Snakes on a …. boat? I don’t think so …

As I was pondering New Year’s Resolutions and the like last night while watching assorted Times Square Events, the gods smiled on me and dumped a ‘made-for-rogueclassicism’ item in my lap. The story was broken by ANSA and really has to be reproduced in full:

Italian zoologists have identified three live specimens of the rare javelin sand boa in Sicily, according to findings published Thursday in Acta Herpetologica scientific journal. The javelin sand boa – also known to zoologists as Eryx jaculus – is usually found in Africa, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It is the only species of boa in Italy.

In September 2014, it was rediscovered in Romania near the Danube River after being extinct there since 1937.

The little boa – which grows to 50-80 centimeters in length – is harmless to humans and lives underground, which may be why it has escaped notoriety for so long.

Zoologists from the Sicilian cities of Comiso and Messina as well as Bologna University researchers were moved to look for the sand boa after repeated sightings were reported over the past 80 years on the beaches around the seaside town of Licata in Agrigento province.

The team finally identified six Javelin sand boas, capturing three in order to study them. Their findings showed the presence of a stable and reproductive Eryx jaculus population over some 40 square kilometers in a flood plain known locally as La Piana, near the River Salso.

The location of the snake colony in turn led zoologists to surmise that this creature that is so rare in Europe may have been imported by the ancient Greeks when they colonized Sicily.

“The Greeks used to use snakes as projectiles,” explained Comiso Natural History Museum Director Gianni Insacco, who wrote up the team’s findings. “They would throw them onto enemy ships before the assault, to instill fear and create disarray. They generally used vipers that had been deprived of their venom, and species similar to the javelin sand boa as an alternative”.

The area where the javelin sand boas now live was the site of two major battles in the former Greek colony of Himera, one around 405 BC and the other in 310 AD.

The story was also picked up by the Telegraph and given a headline which pretty much guarantees it will be picked up by other outlets with a similar spin (Scientists in Italy rediscover snake that was used by ancient Greeks as a weapon of war).  This struck me as kind of silly, so last night when I posted this to twitter, I included @amayor as a specific recipient since Adrienne Mayor’s Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs tome should be the ‘go to’ book for any use of snakes-as-weapons in the ancient world.  Her response:

Fortunately, the news items did give a path to follow. The article in Acta Herpetologica is available for free online (INSACCO, Gianni et al. Eryx jaculus (Linnaeus, 1758): a new species for the Italian herpetofauna (Squamata: Erycidae). Acta Herpetologica, [S.l.], v. 10, n. 2, p. 149-153, dec. 2015. ). The snakes-for-battle thing is only mentioned in passing on page three of the piece:

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The references can be followed up online as well … the Massetti and Zuffi item is actually really interesting: “On the origin of the asp viper Vipera aspis hugyi Schinz, 1833, on the island of Montecristo, Northern Tyrrhenian Sea (Tuscan archipelago, Italy)”: The Herpetological Bulletin 117.1. It includes a whole section on the use of snakes — specifically vipers — in various battle situations in Italy and Sicily. Here’s the salient bits (apologies for the size … you may have to do some zooming):

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First thing to notice here is that Mazetti and Zuffi are referring specifically to the island of Montecristo, which obviously isn’t Sicily, and also that they don’t think there is any historical evidence for Sicily being the source of the vipers which the article is all about (not boas).

The other reference is to a very old tome: Di Blasi, G.E. (1844): Storia del Regno di Sicilia, Vol I.  It too is available online and I looked in vain within for any mention of the use of snake weaponry at the battles which were fought at Himera. We should note that the dates given for the battles where they were supposedly used (405 B.C.  and 310 A.D.) don’t match up to what we would consider the battles (there was one in 409 B.C. or thereabouts, but it was a land battle; the earlier one in 480 B.C. was also a land battle … no mention of snakes). I can’t find any reference to a battle in 310 A.D. (not that that really means anything; I just can’t find it).

That said, even without the ‘backstory’ we really should be thinking (especially the folks at the Telegraph): the snake the article is about is a boa. It is not venomous. What would be the purpose of hurling a snake at a ship or in a seige situation that is basically going to crawl off and look for a rat to squeeze?


One thought on “Snakes on a …. boat? I don’t think so …

  1. The enemy would of course not know that the snakes weren’t dangerous… It is not easy to identify with certainty such snakes when they are being thrown at you. Certain species resemble each other. The whole purpose would have been to create panic and chaos amongst the ranks of the enemy. This tactic perhaps could not have been used many times, as after a while it would have become clear that the snakes were not venomous at all…

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