One of the most representative symbols of the city of Athens is known as the “Lion of Piraeus”. It is an imposing marble sculpture in the shape of a lion, standing over three meters tall, which for centuries has guarded the entrance to the port of Piraeus. However, the current one is a copy of the original, as it now flanks other gates, those of the Arsenal of Venice.

According to historical sources, the Lion of Piraeus was originally located at the bottom of the port, in an area known as the “Stoas”. Its presence was so characteristic that the port came to be called “Porto Leone”. Nevertheless, accounts of the sculpture begin to appear in the early 14th century. The first written document mentioning the presence of the lion dates back to 1318 and is an ancient Genoese naval map by Pietro Vesconti.

However, it is likely that the sculpture was located in the port of Piraeus much earlier. Greek authors like Pausanias and Strabo, describing the port in Roman times, do not mention the lion despite detailing other monuments. This leads to the belief that it may have been placed there in the 2nd century AD. Other theories place its origin in the Byzantine period or even between the 11th and 15th centuries.

The monumental sculpture remained in its original location guarding the entrance to the port of Piraeus until 1687 when it was taken by the Venetian admiral Francesco Morosini as spoils after the war against the Ottoman Empire and the conquest of Athens. He transported it, along with three smaller lions, to the city of Venice as war trophies, where today the four sculptures are displayed at the entrance of the Venetian arsenal as a symbol of Saint Mark, the city’s patron saint.

Regarding the original meaning and purpose of the Lion of Piraeus, there are various interpretations due to the lack of conclusive documents regarding its dating and construction motive. Some theories suggest it was commissioned by the Duke of Athens, Guy de La Roche, in the Byzantine period, while others point to its creation between the 11th and 15th centuries. Greek and international scholars have also proposed various creation dates, ranging from the 4th century BC to the 13th century AD.

The consensus is that the sculpture dates back to around 360 BC but was placed in the port of Piraeus several centuries later, around the 1st or 2nd century AD. It represents a seated lion with a hollow throat and the mark of a pipe or tube, now lost, running along its back, suggesting it may have been used as a fountain with water flowing through its mouth into a cistern at its feet.

In the late 18th century, the Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad noticed that the lion has two long runic inscriptions on its shoulders and flanks, a mystery that has been debated over the years. They contain names of Vikings such as Harald, Asmund, and Halfdán who allegedly raided the port in the 11th century. However, later studies place the inscriptions at different times, from the 2nd century BC to the 13th century AD.

The runes are carved in the form of an elaborate scroll with a dragon head and serpent body, reminiscent of Scandinavian runic stones. The Vikings who carved them may have been Varangians, Nordic mercenaries, who formed the guard of the Byzantine emperors.

The first translation attempt in 1854 by Carl Christian Rafn, secretary of the Royal Society of Nordic Antiquaries, proposed that the inscriptions said:

Asmund cut these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the Tall, although the Greeks considered and prohibited it / Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold Hafi imposed a heavy fine due to the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk is captive in distant lands. Egil sets out on an expedition with Ragnar to Romania and Armenia.

The second attempt in 1914, by Eric Brate, a Swedish linguist and runologist, offers an alternative interpretation, filling in the blanks due to erosion:

They knocked it down in the midst of their forces. But in the port, men cut runes by the sea in memory of Horsi, a good warrior. The Swedes put this on the lion. He continued his way with good advice, gold he earned on his travels. The warriors cut runes, carved them on an ornamental scroll. Æskell (Áskell) (and others) and Þorlæifʀ (Þorleifr) had them well-carved, they who lived in Roslagen. (N. N.) son of (N. N.) cut these runes. Ulfʀ (Úlfr) and (N. N.) colored them in memory of Horsi. He gained gold on his travels.

This last interpretation is considered the most accurate and faithful reading of an inscription that has been heavily deteriorated by exposure to the elements.

What has been established is that the original location of the Lion of Piraeus did not coincide with where it was found in the 14th century, an area that once housed the “Stoas” in ancient times. Accounts from numerous travelers between the 17th and 18th centuries consistently place the lion at the mouth of the port, between what is now the National Bank of Greece building and the Tinian Garden.

Over the years, several attempts have been made to recover the sculpture and return it to its original location. As early as 1945, the Greek government requested its return from the city hall of Venice, though it was mistakenly reported as two lions instead of just one. More recently, in 2002, the “Committee for the Return of the Lion” was founded in Greece, commissioning a replica of the sculpture with the aim of exchanging it for the original.

Copies of the statue can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus and the State Museum of History in Sweden, in Stockholm.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 30, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en El León del Pireo, la escultura que custodiaba la entrada al puerto de Atenas y tiene grabadas runas nórdicas


Runlejonet från Pireus (Historiska) | Thorgunn Snædal, Runinskrifterna på Pireuslejonet i Venedig | Eva Marling, Pireuslejonet Har Kommit Hem | Sigfús Blöndal, The Varangians of Byzantium | Wikipedia

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