sea monster
An Uncommon Serpent; or, The Great Sea Serpent Hunt of 1817 & 1818

The sea serpent vs. the Roman army, BCE 264-241

Editors filling column inches with reports of the great sea serpent spotted off the coast of New England in 1817 were quick to patch together earlier accounts of sea serpents and puzzled ship captains and really big snakes. The Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot added Roman soldiers to the patchwork of extracts in its issue for August 23.

It’s a pretty good story, with fighting and dead soldiers and a classical angle that adds a touch of ancient glamor to our cryptozoological mystery. And it starts off the Chronicle’s selection of pieces from the Salem Gazette: Captain Cleveland’s experience in 1815; the 100-foot sea snake crossing the Marblehead vessel; and the rather delightful paragraph about the Serpent’s companion sharks.

Like the other bits, this extract soon became a staple in collections of reprints; the Newburyport Herald, Commercial and Country Gazette [Newburyport, Massachusetts] included it on August 26, and the Rutland Weekly Herald [Rutland, Vermont] reprinted it in a page-filling compendium on September 3. The Roman army may not have fought a sea serpent, but a snake large enough to eat Roman soldiers whole was entertaining enough for New England editors to connect with their denizen of the deep.

from “Sea Serpent.” Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot [Boston, Massachusetts] 23 August 1817 [Saturday]; p. 2.

In Rollin’s Ancient History, under the head of “First Punic War,” we find the following account of an enormous serpent which was slain by the Roman army under Regulus, after the departure of his colleague Manlius for Rome. The monster seems to have borne a strong affinity to the one lately seen in the harbor of Gloucester:

“In the interval, betwixt the departure of Manlius, and the taking of Tunis, we are to place the memorable combat of Regelus and his whole army with a serpent of so prodigious a size, that the fabulous one of Cadmus is hardly comparable to it. The story of this serpent was elegantly written by Livy, but it is now lost. Valerius Maximus, however, partly repairs that loss: and, in the last chapter of his first book, gives us the account of this monster from Livy himself. He, Livy, says, that on the banks of Bagrada, an African river, lay a serpent of so enormous a size that it kept the whole Roman army from coming to the river. Several soldiers had been buried in the wide caverns of its belly, and many pressed to death in the spiral volumes of its tail. Its skin was impenetrable to darts; and it was with repeated endeavours that stones, slung from military engines, at last killed it. The serpent then exhibited a sight that was more terrible to the Roman cohorts and legions than even Carthage itself. The streams of the river were died [sic] with its blood; and the stench of its putrified carcass infecting the adjacent country, the Roman army was forced to decamp. Its skin, 120 feet long, was sent to Rome; and if Pliny may be credited, was to be seen, together with the jawbone of the same monster, in the temple where they were first deposited, as low as the Numantine war.”

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