King Alaric: His Famous Sacking of Rome and Secretive Burial
Coin from 409-410 AD depicting Priscus Attalus, King Alaric’s “puppet emperor.” ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The ancient sources, apart from Zosimus, do not provide us with much information regarding the events that happened between the first and second sieges of Rome by Alaric. Jordanes’ account for instance, places the sacking of Rome immediately after the destruction of Stilicho’s army, which was sent to ambush Alaric and his men in Pollentia.
Zosimus, on the other hand, provides a detailed report of the events happening during this period. For example, on one occasion, 6000 soldiers, who were quartered in Dalmatia, were ordered by Honorius to come and guard the city of Rome. Their general Valens felt that it was cowardly to “march by a way that was not guarded by the enemy” and was attacked by Alaric, which reduced the former’s army to about a hundred men. Unsettled negotiations between Honorius and Alaric continued for some time, but eventually they reached a dead-end.
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The Second Attack by Alaric on Rome
In 410 AD, Alaric attacked Rome for the second time. Unfortunately, Zosimus’ work has not survived in its entirety, and Alaric’s sack of Rome, which is said to be the last part of Zosimus’ work, is now lost.
An extract taken from a Renaissance writer suggests that Alaric besieged Rome for two years, and finally used a ‘Trojan Horse’ tactic to take the city. Instead of a giant wooden horse, however, the gift of the Visigoths was “three hundred young men of great strength and courage, whom they bestowed on the Roman nobility as a present,” before pretending to return home.
Much focus has been placed on the Visigoths’ conduct during the sacking of Rome. Jordanes, for example, wrote that, “by Alaric's express command they merely sacked it and did not set the city on fire, as wild peoples usually do, nor did they permit serious damage to be done to the holy places.”
“The Sack of Rome” in 410. By Évariste-Vital Luminais. ( Public Domain )
This is also echoed in Orosius’ writing, in which Alaric is presented as a pious Christian king. One fantastic tale in Orosius’ account is the encounter of a Visigoths with an elderly virgin, who turned out to be the keeper of the sacred vessels of the Apostle Peter. When Alaric heard of this, he had these vessels brought back to the basilica of St. Peter, and even allowed the virgin and other Christians to join the procession if they wished to do so.
The Secret of King Alaric’s Burial and Treasure
Alaric died in 411 AD, several months after sacking Rome. The following story of Alaric’s burial comes from Jordanes’ account:
“His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus [Busento] 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.”
Illustration of the burial of Alaric in the bed of the Busento river. (1895) By Heinrich Leutemann. ( Public Domain )
The immense wealth that many scholars believe was placed alongside King Alaric has provoked various treasure hunts over the years. Some of the famous treasure seekers of the past include the writer and adventurer Alexandre Dumas and the Nazis Adolph Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Despite their best efforts, none to date are said to have found the location of King Alaric’s burial, although the recent commissioning of a team of archaeologists by the town of Cosenza may finally bring King Alaric’s loot to light.
Featured image: Alaric entering Athens. Photo source: ( Public Domain )
Cavendish, R., 2010. The Visigoths sack Rome. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/visigoths-sack-rome
Claudian, The Gothic War [Online]
[Platnauer, M. (trans.), 1922. Claudian’s The Gothic War .]
Gill, N. S., 2015. Alaric King of the Visigoths and the Sack of Rome in A.D. 410. [Online]
Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/alaricthevisigoth/a/AlaricSackRome.htm