This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
By 256 BC, the so-called First Punic War had been raging for eight years. (I refer to it as so-called because “First Punic War” imparts a Roman bias on the reading of the conflict. It is better to think of it as “the first war between Carthage and Rome”, though that is too bulky for a smooth narrative.) Its battlefields stretched across Sicily and the waters surrounded the island, with raids and skirmishes ranging as far as the coasts of Italy near Rome.
In an effort to force an end to the hostilities, the Romans mounted an invasion of North Africa; a strategy only tried once before, by Agathocles of Syracuse. Leading this expedition was one of the consuls for 256/255, Marcus Atilius Regulus. The Atilii family supplied a number of successful commanders for the war, and it is fitting that one of them was to lead the army to Libya.
This invasion, like that of Agathocles, was not successful. It culminated in what is variably known as the Battle of Tunis or the Battle of Bagradas, in 255, and the utter destruction of Regulus’ army. Of his 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry, 2,000 were said to have escaped death or capture. (I follow the army size in Polybius (1.29). The larger size presented by later authors is certainly wrong.)
In this showdown, the Romans were surrounded by the Carthaginian cavalry, and slowly ground down by their elephants and the hardened citizen infantry which made up the core of their battle line. The victory is typically ascribed to the tactical genius of the Spartan mercenary, Xanthippus.
But, before their final encounter with the Punic host and its Hellenic helmsman, they met with a more sinister foe: a dragon.
Arrival in Africa
Regulus and his army had landed on Cap Bon, the promontory which extends from just south of Carthage, in a north-easterly direction, towards Sicily. From there, they marched towards Carthage, which took them through hostile territory, thanks both to enemy settlements as well as the natural environment. It also forced them to march across the river Bagradas (the modern Medjerda River). It was here that they met with their enigmatic enemy.
Our oldest source for this event comes to us second hand, as a fragment, from Aulus Gellius, who copied the version of Quintus Aelius Tubero (NA 7.3). Tubero was writing in the late first century BC, while Gellius’ Attic Nights was assembled in the second century AD.
According to Tubero (source):
The consul Atilius Regulus, when encamped at the Bagradas river in Africa, fought a stubborn and fierce battle with a single serpent of extraordinary size, which had its lair in that region; that in a might struggle with the entire army the reptile was attacked for a long time with hurling engines and catapults; and that when it was finally killed, its skin, a hundred and twenty feet long, was sent to Rome.
The next earliest version of the story we have is brief in the extreme, and comes from the Periochae of Livy, summaries of the books of his Ab Urbe Condita written between the second and fourth centuries AD. Livy’s flourish, however, was the end of the first century BC through to about AD 17, placing the original source material earlier than other mentions of the incident.
In this work, we hear for Book 18 that “in Africa, Atilius Regulus killed an unnaturally enormous serpent with significant losses to his forces” (transl. Jane D. Chaplin).
A more detailed version of Livy’s account can be found in Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, written during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. He explicitly cites Livy for the story, giving us an idea of what we’ve lost in his Book 18 (Val. Max. 1.8(ext).19; my translation, rather rough, based on the Latin text available on Perseus):
The serpent of the Bagradas River in Africa was of such a size that it denied the army of Regulus access to the river. Many soldiers it seized in its enormous mouth and crushed to death not a few of them with its whirling tail. It could not be penetrated by the missiles thrown at it. Finally, they attacked it with many stones launched from ballistae from every side, it was brought down by the weighty blows.
After his men finally delivered unto the beast the killing blow, they were forced to move their camp from the area, now polluted by the gasses and goo emanating from the corpse. They waited around long enough, though, to skin it, and send that off to Rome, as in Tubero’s account, above.
Even longer than that preserved by Valerius Maximus, is the version of Orosius, which may well derive from Livy (source):
Regulus, chosen by lot for the Carthaginian War, marched with his army to a point not far from the Bagrada River and there pitched his camp. In that place a reptile of astonishing size devoured many of the soldiers as they went down to the river to get water. Regulus set out with his army to attack the reptile. Neither the javelins they hurled nor the darts they rained upon its back had any effect. These glided off its horrible scaly fins as if from a slanting testudo of shields and were in some miraculous fashion turned away from its body so that the creature suffered no injury.
Finally, when Regulus saw that it was killing a great number of his soldiers with its bites, was trampling them down by its charge, and driving them mad by its poisonous breath, he ordered ballistae brought up. A stone taken from a wall was hurled by a ballista; this struck the spine of the serpent and caused its entire body to become numb. The formation of the reptile was such that, though it seemed to lack feet, yet it had ribs and scales graded evenly, extending from the top of its throat to the lowest part of its belly and so arranged that the creature rested upon its scales as if on claws and upon its ribs as if on legs.
