By Nick Pisa in Rome
A chance discovery by archaeologists has brought to light a mosaic nearly 2,000 years old depicting what may have been a real-life version of the Roman combatant played by Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator.
The mosaic was found as Italian researchers carried out work on the spectacular Villa dei Quintili, south of Rome and home to the sports-loving Emperor Commodus.
Commodus, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the film, was known to enjoy gladiatorial combat and had a small amphitheatre in which fighters would train, near the villa, which Commodus had seized after having its owners executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. It was nearby that the mosaic was found - picturing a gladiator named Montanus holding a trident alongside a referee who appears to be pronouncing him the victor over a prone opponent.
Riccardo Frontoni, who is leading the dig, said: "Historically, this is a very significant and exciting discovery because of the location where it was found: the Villa dei Quintili, which we know was Commodus's residence.
"It's close to the area where there was a small amphitheatre, and his love of blood sports is well known.
"The mosaics are in excellent condition and show the figure of a gladiator with the name Montanus. It's possible that Montanus may have been a favourite of Commodus and that the mosaic was dedicated to him."
Commodus was emperor from AD180 to 192, when he was strangled in his bath by the wrestler Narcissus, at the age of 31. He is depicted in the film as a scheming, bloodthirsty megalomaniac who eventually murders the character played by Crowe, the gladiator Maximus.
The real-life Commodus occasionally dressed up as a gladiator himself and fought in the arena, a practice that scandalised polite Roman society, which regarded such fighters as occupying the lowest rungs on the social ladder.
But while his arena opponents frequently survived because they submitted to the emperor, he is known to have enjoyed killing his sparring partners.
Appreciation of the potential value of the new discovery has not been confined to the archaeological world. Just hours after it was shown to The Sunday Telegraph, thieves tried to prise the 10 sq m scene from the ground, damaging the mosaic.
Mr Frontoni said: "We are disappointed that someone has tried to steal it. However, the damage was relatively small and the pieces that were broken off have been recovered, so we should be able to restore it."