According to legend, Androcles (pronounced AN-druh-kleez) was a Roman slave who lived in Africa in the first century CE. After escaping from his cruel master, the former slave Androcles hid in a cave. While there, a lion with a thorn stuck in its paw entered the cave. The lion showed its swollen paw to Androcles, who carefully removed the thorn and befriended the animal.
Some years later, Androcles was captured and thrown into an arena to be killed by lions. One of the lions, however, was the same animal that Androcles had helped in the cave. The lion recognized Androcles and refused to hurt him. The animal even protected Androcles from the other wild beasts. When the spectators in the arena saw what was happening, they demanded that Androcles be set free.
Androcles in Context
In ancient Rome, slaves were common and were considered to be the lowest class of citizen in the empire. Slaves were often forced to participate in public “games” where they were made to battle each other to the death, or try to protect themselves against fierce beasts such as lions and bears. These displays were usually held in the Coliseum, a great stadium built in the first century CE, or along the outdoor racing track known as the Circus Maximus. The story of Androcles is unique in Roman culture because it humanizes slaves and offers a sympathetic view of their situation.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the main themes of the story of Androcles is the power of friendship and charity. Because Androcles helps the lion, a creature that many would be too scared to help, his life is spared as a reward for his charitable act. In later centuries, some authors created new versions of the story of Androcles in which the slave was instead a Christian who was being punished by Romans for his religious beliefs. The story was seen as a lesson on charity and loyalty, important themes in Christian teachings.
Androcles in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The legend of Androcles appeared in Noctes Atticae (Attica Nights), a story written by Roman author Aulus Gellius around 150 ce. According to Gellius, the original version came from the author Apion, though the text has been lost. The story of Androcles has also appeared in many collections of fables attributed to Aesop. Much later, the legend became the inspiration for the play Androcles and the Lion, written in 1912 by Irish author George Bernard Shaw.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Scholars have noted that the story of Androcles is about two creatures, a human and a lion, each overcoming their basic instincts or fears for the sake of the other. How is that shown in the tale? Do you think that this is a good description of friendship in general? Why or why not?
SEE ALSO Animals in Mythology
Roman writer and lawyer who spent a year in Athens compiling information for the composition of Noctes Atticae (Attic nights), a compendium on ancient culture and knowledge. It is comprised of 20 books, of which all but part of one survive, and is an example of the Roman commonplace book of general antiquarian knowledge. Noted for its compilation of quotations from lost ancient works, Noctes Atticae also contains a fairly important survey of physical science knowledge, including physics, natural phenomena, and astronomy.