The Bagradas Dragon

Hey all I’m starting this tale with a personal anecdote … cause why not start a tale with a personal anecdote. Growing up I was crazy for anything historical in nature, but especially mad for Forteana. It should be no surprise that when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, it was immediately my favourite show. I have an odd memory of watching Mysterious World one Sunday morning – sprawled out on a large cushion in front of the TV. The week’s episode was all about strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more.

A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was giving an interview. In 1959 Van Lierde was flying helicopters in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo, when he sighted a massive snake convoluting itself through the jungle. Estimating it’s length at close to 50 feet, a shocked Van Lierde turned the whirlybird round. He buzzed the giant several times, a passenger snapping photos of the monster; before it reared up ten feet into the air, in an attempt to strike them. Van Lierde estimated it’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.

“I wonder if anyone went looking for this snake” I say to my father, also watching. “Teddy Roosevelt put a cash prize up for anyone who could bring in a 50 foot snake…”

My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone killed it. The snake must have lived a long life to have become so large. It wasn’t bothering anyone. Any animal like that needs to be protected. Given my dad grew up around a forest, and regularly hunted as a kid, this surprised me. It seems wise commentary, both then and now. 

 Now, on to the topic at hand. Today’s tale is set on the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia – the year 256 BC. Our protagonists, a legion of Roman soldiers. 

At this time Rome was in the midst of a war with Carthage. Anyone who read Hannibal in Bithynia will know something of the Punic wars. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC. They were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well the Phoenicians anyway) had bases on the island from the 9th century BC, and were the big kids on the block at the time. Over the decades the Doric Greeks built up a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian city states remained small and disparate. Around 485 BC Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island, which led to the Ionian cities calling on Carthage for protection. Carthage obliged, and a series of wars raged till 306 BC, when the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; besieging Carthage itself. This was enough to make Carthage consider a peace treaty, though ultimately Agathocles lost the war.

One of the strategic cities in these wars was Messana, modern day Messina – a port city near the border with Italy. It passed back and forth a few times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries called the Mamertines to help him – but when Agathocles died, many of them stayed on as free agents – and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning to piracy to pay the bills. 

Syracuse called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, for help with the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome to back them. By the end of the Pyrrhic wars – which saw Rome briefly allied with Carthage – Rome had annexed Messana. The Romans made overtures to their former foe Syracuse about joining together to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in our tale proper.

The momentum of the war in Rome’s favour, they sent 15,000 men to North Africa, under the command of the consul Marcus Atillus Regulus. They hoped to deal a knock out blow to Carthage itself, as Syracuse had attempted in 306BC. Their plans were crushed when the Carthaginian army, commanded by a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus, dealt the Romans a rare thrashing. Only 2,000 Romans survived the Carthaginian onslaught. Now all that has been said, let’s talk about dragons. 

In 256 BC, Regulus army landed on a peninsula now called Cape Bon.  From there they would make their was through wild terrain, and a few unfriendly villages – to avoid a suicidal head on assault on the capital. They pushed on to the Bagradas river, and set up camp. Several men were sent to get water, one soon back in a mad panic… a monster had crushed or eaten the others. A party of armed men were sent to investigate. They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’ – more on that phrase in a second – which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s jaws or smashing them with a crack of its long tail. The classical sources all agree the beast had no legs, though one describes it as having a torso, and propelling itself on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine. 

The giant animal stood it’s ground as more and more men arrived – continuing to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless, their spears bouncing off it’s scales. Regulus finally arrived, a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower that looked something like a giant crossbow, predating more well known artillery like the trebuchet. A large stone was hurled at the beast, paralysing it. Once immobilised, the army moved in and stabbed the beast to death. 

The stench of the dead creature was soon so overpowering Regulus had to relocate their base. He did send some men back the following day however to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where it was marvelled over till it disappeared a century later. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman poet Sirius Italicus wrote an epic poem on the Punic wars, which makes mention of the battle with the serpens – a word which can denote either a snake or a dragon – with the more specific ‘Drakon’ – and the legend of a Roman army who battled a dragon coalesced. 

While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. Though I wondered if they came across a gigantic crocodile – a couple of sources were adamant Roman soldiers of this era knew exactly what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons have been known to grow in excess of 25 feet, African rock pythons as long as 20 feet have been spotted in the wild by people considered reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from a monster – say 60 feet long – so as to leave 120 feet of skin behind. There are, however, a number of reports from other classical sources claiming encounters with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago bear witness to snakes which could grow close to the size of the Bagradas dragon. 

a model of a titanoboa

Add to this, if the dragon was a largely water borne snake, in theory some of the limits set on terra firma by gravity on a body go out of the window – and animal size is more largely constrained by the amount of food available in their catchment. 

I am extremely sceptical of the tale of the Bagradas Dragon, but a giant snake is plausible. It almost makes one shudder to think of the monsters potentially out there – unctuously coiling its powerful frame around some unfortunate prey…. and I guess I wish that monster well? 

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