Archaeologists find unusual evidence of executions in Roman Britain

Archaeologists find unusual evidence of executions in Roman Britain
Archaeologists find unusual evidence of executions in Roman Britain
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Scientists have discovered a 2nd century AD artifact in Leicester, Britain that appears to depict a real execution - Damnatio ad bestias - that took place in Britain during Roman rule.

"Barbarian" grappling with a lion

During excavations carried out several years ago by the Archaeological Survey of the British University of Leicester on the site of the former building of Stibbe and Maxim, north of Friars Causeway, near Highcross Street in Leicester, a complex of houses and part of a theater from the time of Roman Britain - a province in the British the islands, which were ruled by the Roman Empire between 43 and 410 AD. In the southern wing of one of the rooms of a large house built at the end of the 2nd century, under a mosaic floor, scientists have found an unusually decorated handle made of cast copper alloy.

The find, dated to AD 200, was in two parts, with the iron rod apparently deliberately cut off before placing the item in the ground. In general, the handle reaches 120 millimeters in length and weighs 304 grams, and also narrows in width to the tip and is slightly curved, so it fits well in the palm of your hand.

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However, the essence lies in the relief figures that adorn the hilt. They form two groups: above is an adult, half-naked, bearded man - probably a barbarian - with wide open eyes, grappling with a lion; at the base - four naked, curly-haired youths hugging each other.

According to scientists who tried to interpret this scene, the artifact is a type of fanciful Roman handles with figured ornaments. And it depicts Damnatio ad bestias - a type of death penalty in ancient Rome, when a convict or a prisoner was left to be torn apart by animals in the circus arena as punishment or just for the sake of a show. Especially the Romans loved to accompany everything with the effect of surprise: the victim did not fully know which animal (and in what quantity) she was going to meet.

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Where the handle was cast is unknown: perhaps in Northern Gaul and the Rhineland, or directly in Britain. “This unique piece gives us the most detailed view of this form of execution in Roman Britain,” said John Pearce, an archaeologist at King's College London and one of the authors of the article in Britannia. "This is the first discovery of its kind that sheds light on the brutality of the Roman government in this province."

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The laws of Rome allowed criminals and prisoners of war to be thrown to wild animals, in particular lions, which were imported from Mesopotamia and North Africa to fight in the arena of the Colosseum. Punishment served as a form of public entertainment and a symbol of the destruction of the enemies of the empire. Until now, scholars have had little evidence that this was practiced in Roman Britain, far from the center of the state. But, apparently, predators were brought by sea to the British Isles.

Many amphitheaters were built in Britain during Roman times. Usually local animals participated in the battles - bulls, bears and deer. Therefore, the appearance of an outlandish lion would remain in the memory of the audience for a long time and could induce one of them to immortalize this event on the handle.

"This is one of the most exciting finds we have made in Leicester, Rome, and has a great history," the scientists say. The find will be on display at the Jewish Wall Museum in Leicester after renovations are completed in 2023.

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