Anybody who thought that appeal of the witch trial was a waste of state resources better get their Valium dispensers locked and loaded. At a press conference on Wednesday, October 21st, a committee of politicians and scientists announced they’ll be searching for the legendary treasure-filled tomb of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, under a river flowing through Cosenza, a city in the region of Calabria near the toe of Italy’s boot.
“It’s a real-life Indiana Jones hunt,” said Francesco Sisci, the project coordinator.
“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,” he said.
When the project coordinator invokes Indiana Jones, you know it’s legit. This scheme is the brain child of a committee formed last year by the municipality of Cosenza to develop new cultural and touristic events around the legend of Alaric. The tomb doesn’t actually have to be found, therefore, in order for the search to fulfill its ultimate goal of promoting Consenza’s greatest claim to fame. Which is a good thing, because the odds of finding said tomb are so miniscule they make the Richard III parking lot excavation look like a sure shot.
Alaric, once a leader of a band of Gothic foederati (irregular troops who fought with the Roman army) under Emperor Theodosius I, has gone down in history as the first invader to sack Rome in 800 years, since the Gaul Brennus in 387 B.C. Rome wasn’t actually the capital anymore when Alaric took it in 410 A.D., however. It hadn’t been since 286 when Diocletian made Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) the capital of the Western Empire.
Alaric besieged Mediolanum during his first invasion of Italy in 401, spurring the young and feckless Western Roman emperor Honorius to move the capital to Ravenna in 402 because it was surrounded by marshes, well-fortified and had direct access to the Adriatic, ideal should a hasty escape become necessary. His personal safety was his only interest. The new capital was horribly situated to protect Italy from barbarian invaders. It was only through the efforts of Flavius Stilicho, Honorius’ top general and former regent during the emperor’s minority, that Alaric’s army was kept at bay on multiple occasions from 401 until 408 when Honorius had Stilicho arrested and executed, ostensibly for conspiring to overthrow him.
In the first decade of the 5th century, Alaric besieged Rome three times, but he wasn’t just in it for the pillage and loot. He wanted the emperor to appoint him commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army and grant him huge tracts of land in Pannonia. Putting pressure on Rome, which while no longer the capital was still seat of the Senate and the symbolic center of the empire, was a means to those ends. The first siege after Stilicho’s death in late 408, ended with a massive payoff. According to Zosimus’ New History, the Senate gave Alaric 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk robes, 3,000 fleeces dyed scarlet in exchange for him lifting the siege.
One year later Alaric’s forces besieged Rome again after the failure of negotiations with Honorius. This time only the proclamation of a new emperor would do to get Alaric to lift the siege, and so Priscus Attalus was installed as puppet. While Attalus and Alaric had some military successes in Italy, enough to scare Honorius into preparing a flight to Constantinople, they soon hit the wall and Alaric dumped his puppet less than a year after installing him. He tried negotiating with Honorius again, but gave up for good after a sneak attack from Honorius’ Goth ally Sarus when Alaric was waiting to meet the emperor at the appointed time.
On August 24th, 410 A.D., the Visigoths reached the Salarian Gate of Rome. This time there was no siege. Alaric’s army spent three days sacking Rome, but it was quite respectful, as sacks go. They didn’t set it on fire — only a few public buildings were burned down for strategic reasons — and they spared the churches of Saint Peter and Paul. They didn’t indiscriminately kill people either, although they enslaved thousands.
Laden with the treasures of 800 years of Roman history, the Visigoths turned south where Alaric hoped to cross over into Sicily and from there to Africa, the granary of the empire. His fleet destroyed by storms, he never did make it to Sicily. A few months after the sack, Alaric suddenly became ill and died in Consentia. Jordanes describes the aftermath in his 6th century history of the Gothic people Getica:
His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus near the city of Consentia — 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.
So. That is what the Cosenza search is up against: a tomb rumored to have been dug underneath a river in a location known only to slaves killed before they could share that knowledge. Past attempts to find the fabled treasure have all involved digging along the riverbank, a blind, clumsy approach that this new effort will eschew in favor of the latest technology.
By matching contemporary accounts by Roman historians with the local geography, the researchers have found five places where they think the treasure may lie. They include a 1.5 mile stretch of river that runs through Cosenza but also caves near the nearby village of Mendicino. [...]
The latest technology will be used to search for rectangle-shaped “anomalies” underground in the hunt for the fabled tomb of Alaric, said Amerigo Giuseppe Rota, the geologist leading the project.
“We think Alaric was buried at least five to six metres underground. But in the last 1,500 years the river bed has risen by about 1.5 metres, so his tomb could be up to eight metres below ground now,” he said.
Sure, why not? It could be. It could also not exist at all. The whole diverted river story could be a legend written 140 years after the events it purports to describe. The idea that there are 25 tons of gold under the Busento River is fanciful at best. The Visigoths would not have buried all of their Roman loot with Alaric. Even if the sources are correct that he was buried with his horse and treasure according to pagan custom (Alaric was an Arian Christian, but he held to some of his people’s traditional religious practices as well), they would have been grave goods, not tons and tons of gold.
Anyway the caper isn’t expected to cost much. The early geophysical surveys were funded by private donors and while there’s talk of the government in Rome chipping in, public funding isn’t likely to materialize anytime soon.