In 589 and 590, the city of Rome was faced by successive natural disasters. An interesting folkloric tale soon spread in the region to offer a supernatural explanation for Rome’s misfortune in those years. Roman woes at that time were caused, so the local legend claimed, by the nefarious influence of a dragon.
Rome’s first disaster in those two chaotic years was a great flood of the Tiber in 589, which destroyed buildings and ruined food supplies in the city. As the floodwaters overflowed into the city, so too were slithery aquatic creatures drawn to the flooded region. An unnatural amount of water snakes were reportedly seen in the bloated Tiber during the time of the flood, and leading this army of serpents, according to the legend, was a great dragon. This odd folktale was recorded by Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who happened to have had a deacon named Agiulf abroad in Rome at the time to procure some saint relics. Gregory, who was a historian as well as a bishop, made sure to mention the dragon sighting in Rome within his Ten Books of Histories, also commonly known as the History of the Franks:
“My deacon (Agiulf) told me that the previous year, in the month of November, the River Tiber had covered Rome with such flood-water that a number of ancient churches had collapsed and the papal granaries had been destroyed, with the loss of several thousand bushels of wheat. A great school of water-snakes swam down the course of the river to the sea, in their midst a tremendous dragon as big as a tree-trunk, but these monsters were drowned in the turbulent salt sea-waves and their bodies were washed up on the shore” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.1).
Two centuries later, the story about the dragon had changed slightly. Instead of the original tale of the snakes (and possibly the dragon) dying and littering the shore with their corpses, storytellers by the 8th century had refined the narrative to say that the serpents more mysteriously disappeared into the Mediterranean. This new version of the story was recorded by Paul the Deacon (lived approximately 720-799), who claimed, “a great multitude of serpents, and a dragon also of astonishing size passed by the city and descended to the sea” (History of the Lombards, III.24).
Rome’s serpentine visitors, and the alleged dragon leader of the slithering masses, were blamed for the next natural disaster that quickly followed upon the flood. In soggy, hungry Rome, poor conditions allowed a pestilence to spread widely in the region. By early 590, Rome found itself in the midst of a terrible epidemic, and even the pope could not escape from the illness. Pope Pelagius II (r. 579-590) died of the disease, and the epidemic was still ravaging Rome when his successor, Gregory the Great (r. 590-614), became the new pope.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Dragon from a manuscript labeled BL Harley 3954, f. 8v in The British Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.