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Alexander and Lions

Alexander was a lion hunter. The lion subspecies that he hunted was the Asian lion, officially known as Panthera leo persica, which roamed free from northern Greece to India in Alexander's time. Our best evidence for Alexander's fondness of lion hunts is found in Plutarch (Alex. 40-41). After his victories over Darius, Alexander noticed that his companions were becoming acquired to luxurious habits. To ensure that they would keep focussed on war - even in the long lulls between battles - Alexander actively promoted lion hunting. He tried to set an example by exposing himself to the hardship and danger of lion hunts.

Lion Hunts

At least two separate occasions of lion hunts are attested in our sources: the Sidonian lion hunt (in Phoenicia, 332 BC) and the lion hunt in Basista (a.k.a. Bazaira, Sogdiana, in 328/327 BC). Both events indeed match with periods in which parts of the army must have been relatively inactive: the long siege of Tyre, in between the battles of Issus and Gaugamela, and at the advent of the Indian campaign after subjugation of Central Asia.

Jona Lendering's
Alexander and Craterus fighting a lion. Source: Jona Lendering's

The Sidonian lion hunt is presumably represented in the well-known mosaic (found in Pella) showing Craterus and Alexander fighting a lion. The Sidonian hunt was originally commemorated by bronze sculptures made by Lysippus and Leochares (Plutarch Alex. 40; also Heckel, The Marshals of Alexander's Empire, 1992: p. 268-271). Alexander is said to have speared a great lion, so that an envoy from Sparta remarked the hunt had represented a battle between kings. Alexander's bodyguard Lysimachus also killed a lion of extraordinary size, but not before "his left shoulder had been lacerated right down to the bone" (Curtius, 4.14-17).

In Basista, a large enclosed Persian game reserve, another unusually great lion charged Alexander. Lysimachus rushed forward to help his king out, but Alexander pushed his bodyguard aside, stating that he was quite capable of single-handedly killing the beast. Alexander subtly reminded Lysimachus of his Sidonian adventure - such a wicked sense of humor (Curtius, 4.16). Alexander then killed the animal in one stroke.

Lysimachus' Lion Cage

These events gave rise to the popular story that Alexander had deliberately exposed Lysimachus to a lion. In Plutarch's Life of Demetrius Lysimachus exposes his scars to ambassadors "and told them of the battle he had fought with the beast when Alexander had shut him up in a cage with it" (Plutarch Demetr. 27). Curtius dismisses this "unsubstantiated" story as fake.

Heckel suggests Pompeius Trogus was the Roman advocate of this tale. Lysimachus tried to help Callisthenes, who was caged by Alexander, and for this attempt he was punished by being locked up with the lion. Lysimachus killed the beast by tearing out its tongue (Justin 15.3). In Roman times the story of the lion cage had become one of the three prime examples of Alexander's cruelty.

Asian Lion

The presence of the Asian Lion in Europe was attested by Herodotus and Aristotle. Herodotus recorded how Xerxes' Persian invasion army of 480 BC was attacked by lions while bivouaking on the eastern fringes of Greece and Macedonia. This happened during the night and the lions restricted their attack solely to Xerxes' pack-camels. Herodotus claims that the habitat of lions in Europe was small and was confined by the Nestus and Achelous rivers (Herodotus VII, 124-126).

It is generally assumed that around 80-100 AD the Asian lion had become extinct in Greece and in the rest of Europe. In Western-Asia they remained widespread for the time being. In the Holy Land lions disappeared during the Crusades. In Pakistan the Asian lion was exterminated in 1810, in Turkey in 1870. In Iraq the last lion died in 1918 and in Iran (Persia) the last Asian lion was spotted by railway workers in 1942.

Today the Asian lion remains only in Gir Forest, Gujarat, India. In 1900 the population of the Asian lion in Gir had dwindled to a meager 20 survivors. Thanks to protection the numbers in Gir have risen to today's standards of 202-290 animals. The Asian lion is slightly smaller than its well-known African cousin. A distinct feature is that the ears of Asian lions are always visible, while those of African male lions tend to be covered by the longer manes. (You can verify this by checking Alexander's lion mosaic.) Of African lions an approximate 30,000 still roam in the wild.

Another subspecies very closely related to the Asian lion - the Barbary lion or Panthera leo leo - became extinct in the wild in 1922 (in Morocco). This Barbary lion had been the dominant animal in the blood sports of the Roman arenas. Sulla had 100 lions killed during a festival in 90 BC. Pompey managed to have 400 lions butchered in 55 BC, as would Julius Caesar a few years later. Figures kept rising. Emperor Titus had a grand total of 5,000 animals killed during a single festival and Trajan surpassed all with 11,000 slaughtered animals during one event. Substantial numbers of these victims must have been lions. Some lions in Rabat zoo, Morocco, have recently been identified as Barbary lions (in 1974), though they are not 'flawless' specimens and a breeding programme has not yet produced very convincing results.

Royal Hunting

In March 2001 Martin Seyer published his dissertation on Royal hunting in Antiquity at the University of Vienna, Austria. Seyer emphasizes on the symbolic importance of lion hunts. As the lion "had been associated with monsters and demonical beings" the overcoming of these wild beasts confirmed the ability and the strength of the king to protect his subjects against enemies, rebellions and wars. The lion hunt became the ultimate allegory of legitimate power. Therefore, writes Seyer, not all representations of Alexander on a lion hunt need to refer to real events. Seyer: "Illustrations of this activity were an ideal instrument of propaganda within the frame of ideology."

In an aristocratic society a lion hunt was a political event. This was true for the Assyrian and Achaemenid kings, as well as for the Argead house of Macedonia. According to Seyer nearly each of Alexander's successors "stressed the fact that he took part in a successful hunt together with the king. [They] used the subject of the Royal hunt to represent themselves as a fellow-combatant of Alexander." It is apparently no coincidence that Curtius, in describing Lysimachus' intervention during the Basista hunt, immediately adds that Lysimachus "subsequently gained Royal power". This incident echoes an older story about the Persian satrap Megabyzus: "Megabyzus, who on a hunt had saved king Artaxerxes I from a charging lion, was exiled for killing an animal before his master" (see:

Hunting lions had always been a ceremonial Royal task. The Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser boasted that he had killed no less than 920 lions during his lifetime. For the Persian Achaemenids Royal hunting had become part of a long term planning process. Their big game was kept in large hunting reserves, like Basista, which until Alexander's arrival had been left untouched for four generations. But Alexander's lion killing record would not have come close to Tiglath-pileser's. Not by far.


Martin Seyer's dissertation (synopsis), Vienna University.

Catfolk, IUCN website about the big cats.

Asiatic Lion Information Centre, breeding programme.

Written by nick