Androcles and the Lion (Apion)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Androcles and the Lion (Apion)

Androcles and the Lion (Apion) (ca. A.D. first century)

A classical FABLE that has flourished in multiple forms, Androcles and the Lion derives its power from the first glimmers of mass savagery in the Roman Empire. The story was anthologized in Aegyptiaca (ca. A.D. 40) by the Greco-Libyan ambassador Apion of Alexandria, Egypt, and reprised in “De beneficiis” (“On Benefits,” A.D. 56) by the essayist SENECA. It suited a perilous era in the early empire during the notorious reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), Caligula (37-41), and Claudius (41-54). Rhetorician Aulus Gellius's version of the fable, anthologized in his 20-volume Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights, ca. A.D. 180), uses the animal motif for a tale of confrontation between the mighty and the weak, which the author claimed to have witnessed.

The story centers on Androcles, an escaped Carthaginian slave who encounters a wounded lion. He removes a thorn from the lion's paw, treats the infection, and bandages the wound, resulting in friendship between man and animal. Years later, Androcles is captured as a fugitive slave and condemned to be devoured by wild animals in Rome's Circus Maximus. But the ferocious beast that enters the arena proves to be his old lion friend, and the two have a jubilant reunion. Recognizing a unique relationship, the unnamed emperor frees Androcles, and amid a shower of blossoms from onlookers, the fable concludes, “This is the lion who was a man's friend! This is the man who was the lion's physician” (Aulus Gellius 1795, 1:321).

The narrative also appears in volume 7 of Claudius Aelian's 17-book bestiary De natura ani- malium (On the nature of animals, ca. A.D. 230), in which the wound escalates to a sharp stake through the paw. In the “Romulus” collection of an elegiac poet possibly named Romulus, the story appears under the title “The Lion and the Shepherd” (ca. 950). In whatever version it appears, the story contrasts the benevolence of Androcles and the lion with the faceless inhumanity of imperial Rome.

During the time of the British Empire, Dublin- born playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) recast the Roman fable as Androcles and the Lion: A Fable Play (1912). The two-act stage SATIRE of ethnic and religious persecution and decadence in the Roman Empire premiered at St. James's Theatre, London, on September 1, 1913. In a famous preface appended in 1915, Shaw declares that “Christ is not the lifeless harmless image he has hitherto been to you, but a rallying centre for revolutionary influences,” a salute to the philosophical uprising begun in imperial Rome demanding human liberty and equality (Shaw 1916, 66). The playwright examines the play's premises as they apply to the governance of a round- the-globe empire, particularly Ireland. He reminds the reader that “Jesus certainly did not consider the overthrow of the Roman empire or the substitution of a new ecclesiastical organization for the Jewish Church or for the priesthood of the Roman Gods as part of his program. He said that God was better than Mammon; but he never said that Tweedledum was better than Tweedledee” (126-127).

Using grim comedy, Shaw's play examines the cultism, elitism, and barbarity that belie Jesus's unorthodox social doctrines. One of the targets of the farce is the militarism of the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864), with lyrics by the English hagiographer Sabine Baring-Gould that composer Sir Arthur Sullivan set to a march tune in 1871. The popular hymn validated British imperialism with an implied connection to evangelistic zeal. In Shaw's drama, the Roman Captain states, “This [hymn] may be sung, except when marching through the forum or within hearing of the Emperor's palace; but the words must be altered to ’Throw them to the Lions'” (Shaw 1916, 10). Shaw's drollery implies that Christian militarism during the Crusades and in British colonies varied little from Roman persecution.

The 1952 film version of Androcles and the Lion featured Jean Simmons as a Christian captive, Victor Mature as a Roman legion captain, and Alan Young as Androcles.


Aelian. On the Characteristics of Animals. Translated by Alwyn Faber Scholfield. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Aulus Gellius. The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. 3 vols. Translated by William Beloe. London: J. Johnson, 1795.

Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, and Amiel D. Vardi. The Worlds of Aulus Gellius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Osborne, Catherine. Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers: Humanity and the Humane in Ancient Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Shaw, George Bernard. Androcles and the Lion;

Overruled; Pygmalion. New York: Brentano's, 1916.

Wheatley, Edward. Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer and His Followers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.