In 2008, a metal detectorist found a copper Roman knife handle in a field in Syston, Lincolnshire. It wasn’t very large and sold for a mere £1,000 but is now the centrepiece of the Roman galleries in Lincolnshire Museum. It has already caused quite a stir. You only have to look at the handle to see why. In the straight-laced way of museums, it is being described as an “erotic scene”. In reality, it shows a naked woman straddling an aroused man while she holds onto another naked man clasping a severed head. I am sure we have all experienced parties like that. But this handle is particularly special as it is not just an erotic scene but may also cast light on what late Roman soldiers thought of their posting to Britain.
The largest figure on the handle wears a distinctive cap with a flat top rather like a pork-pie hat. From carvings and frescos in other parts of the Roman world, the headgear would suggest he is a Roman soldier from around the late 3rd or early 4th century. Such flat-topped caps were very popular and the fact the soldier is shown larger than the two other figures supports the identification. Moreover, the crudeness of its manufacture and the cheap metal used suggests the handle was not grand; this knife was for a common sort. It was likely a soldier’s knife and, fittingly, it’s owner took the starring role upon it.
The man holding the severed head is clearly a Celt. The Romans often portrayed Celts as headhunters and this man, completely naked, is living up to his stereotype. Unlike the soldier, this man is not aroused.
The woman who straddles the Roman soldier is naked but for a few lines on her body. One, around her neck, may be a torc, possibly a crude sign of royalty perhaps. The draped lines across her body may represent chains (they do not take the form of clothing), suggesting the woman has been defeated and humbled. The most obvious identification is Boudicca, the warrior Queen who provided a genuine military threat to Roman conquest of these isles. Portraying her in chains and sexually available brutally demonstrates her utter defeat and the ensuing dominance of the Roman military.
But, and this is curious, the penis of the Roman soldier does not point towards Boudicca but between the two figures (or even at the man holding the severed head), as if the soldier would happily give it to them both. Perhaps he would.
A more nuanced interpretation is that this is not an erotic scene – no actual intercourse is going to take place – but a triumphalist scene showing Roman domination over the Celts and their most famous Queen. In this sense, Boudicca stands for Britannia, the country of Britain.
Possibly, the Roman soldier is about to give the island of Britain and her inhabitants a good seeing to, and perhaps this is the message contained in the knife handle. It may have been a satirical comment of Roman rule and carried by an indigenous Briton, but I think it’s more likely to have belonged to a Roman soldier, doing his bit visibly to “stick it” to the Celts. Following the famous words of Caesar, perhaps he would even describe his role as “Veni, vidi, futuō”.