Lion hunt in ancient Macedonia

Lion hunt in ancient Macedonia

Lion hunt. Mosaic from Pella (ancient Macedonia); source: Wikipedia

In Macedonia evidence begins with silver coin-types of the fifth century; King Archelaos is said to have been murdered out hunting; Philip II was said (by Arrian’s sources) to have instituted the corps of royal pages who attended him while out hunting; Herodotos, Pausanias, and Aristotle include Macedonia in the habitat of wild lions, and Xenophon knows that lions could still be hunted around Mount Pangaion, as also in Epeiros. 2 A silver coin of Amyntas III shows on one side a horseman with a spear, and on the other a lion pierced by a broken spear, presumably during a hunt. 3 Hunting also shaped Macedonian manners at table. From the Black Sea westwards, hunters lived on the geographic latitude for great drinking-horns, the real or simulated trophies of wild oxen, stags, and so forth (Jeffery 1976, 37). Philip II is said to have drunk toasts from them; according to Hegesander (c.150 BC), a Macedonian could not recline at dinner until he had killed a wild boar without using nets (Hegesander, in Ath. 1. 18 a).

In hellenistic Macedonia we have epigraphic evidence for ‘hunt clubs’ under the patronage of Herakles Kynagidas, Herakles the Hunter (Hammond and Griffith 1979,155 n. 4; Edson 1940,125-7); Polybios (31. 29) also refers to the maintained game parks of the Macedonian kings and their history of careful upkeep before 167 BC. Although modern ‘histories’ of Macedonia run evidence from later periods into the classical era, we should be wary of assuming that the parks and the hunt clubs existed already in Alexander’s early years. The great hunt painting on the fagade of the double royal tomb at Vergina is more to the point. 4 It shows three horsemen and seven young men, and scenes of the hunting of deer, a boar (probably), a bear, and a lion. The hounds fall into two distinct types, one of which grasps the prey and is a noticeably heavy breed (Reilly 1993, 160). A garlanded tree and a tall pillar, topped with decoration, frame the main scenes and led the excavator, Manolis Andronikos, to the view that their hunt is represented in a ‘sacred grove’. Xenophon tells us how he and his friends hunted on his ‘sacred estate’ for Artemis (An. 5. 3. 10 ff.), but there are also Greek myths and cautionary tales about hunting indiscriminately in a sacred grove (Birge 1982, 28 and n. 62; 222-30); perhaps the painting shows hunting in the grove of a specifically hunting divinity, or hunting in a royal game park which combines several preys and incidents from real life. 5 The main lion-hunter is mounted, and his features, though damaged, resemble those on portraits assumed to be of Philip II, while the young men should be the young royal pages initiated by Philip II. If we accept (as I do) that the tomb is Philip IIs, the painting shows a royal Macedonian lion hunt among the pages before Alexander’s invasion of Asia.

A deer hunt, detail from the mosaic floor signed Gnosis in the House of the Abduction of Helen at Pella Macedonia, Greece; source:

We can wonder whether Philip’s corps of royal pages was inspired by reports of a similar corps in the Persian monarchy; pages, however, are a widespread feature of royalty, and can arise without a specific model. It is much more difficult to accept that lion hunting was only adopted by Alexander after entering Asia and was another part of his assumption of Persian customs. 6 Apart from the Vergina painting, which has to be downdated unconvincingly, the Amyntas coin and the references to local lions ranging from Herodotos to Aristotle tell against this theory. When we have evidence for a practice in two separate societies, historians are always tempted to derive one from the other and give their contact a story (Kienast 1973). The approach is unsubtle, and in this case convergence is the better model.

1 Andronikos 1984,106-19; Tripodi 1991,143-209, not convincing on the questions of dating, but important for parallels.

2 Tripodi (1991, 167; 181; 193) argues for a stock scene derived from satrapal-dynastic art in Asia.

3 Briant 1989, 267, argues this, whereas Briant 1991 is rightly more cautious.

4 Xen. An. 1. 2. 7-9; Hell. 4. 1. 15; the same ‘paradise’ in Strabo, 13. 1. 17 (589), with Akurgal 1956, 20-2.

5 Schnapp’s analysis (1973) is not convincing.

6 Robert 1978, 437-52, on Mysia; Xen. An. 1. 4. 10 (Syria); Briant 1982, 451-6.

Source: Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture
Book by John Salmon, Graham Shipley; Routledge, 1996, pp 137-138

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