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Artifact Reveals People Were Fed To Lions In Roman Britain

Artifact Reveals People Were Fed To Lions In Roman Britain

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Archaeologists have presented gory visual evidence that problematic people were fed to lions in Roman Britain. Excavations at a Roman house in Leicester, England in 2017 unearthed a dirt-caked bronze artifact that turned out to be a Roman bronze key handle. It’s the only one that’s ever been found in all of the former territories of the Roman Empire!

The detailed figures and scenes on the handle paint a graphic picture of someone who’s literally been thrown to the lions! The artifact displays the figure of a man engaged in combat with a ferocious lion. Four fearful youths, stripped naked, look over the brutal scene.

The upper half of the Roman Britain bronze key handle showing the rear and front of views of the man and lion. (G. Speed / University of Leicester Archaeological Services)

The Friars Causeway Key Handle Shows Roman Britain Execution

The rare Roman artifact is known as the “Friars Causeway key handle,” so-called after the place it was found, in Leicester, England.

A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester have now published a new study about the bronze key handle in the journal Britannia. Coauthor, Gavin Speed, said in a statement that when the key was first discovered it appeared as an indistinguishable bronze object. However, cleaning revealed “several small faces looking back at us… It was absolutely astounding.”

The Friars Causeway key handle after conservation (length: 120 mm or 4.7 inches). (G. Speed / University of Leicester Archaeological Services)

The scene depicts “a gory public execution,” according to Speed. An article in Art Net featuring co-author, John Pearce, of King s College London, quotes the archaeologist as saying “nothing quite like this key has ever been discovered.” Not only was Pearce referring to Roman and Celtic sites in Britain, but to the entirety of the Roman Empire. He said the artifact “illuminates the brutal character of Roman authority” in Britannia.

The lower half of the key handle: youths 1–4 from left to right. This remarkable artifact is shedding more light on Roman Britain and how “criminals” were dealt with by the Romans in Britannia.        Source: G. Speed / University of Leicester Archaeological Services

A Symbol Of The “All-Powerful Empire”

The ancient key handle was created around 200 AD at the height of Roman power in Britain. It will be displayed at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester in 2023, after the current renovation project is complete.

The poor soul depicted in the gory scene, fighting a lion, is shown shirtless with long hair and a scruffy beard. It is thought that the man represents a Celtic warrior. The scene is thought to depict the imminent demise of those conquered by the Romans, “symbolizing the futility of anyone opposing the all-powerful empire.”

Before we continue, I should address the concerns many of you will be having right now. It seems like only yesterday archaeologists were questioning if Christians really were thrown to the lions? In 2018 Aleteia asked this very question and concluded “Well, yes and no.”

Henryk Sienkiewicz s 1895 novel  Quo Vadis (and its 1951 film adaptation) cemented the idea that Emperor Nero fed folk to lions. However, this was “not the case.” Historically, 4th-century-AD Lactantius, a Christian professor of Latin and bishop of Caesarea in modern-day Israel, cited Nero as the “first persecutor of Christians.” The emperor blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome and according to the Roman historian Tacitus, had them “covered in wild beast skins and torn apart by dogs.”

Mosaic pavement in main reception room of the Roman Britain town house where the graphic bronze key handle was discovered in 2017 in Leicester, England. (G. Speed / University of Leicester Archaeological Services)

Lions Were The Least Of The Christian’s Problems

An article in The Conversation explains that punishments given to Christians began in the first and early second centuries AD. At that time Christians who were Roman citizens, including the apostle Paul, were quickly, and therefore mercifully, executed by beheading.

By the late second century AD the punishments included crucifixion, burning and… “being attacked by beasts.” This meant the condemned, and their companions, were placed in an arena with variety of wild, ferocious and hungry animals including leopards, boars, and . . . lions. The whole ordeal with wild animals was known in Latin as “ damnatio ad bestias.”

Several scenes of animals attacking Christians have been found at the Colosseum in Rome. But the Roman Britain bronze key of Leicester is “the first evidence” of wild animals killing prisoners in Britain.

According to an article in the Times, rich Romans in Britain imported lions from Mesopotamia and North Africa, “by river boat and wagon.” It is now known that even at the fringes of the Roman Empire animals were used to control, to subjugate, and to fatally punish so-called rebellious “barbarians.”

Top image: Researcher holding the hand-sized bronze Roman key handle thought to demonstrated the punishments that were used in Roman Britain. Source: University of Leicester Archaeological Services

By Ashley Cowie



When you say “Christians” you are alluding to “Gnostics” correct? Weren't they they Christians of the time?

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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