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Following a career as a criminal barrister and QC, I fulfilled a long-postponed ambition to write a novel based on the river-bed tomb of Alaric the Goth and the priceless hoard of Roman gold that was believed to have been buried with him.
Alaric and his army of Goths had sacked Rome in 410 AD. He allowed his men seven days of looting before they marched south intending to conquer Sicily. They left the city, ‘encumbered with rich and weighty spoils’ representing ‘the wealth of all Italy’.
Before he could set sail, and just months after sacking Rome, Alaric succumbed to a mystery illness (possibly malaria) and died at Cosenza in southern Italy.
Diverting the nearby river Busento and carving out a tomb in the vacant river-bed, his troops gave Alaric a spectacular burial – and one of the richest graves in history. Their work complete, the river was returned to its natural course, and the prisoners who had constructed the tomb were slaughtered to preserve the secrecy of the site.
It was a story that I had first encountered many years earlier when I casually picked up a slim volume entitled, ‘By the Ionian Sea’, by the Victorian novelist George Gissing in which he described his travels round Calabria in the 1890s.
Walking beside the banks of the Busento he had mused upon the fabulous treasure that its waters were said to conceal.
Alaric’s Gold is a light-hearted and fast-paced thriller set in modern day Italy telling the story of the search for that treasure.
The characters include; a young English couple; a roguish Italian Prime Minister; his favourite escort girl; dissipated diplomats; corrupt police officers and the ’Ndrangheta – the deadliest of the Calabrian mafias.
The action includes; a helicopter jail break, kidnappings, a siege, a shoot-out with the mafia, and the discovery of a grave that yields a magnificent haul of treasures from the ancient world.
On one level this is a light and entertaining thriller set in the present day, but on another it draws on genuine historical records to point the way to one of the richest graves in antiquity – a grave that according to the historian Edward Gibbon in the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ had been constructed by the Goths in the bed of the river Busento after its waters had been diverted ‘by the labour of a captive multitude’; a grave that contained ‘the splendid spoils and trophies of Rome’; one whose secrecy was assured by the ‘inhuman massacre of the prisoners who had been employed to execute the work’ – and one about which the world appears largely to have forgotten.
It has never been found and, together with its contents, it is almost certainly still in existence. Over the centuries many tomb raiders and treasure hunters have descended upon Cosenza. In the second world war these included Heinrich Himmler who had been despatched by Hitler who, indulging in a highly unreliable reading of history, wished to claim Alaric as an Arian ancestor.
From researching the ancient texts and authorities relied upon by Gibbon it seems likely that they have been looking in the wrong place.
Adopting a theory advanced by Gissing over 120 years ago, the book identifies where the tomb is most likely to be found.