The Sack of Rome on August 24, 410, is one of the most significant events in world history. It was the first time that the “eternal city” had fallen in 800 years, and many mark the event as the beginning of the end for an already beleaguered Western Roman Empire. While the city by that point was no longer the capital of the empire, nor even the city it had once been, it still held immense symbolism throughout the world as one of the centres of civilisation. Into this civilisation came the fury of the Visigoths and King Alaric.
The Germanic tribes had been increasing in power for over 400 years, with their technology and abilities increasing exponentially following their first contact with the Roman Empire. The Goths had been raiding the empire for nearly 200 years by the time of Rome’s sacking, and after the failed Gothic rebellion, the Eastern Roman Empire seemingly forced a peace in 382. In return for this peace, the Visigoths were allowed to remain autonomous, yet were expected to provide military service. A new king, Alaric, had other ideas.
Alaric failed at first, his uprising of 394 being put down. However, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great died the following year, Alaric and the Goths declared that all treaties had ended with his death. The Goths invaded Thrace and marched on Constantinople. Alaric would turn away from the city, perhaps through the promise of land in Thessaly, but would go on over the coming years to pillage and plunder his way through Macedonia, Corinth, Argos and Sparta. Athens would pay a ransom and be saved. In 401, the Goths invaded Italy, devastating the north. A second invasion would be even more devastating.
At the time of its sacking, Rome was the largest city in the world, containing no less than 800,000 people. The first siege in 408 caused mass panic, the people returning to pagan rituals of the pre-Christian era to defeat the Goth hoards. Seeking terms, Alaric demanded all the gold, silver, household goods and slaves in the city in exchange for the lives of those living there. Finally, the Roman senate managed to save themselves from destruction with 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 scarlet hides and 3,000 pounds of pepper. The gold alone would be worth over one hundred and thirty million dollars in today’s currency, and the immense wealth wouldn’t buy Rome their salvation for long.
On August 24, 410, the Visigoths entered Rome through the Salarian Gate. The significant and iconic buildings in Rome were ransacked. The mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian were plundered and the ashes of the emperors thrown to the ground. Anything that could be stolen was. Gold and silver were stripped from the city. Many Romans were captured, with hostages either held for ransom or raped and sold as slaves if deemed without value.
After three days of looting, Alaric left Rome and headed south, taking the immense plunder he had acquired with him. The Goths continued their campaign of pillage and plunder on their journey, laying waste to regions such as Campania and Calabria. Threatening to cross the Strait of Messina, Sicily and North Africa were in their sights. However, before Alaric could fully enjoy his spoils, he died of illness at Consentia (Cosenza) just months after the sacking of Rome. Historians suspect it was malaria.
While Alaric’s place in history would be assured, the location of his recently won treasure would be less certain. The historian Jordanes states that the all-conquering king was buried with Rome’s wealth at a secret area under the Busento river and all those who knew the site were immediately put to death.
“His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus near the city of Cosentia, for this stream flows with its wholesome waters from the foot of a mountain near that city, they led a band of captives into the midst of its bed to dig out a place for his grave. In the depths of this pit, they buried Alaric, together with many treasures, and then turned the waters back into their channel. And that none might ever know the place, they put to death all the diggers. They bestowed the kingdom of the Visigoths on Athavulf his kinsman, a man of imposing beauty and great spirit; for though not tall of stature, he was distinguished for beauty of face and form.”
Despite centuries of searching, no trace of Alaric’s tomb or treasure has ever been found. Most searches have concentrated on the point where the Busento and Crati rivers meet, with sources suggesting that the Goths temporarily diverted the Busento to build the stone tomb in the river bed itself. This was done by the slaves taken from Rome. It would have required the construction of dams across each river. Some, speculate that the tomb is lost entirely and that earthquakes around Cosenza are likely to have destroyed everything. However, that certainly hasn’t stopped would-be treasure-seekers hunting what would likely be the most valuable hoard ever found, both in terms of money and its value to history. Conservative estimates suggest there are 25 tonnes of gold waiting to be discovered.
Toward the end of the 1930s, for example, Nazi Germany was desperate for cash. The cost of rebuilding the German war machine following the restrictions of the Versailles treaty was immense, and the country began to default on the loans taken out by the regime. The Nazis had already plundered the assets of the annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia and following the outbreak of war would extend this state policy of theft by taking at least $550 million in gold from conquered governments. Into this atmosphere of sanctioned piracy steps Heinrich Himmler.
Himmler had a strong interest in the occult and the mysteries of the world, the Nazi leader famed for his pursuit of Atlantis alongside other mythical and mystical locations and objects. One such item was the buried treasure of Alaric, which Hitler and Himmler saw as not only a financial boon to the Nazi coffers but one that would publicly connect the legendary victory of the Germanic Visigoths with the Third Reich. Himmler was duly dispatched to Italy alongside a team of archaeologists, coming up empty-handed.
