History of lions in Europe

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Lion sculpture, 4th century BC, Koropi, Greece
Silver stater struck in Velia 334-300 BC depicting Athena wearing a Phrygian helmet decorated with a centaur and lion devouring prey

Lions inhabited parts of Europe during the Holocene and even historic times and formed a subspecies called Panthera leo europaea. They lived in ancient Rome, ancient Greece, southern Russia, coastal parts of Saudi Arabia, and western Asia including: Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It is also suggested by historical and fossil evidence, that they lived in Spain, Portugal, southern parts of France, Italy, Britain and the Balkans beyond Greece. Their diet included aurochs, red deer, tarpan, wild boar, and other herbivores. European lions could possibly have been the last remnants of the cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea). However, this is considered unlikely because historic depictions of European lions show animals with prominent manes, whereas cave lions are always depicted maneless in prehistoric cave art. It is therefore assumed that modern maned lions spread during the Holocene from Africa to Eurasia. It is not clear if the modern lion replaced the cave lion or occupied Europe after the cave lions already had vanished.[1]


Lion 4th century BC, Greece
Heracles and the Nemean lion, c. 540 BC, Boeotia, Greece

European lions are considered to be similar to the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica). However, there were also some differences; lions from southeastern Europe and Asia Minor usually lacked abdominal and lateral manes. In contrast, male Asiatic lions show abdominal manes when living in a relatively cool climate, like in European zoos.[citation needed] In addition, ancient depictions of lions from the Mesopotamian Plain suggested that they naturally had underbelly hair,[2] similar to Barbary and Cape lions.[3]

The European lion was similar in size to the African lion, standing about 4 feet (1.2 m) at the shoulder. Males ranged in weight between 180 kilograms (400 lb) and 200 kilograms (440 lb),[4] while females were smaller.


Fossil record[edit]

In the earliest Holocene the lion was still present in northern Spain. Until around 5500 to 3000 BCE the lion is confirmed via fossils from Hungary and from the Pontic Region of Ukraine.[5]

Lions in ancient Greece[edit]

Marble lion from Greece, mid-4th century BC

According to reports by Ancient Greek writers such as Herodotus and Aristotle, lions were common in Greece around 480 BCE, became endangered in 300 BCE, until their extinction in 100 BCE.[6][7]

Lions feature heavily in Ancient Greek mythology and writings, including the myth of the Nemean lion, which was believed to be a supernatural lion that occupied the sacred town of Nemea in the Peloponnese.

Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans in the middle of the first millennium BCE. When Xerxes advanced through Macedon in 480 BCE, he encountered several lions.[8][9] But while lions presumably still existed in the area between the rivers Aliakmon and Nestus in Macedonia in Herodotus' time, in the 1st century CE Dio Chrysostom wrote that they were already extinct in Europe.[10]

Lions in the Caucasus[edit]

Lions were present in Transcaucasia until the 10th century. The peak of its historic range covered all of the plains and foothills of eastern Transcaucasia westward almost to Tblisi. Northwards, its range extended through the eastern Caucasus, from the Apsheron Peninsula to the mouth of the Samur River in the current Azerbaijan-Russia border, extending to Araks. From there, the boundary of its range narrowly turned east to Yerevan, with its northern boundary then extending westward to Turkey.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Yamaguchi, Nobuyuki; Cooper, Alan; Werdelin, Lars; MacDonald, David W. (2004). "Evolution of the mane and group-living in the lion (Panthera leo): a review". Journal of Zoology. 263 (4): 329. doi:10.1017/S0952836904005242. 
  2. ^ Ashrafian, Hutan (2011). "An Extinct Mesopotamian Lion Subspecies". Veterinary Heritage. 34 (2): 47–49. 
  3. ^ a b Heptner, V. G. and Sludskii, A. A. (1992): Mammals of the Soviet Union Vol. II, Part 2 Carnivora (Hyaenas and Cats). Leiden, New York. ISBN 90-04-08876-8 (pp. 274 ff.)
  4. ^ European Lion – About.com Prehistoric Mammals. Dinosaurs.about.com (2012-04-17). Retrieved on 2012-12-31.
  5. ^ Sommer, R. S.; Benecke, N. (2006). "Late Pleistocene and Holocene development of the felid fauna (Felidae) of Europe: A review". Journal of Zoology. 269: 7. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2005.00040.x. 
  6. ^ Schaller, p. 5.
  7. ^ Sallares, R. (1991) The ecology of the ancient Greek world, Cornell University Press, p. 401 ISBN 0801426154.
  8. ^ 2001 Past and present distribution of the lion in North Africa and Southwest Asia. Asiatic Lion Information Centre.
  9. ^ Guggisberg, C.A.W. (1961). Simba: the life of the lion. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. 
  10. ^ Cohen, A. (2010) Art in the era of Alexander the Great: Paradigms of manhood and their cultural traditions, Cambridge University Press, pp. 68–69 ISBN 9780521769044.