“God has given to man no sharper spur to victory than contempt of death” – Hannibal, as quoted by Livy
Rome and Carthage spent the years between 264-146 B.C. trying to prove who was the biggest kid on the Mediterranean block, ending with the total domination of Rome and the utter destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War. The First Punic War (264–241 B.C.) erupted as a naval and land kerfuffle over Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.
Until about 260 B.C., the Romans were at something of a disadvantage nautically, borrowing boats from their (conquered) allies when they needed to move large amounts of troops about, whereas the Carthaginians were considered badass salty sailors with tons of strategic naval experience. Rome decided they needed a fleet, and luckily found a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme, which they used as a model. And in the Roman tradition of civil engineering, they built themselves a whole bunch of ships, including a little something that would take advantage of their awesome infantry skills – the “corvus”, a boarding bridge that allowed their ships to hook onto an enemy ship and quickly dump a whole lot of Roman troops onto their deck, where they could exercise their true talent at hacking and slashing. This resulted in a series of crushing defeats of the Carthaginian navy.
Roman naval success at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus (off southern Sicily) in 256 B.C. emboldened the Romans to land an army of 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry in Africa near modern Kelibia on the Cape Bon Peninsula and commence ravaging the Carthaginian countryside. The Roman force was commanded by General (and former two-time Consul of the Roman Republic) Marcus Atilius Regulus.
Two things to keep in mind while we get to the monstrous part of our story. Marcus Atilius Regulus was an honest guy and paragon of civic virtue, manifest in the fact that when he was defeated and captured by the Carthaginians in the Battle of the Bagradas River in 255 B.C., and then paroled to return to Rome and negotiate a peace, he arrived in Rome, and argued against peace. Having fulfilled the terms of parole, he kept his word and returned to Carthage, where he was tortured and killed. Secondarily, Carthage was not some mysterious alien land to Rome. Until the advent of the First Punic War, Rome and Carthage had a good relationship for at least 200 years, including formal alliances and strong commercial links. In the Pyrrhic War of 280–275 BC in Sicily, Carthage even provided materiel to the Romans and on at least one occasion used its navy to ferry a Roman force.
Having landed at Cape Bon in Tunis, Regulus needed to cross the river Bagradas to lay siege to Carthage. Must have seemed like a good idea at the time to set up camp on the riverbank. A little rest and refreshment before another day of hard marching and laying waste to your enemy’s capital is always welcome. Unfortunately, something nasty was lurking in the waters. The Latin writers on the subject describe an encounter with a serpens which could be translated either as “serpent” or “dragon”, and which merrily killed a bunch of tough as nails Roman legionaries who came too close to the river. Roman Historian Tacitus Livius (59 B.C. – 17 A.D., “Livy” to his friends) recorded a single unimpressed sentence regarding the encounter as if monster mayhem was a fact of life in the Roman army.
Attilius Regulus in Africa slew a serpent of portentous size with the loss of many of his soldiers (Livy, LIBRI XVIII Periochae).
As with lots of classical history, the original text of Roman Historian Quintus Aelius Tubero (1st century B.C.), written a little closer in time to the actual event is lost in the sands of said time, but luckily Roman author and grammarian Aulus Gellius (125-180 A.D), seems to have had a copy in his library, that gives a little more detailed description.
Tubero has written in his history, that in the First Punic War, Attilius Regulus the consul, being encamped in Africa, near the river Bagrada, had a great and severe engagement with a single serpent of extraordinary fierceness, whose den was on that spot. That he sustained the attack of the whole army, and was a long time opposed with the ballista and catapult. And that being killed, his skin, which was one hundred and twenty feet long, was sent to Rome (Gellius, Volume 2, Chapter 3).
So Tubero via Gellius gives us some of the basic mechanics of the takedown of the Bagradas monster, that it was 120 feet long, and that after slaying the beast, the Romans skinned it and sent the skin back to Rome, in keeping with the traditional Roman activity of going abroad, killing things, and sending their relatives, their possessions, and anything else of interest back home. 4th Century A.D. Roman Historian Paulus Orosius, gave a much more complete description of the battle against the beast, ultimately attributing the creature’s demise (after the failure of arrows and catapults) to rolling out a big, honking ballista, basically a massive crossbow used for siege warfare.
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…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 ballista, 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, Christian History, Book 4, Ch. 5).
The monsters of classical antiquity just had a harder time of it. When you’re a fearsome anomaly in a time period where massive, bloodthirsty human armies are tromping around the continents looking for skulls to crack and things they can flay and send home to mother, its hard to establish the kind of monster street cred that gets epic sagas written about you. Mind you, after the collapse of the Roman world, and the subsequent Dark Ages, you do get a little bit of revitalization in the form of the Dragon, but that’s a lot of mano-y-mano single knight with a sword vs. the monster, which captures the imagination a little more than when you have combat engineers and siege engines, not to mention 15,000 legionnaires looking for trouble at your disposal. And now that we have precisely targetable cruise missiles, dragons and other serpentine beasties that once plagued our ancient kin have really gone underground. Avoidance appears to be the strategy of the modern monster (except for those pervy extraterrestrials). This is probably wise, for as the German statesman Konrad Adenauer once said, “History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided”.
Livy and Foster, B. O, et al. tr. Livy. London: Heinemann, 1922.
Gellius, Aulus, and William Beloe, tr. The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1795.
Orosius, Paulus, R. T. (Robert Thomas) Hampson, Joseph Bosworth, and King of England Alfred. A Literal Translation of King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of the Compendious History of the World. London: Longman, 1855.