The story of the Piraeus Lion is one of several which are part of Greece’s long history of ancient sculpted masterpieces — and their subsequent looting, which has meant that many of them are now scattered in museums and historical sites around the world.
The imposing lion statue, thought to have been sculpted around 360 BC, was the landmark of the ancient Greek port of Piraeus, which stood proud in its place at the entrance to the harbor until 1687 — when it was looted by Venetian naval commander Francesco Morosini.
It is currently on display at the Venetian Arsenal, as a symbol of Venice’s patron saint, Saint Mark.
The port of Piraeus has served as the harbor of Athens from ancient times until today. Its proud lion was a famous landmark that caused the Italians to name Piraeus “Porto Leone” (Lion Port), leaving out its actual location. In fact the first mention of the port as Porto Leone is made on a naval map drawn up by the Genoese Pietro Visconti in 1318.
Made of white marble, the lion is an imposing 3 meters (9 feet) tall. It is in a sitting position and its hollow throat and the marks of a missing pipe running across its back indicates that its was most likely part of a fountain, as the description by the Venetians about water flowing from its mouth into a cistern at its feet indicates.
Travelers and sailors over the centuries have created several legends about the lion. One of these says that a pregnant Turkish woman looked at the statue and then gave birth to a monster with the face of a lion, with rabbit’s ears and human legs, which cried out like a dog.
At that time, it is said that Turkish authorities ordered the newborn’s killing and did not allow the baby’s burial, sending it to France for study.
Similar legends circulated throughout the Middle Ages, generating awe in the seamen of the time.
The lion was defaced during the 11th century by Swedes, who were mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Emperor. The Swedes carved graffiti on the lion, in the form of runes, which were recognized many years later as such by Swedish diplomat Johan David Akerblad, at the end of the eighteenth century.
The inscriptions have been eroded by the weather and pollution in Venice, making many of the individual runes barely legible now. Translators who tried to reconstruct some of the runes, filling in the blanks to determine what words they represented, came to inconclusive results.
During the war of the Venetians against the Ottoman Empire in 1687, the Venetians captured Athens and Morosini’s cannons were fired at the Parthenon, causing damage. The Venetian forces then sacked the city and took the famous lion statue back to Venice as war booty.
Today, a copy of the lion gazes like a fearsome guard at all the incoming ships in the port, while other copies are exhibited at the Piraeus Archaeological Museum and, interestingly enough, at the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm.