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“War is the science of destruction” – John Abbott

Can someone move that monster for me?

Can someone move that monster for me?

Nothing is more annoying than when a monster interferes with your combat operations.  Historically, this has happened more frequently than one would like to think.  From Alexander the Great loading up cows with naptha to dispatch a pesky Ethiopian dragon blocking a mountain pass he needed to march his army through, to the collateral death of a sea serpent observed by World War I German u-boat U-28 when it torpedoed the British steamer Iberian, it can get irritating when you’re trying to perform a perfectly reasonable act of war, and some preternatural critter decides to introduce an element of freakishness to the experience.  One aspect to consider in military reports of monster encounters is the fact that when someone is trying desperately to kill you, and just as steadfastly trying not to be killed by you, it tends to hone the senses to a razors edge.  If I was a WWII RAF pilot flying sorties over Berlin in the face of nasty Luftwaffe resistance, my attention to highly maneuverable “foo fighters” would likely amount to threat assessment i.e. “not shooting at me, yet”, thus file the data and ignore while I try not to get blow out of the sky by the nearest unfriendly Messerschmitt.  Historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 A.D.) once remarked that the average Roman was “born ready armed”, and given that the Roman legions spent about 1300 years campaigning from Parthia to Wales, he may have had a point.  Part of the extraordinary success of the Roman military had a lot to do with discipline, organization, emphasis on strategic planning, and recognition of the value of combat engineering.  Therefore it is no surprise that when we run across accounts of monsters obstructing the operations of Roman Legions at the edges of the empire, they seem to be recorded dispassionately and the monsters dispatched forthwith so that the Roman war machine could get on with say, sacking Carthage.  With no muss and no fuss, Roman historians recorded (mostly as a footnote) the summary execution of a gigantic river monster during the 256 B.C. invasion of Africa during the First Punic War, mostly because it was in the way.

Rome and Carthage were the 3rd Century B.C. big kids on the block in the Western Mediterranean, and it was nearly inevitable that they would come to blows.  A minor armed squabble over the city of Messena in Sicily erupted into what was effectively a classical world war, with Rome and Carthage supporting opposing antagonists.  The assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia dragged all of Europe into World War I, so it’s probably safe to say that the history of humanity is characterized by superpowers looking for a pretext to mobilize the army and navy.  Carthage had long been the dominant naval power, but after a protracted land war in Sicily, they decided it was time to push the war a little closer to Carthage.  Rome built a massive fleet and set out to invade North Africa.  In 256 B.C., Roman legions under the command of Marcus Atilius Regulus landed near modern day Cape Bon, Tunisia, and proceeded to march towards Carthage itself.  On the way to Carthage, the Roman army encamped on the Bragrados River, wherein dwelt a particularly unsavory beastie described as a “giant serpent” that made the big mistake of inadvertently interfering with Rome’s heartfelt desire to burn Carthage to the ground and salt the earth.  The Legions were just starting to get their world conquering ways on, and did not appreciate this sort of nuisance.  Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus (64 BC – AD 17), also known as “Livy” jotted down a disturbingly uninformative note about the encounter some 200 years later, as if everybody should know what he was talking about, commenting “Attilius Regulus, consul, having overcome the Carthaginians in a sea-fight, passes over into Africa: kills a serpent of prodigious magnitude, with great loss of his own men” (Livy, Epitome of Book 1), and then unceremoniously goes on to talk about how Regulus got his ass kicked by the Carthaginians.  Cryptozoologically, I find this attitude a little off-putting essentially as if I sat down and told you I ran into a monster and had to dispatch it with siege equipment after it ate a bunch of my men, but damn aren’t those Carthaginians tough?  Gaius Plinius Secundus (23–79 A.D.) or “Pliny the Elder” as distinguished from his snot-nosed descendant Pliny the Younger gave a little more detail.

It is a well known fact, that during the Punic war, at the river Bagrada, a serpent one hundred and twenty feet in length was taken by the Roman army under Regulus, being besieged, like a fortress, by means of balistae and other engines of war. Its skin and jaws were preserved in a temple at Rome, down to the time of the Numantine war (Pliny, Naturalis Historia, VIII:14).

Now, it somewhat strains credulity that the Roman military would mistake an alligator or python (as has been self-assuredly declared by modern scholars) for a 120 foot long serpentine hell-spawn with a fondness for human flesh that only succumbs to “engines of war”, but it also seems somewhat surprising they regarded it as the equivalent of a speed bump.  A curiosity for sure, as they packed up some of its body parts and forwarded them to Rome where they were stored until the Numantine War in Roman Hispania (154-152 B.C.), but apparently nothing to write home about.  Another Roman historian Lucius Annaeus Florus (74-130 A.D.) a little more modestly pointed out that during the First Punic War, the Romans had a lot of headaches, the first of course being the Carthaginians, and secondarily, monsters.

