Preserving the “Tomb of the Gladiator” in Rome: A Conversation with Dr. Darius Arya

In 2008, archae­ol­o­gists unearthed an extremely rare and impres­sive mar­ble mau­soleum, along a sec­tion of ancient road, in Rome, Italy. The largest and most ornate tomb was commissioned by a famous Roman general, Marcus Nonius Macrinus (fl. 161 CE), who had loyally served the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 CE). Macrinus’ life and exploits provided the model for Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, in the award-winning film Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott). Few archaeological discoveries have struck a such chord with a worldwide audience, and over time the international press came to refer to the site as the “Tomb of the Gladiator.”

Four years later, with no end in sight to the current financial crisis in Europe, the funds needed to support many heritage sites have evaporated, including those for the “Tomb of the Gladiator.” In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Darius Arya, CEO of the American Institute for Roman Culture, about the historical importance of the “Tomb of the Gladiator” and what is being done to prevent its reburial. Dr. Arya shares his opinions, opening up a dialogue on how best to conserve our ancient, cultural patrimony.

JW: Dr. Darius Arya, thank you for agreeing to speak with me about an issue of grave concern on such short notice. The Ancient History Encyclopedia has been following the controversy surrounding the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus since last December, and we are pleased to share this interview with our global audience. The protection and advocacy of the world’s ancient patrimony is one of chief causes aside from education.

Darius, could you explain in brief who Macrinus was and why his tomb–located along a stretch of the Via Flaminia in northern Rome–is of considerable importance to archaeologists and historians? From what I gather, Macrinus’ tomb is one of four impressive burial sites discovered during excavations in 2008, resembling more a temple than a tomb!

DA: Yes, thank you James for speaking with me! First and foremost, the site in and of itself (distinct from its Gladiator film affiliation–though it is an important affiliation) is a remarkably well-preserved site. The quality of the tombs (especially Macrinus’ temple-tomb structure), the high level of preservation of the entire site, the number of other mausolea, the surviving stretch of Via Flaminia road, and the sheer amount of epigraphic material make the area a treasure trove of information.

Marcus Nonius Macrinus was a Roman general from Brescia who served with distinction under Marcus Aurelius. At the end of his illustrious career–he was consul and then proconsul of Asia–he set up a large temple-like tomb of solid blocks of marble along the curving embankment of the Tiber River. Many of the tomb’s massive marble blocks, including part of the detailed dedicatory inscription, in addition to several architectural features–frieze, cornice, and capitals–have survived, so we can confidently reconstruct the tomb with some certainty.

The context in which the mausoleum was located, a substantial necropolis with several other richly decorated tombs, is outstanding and immediately creates a striking impression on the observer. The successive robbing of several tombs is also quite visible (frozen in time as it were) due to the periodic flooding of the Tiber. We can thus see the process of looting both interrupted and preserved–this is yet another great layer of Rome’s story. Randomly, one mausoleum was even converted into a limekiln!

JW: In December 2012, the Italian Ministry of Culture disclosed its inability to fund a project to protect and showcase the ruins unearthed several years ago. Given the Italian government’s program of austerity, it appears that Macrinus’ tomb will be reburied.

Would this course of action prove detrimental to the ruins and Macrinus’ tomb, Darius? What would the American Institute for Roman Culture like to propose instead?

DA: Burial is the best thing that one can do for preservation. This is true anywhere, any time. There is no doubt about it. Think of the site before it was uncovered–in a static situation, buried beneath 14 m (45 ft) of alluvial mud deposited over time. Think of all the sites with more fragile frescoes–revealed for the first time after thousands of years–and of their immediate deterioration, despite the best efforts on the part of conservationists. The same holds true for human remains locked in the tombs of the pyramids before being discovered. In each case, we have upset the previous balance achieved by long periods of burial.

Obviously if the Macrinus site is reburied, it would be better off than just left exposed to the elements and water infiltration. However, the excavation has already disturbed the previous balance forever: a simple reburial is not enough to maintain the integrity of the site. Additionally, the site and the gaping hole made to reveal the site, is massive. Just consider filling in a hole of 12,000 sq m for a depth of 7 m! What would be the end result? The construction of modern houses atop what was once a thrilling discovery? If reburial is done now, it is unlikely that anyone will go through all the effort to dig out the reburied site and restart the process all over again.

