The Lion of Piraeus is a remarkable, nine feet high marble statue of a sitting, roaring lion and it used to oversee the port city until 1687. Today, a copy of the original statue, made by the Greek sculptor George Megoulas, adorns the entrance of Piraeus port, standing in front of the Cruise Terminals, while the prototype is one of the four lion statues on display at the Venetian Arsenal.
When, why or by whom the lion statue was built, remains unclear to this day. Contemporary researchers consider it to be a classical period piece (5th century BC), others suggest that it was made in the late roman period (1st – 2nd century AC), while there are those placing its construction between the 11th and 14th century AC.
Thanks to a nautical chart made by the Genoese cartographer and geographer Pietro Vesconte, the only thing we know for sure, is that, during the Middle Ages, Piraeus was called “Porto Leone” (Port of the Lion) or “Porto Draco” (Port of the Dragon) because of the port’s oversized marble lion; during the Ottoman Occupation, the Turkish used to call Piraeus “Aslan Liman” (The Port of the Lion) for the same reason. Magnanimous and proud, the marble lion’s prominence was such that ended up labeling the city.
The Piraeus landmark’s origin, however, is not the only issue that has concerned archaeologists and academics over the years; the statue is particularly noteworthy also for the two lengthy inscriptions carved into the shoulders and flanks of the Lion. Many suggestions have been made about the language of the inscriptions, with the ancient runic prevailing amongst them. Whatever message the inscription carries, it has been impossible to decipher.
At times, the mystery around the Piraeus Lion has connected the statue to a plethora of urban legends, superstitions, tales and myths. According to one such legend, a pregnant Turkish woman looked upon the statue and immediately gave birth to a monster with the head of a lion, the ears of a rabbit and the body of a baby boy.
Finally, in 1687 the famous Piraeus’ landmark was looted by the Venetian doge Francesco Morosini as plunder taken in one of the Ottoman-Venetian Wars, during which the Venetians besieged Athens. At the doge’s order, the statue was transported to the Venetian Arsenal – where it still remains to this day – as a symbol of Venice’s patron saint, St Mark.
Until now, and despite the ongoing Greece’s efforts for the repatriation of yet another national treasure, the marble lion remains far away from the place where it rightfully belongs. Apart from the copy which has replaced the original Piraeus Lion at the port’s entrance, two exact replicas of the statue can be seen at the Piraeus Archaeological Museum and the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, in Stockholm.