Friday, December 7th, 2012
Four years ago, archaeologists surveying a future construction site near the Via Flaminia road just north of Rome discovered the remains of a monumental tomb. Latin inscriptions on marble identified the mausoleum as that of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, a Roman general from the 2nd century A.D. whose military successes against the Germanic tribes and role as adviser and battle companion of emperor Marcus Aurelius helped inspire the Maximus character in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Of course the Gladiator connection made the biggest PR splash at the time, but even setting that aside the discovery was enormously significant.
Archaeologists had every expectation of finding something because the ancient sources suggested the site would intersect with the ancient Roman version of the Via Flaminia, a major road first built by censor Gaius Flaminius around 220 B.C. which heads north from Rome through the Apennines ending at Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The road was used continuously by friend and foe from the time of its construction under the Roman Republic through World War II. Several major battles were fought along its path.
The discovery of so grand a tomb, however, with large, exquisitely carved architectural elements still in good condition, was not expected. Many important marble remains were quarried in post-Roman times for reuse in other buildings or crushed to make lime. What saved this mausoleum was also what destroyed it: a Tiber flood. The banks of the Tiber are a few tens of yards away. At some point after the tomb’s construction, the river burst its banks and tore the structure down. Safely buried in warm Tiber mud, the architectural components of the tomb remained exactly as the river left them, undisturbed for centuries.
The good condition and copious quantity of remains dangled the exciting prospect before the regional ministry of archaeology that the tomb could be reconstructed. The foundations of the structure were still in place, so it would be a matter of reassembling the columns, friezes, lintels, tympana and arches toppled by the flood. A heroic nude statue found along with some marble blocks during Tiber embankment work in 1956 in the same area as the tomb might also have been part of the mausoleum, perhaps even representing General Marcus Nonius Macrinus himself.
What we know of Macrinus comes almost entirely from epigraphic evidence, including a number of inscriptions found in Brescia, Macrinus’ birthplace and the hometown of the prominent Nonius family. Macrinus climbed the cursus honorum, the traditional ladder of senatorial politics, starting at a bracingly young age. Antoninus Pius was emperor when he began. He was a senator by the age of around 25 in 138 A.D. and consul 16 years later in 154 A.D. Marcus Aurelius succeeded Pius after his death in 161 A.D. and at the end of that decade fought with Macrinus against the Quadi and Marcomanni who had invaded Italy, the first Germanic tribes to do so since Gaius Marius soundly spanked the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae in 101 B.C.
One inscription from the base of a statue found in the agora of Ephesus, Greece, covers almost Macrinus’ entire career:
M[arcus Nonius] Macrinus, consul of Rome, proconsul of Asia, quindecimvir sacris faciundis [(the priestly college in charge of guarding the Sibylline Books)], entered by appointment in the college of the closest friends as a sodalis Antoninianus Verianus [(the religious association dedicated to the deified emperor Antoninus Pius, adopted father of Marcus Aurelius)], legate and campaign companion of the very great emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, consular governor of Upper Pannonia, governor of Lower Pannonia, curator of the Tiber and of its two banks, commander of the XIV legion, praetor of Rome, tribune of the plebs, Asian legate , quaestor, laticlave tribune [(i.e., second in command)] of the XVII legion [(this is a mistake; Legio XVII was destroyed in the infamous Battle of Teutoburg Forest under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus and was never reconstituted because of the abysmally bad luck associated with it; Marcinus' laticlave tribunate was probably of the XVI legion)], decemvir stlitibus iudicandis [(one of ten judges assigned to adjudicate capitol cases in the imperial era)], savior of the province.
I can’t find a transcript of the inscriptions discovered at the mausoleum, but it was doubtless much of the same material. More than 10 inscriptions detail his life and works and note that the tomb was built by his son to honor the father. Junior wasn’t stingy about it, either. Archaeologists estimate that one row of columns was at least 50 feet long, so you can imagine what a massive structure this was.
With its impressive size and inscriptions clearly marking it as the final resting place of an illustrious Roman connected to a hugely popular Oscar-winning sword-and-sandal movie, the reconstructed tomb would become the centerpiece of an archaeological park along the ancient Via Flaminia. The park would also include a series tombs discovered on the sixth mile of the road and the villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, famed for its frescoes and as the discovery spot of the Augustus of Prima Porta which now resides in the Vatican Museums. State archaeologist Daniela Rossi called the tomb the most important Roman find of the past 20 or 30 years.
Fast forward to 2012 and with government budgets slashed by austerity, not only is there no chance of the mausoleum being rebuilt, but they can’t even afford to maintain the site anymore. Archaeological superintendent Mariarosaria Barbera announced Tuesday that they have made the painful decision to rebury the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus. Her announcement as quoted in the Italian daily La Repubblica:
It’s a question of security. The superintendence has invested its own funds in additional excavation and study. Now unfortunately the time has come to rebury the area. The site will be temporarily covered to preserve the artifacts that cannot stand another winter in the open exposed to the elements. It’s December; it’s cold; soon it will freeze. The marbles cannot stand another year in these conditions. At the moment there are no funds for any development solutions. It’s painful to cover them up, but it would be even more painful to think that they might not withstand the cold and that they run the risk of falling apart and deteriorating completely.
The site won’t be entirely reburied. The remains will be partially covered, enough to protect them while still making future interventions relatively easy. The dream of the park has not been abandoned. They’re probably going to need private donors, however, to make it happen.