I think that a collaborative effort must be made. I can attest that with all of the continued public interest and press, the Italian Superintendency of Archaeology is making a real effort to consider all options to fund the conclusion of the excavation and create a sustainable management plan for its operations. Contrary to what people might believe, viable sources of funding do exist. So we must “solve” the problem now and in short order–not just with funds but also with a sustainable plan–otherwise we will be talking about the Macrinus site as a failed attempt of preservation.

JW: Darius, how can the public–regardless of where they live–help you and the AIRC save this extraordinary site for posterity? What obstacles must be met immediately to prevent the reburial of the site?

DA: The best thing would be for the public to help us meet our goal of 5000 signatures on our petition to the Italian government, and exceed it as soon as possible. That would send a most powerful message. It needs to be done now. In terms of difficulties we face, it really comes down to coordinating interests and resources for a fruitful and sustainable outcome. It is difficult to make it all happen and in short order.

JW: Across Europe, cultural patrimony has suffered due to the prolonged economic crisis. Museums and cultural organizations have faced dwindling budgets while archaeological sites have endured heartbreaking neglect. From the robberies at the Olympia Museum in Greece to the near-collapse of a portion of a wall in Pompeii, Italy, European cultural and archaeological treasures are under terrible strain. At the same time, important cultural sites around the world face imminent destruction: Timbuktu in Mali and Mes Aynak in Afghanistan are among the more notable.

Why have you chosen to take a stand and make a difference?

DA: Indeed James, horrible actions are taking place, across the world daily: the destruction of artifacts due to looting; war; unchecked urban expansion; and casual neglect. The protection of Marcinus’ tomb is an opportunity for the global community take a stand together–let us create new, sustainable partnerships for the preservation of our historical treasures. Money is limited but money is key, so why not create multiple funding sources that benefit multiple parties involved? An urban developer discovered this site; they funded the subsequent large-scale excavation and are willing to modify their plans to accommodate the site, contributing in turn to its eventual conversion into a public site.

Why not create such a partnership to include them, the Superintendency, the city of Rome, outside organizations (AIRC included), conservation groups, and the public, to participate and contribute? That would be a real success and a new model for Rome; it cannot just be outside sponsors footing the entire bill each time–as is the case with the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain–because “one-time contributions” do not usually offer sustainability. More lasting systems must be created for long-term effects. Sustainability is the lynchpin in the conservation of cultural patrimony around the world.

JW: The Ancient History Encyclopedia applauds you, Darius, and the operations of the AIRC in safeguarding our ancient, cultural heritage. Please keep us posted on any new developments. We thrilled to be supporting your cause!

DA: Thank you for your time and interest! I am glad that we can keep the conversation going through this interview. We need to have loud, frequent, and constant conversations about cultural heritage. Interest in our past and our individual heritage is such of big part of who we are. Hopefully, we can be part of the movement to make the conversation an integral part of our daily life and foster more appreciation–this will lead to action benefiting us all.


1: The Roman Colosseum. Original illustration by Diliff. Uploaded by Jan van der Crabben, published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-ShareAlike.

2: Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany. Original illustration by Bibi Saint-Pol. Uploaded by Jan van der Crabben, published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: Public Domain.

3-4: Excavated objects from Marcinus’ tomb in Rome, Italy. Photographs courtesy of Dr. Darius Arya.

Darius A. Arya is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of the American Institute for Roman Culture. Responsible for the day to day operation of the nonprofit, he also directs all Archaeology and Classical Civilization programming and co-directs the Institute’s Villa delle Vignacce excavation project. Dr. Arya received his BA from the University of Pennsylvania and his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. He first studied in Rome in 1992, and returned to the city in 1998 on a Fulbright Fellowship. He is a Rome Prize recipient from the American Academy in Rome and received a fellowship from the University of Texas. Arya has appeared as guest lec­turer, expert, and host in numer­ous doc­u­men­taries for Dis­cov­ery, His­tory, and National Geo­graphic chan­nels, and has been cited in the New York Times, The Guardian, and on the BBC. Most recently, he has appeared on National Geographic’s “When Rome Ruled,” and His­tory Channel’s “Caligula: 1400 Days of Ter­ror.” For more information on Dr. Arya’s activities, please visit his blog in addition to his Digging Through Time Project.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All photographs supplied by Dr. Darius Arya are copyrighted and belong exclusively to him. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. Other images were obtained under legal means and have been properly attributed. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.