Posted by: Dominic | November 26, 2010

Vikings in Greece

Greece has been subject to foreign rule throughout much of its long history. Macedonians, Romans, Slavs, Franks, Venetians, Turks, and Germans have all claimed dominion over the southeastern tip of the Balkans. But perhaps its most unlikely masters are the Vikings.

The Nordic warriors found their way into the Byzantine emperor’s bodyguard, where they were known as Varangians. Byzantine writers of the mid-11th century record their service. Runes record such Varangians as Assurr from Östergötland as dying in Greece around 1010. Another inscription, this one from Ed (western Sweden) gives us Ragnvaldr as the leader of the imperial guard sometime before 1050.  

Their invasion is doubtful and was never well-known. It had no lasting impact on Greek history. No chronicles, no annals, no sagas tell its story. The only evidence of its existence are two inscriptions left behind by some Norsemen who had wandered a bit too far south.

The Peiraieus Lion (Rafn 1856, 3).

The inscriptions were made on a classical lion statue that sat in the Peiraieus, the harbor of Athens. The lion sat facing the sea, and on its shoulders can be seen the faint traces of serpentine script, a form of writing common to Nordic runes called lindworm. On the left shoulder reads:


Hakon along with Ulf, Asmund, and Örn, conquered this port. These men, and Harald the great, imposed a heavy fine [on the people of the country] because of the insurrection of the Greek people. Dalk remains a captive in a far-off land; Egil has gone on a campaign with Ragnar in Rumania …. and Armenia.

On the right side of the lion is this inscription:


Asmund engraved these runes along with Asgeir, Thorleif, Thord, and Ivar, at the request of Harald the great, while the Greeks who took consideration [of the matter] forbade it.

This is the reading of Carl Christian Rafn, a Swedish orientalist of the mid-19th century. He edited the inscription based on autopsy and a drawing by Johan David Åkerblad, a Swedish diplomat, published in 1800. In his commentary, Rafn identifies the HARADR HAFI (Harald the great) on the left-shoulder inscription with Harald Sigurdsson, also known as Harald III, King of Norway. He was killed in an invasion of England in 1066. The Ragnar on the same side he identifies with a companion of Eymund son of Ring who went to Gardarike – modern Novgorod in northern Russia – in 1015, as mentioned in the Saga of Eymund. Therefore the inscriptions date to the mid-11th century.

Inscription on the left shoulder (Rafn 1856, 4).

Erik Brate read the inscription quite differently by interpreting both sides together.

They cut him down in the midst of his forces. But in the harbor the men cut runes by the sea in memory of Horsi, a good warrior. The Sviar (Swedes) set this on the lion. He went his way with good counsel, gold he won in his travels. The warriors cut runes, hewed them in an ornamental scroll. Aeskell [and others] and ÞorlaeifR had them well cut, they who lived in Roslagen. [Name] son of [name] cut these runes. UlfR and [name] colored them in memory of Horsi. He won gold in his travels.

Inscription on the right shoulder (Rafn 1856, 5)

Omeljan Pritsak notes that if the reading of Roslagen is right, this indicates that these Vikings originated from the region directly north of modern Stockholm, on the eastern side of the country. Whatever reading and translation is regarded as more accurate, it appears that Varangian Norsemen made a small raid on the harbor town of Peiraieus in the mid-11th century and left a small memorial to their triumph. Athens is regarded rather unimportant city within the Byzantine Empire at this time, notable only for its famous classical past.

Apparently no one noticed the runes for quite some time. The Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi mentioned the lion during his visit to Peiraieus and Athens in the late 1660s. But he does not mention the strange writing on them. He is our oldest reference to the lion itself, and was the last person to discuss the lion while it remained in its original position in the Peiraieus. In 1687 the Venetian Doge Francesco Morosini laid siege to Athens. His ships sat in the Peiraieus and bombarded the city from afar. Several of his shells hit the Parthenon, which was unfortunately being used as a gunpowder store by the Turks. The building, long a temple, then an Orthodox and Catholic church, finally a mosque and armory, was blown up. The siege was ultimately unsuccessful but as a “victory” trophy he took the lion, runes and all, back to Venice. It has remained at the entrance to the Armory since that time. Åkerblad was the first to record the runes, as he was on a diplomatic mission to Venice in the late 18th century. By the time Rafn translated Åkerblad’s edition in 1854, some scholars regarded the letters as too faint to read. The reading and interpretation remain inconclusive, and the wear and tear of the inscription may prevent any definitive reading from ever being made.

The Peiraieus Lion at the Venetian Armory

Sources: O. Pritsak, The Origin of Rus’, Vol. 1., 1981; C.C. Rafn, Antiquités de l’Orient: Monuments Runographiques, 1856



  1. […] had evacuated Athens, but not before Morosini had collected some antiquities as victory trophies, including the Piraeus Lion mentioned earlier. Their occupation had accomplished little besides temporarily pushing the […]

  2. Now I know… from where my Greek girl friend got her blonde!
    Happy Holidays

  3. nice article but in the beginning you mention macedonians as foreign roulers. macedonians were an ancient greek tribe, like athenians and spartans. so i believe is wrong to call macedonians foreign roulers

  4. Good article but you wrotte that Macedonians were non Greeks rulers.Mcedonians were Greeks.

    • Hi Vettius, thanks for reading and responding! I appreciate that there is a debate about whether the Macedonians were in fact Greek or not, though it was not my intent to wade into that debate. Maybe a good post for another time!

  5. Since when were the Macedonians foreign rulers? Their royal dynasty came from a city in Peloponnese called Argos and took their name from it (Argeian Dynasty). They participated in the ancient olympic games where participation was limited to Greeks, spoke Greek, believe in the same Gods, etc.

    It is interesting how Aristotle, another Greek from the city of Stagira in Macedonia is considered Greek but his fellow “countrymen” who live a few kilometres north are seen as foreigners.

    • Hi Constantine, thanks for reading and replying! I know that some people debate about the Greek-ness of Macedonians. Could be a good topic for a later post. Thanks for reading!

      • Well it’s not a matter of debate. Their Greekness is historically proven. Why are all ancient ruins in Macedonia in Greek (& there is no sign of their own distinct language)?

        And those who talk of a seperate ethnic group, one of slavic nature, have to explain to us how is that possible since the Slavs moved to the Balkans at the 6th century a.d.

  6. […] 21 September, the Venetians landed at the Piraeus, then called Porto Leone for the classical lion statue that stood by the harbor. The Turkish garrison withdrew to the Acropolis, where it then improved the walls and installed […]

  7. Would be nice to have the lion returned to Pereaus.
    So many Greek artifacts have been raided from this poor country

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