Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


24.4.06
  The legend of Alaric's burial

It all started with Jordanes who provides most of the literary evidence concerning the early history of the Goths. His De origine actibusque Getarum (551) is a Readers Digest version of the lost History by Cassiodorus (490-585).

Cassiodorus held several high offices under the reigns of Theoderic and Athalaric, the Ostrogoth rulers in Ravenna. I suppose he spoke the Gothic language. But scholars today question his claim that he based his history of the Goths on folk songs. More likely, he wanted to give the Gothic ruling class a glorious past matching that of Roman senatorial families. Cassiodorus probably used oral sources, but coming from a traditon of written sources, he might have known that he was putting the 'story' into History by merging these snippets into a coherent Whole.

It would not be the only time this happened. Geoffrey de Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittaniae does the same by connecting the House Plantagenet to King Arthur, to name just one example.

We don't know much about Jordanes, according to what he mentions in his Getica, he and his father held positions in the immediate surroundings of the leaders in the Alano-Ostrogothic tribal confederation in Moesia (Bulgaria) until Jordanes converted to the Catholic faith and took vows. His and his father's name sound more Alan than Gothic to me.

Thus, we have the condensed version of a history that had an agenda, both written some 140 years after the incidents. The main tone of the Getica is friendly to the Goths whom Jordanes as well as Cassiodorus interpret as having tried to find a peaceful integration into the Roman Empire.

This is what Jordanes says about Alaric's funeral:

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.
(translated by Charles Gaius Mierow)


Cosenza (province Calabria, southern Italy) has an history of its own. It was the chief city of the ancient Brutii, conquered by the Romans in 204 BC. A castle built by Emperor Frederick II still dominates the old part of the city.

Copyright public domain

The next prominent source to take this up was Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). In ch. 31 of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he writes:

The ferocious character of the barbarians was displayed in the funeral of a hero whose valour and fortune they celebrated with mournful applause. 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 for ever concealed by the inhuman massacre of the prisoners who had been employed to execute the work.

According to some information I found on an Italian website, the confluence of the rivers Busento and Crati, the long time prefered place of the burial, lie in plain sight of the town of Cosenza which encrouches up an hill. If the story about the killed prisoners is true, what then happened to the inhabitants of Cosenza?

The Busento is a fast flowing river; its valley near Cosenza rather broad and the ground sandy, framed by poplars and some olive trees. Further away from the town, before the Crati river joins the Busento, the valley is smaller and framed mostly by brushwood. Some websites claim Alaric's tomb ought to be in that part of the river, or in one of the adjoining hills. The hills makes for a better theory but it is strange that despite the efforts the rumours about the riches buried with Alaric have brought forth, no trace of the tomb has ever been found, be it underwater or in the hillocks in the area.

Cosenza has suffered from numerous earthquakes. Those may have destroyed any evidence for Alaric's tomb.

Besides Gibbon's account, a German poem furthered the fame of the King of the Goths and his secret burial place. August von Platen (1796-1835), Das Grab im Busento:

Nächtlich am Busento lispeln
Bei Cosenza dumpfe Lieder;
Aus den Wassern schallt es Antwort,
Und in Wirbeln klingt es wieder!

Und den Fluß hinauf, hinunter,
Zieh'n die Schatten tapfrer Goten,
Die den Alarich beweinen,
Ihres Volkes besten Toten.

Allzu früh und fern der Heimat
Mußten hier sie ihn begraben,
Während noch die Jugendlocken
Seine Schulter blond umgaben.

Those are the first verses which I below give in my own English translation.

Mournful songs in darkness whisper
Along Busento's rivershore,
And the river murmurs answer;
In its whirls the songs resound.

Along the river shadows wander,
Warriors of the Gothic tribes,
Mourning Alaric, their leader,
And their people's noblest dead.

All to soon and far from homeland
Did here they have to bury him
While still the golden locks of youth
Onto his shoulders graceful fell.

Von Platen probably based his work on Gibbon whose book was to be found in most educated German households at his time (it still is to be found in some, lol) and not Theodor Mommsen's editon of Jordanes which first appeared in 1854. It is interesting to note that he leaves out the pesky detail about the killed prisoners.

