A unique bronze helmet discovered in the deep by marine archaeologists off the Sicilian coast, which they have dated to a sea battle of 241 B.C.E. may have been a precursor of the lion-themed helmets used by Rome's Praetorian Guards, the personal bodyguards of the Roman emperors.
The corps of the Praetorian Guards were established more than two centuries after that battle, by Emperor Augustus. Praetorian helmets also sported a lion-shaped relief, and were sometimes adorned with real lion skin.
The helmet's dating is based, among other things, on pottery jars and other debris discovered on the sea floor at the site.
Recovered from the site of the Battle of the Egadi Islands (Aegadian islands), northwest of Sicily, the helmet is a Montefortino, a Celtic style-helmet that had been worn across Europe, also popularly known as a "Roman helmet". These are easily identified: they look like half a watermelon with a knob on top and cheek flaps down the sides that tie at the chin. But this one had a difference: the lion decoration.
"Montefortinos spread from central Europe, down through Italy then across into Western Europe. Variations were worn by the Roman and mercenaries on both sides of the conflict,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Royal. And indeed, say the archaeologists, all the helmets discovered thus far on the Egadi seabed were of Montefortino type.
However, the newly discovered helmet has a unique feature: what appears to be a relief of a lion's skin embracing the central cone adorning its peak. Only one Montefortino helmet is known to have a relief on top, that appears to show a stylized bird.
Possibly the lion-theme decoration can be traced back to a city allied with Rome where the influence of the myth of Hercules - who was often represented wearing lion skin on his head – was strong.
It is also possible that the lion insignia indicated a rank of authority within the Roman army at this time. “The helmets could have been worn by any number of mercenaries of South Italian or Sicilian origin. The problem is, both sides were hiring in the same areas," Royal told Haaretz. "The Romans also wore a version of this style. Hence, some helmets were likely worn by mercenaries in service of the Carthaginians, but some my also represent Roman soldiers lost in the battle."
The helmet, heavily encrusted after more than 2,000 years under the Mediterranean Sea, is undergoing cleaning and conservation that the archaeologists hope will reveal more details.
Other helmets discovered at the same site bore what appears to be Punic lettering engraved into the crest knob. The helmets could be a Libyan-Phoenician type, or worn by Greek mercenaries in Carthaginian employ, Royal suggests.
No, the Romans weren't afraid of water
The find is the latest in a string of discoveries made this year using unmanned submersibles as well as divers that have changed our understanding of naval tactics during the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.E.) , which knocked out Carthage, and made Rome lords of the sea.
“The myth of the Romans as a land-lubbing culture fearful of the sea must be put to rest once and for all. They managed to defeat the preeminent sea power of the day, at sea,” says Royal, who has been investigating this ancient sea battle for years.
Diving at depths as deep as 120 meters, the marine archaeologists are surveying an area of about five square kilometers, littered with the relics of this decisive war.
Bronze helmets, amphora, weapons and not least, ancient battle rams cast in bronze, were salvaged from the seabed.
(Rams were cast metal weapons attached to boat's prow of a vessel at the water-line or below. The intent was, as the name implies, to sink enemy boats by ramming them.)
It was on March 10 of the year 241 B.C.E. that a huge naval clash took place off the coast of Sicily, between the Romans and their archenemies, the Carthaginians. The struggle would put an end to the first Punic war and set the Roman republic on its road to empire. Historical documents place the battle near the island of Levanzo, west of Sicily.
According to the second-century B.C.E. Greek historian Polybius, the Carthaginian fleet, led by the famed general, Hanno, was heavily loaded with supplies of grain for the remaining Carthaginian colonies on Sicily, which the Romans had besieged with their superior land army.