The lion of Ioulis

A fifteen-minute walk from the upper east end of the town along an ancient paved kalderimi which circles the valley to the north—passing several springs, the cemetery with its dovecote, and a number of scattered antique remnants—leads to the site of the * Archaic ‘Lion of Ioulis’, one of the largest and earliest pieces of monumental sculpture from the historic period in Greece. It is a remarkable and slightly inexplicable antiquity, which possesses little archaeological context and few points of comparison elsewhere. It is a boldly conceived image of a recumbent lion, about 6.4m long, carved from the living rock. Its style suggests a date between c. 620 and 580 bc.

Purpose and meaning

The shape of the natural outcrop of rock may originally have given rise to the image and its pose; but it is hard to define its purpose given the lack of significant context. Theodore Bent implies that it must have been at one end of an ancient stadium, whose rows of seats he observed in the vicinity when he visited in 1883. But it is difficult to see what a recumbent lion has to do with a stadium (which was presumably built later), and we have no other examples of such a combination. The sculpture’s isolation, however, would support the possibility that it may have marked an important grave. In later Antiquity, sculptures of lions often marked burials: for example, the celebrated lion guarding the grave of Leonidas at Thermopylae (now lost); or the still extant Hellenistic lion (of only slightly smaller size) at Krionera, near Lavrion. Kea’s would then be one of the earliest existing examples in Greece of lions used as funerary monuments. The piece appears to be cut substantially free of the rock-bed, and the sculpted part sits on a well-finished shelf of stone which is a part of the whole. Underneath it has been provisionally shored up with blocks to prevent its slipping. This cavity could originally have been a place of burial.
   There is another alternative: the area is rich in springs and it is not impossible that the lion marked another, now dry spring which rose nearby, or even from under it. The reason for this choice of imagery would lie in the early mythology of the island, already cited above, which related how the native spring-dwelling nymphs of Kea were frightened away from the island by a lion which descended from the mountains, and that their departure ushered in a period of prolonged drought. This climatic change clearly remained in the collective memory. When it was redressed much later by the intervention of Aristaeus, who created the altar to Zeus Ikmaios, the ‘rain bringer’, on the highest point of the island, and through his solicitations of the Olympian god caused cooling breezes, vegetation and water to return to the island once again, the lion that caused the problem in the first place was seen as pacified. A recumbent, resting lion was perhaps the best symbol of the animal’s pacification and would have been an appropriate tutelary image for an important spring.


The stylised modelling of the tail, the ridge of the back, the haunches and the overall sinuous curve are typical of early Archaic work. The execution is beautiful, and never crude. It is probable that the lion was brilliantly coloured at first. The head, and particularly the eyes, link it in time and style closely with the famous lions of Delos . The Delos lions have a clear, sacred, symbolic context, relating primarily to Artemis, and through her to Apollo: but no evidence of any Artemision has yet come to light in this area, and the temple of Apollo was on the acropolis hill of Ancient Ioulis.
   Over and above its commanding presence as a sculpture, the solitude of the piece lying unenclosed in the middle of the landscape, and the freedom of the visitor to examine it unhindered, make this one of the most moving antiquities in the islands.

Curiosities and celebrities of ancient Ioulis

We know only a limited amount about Keos in historic Antiquity, but what we do know is of consider able interest. Unfortunately the work which Aristotle wrote on the constitution of the island is lost, depriving us of knowledge of how exactly the relations of four prosperous cities within the space of a relatively small island were governed, and how they could re main so cooperative and genuinely con-federal. The islanders seem to have had a reputation for propriety and decency, and one of the curiosities often mentioned by ancient writers was a convention, whose origin may have dated from a time of emergency during a siege, which obliged citizens of an advanced age to commit voluntary suicide by drinking hem lock, so as not be a burden on the community. This is mentioned by Strabo (Geog. X, 5.6), Menander and Heraclides Ponticus in passing, but in greatest detail by the Roman moralist, Valerius Maximus (Factorum ac Dictorum Memorabilium Libri II, 6.8), who in the company of Sextus Pompeius, a Roman magistrate and Governor of Asia under Tiberius, witnessed one such suicide and was clearly shaken by the incident. His account makes fascinating reading. An elderly lady of Ioulis (purportedly 90 years old) had chosen her moment and was to end her days in the company of her family; she felt that it would be an honour if the Governor, who was visiting at that time, were also present. Pompeius accepted, but in a somewhat un-Roman manner, tried to dissuade her from her course of action. Then seeing her resolve he acquiesced in her wishes. Beautifully dressed and reclining on a litter, she blesses and thanks Pompeius for ‘not feeling revulsion at witnessing [her] death’. She invokes the guidance of Hermes, drinks the hem lock with steady hand and proceeds to describe its effects upon her until losing consciousness. Valerius confesses to being profoundly moved; his eyes, filled with tears, ‘‘…spectaculo obstupefacti erant’. A couple of decades later, one of the most famous suicides of history was to write: ‘a philosopher may choose his own mode of death, just as he chooses a ship or a house. He leaves life as he would a banquet—when it is time.’ (Seneca, Epist. 70. 11).
More dedicated to the arts of preserving rather than terminating life was Erasistratos of Ioulis (c. 315–240 bc), one of the great anatomists and physiologists of Hellenistic medicine. Most of his teach and writing dates from his time in Alexandria to which he moved from his native island. His detailed and minute descriptions of the mechanics of respiration were the fruit of dissection-work on human cadavers and animals. Celsus claims that Erasistratos practised vivisection on convicted criminals. He provided the first analysis of the valves of the heart, pointing to their function in ensuring the irreversibility of the flow. His observation of the circulation of the blood, though incorrect in some important details, was ground-breaking, and was not to be bettered as a model until William Harvey’s refinement of it in the 17th century. Erasistratos also wrote widely on pathology and the causes of diseases.
   To the ancients, however, the two most famous sons of Ioulis were the early lyric poet Simonides (c. 556–c. 470 bc) and his nephew, Bacchylides (c. 550–431), whose works were often a stimulus to competition for Pindar. With so little of Simonides’s oeuvre surviving in other than fragmentary form— unlike Pindar’s—it is difficult for later generations to enter into judgement on their relative merits. But Simonides’s fame was great, based on a wide variety of poetic techniques, a long career (he is supposed to have lived to almost 90), and commissions by many of the great courts, cities and emerging democracies of the Greek world. He commemorated the great battles of the Persian Wars with a calm and limpid humanity. His epigram for the fallen at Thermopylae is celebrated:
‘To those of Lacedaemon, stranger, tell That as their laws commanded, here we fell.’

Plutarch (Moralia, 346 ff.) quotes a famous saying of Simonides that ‘painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks’. This was taken by Gotthold Lessing as the starting point of his great treatise in aesthetics, Laokoon (1766). A similar paucity of original material would have prevented our under standing of Bacchylides, were it not for the chance discovery in 1896 of a papyrus containing his victory odes and dithyrambs inside the tomb of an Egyptian admirer of his works, who—like Schliemann buried with his Homer—had obviously desired to take the works of Bacchylides to accompany him in the next world. Bacchylides writes and grows in the shadow of his uncle, but his voice is no less distinct—written in softer tone, more appropriate for an age of greater peace and recovery that that which Simonides knew.

Kea Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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