The 'far from homeland' is a nice way to put it, the Goths had been wandering around for several centuries at that point, and the 'golden locks of youth' are a romantic image of a man who was about forty at his death.

Von Platen's ballad was translated into Italian by Giosuè Carducci (1835 – 1907) and became pretty popular there.

August von Platen (his full name was Karl August Georg Maximilian Graf von Platen-Hallermünde) started out as officer and participated in the war against Napoleon in 1814/15. He realised he was homosexual, a fact that later should influence his poetry (maybe that's where the 'golden locks of youth' come from). In 1818 he began to study the law but soon changed to literature and learned the Persian language. His first poems were influenced by Persian poetry. In 1824 he visited Italy for the first time and wrote the Sonets from Venice; in 1826 he abandoned his former life and and lived in Italy until his death.
 
Comments:
Karl August Georg Maximilian Graf von Platen-Hallermünde.

Well, that's a name, and anything else just a nick! :-)

And about the story, it's good, but... I will probably try to learn about real Arian bury cerimonies, and about pagan Gothic burials in those times, and probably will make a nice mix.

Anyway, it's perfectly plausible, despite any currents the river may have, it was late in the Summer, and we don't know the place, so it's possible the water stream was tranquile enough to allow them a temporary deviation.

But I'm still many chapters from that part... ;-)
 
I smell a DaVinci Code plot...
 
Bernita said...
I smell a DaVinci Code plot...


Not on my book!

(uade retro!)

Laters!
 
Lol, yes, there are some Very Secret Scrolls hidden in Alaric's treasure. After all, he was at least nominally an Arian Christian and we all know that those pesky Catholics declared them for illegal; so the Arian faith died out in the 7th century.

David,
I think it was possible for the Goths to deviate the Busento if one assumes there was a Roman engineer among those poor captives. Roman engineers could have done it. What I wonder about is the lack of spoils, though. Once the river returned to his old bed, it would flow over the grave and eventually wash it out, so some pieces of the treasure allegedly buried with him ought to have popped up on the shores during time.

Since no tomb was ever found in the Busento/Cosenza area, I suppose Alaric was buried in a less spectacular way than might have been usual for the Goths. Maybe there never was any treasure buried with him. Many Goths were lukewarm Christians by then, alienated from their own faith and not yet rooted in the new one; they might have thought differently about burials and considered treasures of better use still i< use instead of hidden in the earth, and decided to give Alaric a more or less Christian funeral.
 
I was wondering about the river washing out the grave, too. Is it possible that the real knowledge of Alaric's burial was quickly lost for some reason and then a (much?) later age made up a suitably romantic story? Like with King Arthur?
 
It's possible. The Goths left the place after Alaric's funeral and moved to Gaul.

Maybe the legend developed when the Ostrogoths under Theodoric ruled Italy some 120 years later. Who knows, Cassiodorus could have been the one to make it up.
 
Hello,

The legend of Alaric's burial has already been used by fine French writer Pierre Michon, in his great book "L'empereur d'Occident" (1989). I don't know if any English translation is available.
 
Thank you, Anon. Just found your comment. I will check that book out - I read French.
 
Alaric was a legendary and most honorable leader for the Goths. He put their name high amongst the high.

Alaric was an inspiration for all Germanic peoples of the time. He elevated his people to a much higher plane than simply "Barbarians."

And his people were noble and gave Rome plenty of respect, despite capturing the city for the first time in over 800 years.

It is too bad that his story is not as well known as it ought to be. We know about such figures as King David, and King Arthur (this last one perhaps a fictitious invention), yet we know so little of a man of the stature of Alaric.

God bless his soul for eternity.
 
Here is a word of advice.

Jordanes was modified in the 10th century. Some words were changed becuase they felt Jordanes grammar was very poor. Well in doing this they may have in inadverntly changed the names of towns or rivers.

The burial site is in modern Calabria, follow the old Roman Roads from the toe up. If you need antique maps of the area let me know, I can send you some images.
 
