Roman Dragons

The Romans borrowed dragons from Greek Mythology.

The Romans do not have dragons that are unique to them. Their dragons are based on stories from Greek mythology that they expanded on and changed the names to Roman names. Roman dragons combine the serpentine Greek dragons with the dragons of the Near East to give us a dragon that is closer to what we imagine a European dragon to be with a long body, four clawed feet and crests upon their heads.

One story about a dragon that is unique to the Romans is about a mud dragon. Outside of a prominent Roman city, a dragon made its lair in the mud pits. For centuries, the dragon protected the city, destroying any enemy that attacked. The dragon demanded a high price to act as the cityís guardian. Every month the city had to perform a ritual that ended with a virgin bringing a basket of food to the dragon in his mud cave. The girl had to hand feed the dragon and if her purity flagged while feeding him, he ate her. If she did not flinch, the dragon would return her to the city unharmed.

The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder wrote about dragons in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia. In book eight, he talks about reptiles such as the crocodile and serpent, ruling these out as possibly being the dragon. He writes about dragons a few times. First, he writes about a dragon that entwined around an elephant and crushed it, but when the elephant collapsed, it crushed the dragon as well. Dragons, now wary of being crushed, entangle elephantís feet and legs with their tails. The elephant however, untangles the dragonís tail with its trunk. The main reason the dragon bothers with this is so it can suck the elephantís blood while it is distracted. He says that in Ethiopia dragons are bred to be 30 feet long. Although in India, there are dragons that are so big they can swallow stags or bulls whole.

The generals of Rome often used dragons as an excuse for not completing their missions. One general took this excuse a step further by sending a dragon hide back to Rome as proof of encountering the beast. In the 3rd century BC, General Atilius Regulus was in North Africa battling Carthage. At Bagrada River, a dragon attacked his army. According to the report, a dragon crept up and situated itself behind the Roman armyís wall. General Regulus ordered his men to kill it, which they did.

The battle with the dragon took many soldiers to kill it. Many soldiers were taken by the dragonís vicious mouth and many others were crushed by its tail. Its hide was too thick for their weapons to get through so they started using the siege weapons to crush it with heavy stones. . They skinned the creature and sent to skin back to the Roman Senate. When the Senate measured the skin, it was 120 feet in length. The hide was on display in Rome for 100 years.

During the 2nd century AD, the Roman cavalry adopted the Draco as their military standard. It took the form of a large dragon on the end of a lance with silvered gaping jaws with the rest of the body made of colored silk. The jaws faced the wind so the silk body could inflate and ripple in the air. The Romans first used it during the Hippica Gymnasia, their cavalry games. These games were glamorous training exercises that were performed in decorated armor. The Draco was used as a target for the opposing team to hit to score points. From these games, the Draco was adopted as a normal military standard and was used as a standard until the fall of the empire in 476 AD.