When archaeologists announced the discovery of the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus in Rome in 2008, the find was heralded as the most important in decades. Built in the shape of a temple, with tall fluted columns and an intricately carved sarcophagus, it was the final resting place for the Roman general who served as inspiration for Russell Crowe‘s character in the movie Gladiator, unearthed a the site of a planned housing project some 1,800 years after its construction.
In contrast, the December 2012 announcement regarding the tomb was much more muted. Italy’s cash-strapped ministry of culture declared it was unable to find the several million euros that would be required to protect the ruins and turn them into a tourist attraction. Instead, the Gladiator’s Tomb, as the site has come to be known, would likely have to be buried once again.
The fate of Macrinus’ monument illustrated the challenges faced by even the most spectacular bits of Italy’s past, as historical preservation falls prey to austerity. Funding for the maintenance of the country’s archaeological riches has been slashed by 20% since 2010. In the ancient city of Pompeii, the ruins are literally crumbling from neglect, and sites like the Coliseum in Rome and the Rialto Bridge in Venice have been forced to find corporate saviors to prevent the same from happening to them.
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Further excavations are just about out of the question. The Gladiator’s Tomb is one of four monumental burial sites discovered during the excavation, part of what was once a necropolis predominantly dedicated to military men. The site includes a 70-meter stretch of perfectly preserved paving stones—lined in places with the disused tombstones of imperial bodyguards—that disappears tantalizingly into the earth on either side of the dig. “It’s like discovering a vein of gold and not being able to follow it,” says Giacomo Restante, the architect who is overseeing the technical aspects of the excavation.
Of the uncovered burial sites, Macrinus’ is by far the largest, and the only one shaped like a temple. Where Crowe’s fictional character in Gladiator fell into disgrace and was sold into slavery, the real-life general enjoyed a flourishing career, served as a close adviser to the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and led campaigns in Spain and Asia. Dedicated to him by his son, his tomb was elaborately carved and built entirely of marble; even the roof is made from slabs of white stone. “Other tombs in Rome were made with a marble facade and the rest in brick,” says Federica Chiocci, the archaeologist overseeing the dig. “Macrinus wanted to build himself a real and proper temple.”
By the time the site was buried by the flooding of the nearby Tiber River, it had already begun to crumble. The ruins are preserved as they were in the 12th century A.D., some 1,000 years after the tomb’s construction, when medieval diggers had begun to pull it apart, recycling the general’s marble ruins for building materials. Most of the walls and the foundation have long been carried away. What remain are the bits that were hardest to recycle, those most elaborately carved. The entire left side of the facade, including—miraculously—the block containing the inscription that bears the general’s name, lies to one side of the burial site. Just beyond it, lies a neighboring tomb that the medieval diggers converted into a lime kiln. Inside it, Chiocci and her colleagues found partially burnt bits of Macrinus’ sarcophagus.
For the moment, the plan to bury the site has been put on hold. An online petition to save the Gladiator’s Tomb, organized by American Institute for Roman Culture, a group dedicated to the preservation of city’s ancient remains, has gathered some 3,700 signatures. “This should be a high profile site, if only because it’s associated with Gladiator.” says Darius Arya, the group’s CEO. “When you think about archeology, you think about ancient Rome, and then you think about that movie.” Russell Crowe has voiced his support, retweeting links to the petition and telling Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that, “Of all the great nations of the world, Italy in particular should be a leader in promoting the importance of exploring and conserving the ancient past.”
In the coming months, the city of Rome, Italy’s culture ministry and the developers who own the site will be discussing its future. The American Institute for Roman Culture has proposed raising a mix of public and private money for its preservation. Long centuries spent under a slightly acidic soil has weakened the marble. Exposed to the elements, its brilliant white has faded. Some pieces have begun to fragment and chip.Many of the marble blocks have been covered by cloth, in a stopgap effort to protect them. “We need to get together and find some sort of agreement and funding,” says Daniela Rossi, the archaeologist in charge of the site. “Otherwise, the only thing is to bury it. It will go back to being a tomb.”