You’ve seen it depicted in movies. You’ve read about it in history books. The practice has entered the modern lexicon to mean being placed in a situation with insurmountable odds and no training. You may even know it by its Latin name: “Damnatio ad bestias” – “condemnation to beasts.” We’re talking about ‘being fed to the lions’ – a gruesome form of execution typically attributed to the ancient Romans and used on criminals, slaves, poor people and early Christians, but the practice was actually widespread wherever lions and other big cats are found. While there is ample evidence that there are a few formerly pet panthers and other big cats in Britain, the fact that they’re referred to as ‘alien’ big cats shows they probably weren’t around during the Roman occupation. However, new evidence found shows those gore-loving Romans may have brought their own to Leicester for the purpose of exterminating humans.
“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.”
The ‘object’ is a bronze key handle depicting a man fighting a lion while four naked youths look on in fright. According to a new study published in the journal Britannia, it was discovered by members of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services buried beneath the floor of a Roman town house excavated in Leicester in 2016. Dr. John Pearce, co-author of the study from King’s College London, cleaned the object, not expecting it to be any different than other Roman key handles found the area. He was wrong.
“Dress and facial features clearly identify the figure as a barbarian, though not of an easily recognisable ethnic type. The lion's upper body presses against the chest of the barbarian, while its lower body curves around his left side. Its head reaches upwards, a ridge extending from the brow to the tip of the nose, with eyes and ears clearly rendered. Teeth are just visible in the jaws, which open to bite the left side of the human's head.”
Romans referred to all non-Roman tribes as “barbarians.” There’s nothing in the design to help determine why this particular “barbarian” or the younger ones were being fed to a lion, but those living in conquered Britain were known to hold the Romans in contempt and that caused the Romans to find ways to strike fear into rabble-rousers. Lions were depicted on other key handles from the Roman Britain – probably as a symbol of security. This is the only one ever found showing “Damnatio ad bestias” and it could be because the house was next another recent discovery – a Roman theatre in Leicester. (Photos from various angles in this press release.) Is this where the barbarian met his demise and inspired a bronze handle maker?
“Taking this evidence into account, and noting the evidence described above for destruction of captives in the provinces as well as in the metropolis, it is not impossible that the handle's creation was inspired directly by a spectacle located in Britain, even perhaps in the adjacent theatre.”
The Leicester theater was small, so the execution would have been up close and personal (imagine a Gallagher performance with bloodier watermelons). Because the door handle dates to around 200 CE, over 100 years after the Roman conquest, the owners of the house may have been descendants of those who were once ‘barbarians’, but now supported the Romans and cheered for the lions. The study also suggests that the handle may just be a depiction of a “Damnatio ad bestias” back in Rome for those who miss the spectacles and want to let the ‘barbarians’ know they can be bloodthirsty when provoked.
Did the Romans bring alien big cats to Britain for the sole purpose of feeding humans to them? The door handle hints ‘yes’ … what would prove it would be lion bones, gnawed human bones or DNA-filled lion poop.
Aren’t you glad we use round doorknobs that don’t depict anything … unless there’s a sock on it?