Thrown to the Lions? New evidence revealed for the use of lions during executions in Roman Britain

Archaeologists in Leicester have discovered an elaborately-decorated Roman bronze key handle portraying the execution of captives in the arena by throwing them to lions. The handle portrays a ‘Barbarian’ grappling with a lion, together with four naked youths cowering in terror.

The key handle was discovered by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), buried below the floor of a late Roman town house excavated in the city in 2016. After conservation, this unique object was studied at King’s College London and the findings are now published in the journal Britannia.

Discovery of the key handle.

Dr John Pearce, from King’s College London, co-author of the study said:

“This unique object gives us our most detailed representation of this form of execution found in Roman Britain. As the first discovery of this kind it illuminates the brutal character of Roman authority in this province.”

Dr Gavin Speed, who led the excavations at the site off Great Central Street in Leicester and is a co-author on the study described the moment the find was made:

“When first found, it appeared as an indistinguishable bronze object, but after we carefully cleaned off the soil remarkably we revealed several small faces looking back at us, it was absolutely astounding. Nothing quite like this has been discovered anywhere in the Roman Empire before.”

Roman law sanctioned the execution of criminals and prisoners of war in the arena through the public spectacle of throwing them to the beasts; defined by the Latin term damnatio ad bestias. This form of execution was often used to symbolise the destruction of Rome’s enemies; members of those tribes who lived outside the Roman Empire and were collectively known as ‘Barbarians’.

The conserved key handle.

The main figure portrayed on the handle displays many of the features associated with such ‘Barbarians’ including mane-like hair, a bushy beard, bulging eyes, and the wearing of trousers below a naked torso. The lion is wrapped around his body and bites the side of his head. Beneath the struggle, four naked youths stare outwards; the older two appearing to protect their younger compatriots, one of whom may hold a stone. The youths are thought to symbolise the ‘children of the tribe’ and their imminent demise demonstrates what happens when Roman conquest is opposed.

Details of the ‘barbarian’ and the lion.
Details showing the four naked youths.

Direct evidence for violent spectacles in Roman Britain is otherwise extraordinarily scarce, a rare exception being the puncture wound inflicted by a large carnivore on the pelvis of a male skeleton from Roman York.

Archaeologists believe the key was probably made a century or more after Britain itself had been conquered and it is interesting to reflect on the idea that those whose recent ancestors were themselves considered Barbarians, now shared in the Roman contempt and fear of those who remained outside the Empire.

Many Roman towns in Britain possessed either an amphitheatre or a theatre, where such spectacles could have been witnessed by large crowds. The town house where the key handle was found stands next door to the newly-discovered Roman theatre in Leicester, and it is tempting to think that life did indeed imitate art and that the holders of the key had witnessed such scenes at close quarters.

Lions are portrayed on other key handles from Roman Britain and probably symbolised security and the protection of the household. This sense of security extended beyond the life of the key as a functional object, as the detached handle clearly continued to be valued. It was placed upright in the makeup of a new floor laid long after the heyday of the opulent house it had once secured, in the hope that it would still offer protection.

ULAS post-excavation manager and co-author, Nick Cooper, added that the key handle is one of the most significant finds from Roman Leicester and will be displayed to the public at Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester, following completion of major refurbishment work expected to be completed by 2023.

The key handle features in our new book celebrating over 25 years of discoveries, entitled ‘Secrets from the Soil’, available at shop@le

Dr Speed is a Project Manager at University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) with more than 20 years of archaeological experience on a range of archaeological projects both in the UK and abroad. He also shares his expertise with Archaeology students on their fieldwork module. Discover Archaeology and Ancient History at Leicester.

The project was undertaken in advance of construction for two new 4-star hotels, one of the largest local office developments in the last 20 years in Leicester, and a major refurbishment to the historic former Great Central Station building by Charles Street Buildings.

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