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Gladiator hero's tomb found in Rome

His story won Oscars when it was brought to life by Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius in the Hollywood movie Gladiator.

Now Marcus Nonius Macrinus, who inspired the 2000 epic, is winning plaudits all over again, with the discovery of his tomb being hailed as the most important Roman artefact find in decades.

Prof Daniela Rossi, the archaeologist overseeing the dig, said: "It's at least 20 or 30 years since pieces of this importance have come to light in Rome."

The army general's final resting place was unearthed some seven metres below ground and close to the banks of the Tiber on the outskirts of Italy's capital.

The tomb's 15-metre marble colonnades and inscriptions – almost perfectly preserved by the mud over the millennia – give a detailed insight into who he was.

They show, as did the movie, that he had the ear of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and fought alongside him in repelling Germanic tribesmen who threatened to overrun second century Rome from the north.

But then fact parts from fiction. The celluloid Maximus is sold into slavery in North Africa, returning to Rome as a gladiator and eventually dying in the Colosseum after a duel with Marcus Aurelius's scheming son Commodus.

The real Macrinus, however, was born in Brescia, in modern-day Lombardy, in AD138 and was also a police commissioner and a magistrate.

He launched his army career under Antoninus Pius, ruler from AD138 to AD161 and also fought for his successor  Marcus Aurelius, emperor until AD180.

In AD170, as a reward for his battlefield victories, he was made a pro-consul of Asia.

Prof Rossi said: "The movie character has a very sad story and comes to a terrible end while ours becomes a rich and famous man."

The magnificent sepulchre alongside Via Flamini, leading north-east out of Rome, was built at the end of the second century on the orders of Marcus Macrinus's son.

One theory is that second-century workers were surprised by sudden flooding from the nearby river.

Whatever fate befell it, layers of fluvial deposits kept the tomb's secrets safe for more than 18 centuries.

Prof Rossi hailed the exceptional nature of the architecture, "not only in the beauty of individual pieces but also in the quality of manufacture."

The site is owned by a construction company that plans to erect private housing. Although the firm has sponsored the excavation and pledged to pay for a museum to house unearthed ruins, its keenness to continue construction means archaeologists expect to have only until the year-end to finish their work.

In that time they hope to unearth the rest of the tomb, which appears to have been imposingly grand. Prof Rossi said: "It appears there was a row of columns at least 15 metres long, so it was quite huge."

She also hopes to discover how Marcus Macrinus met his end. "We don't know," she admitted. "But perhaps we will if we find the rest of the broken inscriptions."

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