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The Lion’s Den: When Big Cats Roamed Ancient Greece

lion ancient greece lions big cats
Lions used to roam around in ancient Greece. Credit: Public Domain

Greek scientists believe that a cave near Vravrona, about 40 km (25 miles) east of Athens, was a hideout for lions and panthers which roamed the ancient Greek countryside thousands of years ago.

Fossils belonging to small and large mammals, including lions and panthers, have recently been unearthed in the cave by researchers. Other animal species identified from skeletal remains include wolves, bison, horses, bears, and deer.

Excavations in the cave began in the mid 1970s and continue to this day. Scientists say that the fossils found there date from a large period between twenty-five thousand to seven thousand years ago.

They believe that the cave was either a natural trap for animals or was perhaps a place where large predators, such as lions, would bring their prey to enjoy a quiet dinner.

Because most of these species became extinct in Greece such a long time ago, little is known about the animals’ possible ranges throughout the country.

Yet it is clear from not only fossils but also from eyewitness accounts that lions and big cats roamed the land in ancient Greece.

The ancient Greek myth of the Nemean lion

Lions feature very prominently in ancient Greek mythology and writings, and the most well-known story is likely the myth of the Nemean Lion.

This animal, which was believed to have supernatural powers, was said to have occupied the sacred town of Nemea in the Peloponnese.

The Nemean Lion was famously slain by Heracles, constituting the first labor that the Greek demigod was tasked with performing. It was said that the lion’s fur was impervious to attacks because it was made of gold, and its claws, sharper than mortal swords, could cut through armor.

Heracles managed to kill the Nemean Lion by strangling it, and he wore the lion’s pelt ever after.

Lions symbolized power and wealth for the ancient Greeks. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were even found in the Balkans in the middle of the first millennium BC.

When King Xerxes advanced through Macedonia in 480 BC, he reported encountering several lions.

The big cats, now only native to Africa and India, were once found throughout the European continent. Yet they became extinct in antiquity.

Lions were reported to have become extinct in Italy before the year 20 BC and from Western Europe as a whole around the year 1 AD.

According to historians, by the year 70 AD, giant cats were contained in northern Greece in the area between the rivers Aliakmon and Nestus.

By the year 100 AD, they became extinct in Eastern Europe, as well, and after that lions in Europe became restricted to the Caucasus mountains, where a population of Asiatic lions survived all the way into the tenth century.

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