“First Among Cities, Home of the Gods, is Golden Rome.”
It’s been so long since Ausonius said that, but Rome still captivates. One way or another Rome has been at the center of Europe for over 2,000 years. Let’s go to a Roman spring and contemplate the background of our quest.
The Aurelian Wall and beyond the Villa Borghese, as seen from the Albergo Flora on Via Veneto– “the drawing room of Roman society.” The area was once covered with Visigoths encamped outside the city while it endured siege.
In 410 AD when Alaric, headman of the Visigoth, sacked the city for 3 days, he shocked the world. Constantinople was stunned. Germans who had integrated with the Empire were outraged. The center of civilization had been plundered.
Alaric didn’t take as much as he could. He only spent three days. He felt he had taken the pay due him in lieu of what had been promised. Like other German headmen, he felt he should have been given titles and positions but Rome had reneged. The Romans had proven themselves for long as backstabbers and recalcitrant.
Romans were terribly self-indulgent and corrupt at this time. They were an insulated civilization. They thought it could never end. With Christianity’s rise they were also certain Rome was ordained of God. Without Rome and its civilizing, its roads and order, the gospel could not have spread as it had. They came to feel more important. By 410 AD the pagan temples had been closed for at least 15 years. The emperors were Christians. They were God’s regent of the Earth.
The Goths came into the empire largely in peace, but the double dealing Romans had cheated and starved them until finally it led to rebellion. The famous Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD is a turning point for the empire. The emperor (Valens) and his army engaged them near Adrianople and started inflicting a terrible blow. The Gothic cavalry was out foraging for food. They returned at the wrong moment for the empire and crushed the Roman army and killed the emperor. The number of men killed was enormous. Rome could never recover. Germans continued to leach into the empire. Their armies continued to replace the Roman armies. Their headmen continue to hold powerful positions. Rome could not battle them anymore in sufficient strength.
Thus in 410 AD after Alaric sacked Rome he could freely take his time with his Goths as he headed south to Regium. His intent was to board ship and head perhaps to Africa. When he died months later at Cosentium, he was given a grand funeral by the Goths. With him they buried a token amount of the treasure they had taken from Rome. They diverted a river, so it is said, and waited till the bed dried enough to allow the digging of a tomb. Here they buried him in the chamber. Then they let the river flow over it again. The tomb was doubly sealed.
The idea of burying a king under a river was not new. Decabalus in Dacia had been buried that way. Parts of his treasure, however, began to be found around 1540 AD. What has been found over the centuries has been remarkable. It whets the appetite for what must be with Alaric.
Herein is the problem with Cosentia and its rivers ’round. There never has been a solid trace of a burial.
The legend says that Alaric was buried at the confluence of the Crathis and Busentus rivers. Yet it is impossible to divert a river at a confluence of the kind made by the Crati and Busento. They make a fork. Each fork flows from the mountains of Calabria. They are like the forks on the letter “Y”. Where they merge they become one river and this is the Crati or Greek Crathis. Since the current flows from the forks to the stem, blocking one river would not allow the current to enter the course of the other river, allowing one river to take the full torrent. It was merely make one of the forks into a lake.
For any confluence to be viable, the current must flow from the direction of the stem to the forks. Then it is possible to block off one fork and let the other fork take the full burden of the torrent. The river bed of the other fork will dry. The tomb can be dug, and when finished the dam can be broken and the fork once again is a flowing river over the bed.
From Rome to Cosenza– the march south.
Moreover, the confluence of the Busteno and Crati was too close to Cosentia. Modern geologists think that the ancient confluence is today underneath the medieval part of the city. The citizens of the town would certainly have known that the Goths were doing something major outside of their town back then. It would have been no secret. From 410 AD to 476 AD when Theodoric proclaimed himself King of Italy we have 66 years. That’s a long time in which Rome repeatedly tried to recover. They had enough resources and science to go block any river and dig up the treasure again. This is especially true if Alaric took as loot the temple treasures from Jerusalem. Yet apparently there was no attempt.
The confluence today. Cosenza is built up all around it. The ancient confluence may be under the church of St. Dominic.
Logically, the burial of Alaric seems to have occurred much further from any city and any curious eyewitnesses. If it was at a confluence of rivers, it is hard to imagine how it was at the Busento and Crathis or else it would have been found.
Despite Rome’s attempts to recover, the city would be devastated in 455 AD by Gaiseric and his Vandals. For 14 days they sacked the city systematically. He even carted off members of the Imperial family. The Vandals were so destructive, their name lives on today as . . . well, you know what the word means.
Romans had the ability most likely to dig up Alaric’s tomb between 410 and 455 AD, but afterward it seems remote. German generals were the power. They might not like Alaric being dug up.
After the sieges of Totila it would be impossible (546-50 AD). The Goths hadn’t liked being driven out by Belisarius. They reinvaded. Rome was devastated. The Visigoths and the Vandals had never truly destroyed buildings much. They wanted loot. But Totila fought to take the city. He cut the aqueducts and starved out the population. A city once of a million people was eventually reduced to 50,000. Rome paid for Constantinople’s attempt to drive the Goths out. The result was Totila’s vengefulness.
The Roman Forum, once the center of the city, as it is today.
From this point forward Italy was a wreck. The nobles were Germans and there was no desire or ability to find Alaric’s tomb. It is not surprising that it is from this time that we first hear of the tomb. Jordanes, himself a Goth, a bureaucrat at none other than Constantinople, writes of it first. He is the one who tells us of Cosentia and the confluence of rivers. But this was now 140 years after the fact. Where did he get all of his information?
It doesn’t seem he could be right, but this has begun 1,500 years of believing a massive hoard of gold and silver and precious artifacts of fabulous antiquity lie buried under one of the river beds near or under Cosenza. Yet not a trace has ever been found.
It seems that Emperor Justinian would have had it dug up after Belisarius first drove the Goths out in the 540s AD. Retaking Italy had cost him hundreds of pounds of gold. Some say 300,000 pounds of gold. The Goths were hated at this time. The war to retake Italy had been a brutal and destructive battle. He wouldn’t have cared an iota about their feelings if he plundered Alaric’s tomb. Curious that Jordanes was his court servant and yet in his history of the Goths (Getica) in 551 AD he gives us an odd position for the tomb and doesn’t tell us that Justinian tried to find it to dig it up. Was Jordanes lying to protect the old Gothic king’s tomb?
The forum as seen from near where once stood the Basilica Aemelia. Melted Roman coins can still be seen fused into the marble floors, the result of Alaric’s Goths burning the basilica.
Narses once again has to retake the majority of Italy, and Totila eventually falls before the Roman armies from the East. After the uneasy truce in Italy, Jordanes’ words do not seem to inspire any kind of official Roman search, at least not one that we hear about and that was successful. In 568 AD, two years after Justinian dies, Italy is lost forever. The Lombards come pouring in and the Goths follow them back into the peninsula.
To this day no one knows where Alaric is buried, if the tomb was ever dug into in antiquity and kept secret, or whether it lies elsewhere. Nothing has been found or claimed to have come from the lost hoard.
In our next post let us start contemplating that Jordanes was partially wrong.
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Since 1990 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.