European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or (Panthera leo tartarica) could be an extinct subspecies that inhabited southern Europe until historic times. This population is generally considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), but some experts consider it a separate subspecies — the European lion (Panthera leo europaea). They also could possibly have been the last remnants of the cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).
Though some experts consider European lions to be similar to the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica). However, there were also some differences; lions from southeastern Europe and Asia minor usually lacked abdominal and lateral manes. In contrast Asiatic lion males show abdominal manes when living in relatively cool climate. This can be seen in Indian lions at European zoos or ancient depictions of lions from Persia.
Two prehistoric lions lived in Europe, namely the Early Middle Pleistocene European cave lion (Panthera leo fossilis) and the Upper Pleistocene European cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea). The subspecies was similar in size to modern African Lions, standing about 4 feet (1.2 m) at the shoulder, males generally ranged between 180kg to 200kg, females were smaller.
In the earliest period of Holocene these big cats were still present in northern Spain. Until around 5500 to 3000 BCE the existence of lions has been confirmed from the fossil records found in Hungary and the Pontic Region of Ukraine.
According to the Ancient Greek writers such as Herodotus and Aristotle, lions were common in Greece around 480 BCE, but they became endangered in 300 BCE, until their extinction in 100 BCE. These big cats feature heavily in Ancient Greek mythology and writings, including the myth of the Nemean lion, which was believed to be a supernatural lion that occupied the sacred town of Nemea in the Peloponnese.
Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans in the middle of the first millennium BCE. When Xerxes advanced through Macedon in 480 BCE, he encountered several lions. But while lions presumably still existed in the area between the rivers Aliakmon and Nestus in Macedonia in Herodotus’ time, in the 1st century CE Dio Chrysostom wrote that they were already extinct in Europe.
Lions were present in Transcaucasia until the 10th century. The peak of its historic range covered all of the plains and foothills of eastern Transcaucasia westward almost to Tblisi. Northwards, its range extended through the eastern Caucasus, from the Apsheron Peninsula to the mouth of the Samur River in the current Azerbaijan-Russia border, extending to Araks. From there, the boundary of its range narrowly turned east to Yerevan, with its northern boundary then extending westward to Turkey.
European lion in historic times lived in the Iberian Peninsula, Balkans south to northern Greece, Italy and southern France. This was the northernmost of the subspecies of lion until its disappearance. Its habitat was the Mediterranean and temperate forests of the area, with prey that included the deer, elk, wisent, aurochs, and other European ungulates.
In view of the fact that the species became extinct long back, little is known about these lions. They feature very prominently in Ancient Greek mythology and writings including myth of the Nemean Lion, which was believed to be a supernatural lion and occupied the sacred town of Nemea in the Peloponese. This lion was famously slayed by Heracles, which was the first labor that Heracles had to perform. It was said that the lions fur was impervious to attacks because it was made of gold and its claws were sharper than mortal swords and could cut through armor. Heracles managed to kill the Nemean lion by strangling it and afterwards wore the lion’s skin.
For Greeks lions symbolized power and wealth. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans in the middle of the first millennium BC. When Xerxes advanced through Macedon in 480 BC he encountered several lions. Before 20 BC they became extinct from Italy and around the year 1 AD from Western Europe also. Around the year 70 they were restricted to northern Greece, in the area between the rivers Aliakmon and Nestus. Finally, in the year 100 they became extinct in Eastern Europe too. After that lions in Europe became restricted to the Caucasus, where a population of Asiatic lions survived until the 10th century.
European Lions became extinct due to excessive hunting (sport of lion hunting was very popular among Greeks and Romans), competition with feral dogs and over-exploitation. European lions were used in the Roman arenas along with the Asiatic and Barbary lions, where they fought against bestiarii, and animals like the Caspian tiger, bears and the aurochs. Due to geographical distribution they were more accessible to Romans than North African and Middle Eastern lions. As the European lions became more and more rare, Romans started importing them from the Middle East and North Africa to fight in the arenas.
Greeks were so much fond of lions that they were depicted in buildings, statues, coins and artifacts across all the Greek-city states. The Lions gate to the citadel of Mycenae had two confronted lionesses. The Terrace of the Lions on the island of Delos contained nine to twelve squatting marble guardian lions. These lions had their mouths open, as if roaring, and inspired fear in the worshipers that came to the island. In about 300 BC, the town of Thebes erected a giant stone lion at the burial site of the Sacred Band of Thebes who died at the hands of Philip II of Macedon and his army in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. Alexander the Great was usually depicted wearing a lion’s head. He wore the lion skin, just like Heracles did, to point out that he was of Dorian descent, just like Heracles. Alexander was also depicted in scene hunting a lion from Pella.