The wolf was a powerful symbol to the Romans, since the legendary founders of the city, the twins Romulus and Remus, were nursed on the Palatine Hill by a she-wolf, the famous "Lupa Romana." This veneration undoubtedly inspired the creation of decorative sculpture, perhaps employed for apotropaic purposes on buildings, fountains, and ships. The projecting pins on the reverse of the present example confirm such usage.
This wolf is matched by two similar, one now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Kozloff, "Keys of Ancient Rome," in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, November 1993, p. 373) and one in the Collection of Shelby White and Leon Levy (von Bothmer, ed., Glories of the Past, no. 176). All three resemble examples retrieved from two pleasure boats excavated at Lake Nemi southeast of Rome. The two crafts, a sailing ship and an oared galley, were built for the Emperor Caligula (A.D. 37-41) and later in the century deliberately sunk. The magnificent quality of these bronzes strongly suggests imperial patronage. For the Nemi excavations see Ucelli, Le Nave di Nemi.