While lions are intimately associated with Africa, many are unaware of the king of beasts' one-time dominance of the Eurasian landmass. During the ice ages of prehistory, much of this area was denuded of trees, instead being covered by endless grassland and massive herds of game. Lions pushed out from their African home, spreading in all directions until they could be found from India to England. Once the last glaciers receded, the trees came back, pushing out the herds and lions alike.
Still, lions persisted in some areas for thousands of years, such as in southern Europe and the Middle East. There is of course the famous legend of Heracles and the Nemean Lion, whose head and skin become the hero's trademark cloak. Later, the Achaeans, ancient Greeks immortalized by Homer, would hunt them in the same fashion as the African Masai, using long-bladed spears. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus described lions in abundance throughout the Balkans, thriving in that wild and rugged country.
When Xerxes marched his Persian troops through Thrace in 480 BC on his way to attack the Greek city-states, his baggage train was set upon by a hungry pride. Herodotus tells us, "Xerxes and his army marched from Acanthus through the interior to Therma; and while he was on his way through the Paeonian and Crestonian territories to the river Echidorus, his camels, which carried corn, were attacked by lions. These animals, leaving their usual haunts came at night and preyed on the camels but touched no man and no other beast. It appears marvelous that the lions should have abstained from other animals, and should have selected the camel, which they had never seen or tasted. In this region there are numerous lions, as well as wild oxen, whose horns of immense size, are imported into Greece. The country in which the lion is found, is bounded by the river Nestus, which runs through Abdern and the River Achelous in Acarnania. Lions occur between these two rivers; but they are never see in the portion of Europe to the east of the Nestus, or on the continent west of the Achelous."
Aristotle, who was Thracian by birth and lived in Macedonia for a time, also mentions lions with some authority 150 years later. "The lion, like all other savage and jag-toothed animals, is carnivorous. It devours its food greedily and fiercely, and often swallows its prey entire without rending it at all; it will then go fasting for two or three days together, being rendered capable of this abstinence by its previous surfeit. It is a spare drinker. It discharges the solid residuum in small quantities, about every other day or at irregular intervals, and the substance of it is hard and dry like the excrement of a dog. The wind discharged from off its stomach is pungent, and its urine emits a strong odour, a phenomenon which, in the case of dogs, accounts for their habit of sniffing at trees; for, by the way, the lion, like the dog, lifts its leg to void its urine."
It seems that the last Macedonian lion was killed sometime in the second century BC, some 200 years after Aristotle's descriptions. Both Polybius and Dio Chrysostomus wrote in the early 1st century that there were no wild lions left in Europe.