The Piraeus Lion

From the classical world to the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Rhys Griffiths | Published in 19 Jul 2016

At the Arsenale in Venice stands a white marble lion whose story stretches from the classical world to the decline of the Ottoman Empire, via the Vikings. Around three metres in height, the Piraeus Lion was one of a pair of statues that stood guard – probably as a fountain – at the Athenian port of Piraeus, having been sculpted circa 360 BC. It was removed from the harbour in 1697 by the invading Doge of Venice, Francesco Morosini, while he had Athens under siege during the Great Turkish War of 1683-99. By the conclusion of the conflict, the Ottoman Empire had lost large amounts of its territory in Central Europe. Morosini’s siege involved the looting and pillaging of Athens, including cannon-fire damage to the Parthenon.

Arguably the most interesting aspect of the Piraeus Lion’s story occurred at some point between its creation and later journey north. The lion’s flanks and shoulders are covered in a strange and barely legible script that was incomprehensible until, at the end of the 18th century, the Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad identified it as runic. The conclusion reached was that at some point in the 11th century travelling Vikings had carved the runes as a form of graffiti, not unlike the Viking inscriptions at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Several attempts to decipher the inscription – no easy task – followed, the most accurate of which is considered to be Erik Brate’s interpretation of 1914, which contains an explanation of the inscriptions thus: ‘In the harbour the men cut runes by the sea in memory of Horsi, a good warrior. The Swedes set this on the lion. He went his way with good counsel, gold he won in his travels.’