Rome - The tomb of the Roman general who inspired the film Gladiator risks falling into oblivion despite a plea from Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe to save it, as recession-hit Italy struggles to preserve its archaeological jewels.
"It's incredibly sad, this is an extraordinary site. Its fate has caught the eyes of the world," said Daniela Rossi, head archaeologist on the dig that unearthed the tomb of Roman general Marcus Nonius Macrinus.
Rossi's team in 2008 uncovered fragments of the tomb under thick strata of mud and clay.
Their remarkable discovery of a stretch of ancient Roman road lined by tombs in an industrial wasteland outside Rome sparked four years of painstaking excavation and restoration projects, costing some €700 000.
But Italy's battle to stave off the debt crisis has seen the government impose austerity cuts which have shaved 20% off the budget for maintenance of Italy's ancient sites - from the Colosseum to Pompeii - since 2010, and funds for the tomb dig have dried up.
With an estimated €2m needed to finish cleaning up the site and protect it from air pollution and winter ice, the city said the only option was to rebury the tomb to preserve it.
The news sparked an online campaign by the American Institute for Roman Culture to keep it open, prompting Crowe - whose character in the 2000 film was based on the real-life Macrinus - to join the fight to save the tomb.
Crowe's appeal, Rossi said, was what forced the city to re-think its approach and the ruins will no longer be re-interred - though they are being covered up under protective fabric, with no guarantee that work at the dig will start again in the spring.
"It was media pressure which finally put a halt to the idea of reburying the site. Crowe's intervention was generous and I hope it has changed the tomb's future," Rossi said.
Next to the tomb, delicately-carved marble columns and terracotta tiles line a stretch of perfectly preserved Roman road -- the ancient Via Flaminia, which runs north along the Tiber river and bears the marks of the soldiers and merchants' carts which thundered in and out of the capital each day.
The land now belongs to the Bonifaci real estate group, which reportedly aims to build three luxury apartment blocks on the site, though it is considering "sponsoring a project to improve the area" around the tomb, which it would keep apart from the houses.
"We are in talks to try and secure funding from the landowners, but it's far from a done deal and we're not counting on being able to uncover the site again," Rossi said.
"They have at least promised that whatever happens, they will not build on top of it," she added.
Macrinus ruled swathes of what is now Central Europe and Turkey after a number of military victories under Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Unlike the film character, the successful general was not then made a slave and never became a gladiator under Aurelius's son Commodus.