Why are lions so frequent in European iconography if lions weren't native there

Oct 2015
Beyond the Pale
The last lions in Europe vanished around some time around 100 BCE


And yet, over a thousand years later, we still see the lion in European iconography, from places as diverse as the Kingdom of England


and the Venetian republic.

Its likely there might be other examples im missing

So whats the deal here? Is it simply a long lasting cultural memory? Animals are usually found in the art of people who encounter them, no one in the Venetian republic or the kingdom of England was going to happen to encounter a lion


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Or a unicorn ... Anyway the unicorn or the dragon were present as well.

Iconography is made also by symbolism and the lion is a powerful symbol [present also in the bible, btw, the Lion of the tribe of Judah ...].
Jan 2016
Beyond Highbrow
So whats the deal here? Is it simply a long lasting cultural memory?
Maybe they simply imported lions from elsewhere ??? So not just "cultural memory" alone.

And "cultural memory" could be reinforced by Roman and Greek sculptures showing lions.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2015
Europe isn't that far from Africa or the Middle East. Hence the Barbary Lion.

So even though there were no native lions in Europe for many centuries, they still heard of them, seen them, hence why they and us see them as noble/strong animals.

Without doubt the Romans and Greeks knew lions. I'd be highly surprised if Charlemagne, Justinian I, Alfred the Great, Cnut the Great, Phillip Augustus, etc. had never heard of nor seen a lion in the flesh.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
The Romans used to import lions for the gladiatorial games, at least one or two might have escaped transport giving home for the local hero slays a lion, and course there is another part of the population of lions in stories and knowledge - the European wild cat exists having a massive range across Europe and giving room for the story where some hero slays it.
Apr 2011
There is also a lion in Finlands coat of arms. Since 16th century at least. I guess it was just a popular animal in heraldry.


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
The Greeks and the Romams were around at the when there were still European lions. It was part of their iconography. And iconography tends to be pretty conservative. And since subsequent Europeans looked back to and admired the Greeks and the Romans, the latter in particular for most of history, the Graeco-Roman iconography, lions included, was kept in circulation.

There's is no specific need for European architecture to have kept building stuff along the lines of the Greek and Romans either. They just did, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, as they say...


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Have you ever wondered why cats [which live in enormous numbers in Europe] are not so present in iconography and heraldry?

Personally I would prefer a cat to a lion [I can use a heraldry showing a swan, in reality], but you know ... noble persons think big.

Anyway, a part opinions, it's all evident that the lion is a powerful symbol.

Regarding why this symbol has survived during centuries, I would remark that there is a direct contact with lions [and tigers]: Romans. Romans knew where lions lived ["hic sunt leones", you know ...] and they carried lions [and tigers] to Rome for the Colosseum. They left Christians and others to lions in that notorious amphitheater. If you are curious about this, you can still visit the original "rooms" where they kept the lions under the Colosseum. Next time you will be in Rome take a taxi and go and take a look. If there will be no strikes, the Colosseum will be open for tourists.
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