The sudden death of Alaric I (c. 370-410 AD), the vanquisher of Rome: A tale of malaria and lacking immunity

Francesco M. Galassi, Raffaella Bianucci, Giacomo Gorini, Giacomo M. Paganotti, Michael E. Habicht, Frank J. Rühli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Background Alaric I (c. 370-410 AD), King of the Visigoths, sacked Rome for the second time in over eight centuries of history. Historians suggest that malaria, probably contracted either in Rome or in the Pontine Marshes, was responsible for his sudden death in Cosenza (Calabria) in the autumn of 410 AD, where he was allegedly buried in the River Busento. In this article, we aim to examine this hypothesis through a full pathographic reassessment of the most likely cause of Alaric's demise. Methods To achieve this, we resorted to a dual philological-medical approach: clinical likelihood and malaria seasonality coupled with primary historical sources (mainly Jordanes' work De origine actibusque Getarum) and the reconstruction of the itineraries followed by Alaric and his army after the sack of Rome. Results Sudden death is caused by several factors. The possibility that Alaric died of a cardiovascular disease was discarded since no description of potentially pathological signs emerged from the available sources. Given his lack of semi-immunity, falciparum malaria was considered as the most likely cause of his demise. It took him over two months to reach the coasts of Calabria during the peak of malaria's transmission (summer-autumn). During the march, Alaric did not suffer from recurrent fevers or other ailments, which would have been reported by historians. Conclusion The scenario emerging from this multidisciplinary reanalysis allows us to hypothesise that Plasmodium falciparum malaria, contracted during his journey through Calabria, was the most likely candidate responsible for Alaric's unexpected demise.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)84-87
Number of pages4
JournalEuropean Journal of Internal Medicine
Volume31
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 9 Mar 2016
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Alaric I
  • Immunity
  • Malaria
  • Paleopathology
  • Late Antiquity
  • History
  • Roman Empire

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