Italian archaeologists are to start excavations in search of a fabled cache of ancient Roman treasure which, according to legend, was buried alongside the Gothic king who sacked the city in the 5th century.
The body of Alaric, king of the Visigoths, is said to have been buried at the confluence of two rivers in Cosenza, southern Italy, alongside tonnes of silver and gold, even the priceless Menorah that the Romans looted from the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The story of the lost treasure fascinated Hitler, who sent Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, and a team of Nazi archaeologists to try to find the hidden loot.
They failed, as had many others before them. Now there is a fresh effort to find the legendary loot.
“Historical sources and clues confirm that the treasure of Alaric was buried in Cosenza,” Mario Occhiuto, the mayor of Cosenza, said in a statement. “The treasure consisted of about 10 wagons full of gold and silver, and perhaps also the sacred Jewish candelabra, the Menorah.
“The town council and the provincial administration have initiated, for the first time, a plan to systematically search for the treasure, using the latest technical and scientific innovations.”
But others are less sure that the treasure exists – or ever existed.
“We need to be cautious,” Pietro De Leo, a medieval historian from Calabria University, told Corriere della Sera newspaper. “There are few doubts that the king of the Goths was buried in Cosenza. But I don’t believe there was an immense treasure.”
Alaric sacked Rome in 410 AD – the first time the city had been conquered for eight centuries, and a decisive event in the decline of the western Roman Empire.
He then took his armies south on a campaign to conquer other Roman redoubts and with a plan to seize the grain supplies of Sicily.
The 40-year-old chieftain is believed to have died in Calabria that same year, either in battle or from illness, possibly malaria or fever.
He is said to have been buried with the hoard at the confluence of the Crati and Busento rivers – a spot which now lies in the heart of Cosenza.
According to legend, slaves were used to temporarily divert the course of the Busento so that a magnificent tomb could be dug for the king, as well as his horse and the treasure.
Once it was completed, the river was returned to its original course, ensuring that the tomb forever safe from plunder.
It is said that Alaric’s soldiers then slaughtered the slaves to prevent them from revealing the location of the grave site.
The account of the burial comes from Jordanes, a Roman historian of the sixth century who wrote about the Goths.
“Turning from its course the river Busentus, near the city of Cosentia, 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,” he wrote in his account of 551 AD, De origine actibusque Getarum, or The Origin and Deeds of the Goths.
Edward Gibbon repeated the story in his epic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
“By the labour of a captive multitude they forcibly diverted the course of the Busentinus, a small river that washes the walls of Consentia. The royal sepulchre, adorned with the splendid spoils and trophies of Rome, was constructed in the vacant bed.
“The waters were then restored to their natural channel and the secret spot where the remains of Alaric had been deposited was forever concealed by the inhuman massacre of the prisoners who had been deployed to execute the work.”
The town of Cosenza, which has all the problems of the economically-depressed south of Italy, hopes that if the treasure can be found, it will bring a tourist bonanza.
Aside from the dig, it has also hatched a plan to build a museum to honour Alaric and document the history of the Goths.
The plan calls for the demolition of a hotel, built in the 1950s, which sits at the meeting point of the two rivers – overlooking the spot where the barbarian king is said to have been buried. He would be commemorated with a huge equestrian statue.
Some locals and historians have objected to the project, saying that it would be wrong to glorify Alaric because his forces slaughtered many inhabitants of the region.
“It would be humiliating for the city,” said Battista Sangineto, a historian. “He exterminated hundreds of local people.”
But the mayor argues that Alaric is a towering historical figure who played a key role in the decline of the Roman Empire and the ushering in of the early medieval period.
And he could be as valuable to Cosenza as Romeo and Juliet are to Verona or the Loch Ness monster is to Scotland, he argues.
“The sack of Rome was, for the people of the time, the end of the world, the Apocalypse.
“But it was also the start of a slow process of assimilation between Roman culture and the peoples of the north, who at the time were considered barbarians,” he said.