Bronze artefact dating to 200AD could indicate that the Romans transported lions to Britain

A carved bronze key handle depicting an unarmed barbarian fighting with a lion, with four naked men cowering in fear alongside, has been found by archaeologists in Leicester. The subject of the key handle is a scene of the Damnatio ad bestias (“condemnation to beasts”), a form of Roman capital punishment, in which a criminal was killed by wild animals.

The discovery of this artefact is thought to be evidence that this type of punishment, which was a public entertainment at the time, was occurring in Roman Britain. Dr John Pearce, a senior lecturer in archaeology at King’s College London, described this find as, “really quite surprising” and that the existence of this object is, “the first evidence that Roman Britain imported lions for the execution of captives in public spectacles in Leicester.” Pearce, working with Dr Gavin Speed and Nicholas Cooper from the University of Leicester, will be publishing the findings this week in the journal Britannia. The key handle was found at the excavation site of what would have been a grand townhouse, which, by coincidence, is only a short distance down the road from the site where, in 2012, archaeologists found the remains of Richard III of England (1452-1485).

Scholars of Roman Britain have previously not thought that lions and other wild animals found in Rome at this time, such as lynxes and hippos, would have been imported into England. These types of animals were brought to Rome from Mesopotamia and North Africa, and it has always been considered implausible that they were ever transported all the way to Britain. But Pearce now argues, based on the existence of the key handle, that these animals could have arrived in Britain, and may have come from, “one of those imperial parks around Rome, used for the Colosseum.” Pearce suggests this would have been a fairly treacherous journey, stating that: “The odds were stacked heavily against its [the animals] survival.”

Pearce believes that the key handle was made in Britain, which would indicate the presence of these animals in the country, as the barbarians face, beard and hair are very similar to other portrayals in Roman Britain. Another Roman survival, a 4th century mosaic at a villa at Rudston in the East Riding of Yorkshire, also depicts a similar scene. Pearce states: “It has always intrigued people because it’s got a scene that looks really out of place: it looks like a botched version of something you might find in North Africa. People assumed this was just someone copying North African mosaics, and had nothing to do with anything happening in Britain. I wonder, with the Leicester artefact, if we should no longer treat that mosaic as a generic one.” Another example of this type of scene – in which a leopard is attacking a prisoner – can be found at the Archaeological Museum of Tunisia.

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