages of the original empire, would have hidden the holy treasures. Legend to this day says they are hidden behind locked doors at St. John’s Lateran, the first church of Rome. The Vatican denies it. Jews want it searched.

The last historical reference point to the Temple of Jerusalem treasures that we know to be reliable is the frieze on the inside of the triumphal arch of Titus, still standing in Rome. It shows the holy articles and menorah being paraded through the streets of Rome in Titus’ triumph.

Whether yea or nay, Alaric had fabulous treasure from Rome with him when he died. The treasure and his tomb remain lost. Throughout history, however, glimpses of possible locations have surfaced. A peasant became wealthy from an unexplained stash of coins he brought into Cosenza. He pointed in a certain direction. Should we be so naïve as to believe the direction?

Busento as seen from downtown Cosenza.

I am now 5 generations removed from the Cattaneo name and the grandees of my Italian heritage.  Doubtfully in the hard times since then they could have provided me advantages in Italy in my quest anyway. And this is a quest for gold. Dangerous at best. Foolhardy to be indiscreet. Everyone who hears of it whispers and then looks askance, forefinger to lips, intimating caution. Not even princes and honor are safe from the pirate and plunderer, smuggler and marauder.

The Crathis, up river.

Since last October Italy officially has started to look for the lost hoard. Naturally they begin with the legend– that at the confluence of the Busento and Crathis rivers Alaric was buried. In ancient times it was outside of the city of Cosentia. Today it is in the southern quarter of it. Why does everyone begin here? Logistics. Why have they not found it? Must be the wrong place, wouldn’t you say?

There is much we can do from afar now before an Italian trip. We can bring to the fore the legend and the history, and dispel some of the folklore. We can even begin to get a logistic idea of what a search and dig will take. . . . but let us be wise and not too indiscreet. For this quest is for the greatest treasure in history.

In our next post we begin with a Roman spring.

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For 25 years Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.


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