The Lion of Chaironeia is a giant statue erected in Central Greece in about 300 BC to commemorate the dead who fell in a battle.
The valley of the Kifisos river in Central Greece is a deserted place these days. Running from north-west to south-east and flanked by the mountain ranges of Mount Parnassos and Mount Kallidromo, it is prime agricultural land. The road that runs along the valley was once the main north-south road through Greece, although it has since been bypassed by the coastal motorway. In ancient times, the area was heavily populated, but nowadays all you'll see are a few farmers working in the fields.
Just to the east of the village of Chaironeia, on the south side of the road, a giant stone lion sits on a pedestal flanked by cypress trees. The area around the base of the pedestal is planted with grass, which is heavily irrigated so that it stays green. Guidebooks give the height of the lion as 5.5m, but measurements by an h2g2 Researcher put it at a more modest 4m (13 feet). The base is the same height as the lion; this makes the monument 8m high in total (27 feet), which is about the height of a two-storey house. The base of the pedestal, though, is down in a slight depression, presumably because the ground level has changed since it was built.
The statue was created in about 300 BC. At that time, Greece was part of the Hellenistic Empire which included North Africa. There were lions living in North Africa, but it appears that the sculptor hadn't ever seen one, as it is not a very realistic statue.
In 338 BC, Philip II, King of Macedon, and his son Alexander (the Great) marched south with an army, intent on conquering southern Greece. They were opposed by the combined armies of Athens and Thebes.
Among the Theban soldiers was a special elite group of 300 fighters known as the Sacred Band. This group was made up of 150 homosexual couples, each consisting of a youth and an older man. The theory behind this unusual arrangement was that lovers fighting side by side would fight more fiercely, as they had more to lose than the average soldier. The Sacred Band had proved itself in previous battles.
The two sides met and fought at Chaironeia. On one flank, the Athenian hoplites were no match for Philip's pikemen; on the other flank, the Theban Sacred Band were mown down to a man by Alexander leading a charge of cavalry. It was a decisive victory for the Macedonians, effectively making Philip ruler of all Greece.
The Macedonians buried their dead in a giant tumulus1 about three kilometres to the east of the village. The Theban Sacred Band were buried at the present site of the lion, and about forty years later the lion itself was erected by the city of Thebes in memory of the dead soldiers.
Over the subsequent centuries, the pedestal of the statue deteriorated and eventually the statue fell down. When Lord Byron, poet and lover of all things Greek, visited the site in 1809, the lion was lying in pieces, partially buried in the ground.
The site was excavated in 1879 and 254 skeletons were found, buried neatly in seven rows. The monument was reconstructed in 1902 by sculptors Phytalis and Sochos, funded by the Archaeological Society. Some missing pieces were replaced by new stone from a nearby quarry. The lion was cleaned and the mortar replaced in the period 1998 - 2000.
Visiting the Lion
The village of Chaironeia is about 15km from the town of Livadeia, and the lion itself is unmissable. Directly opposite the statue is a side road leading to a car park; there is no place to park on the main road.
Beside the site of the lion, there is a small archaeological museum, displaying other findings from the area.
Although a visit to the statue won't take more than a few minutes, it is a pleasant way to stretch your legs and break a long journey. If you are driving on the Athens to Thessaloniki motorway (Route 1), the detour via Thiva, Chaironeia, Amfikleia and Bralos will not add much time to your journey — although the roads are not as good as the motorway, the route is actually slightly shorter. And you'll get to see an enormous lion.