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The Piraeus Lion of Venice: Runes and Roaming from Greece to Italy

The Piraeus Lion of Venice: Runes and Roaming from Greece to Italy

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Some ancient artifacts travel from where they were first made to become symbols of other foreign lands. This is certainly the story of the Piraeus Lion. The Piraeus Lion is a marble lion displayed in Venice, specifically at the entrance of the Venetian Arsenal. As its name suggests, the statue was originally from Piraeus, the port of Athens. But it was looted during the 17th century and brought to Venice.

Since the city’s patron saint is Saint Mark, whose symbol is a lion, it is not surprising that The Piraeus Lion was taken to Venice. The inscriptions on the lion’s body are another interesting aspect of the lion. These were recognized by scholars as Viking runes, long after the statue’s arrival in Venice. The Piraeus Lion is an amazing work of sculpture and the tale of its life, so far, is incredible.

The Piraeus Lion: A Marble Statue From 2,400 Years Ago!

The Piraeus Lion was carved of white marble and was created as early as the 4 th century BC. The lion statue is 9 feet (2.74 m) high, and was originally placed at Piraeus, the harbor of Athens. The Piraeus Lion guarded the harbor for over a thousand years, before it was looted, and taken to Venice. It is speculated that the Piraeus Lion may have been one of a pair of statues that adorned a fountain in the harbor.

A Victorian period engraving of Piraeus Port, Greece, where The Piraeus Lion guarded the port for nearly a thousand years! (antiqueimages / Adobe Stock)

During the second half of the 17 th century, the Ottoman Empire fought a series of wars against a number of European powers, who later formed the Holy League. This conflict became known as the Great Turkish War (also as the War of the Holy League). The Republic of Venice participated in the war, fighting on the side of the Holy League. In 1687, the Venetians, under the command of Francesco Morosini attacked the Ottomans in Greece. It was during this time, following their capture of Athens, that the Venetians looted the Piraeus Lion, and brought it back to their city.

Francesco Morosini is an interesting character that merits further description. Morosini came from a prominent Venetian family. In 1687, he was the Captain-General of the Venetian navy. When he returned to Venice after his successful campaign against the Ottomans, he was hailed as a hero. In the following year, he became Doge of Venice, the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice between 726 and 1797 AD. Morosini’s most famous (or infamous) feat, however, was causing serious damage to the Parthenon.

The Siege of Athens with the Parthenon in the background on the left on top of the acropolis of the ancient city. (Georg Perlberg (1807-1884) / CC BY-SA 4.0)

During the siege of Athens in 1687, the Ottomans had turned the ancient temple into an ammunition storage location. Unfortunately, a stray cannon ball fired by the besiegers landed in the Parthenon, and severely damaged the building. According to one story, Otto Wilhelm Königsmarck, the Swedish commander leading the Venetian land forces, was shocked by the destruction of the Parthenon. Morosini, on the other hand, being a practical man, thought that it was a lucky shot, since it destroyed the Ottoman ammunition store.

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Morosini may have been the first Westerner to have attempted to loot the Parthenon. He tried to remove the sculpture of the horses from the west pediment, but whilst lowering them down, accidentally smashed them on the ground.

Silver Doge Francesco Morosini medal minted in 1690. Behind him are war trophies that allude to his victories and imbue him with an aura of authority. This powerful image is balanced by an allegory on the medal’s reverse: "Venetia," or Venice personified as a female doge, sits enthroned on the sea as she accepts tributes from her subject territories, including Athens, which Morosini himself had conquered. (Yale Law Library / CC BY 2.0)

He was, however, more successful with the Piraeus Lion, which he managed to bring back to Venice. Incidentally, Morosini is reputed to have been extremely fond of his cat, and never went into battle without it. When Morosini died in 1694, his cat was mummified, in a war-like pose, with a victim in its front paws!

The Piraeus Lion And Its Mysterious Viking Past

Returning to the story of the Piraeus Lion, it was placed at the entrance of the Venetian Arsenal after its arrival in the city. The statue is one of four lions displayed at the Arsenal. In the centuries that followed, The statue was admired by all who saw it. Those who saw the statue must have also noted the strange inscriptions on its shoulders and flanks. These inscriptions were carved in something that looks like a banner or ribbon, quite unlike anything the Venetians of the time had ever seen. We know today that the ribbon is in fact a depiction of a lindworm, a mythological dragon-like creature without limbs from northern Europe.

An illustration of a lindworm. A lindworm, a Viking symbol, is found on the body of The Piraeus Lion. (Gyrkin / CC BY-SA 4.0)

As for the inscriptions, no one had any idea what they were supposed to mean for a long time. It was only around the end of the 18 th century that they were identified as runic by Johan David Åkerblad, a diplomat from Sweden. This revelation led to the hypothesis that at some point, perhaps during the 11 th century, Viking mercenaries, the famous Varangians who served the Byzantine Empire, made these runic inscriptions on The Piraeus Lion. Unfortunately, the runes have faded as a result of centuries of weathering, making it difficult to decipher the inscriptions. Some of the runes, for instance, are completely lost, and thus the gaps needed to be filled through their reconstruction by translators. Nevertheless, this has not stopped people from trying to decipher and translate the inscriptions.

One of the first attempts to decipher the runic message was made in the middle of the 19 th century by Carl Christian Rafn, the secretary for the Royal Society of Norse Antiquities. Rafn’s translations are as follows:

On the lion’s right side,

Asmund cut these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the Tall, though the Greeks considered about and forbade it.

On the lion’s left side,

Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold Hafi imposed a heavy fine on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk is detained captive in far lands. Egil is gone on an expedition with Ragnar into Romania and Armenia.

Another attempt was made in 1914 by Erik Brate, a renowned Swedish runologist. Apart from the different translations produced by the two men, it may be noted that they also differed in the way they divided the inscription. Brate, as will be seen, combines the inscriptions from the two sides into a single text. Moreover, Brate’s translation is considered to be more accurate than Rafn’s, and is as follows:

They cut him down in the midst of his

forces. But in the harbor 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.

The warriors cut runes,

hewed them in an ornamental scroll.

Æskell (Áskell) [and others] and

Þorlæifʀ (Þorleifr)

had them well cut, 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 won gold in his travels.

One side of the Venetian Arsenal: note The Piraeus Lion on the far left, and the other lions to its right. (Aleksandrs Kosarevs / Adobe Stock)

The Piraeus Lion’s History Will Continue To Influence Others

The Piraeus Lion is indeed an intriguing artefact, as it has a complex history that involves various peoples, from the ancient Greeks who carved it, to the Varangians who left their runic inscriptions on its body, and to the Venetians who looted it.

With such a colorful history behind The Piraeus Lion, one can only imagine what the future has in store for it.

Top image: The Piraeus Lion proudly guards the left side of the Venetian Arsenal in Venice Italy.   Source: Venetian Arsenal / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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