The first prize taken in the war was the city of Clypea, which juts out from the Carthaginian shore as a fortress or watchtower. Both this and more than three hundred fortresses besides, were destroyed. Nor had the Romans to contend only with men, but with monsters also; for a serpent of vast size, born, as it were, to avenge Africa, harassed their camp on the Bagrada. But Regulus, who overcame all obstacles, having spread the terror of his name far and wide, having killed or taken prisoners a great number of the enemy’s force, and their captains themselves, and having dispatched his fleet, laden with much spoil, and stored with materials for a triumph, to Rome, proceeded to besiege Carthage itself, the origin of the war, and took his position close to the gates of it (Florus, Epitome of Roman History, Book 2).

Some 600 years later, scholar, historian, and theologian Paulus Orosius gave the Bagrada serpent a little more ink with a slightly more detailed description of the beast and the tactics necessary to subdue it before Regulus could get on with the far more important business of attacking Carthage.

Then the consul Regulus undertook the Carthaginian war. When he first marched thither with an army, he encamped near a river, which was called Bagrada. Then, there came out of the river a serpent which was immensely large, and killed all the men who came near the water. Of the Serpent – Then Regulus gathered all the bowmen that were in the company, that they might overcome it with arrows ; but, when they struck or shot it, the arrows glided on its scales, as if they were smooth iron. He then ordered the balistas, with which they broke walls when they fought against a fortress,—that with these, they should throw at it cross-ways. Then, at the first throw, one of its ribs was broken, so that afterwards it had not power to defend itself, but was soon after killed; because it is the nature of serpents, that their power and their motion are in their ribs, as that of other reptiles is in their feet. After it was killed, he told them to flay it, and to take the hide to Rome, and there to stretch it out as a wonder, because it was a hundred and twenty feet long (Orosius, 1855, p137-138).

The creature was thought to have been so large that it polluted the river with its gore once dead, and the army had to move its camp to avoid the noxious fumes of its decay.

That the depletion of these great beasts has been gradual may be inferred from some noted facts in human history. Thus, Livy tells of an extraordinary serpent, a hundred and twenty feet long, which, during the Punic wars under Atilius Regulus, had its lair on the banks of the river Bragrados, near Ithaca, and is said to have swallowed many soldiers, and to have kept the army from crossing the river. Being invulnerable to ordinary weapons, it had finally to be attacked with catapults and other military engines, such as were used against fortified towns. Its annoyance did not cease with its death, for the water became so polluted with its gore, and the air with the noxious fumes from its decaying carcass, that the soldiers had to remove their camp a very considerable distance away (Dunn, 1901, p179).

The Romans, in the grand scheme of their dreams of world domination, didn’t ascribe much significance to monsters.  Classical scholars, who might not suffer from a few more drinks, take this as a sign of the effects of rampant superstition.  Gods, monsters, and supernatural critters were taken in stride by the Roman legions and dealt with as a military engineering problem.  Monster is in the way or otherwise causing some sort of ruckus?  Monster must be removed.  Apply siege equipment.  March on to Carthage.  They didn’t even attempt to cover it up as any modern military intelligence outfit worth its salt would.  Just lopped of its head and sent it back to Rome.  This leads me to an unanswered question.  Should we value reports from witnesses who are simply uninterested in the metaphysical origins of monsters more than we do either devout skeptics or true believers?  When you’re trying not to be clubbed, skewered, or machine-gunned by an all too human enemy, and you find yourself faced with a supernatural predator, it’s just going to have to get in line with everybody else who wants to kill you.  Perhaps this is why monster reports from the Roman Legions (and there is no shortage of them) largely consist of, “Attacked by monster.  Killed it.  Made a few denarii at poker last night.  Chicken for dinner.”  Those of us who think the world is a strange place, and those of us who don’t spend a lot of time arguing over the minutia of our pet theories, be they the reptilian conspiracy to oppress humanity or the infinite capacity of humanity for self-deception.  Historically, there have been lots of folks who blandly reported fighting monsters, as such visitations were incidental to their daily efforts not to get stabbed to death.  Frankly, when a 120 foot man-eating serpent seems less surprising than the fact that Regulus got trounced and captured by the Carthaginians, it makes me wonder what kind of bad-asses the Carthaginians were.

Dunn, Matthias.  “The Great Sea Serpent”. The Pall Mall Magazine v25. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1901.
Livy. Livy. London: A. J. Valpy, 1833.
Orosius, Paulus. A Literal Translation of King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of the Compendious History of the World. London: Longman, 1855.
Pliny, the Elder. The Natural History of Pliny. London: H. G. Bohn, 1855.
Sallust, 86-34 B.C. Sallust, Florus, And Velleius Paterculus. New York: Harper, 1860.