Roman folklore and myth told of a small, but deadly, winged serpent or dragon that inhabited trees and would attack unlucky travelers who wandered too near its wooded lair. The odd creature was called an iaculus, most likely named after the Latin word, iaculum, which was a Roman designation for a javelin weapon. It also came to be known by the name jaculus, and that later title became increasingly popular around the Middle Ages. Per the accounts of Roman storytellers, the mysterious iaculi monsters lived up to their javelin inspiration. The creatures were described as being able to fly through the air and they had a streamlined but sturdy skull and body shape that was designed for piercing. As an iaculus could reportedly fly faster than an arrow, or a rock shot from a sling, the speed and sharpness of the aerodynamic dragon combined to give the creature the ability to pierce right through a target with ease as the beast flew through the air.
Existent ancient Roman descriptions of the creature can be found in the works of the poet Lucan (c. 39-65) and the scholar Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79). Pliny’s brief account of the flying monsters was recorded in his Natural History, where he wrote, “The jaculus darts from the branches of trees; and it is not only to our feet that the serpent is formidable, for these fly through the air even, just as though they were hurled from an engine” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 8.23). As for the poet, Lucan, he worked in a reference to the iaculus in book nine of his poem, Bellum Civile (Civil War). Like his contemporary Pliny, Lucan said “the iaculus has wings” (Lucan, Civil War, 9.720) and he followed up the short reference to its wings by describing the creature’s deadly abilities in action. An unfortunate legionnaire named Paulus was the character in Lucan’s poem that experienced the peculiar power of the iaculus. Lucan wrote:
“But look! Far off, a nasty snake on a dead tree trunk
whirled and hurled itself—an iaculus, Africa calls it—
right through the head of Paulus; piercing his temples
it then sped off. Venom played no role there:
with the wound he seized his fate. It struck them, too,
how slow the stones fly that a sling wheels off,
How weak is the hiss of air from a Scythian arrow”
(Lucan, Civil War, book nine, between lines 808-836)
Such was the Roman vision of an iaculus, as told by two 1st-century Romans. According to their accounts, the iaculi were tree-dwelling creatures that could fly faster than a machine-launched missile or an arrow released from a bow, and the shape of an iaculus’ body (at least according to Lucan) allowed the creature to pierce completely through a target—in one side and out the other. They were mythical creatures better left undisturbed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Manuscript illustration of an iaculus, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Library of the Netherlands).
- Civil War, by Lucan, translated by Matthew Fox. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.