Roman Psychological Warfare in Britain? Archaeologists Think They've Found the Key
Under the floor of a large second century CE town house, archeologists unearthed an unusual item depicting a grisly scene.
Back in 2016, before the days of COVID, investors were feeling confident about the travel industry. In the process of clearing land to construct a new shopping and hotel complex in Leicester, England, construction workers stumbled across a Roman site. Under the floor of a large second century CE town house, archeologists unearthed an unusual key handle. It shows a grisly scene: a barbarian in the process of being eaten by a lion while four barbarian boys—their eyes practically bulging out of their heads—look on in fear, perhaps anticipating their fate. The cruelty is matched by the unpredictability of the find: lions are unknown in the British Isles. Does the key offer evidence that this form of execution was exported to Roman England?
The bronze handle was separated from the actual key long before its discovery but, even so, the conspicuous 5-inch handle weighs in at 11 ounces. It offers enough space for the artist to vividly depict the emotions of the barbarian victims (easily identifiable from their hairstyles). The key was discovered by the University of Leicester Archeological Services and jointly studied with a team at King’s College London. The results of these investigations were published early this month in the archeology journal Britannia. Dr Gavin Speed, one of the coauthors of the study, said in a press statement that “nothing quite like this has been discovered anywhere in the Roman Empire before.”
At the time when the key was forged and in use Britain was a Roman frontier. Conceptually, the Romans understood it to be at the edge of civilization; the poet Horace wrote that the Britons were the “furthest people of the world.” Britons were known for dyeing their bodies blue and green and for tattooing their faces. As the Romans reserved facial brands and tattoos as a punishment for enslaved people who tried to escape captivity, they saw everything about the Britons as alien and animalistic. According to most Roman writers, it was a place of savagery inhabited by animalistic barbarians who were the very antithesis of everything civilized and Roman.
Much like today, Romans commented on the British weather; bemoaning the miserable winters, short nights, and wet weather. The poet Florus, a friend of the emperor Hadrian and ancient travel buff, wrote in a short satirical poem, “I don’t want to be Caesar, please/ to tramp round the Britons, weak at the knees/ in the Scythian frosts to freeze.”
Despite the terrible weather and (to Roman elites) objectionable residents, the difficulty capturing the rugged island was part of the appeal. Dying at the edge of the world, the Roman general and governor of Britain Gnaeus Julius Agricola said on the eve of the Battle of Mons Grapius (modern day Scotland) in 83 CE, had its own special kind of glory. And yet, like other “barbarian” peoples, the people of Britain understandably resisted Roman rule leading the Romans to respond with harsh displays of military might and the unprecedented construction of Hadrian’s wall in 122 CE.
Dr. John Pearce of King’s College London, the lead author of the newly published article, said that the imagery on the key “illuminates the brutal character of Roman authority in this province.” The scene is hardly hypothetical, after all, Romans did execute criminals and enslaved people by condemning them ad bestias as a form of public entertainment. The ferocity and brutality of these modes of execution did not just debase and dehumanize the victims, it also served as a warning to others of the high costs of resistance and rebellion.
Lions, of course, were not indigenous to Europe and were exported to Rome from Mesopotamia and Africa at considerable expense. For both the Romans and, later, the English they had a particular status as “king of the beasts.” A top-quality lion cost as much as 600,000 sesterces while a second-class lioness fetched 400,000 (Compare this to the mere 1000 sesterces going rate for a bear). Roman emperors found other uses for them as well. The emperors Caracalla and Elagabalus kept lions; the latter’s pets were de-fanged and de-clawed and Elagabalus enjoyed unleashing these modified predators upon his dinner guests as a heart-attack inducing prank. They had other uses, too. According to Aelian, Queen Berenice kept a pet lion who acted as a part time aesthetician; he would lick her face with his tongue and “smooth away her wrinkles” (Aelian Nat. an. 5.39). Given the expense and manifold uses for lions, actually killing one in the arena for entertainment was a way of saying that you had money to burn.
Though excavators in Leicester have found no signs that people were condemned to the beasts in Roman Britain, the authors of the study suggest that this might have been a possibility. At a minimum, however, the key is a sign that knowledge of this iconic form of punishment had travelled throughout the empire and was well-known enough to be used as threat.
The potency of the imagery is only amplified by the function of the object that it adorns. While keys today are small objects that help us conceal secret spaces and objects and work largely for self-protection, ancient keys were large items that operated as displays of power and wealth. In addition to being used to secure the entryway to a home, keys were often used to constrain enslaved workers. As ancient historian Sandra Joshel has written, the Romans used “geographies of containment” to control and subjugate their enslaved workers, “the greatest assurance of the control of slave movement, especially at night,” she writes, “was the locked door.” Keys weren’t just for keeping people out they were also for keeping the enslaved “barbarian” population in their quarters. For the despot there was no better reminder of the costs of attempting to secure one’s freedom than the image of one’s countryman being eaten by a lion.
This grisly discovery may not serve as evidence for the presence of lions or the use of damnatio ad bestias in Roman Britain, but it does show the effectiveness of the psychological weapons and mechanics of torture used by the Romans. Moreover, it shows that long before William the Conqueror and his successors made lions an emblem of the pride and courage of the British crown and people, the same icon was used to threaten and control them.