I want to start this episode with a confession that should surprise no-one – as a kid I was mad for anything remotely described as Fortean. From teleporting Conquistadors to raining frogs, the Devil’s footprints to spontaneous human combustion I loved all that stuff – dubious as much of it was. I was over the moon when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s ’Mysterious World’, years after the series first played on English television. For a while Sunday morning viewings of Mysterious World (and later Mysterious Universe) became a bit of a ritual for myself and my dad. One week was all about cryptids, strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more besides.
A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was being interviewed in some old file footage. In 1959 Van Lierde was stationed in the then Belgian Congo (soon to become Zaire) and was flying a helicopter in the Katanga region, when he sighted a massive snake winding through the jungle. An estimated 50 feet long, a shocked Van Lierde turned the copter round, so his passenger could get some photos of the monster. He buzzed the beast several times, before it reared ten feet up into the air, attempting to strike the craft. Van Lierde estimated the snake’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.
“I wonder if anyone went out hunting that snake” I asked my dad.
My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone did. That snake must have lived a long life to have grown so large. It didn’t appear to be bothering anyone. Monster snakes in the deep, dark jungle deserve a long life free of bother from gun wielding apes. Given my dad grew up near a forest, and often went hunting on a Sunday morning in his own childhood this seemed poignant to me then. Still does.
To date I’ve yet to come across another alleged sighting of this giant – though it’s fair to say all manner of strange beasts have been alleged to lurk in the forests of Africa.
One such beast allegedly lived near the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia around 256 BC. Our antagonists in this tale, a legion of Roman soldiers.
In the mid 3rd century BC the Roman Republic was in the midst of a long-running war with Carthage. In Hannibal in Bithynia we touched on the Punic wars a little. In Mussolini vs The Mob we also run through a little Sicilian history, if you’re looking for more on the conflict. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – at some point everyone wanted a piece of Sicily.
Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC and were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well, their forebears the Phoenicians) had a colony on the island from the 9th century BC, and had largely ruled over the locals since. Over time the Doric Greek colonizers established a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian Greek city states remained small and disparate. In 485 BC, Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island. The Ionian cities called on the Phoenicians’ successors, Carthage for protection. Carthage did step in, fighting a series of wars against Syracuse till 306 BC.
In 306 BC the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; and besieged Carthage itself. This was enough for Carthage consider a peace treaty, though Agathocles ultimately lost this war – to another power.
A strategic city in the war was Messana, modern day Messina. A port city near the border with Italy, it passed back and forth several times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries named the Mamertines to help. When Agathocles died, the Mamertines ignored orders to return home, and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning it into a Pirates’ den.
Syracuse then called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, to help rid them of the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome for help. When the dust settled on the Pyrrhic wars – Pyrrhus ultimately lost. Though his armies won several decisive battles, the cumulative cost of those victories crippled the nation state – something we now call a Pyrrhic victory. Rome briefly allied with Carthage – annexing the pirates of Messana, which they saw as the greater threat to them in the area. Rome then made overtures to their former foe Syracuse to form an alliance to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in 256 BC.
The momentum of the war then well in Rome’s favour, the Senate 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. They had Carthage on the ropes, but unreasonable Roman demands in peace talks led to Carthage hiring a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus to lead their army. Xanthippus thrashed the Romans at the Battle of Tunis. Only 2,000 Romans survived the onslaught. Now we have a little context, let’s talk dragons.
In 256 BC, Regulus’ army landed on a peninsula now named Cape Bon. From there they cut a path through the wild terrain. On their way to Tunis they came across a couple of unfriendly villages – cutting a path through them just as easily. They pushed on as far as the Bagradas river, setting up camp. A handful of men were sent to the river to collect some drinking water. Minutes later one of the men rushed back looking much worse for wear…In a mad panic he babbled that a monster had crushed and eaten the other men. Several armed men were sent to the river to investigate.
They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’, which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s monstrous jaws or crushing them with its long tail. Snake-like, the beast had no legs, though the beast was described as having a torso, and propelling itself along on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine.
The giant stood it’s ground as more men arrived – and continued to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless – their spears bouncing off of its scaly hide. Steadily, the beast continued to smash and bite it’s way through the legion. Finally, Regulus arrived with a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower similar in design to a giant crossbow. Regulus ordered his men to hurl large stones at the beast. Finally, a stone hit the mark, paralysing the beast. Once immobilised, the army moved in, hacking and stabbing the beast to death.
Under the blazing African sun, the corpse soon went off – the stench of the dead creature soon became so overpowering Regulus was forced to relocate their base. He did however send some men back the following day to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where onlookers marvelled over it 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 was born.
While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. At first I wondered if they had stumbled across a gigantic crocodile – but classical sources are adamant Roman soldiers at this time knew what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons can grow to over 25 feet long. African rock pythons as big as 20 feet long have been spotted in the wild by reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from our 60 foot long monster- and yes snake skins can be stretched to make the serpent appear bigger than it was. There are, however, a number of reports from classical sources claiming encounters in the wilds of Africa with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Then there are fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago. Though the Bagradas Dragon was almost certainly not a Titanoboa, evidence of such a monster proves it anatomically possible for a snake to grow close to such a massive extent.
a model of a titanoboa
Add to this, if the dragon was largely water borne – theoretically, some of the limits set on a body on land by gravity go out the window – and animal size is more largely constrained by the amount of food available in the catchment area.
While I feel fairly safe in claiming I don’t believe the Bagradas Dragon, was a dragon in the mythological sense of the word – I believe Regulus’ men may have run into a giant snake unlike anything they had seen before. In subsequent centuries international traders, slavers, ivory, rubber, cocoa, diamond, gold and oil thieves have explored as they plundered. Local tribes have come to know their land like the back of their own hands. Satellites have filmed much of the Earth’s surface. One presumes there are no snakes in the wild as terrifying as those seen by Van Lierde or Regulus anymore, if ever. All the same, the wide eyed kid in me wishes the world to be just that little bit stranger – and hopes if such giants still wind through the jungles – we leave them be.