Everyone loves a story about a buried treasure, and the legend of Alaric’s Gold hits on all the intriguing notes: Pillaged gold from a once-great empire, a mysterious and herculean burial, and a never-recovered booty possibly located somewhere underwater in one of Western Europe’s poorest regions. It sets the imagination alight.
It certainly piqued George Gissing’s curiosity. An Englishman and author of By The Ionian Sea, Gissing in 1897 traveled to Cosenza in Calabria, the supposed location of the treasure of Alaric I of the Visigoths. “Ever since my first boyish reading of Gibbon, my imagination has loved to play upon that scene of Alaric’s death,” he wrote with juvenile enthusiasm. The death of Alaric is steeped in myth. After sacking beleaguered Rome a third and final time in 410 A.D., Alaric and the Visigoths marched south into Cosenza (nee Cosentia). There the 40-year-old king fell ill and died. His body, along with his gold, is said to have been buried under the confluence of the rivers Busento and Crati. According to legend, the course of the Busento was temporarily redirected in order to inter Alaric and his wealth, and all of the enslaved laborers involved are supposed to have been slaughtered to ensure the secrecy of the location.
The story may play to the imagination, but it defies logic. As Gissing wondered, was all of Cosenza then wiped out? In any case, the rivers have no doubt changed course over the centuries, and their beds have been filled in many times by earthquakes. And that’s if the treasure was even buried under the river (as opposed to the Sila Mountains nearby) or buried at all.
That hasn’t discouraged people from looking over the years. The blog Esplorazioni Cosentine writes that Alexandre Dumas arrived in Cosenza shortly after a major earthquake in the early 19th Century. The quake had drained the Busento and Dumas witnessed scores of Cosentinos digging for the Roman plunder. The treasure naturally attracted the attention of Heinrich Himmler and the history-conscious Nazis but to no avail. It remains one of history’s mysteries.
We do know that Alaric’s successor Ataulf turned the Visigoths around and headed toward Gaul, ending what was to be a march through Sicily and Africa. Knowing what we know about the military then as now, it’s difficult to imagine tens of thousands of soldiers (who had endured a vicious storm at sea en route to Cosenza) tolerating or obeying such a ludicrous wish from a dead king. In spite of the histories/propaganda written by Cassiodorus and later edited by Jordanes, if I had to guess I’d say the money was used at least in part to pay the army and keep its morale high for the Visigoths’ push into France and Spain.
But if you prefer less skepticism and more romanticism, I’ll leave you with George Gissing’s closing thoughts.
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.”