But it did not move like the worm which has a flexible spine and moves by first stretching its contracted parts in the direction of its tiny body and then drawing together the stretched parts. This reptile made its way by a sinuous movement, extending its sides first right and then left, so that it might keep the line of ribs rigid along the exterior arch of the spine; nature fastened the claws of its scales to its ribs, which extend straight to their highest point; making these moves alternately and quickly, it not only glided over levels, but also mounted inclines, taking as many footsteps, so to speak, as it had ribs.
This is why the stone rendered the creature powerless. If struck by a blow in any part of the body from its bowels to its head, it is crippled and unable to move, because wherever the blow falls, it numbs the spine, which stimulates the feet of the ribs and the motion of the body. Hence this serpent, which had for a long time withstood so many javelins unharmed, moved about disabled from the blow of a single stone and, quickly overcome by spears, was easily destroyed. Its skin was brought to Rome—it is said to have been one hundred and twenty feet in length— and for some time was an object of wonder to all.
The longest, and most elaborate version of the story we possess, though, comes from Silius Italicus’ Punica, the second century AD epic poem about the Second Punic War (Sil. Pun. 6.140-293). It is narrated by a man named Marus, supposedly one of Regulus’ soldiers who had made it back to Rome after the disastrous campaign. This retelling is much more colorful, and was certainly elaborated by Silius to fit into his poem as a dramatic and scintillating digression.
Although the outcome was the same as in the “historical” accounts, the details associated with the beast are more literary. As Daniel Ogden has pointed out, Silius was “eager to inscribe his Bagrada Dragon” within “an implicit canon of great dragons”, such as that of the Giants and the Lernaean Hydra (Ogden 2013, p. 145). It is worth pointing out at this point that the language I have used is rather loose in describing the beast.
In the Latin accounts, the term used is serpens, meaning both “serpent” and often “dragon” (Ogden 2013, p. 142). However, our one Greek source makes it fairly clear that, at least by the time Cassius Dio was writing in the early third century AD, the creature was identified with the Greek term drakon (Zonar. 13.1 = Cass. Dio frg. 42.23). That said, the descriptions we have make it out to be a large snake-like animal, as it lacked legs.
Unravelling the mystery
Generally, the battle between Regulus’ legionaries and a dragon is an interesting event inserted in an even more interesting period of history. But how did it come to be? It should be obvious that whatever the Romans encountered was not a dragon. Can we hope to explain it though?
Our accounts make it very clear that something was sent back to Rome which measured 120 feet in length. This was not uncommon, and later in the war, after the Battle of Panormus, Lucius Caecilius Metellus sent 120 elephants back to Rome as spoils of war, which were later scarified (Pliny, Natural History 7.139). Unless the corpses of the elephants were sewn together and later mistaken for something else, it seems likely that something was brought back by Regulus’ men.
It is possible that it was the corpse of an especially large python. Although not known to exceed 25 feet in North Africa, the many instances of snakes in excess of 45 feet we find in ancient sources make it difficult to reject the idea outright (cf. Stothers in further reading).
It is of note that when Ophellas, a Ptolemaic governor, marched to the camp of Agathocles in the fourth century BC, many of his colonists and men were killed by snakes along the coast of North Africa (Diod. Sic. 20.42.1-2; Tillyard 1908, p. 147, accepts the story of the march as “right in all its details”). Thus, there is independent evidence of snakes capable of killing humans in the region, and Regulus’ men may have indeed encountered something murderous. If this is to be accepted, the creature’s transformation into the 120 foot dragon of Tubero and Livy, and the happenings of the great battle at the River Bagradas, must be explained.
The first of these questions may be explained away by hypothesizing that the remains of the animal had been lost, destroyed, or decayed by the first century BC, whence come our earliest versions of the story. If this was the case, undoubtedly rumors and stories easily could have developed as to the nature of the beast which had been slain in the first struggle against Carthage. In these, the greater the size the greater the Roman achievement, giving the African campaign some degree of success, in light of its failure to affect a Punic surrender.
The second is, perhaps, revealed by Silius Italicus. In his poem, the story of the beast of the Bagradas is told by an old veteran of the campaign. There were not many men who had escaped Libya, and perhaps, in spite of our evidence, few of those may have participated in the fight against the serpent. It is not inconceivable that, to increase their personal glory and that of their long-fallen comrades, men like Marus elaborated the story and turned it into what we know today. Taking it from a tale about killing a large, perhaps man-eating, snake and making it into a feat worthy of myth.
Although this story has, on occasion, been dismissed outright by modern scholars, this is not warranted. We must question aspects of the legend, obviously, but should not ignore what was probably a less dramatic, though equally interesting, episode from the First Punic War.