The problem with burials of kings, or powerful warlords in so called "dark age" or early medieval europe, is that a lot of these have been altered by romanticism from late middle age/late medieval writers/"historians"/propagandists.Doubtless if Alaric had been buried at the bottom of a temporarily diverted river, then his grave would have been washed away a long time ago. All evidence would have been destroyed.
Talking about King Arthur, I'd be surprised if his grave would ever be located. As everyone knows, his supposed grave at Glastonbury Abbey was an ancient publicity stunt and he is supposedly buried at the much debated location of The Isle of Avalon and the largest part of the story of King Arthur was elaborated beyond belief. I'm English myself, so I have done a lot of reading about this. There are, however, two Romano-Brit warlords who are believed to be the actual basis for the character of King Arthur,these being- Aurelianus Ambrosius or Riothamus(who could also be the same person, because Riothamus is a Roman military title). Not forgetting the enigmatic Artognou slate found on Tintagel island.
 
I am from that area, and the locals often talk about how sometimes foreigners come looking around to find the grave and treasure.
I would love to see some old maps of the area.
Also there are Roman evidence in Lappano which is close by and is thought to be where the Romans hid when they were about to take over the city of Cosenza.
I go to Cosenza every couple years and on my next visit I will ask the older folk about the rivers. I was always told that there used to be 7 rivers that flowed in Cosenza at one time.
 
The great King Alaric, elevated to King and raised on a Roman Shield by his army. The man who broke the back of Rome and started the end of the dark ages. Give credit to the men and builders of that era. Look at the walls of Constantinopel, the fortress of carnuntum, Ravenna all dating back to the prior times of Alaric. Built
with rock and limestone. Divert the Busento, no problem with an army of 10,000 and a foolowing of civilians adding another 12,000.
Excavate a cave as grave, lined with marble and limestone, entomb the body with his personal treasure
(as the story goes also with his horse) fill it in and close it off with rocks. Give the river back his old bed, and within no time all that remains is the legend. A creation of glory and heroism. The boy who was borne on an island in the Danaube, poor boy makes good. In these times most of the Gothic Population were converted to Christianity, the clans out of the
Btzantium wer more along the Orthodox tangent, the western roman influence of course was Roman Catholic. In these days we also experienced the split of religion. The Visigoth eventually created the western kingdom out of Toulouse. It is a great Saga, at least as fascinating as the Nibelungs, or Arthur..
 
One more thing, maybe someone will in the near future use ground penetrating radar, or pulsar sounding an start looking again...
 
We are nearly four years on from the last comment; is it too late to post one? It's a saga not without fascination, certainly one that has fired my imagination.

As I understand it, the Goths buried Alaric in the riverbed, yes, but very deep down so that, with the sarcophagus properly mortared in, no river could displace it.

A river can undercut its banks but is unlikely to deepen its course more than a few feet. The Goths would have been skilled at reading rivers. So I hope Alaric is there & that he can rest undisturbed, even by modern technology.

I wonder if Josie DC was able to ask any of the old people of Cosenza about their handed-down recollections or understandings of the 'tale'?

I feel the term 'Barbarians' must have been convenient to give the Goths, when in reality they were much more than that. Because of this epithet we tend to dismiss them as merely uncouth and uneducated. Alaric's qualities suggests a man of integity & feeling. They were certainly nothing if not ingenious.
 
That river during Altac,s time was very large said the locals. Ships used to sail on it. The original river encompassed a large part of the city Cosenza. Today, it is only a small stream and not deep enough or wide enough to host a small canoe. The city has grown and there are buildings on what used to be part of the original river where such ships sailed. Cosenza is in a valley. It is surrounded by mountains. Altac could be anywhere in the older part of Cosenza, where water used to exit. Translations are a funny thing,,,because if translated literally "under the river" is not to be taken literally, it beans alongside and further down in Italian. Josie
 
That river runs through part of my grandfathers property which is located in the lowest point in Cosenza. The locals, in the 1800's used the stream (river) to wash their clothes. The castle, still there, overlooks the city. Over the years, dams were built further north of the city which caused the large river that ran through Cosenza to become a stream. The river in old days used to be a major point of entry for ships, according to the old locals. Altec could be buried anywhere within the old town of Cosenza. House's don't have basements, so it would have been unlikely to have found him.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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