“It’s a real-life Indiana Jones hunt. You have a legend of long-lost treasure, even the Nazis — Heinrich Himmler came here in 1937 to try to find the hoard for Hitler. He stayed in a Swabian castle. This is the stuff of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg. If there really is 25 tons of gold, it would be worth around one billion euros at today’s prices.”
Francesco Sisci, Italian archaeologist
Himmler and the Nazis were far from the only ones to seek the treasure, however, with searchers having failed to find a single trace of the legendary king and his plunder ever since the mid 18th century. The iconic writer Alexander Dumas was amongst the many who searched. He observed that locals were able to dig at the river-bed following a major earthquake that had drained much of the water. Another writer who became fascinated by the tale was George Gissing, the author By The Ionian Sea. Gissing travelled to Cosenza in 1897, with his enthusiasm showing some of the spirit of the age, the Victorian fascination with the ancients and adventure shining though when he said that: “ever since my first boyish reading of Gibbon, my imagination has loved to play upon that scene of Alaric’s death”.
“Do the rivers Busento and Crati still keep the secret of that “royal sepulchre, adorned with the splendid spoils and trophies of Rome?” It seems improbable that the grave was ever disturbed; to this day there exists somewhere near Cosenza a treasure-house more alluring than any pictured in Arabian tale. It is not easy to conjecture what “spoils and trophies” the Goths buried with their king; if they sacrificed masses of precious metal, then perchance there still lies in the river-bed some portion of that golden statue of Virtus, which the Romans melted down to eke out the ransom claimed by Alaric. The year 410 A.D. was no unfitting moment to break into bullion the figure personifying Manly Worth. “After that,” says an old historian, “all bravery and honour perished out of Rome.”
Those efforts exist right into the present day. In October of 2015, Italian archaeologists began a new extensive search for the treasure, utilising modern technology and resources in an attempt to finally recover Rome’s lost riches. They identified five sites as a focus of their efforts and employed drones, ground-penetrating radar, infra-red technology and electromagnetic instruments in their endeavours. The team believed that the tomb was eight metres underground, deep enough not to be washed away by the flow of the river, and having once been only six metres below the surface before the sea bed rose over the past 1,500 years.
The sites included a one and a half mile stretch of river that runs through both Cosenza and a set of nearby caves where the team discovered an ancient rune. The rune is said to depict an image evocative of the Golden Menorah, one of the lost treasures of Jerusalem’s second temple that was rumoured carried off from Rome by Alaric.
“Thanks to modern technology, for the first time we have the chance to embark on a systematic search for Alaric’s treasure. Troy was just a legend until it was discovered (in the 1870s). And Pompeii was found almost casually in the 18th century. We are really determined. This could be the biggest hoard of treasure in the history of humanity. It is part of the world’s heritage.”
Mario Occhiuto, then mayor of Cosenza
Critics of the project suggested that the efforts to find Alaric’s tomb were a publicity stunt aimed at boosting tourism, with the burial site likely to have been plundered long ago, despite its river location. Some say that the tomb was never at the meeting point between the Busento and Crati rivers at all, contending the tomb to be at the confluence of the Caronte and Canalicchio rivers instead. Others say that the treasure was never buried, with the Visigoths unlikely to have surrendered such immense wealth, particularly given the fact that Alaric was a Christian and such burials were traditionally pagan, all be it, still observed by the Goths.
Indeed, there are reports from the 11th century that the tomb had been found, with monks discovering it contained no treasure greater than manuscripts. The historian Procopius said meanwhile that the Franks believed the prize to have been taken to Carcassonne in the south of France, attacking the city and finding nothing. May believe that they were probably right, with the location likely being south of Carcassonne around Alaric mountain, having been taken with Alaric’ successor, his brother-in-law King Athaulf. It was Athaulf who led the Visigoth’s on their journey out of Italy and into France and then Spain. Legend says that an Alaric is also buried there, more likely to be Alaric II who reigned between 484 and 507.
There are many problems with the legend of Alaric’s treasure. Said to be buried in sight of Cosenza, the population of the city are likely to have known full well what was happening. There are no reports of a massacre to silence the community, and it seems unlikely that the Goths would be able to hide events at the river considering the scale of the operation required to block the Busento and Crati. Equally, abandoning their plan to take Sicily and North Africa, the Goths instead turned their attention toward Gaul, meaning an army would have needed paying and feeding. Plus, while maintaining some of the Goths pagan traditions, Alaric was a Christian. Accounts of a Pagan burial with his treasure is likely misinterpreted, with the claims coming over a hundred years after his death.
It seems more likely that the wealth of Rome, alongside treasures looted from Greece, continued on with Athaulf into France. From there, who knows? The dying moments of the Roman Empire echo into history and are still felt even today. While the treasure is undoubtedly one of great value to both posterity and the pockets of would-be treasure hunters, it is yet another hoard that is bathed in blood. With countless thousands having died for Rome to acquire it and many more dying at the hands of the Goths, plus Alaric himself succumbing to malaria soon afterwards, perhaps it might be best if it remained buried with the man who finally put an end to the glorious, yet bloody, history of the Roman Empire.
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