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Alexander the Great was king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon in the 4th century BC. He is best remembered for his colossal military campaign, which lasted for most of his reign, and led to the creation of one of the largest empires of the ancient world. Undefeated in battle, Alexander’s dominion eventually stretched from Greece to northwestern India and down into northeastern Africa.
In the course of his military campaign through Asia and Africa, Alexander the Great witnessed – and indeed engineered – many great and terrible things. The fall of cities and kingdoms, the “slaughter” of “entire” populations1, and even – if reports are to be believed – a dragon.
It was during his time in India that the great military leader supposedly encountered the beast. A description can be found in De Natura Animalium – On the Nature of Animals – a text containing brief stories of natural history, written by the Roman author Claudius Aelianus.
According to the text, the great “serpent” which Alexander encountered “lived in a cavern and was regarded as sacred by the Indians”. Since they “paid it great and superstitious reverence”, they begged the conquering king not to attack the creature. Alexander “assented to their wish”.
It was when the army passed by the cavern that Alexander and his men supposedly caught sight of the great creature. Having “caused a noise” whilst passing by, the serpent – whose hearing was said to be the “sharpest […] of all animals” – became immediately aware of the men outside its lair. It is said that the beast put its head out of the cavern and “hissed and snorted so violently that all were terrified and confounded”. And certainly, according to the description by Aelianus, the creature would have been terrifying to behold.
The visible part of the serpent alone “was reported to measure 70 cubits”, the rough equivalent of 32 metres or 105 feet in length. The rest of its immense body remained within the cavern.
“At any rate its eyes are said to have been the size of a large, round Macedonian shield.”2
Did Alexander the Great encounter a known species?
Whilst India is known for being home to several large reptile species, a creature of the size described in On the Nature of Animals is unprecedented.
The world’s longest venomous snake, the King Cobra, is one such animal who roams the forests of India. Adult snakes can grow to between three and five metres long3, making what should be a fear-inducing length appear minute next to the 32 metre long “serpent” which Alexander and his men confronted. With that in mind, what did the ancient king encounter during his campaign in India? Did he catch sight of a dragon?
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