I'm writing a story where a group of mischievous aliens teleport iconic creatures to inappropriate time periods. (Dimetrodons in colonial Germany, Pterodactyls in the medieval Ottoman Empire, Plesiosaurus in feudal Japan, etc.) In the chapter I am writing, a Roman Cohort discovers a living Tyrannosaurus Rex. They barely manage to capture it while it is sleeping. After some debate, it is decided by the emperor that the beast is to be killed in the colosseum for the entertainment of the Roman people. My problem is when I came to realize that they would not call the creature by the name we have given it. More probably, they would have mistaken it for a creature within their mythology. What beast in Roman/Greek mythology would the Romans most likely mistake a T-Rex for, based on its demeaner, size, and physical appearance?

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    $\begingroup$ "More probably, they would have mistaken it for a creature within their mythology." Personally, I disagree with this unless the resemblance is striking because when something is right in front of you, things are very different. I think this is more a modern day notion of the past, but it's your story. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Apr 10, 2021 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ For some tips on how the Romans named new animals see Giraffe = cameleopardis = camel-leopard or Ostrich = Struthocamelus = sparrow-camel. They also used Ancient Greek names like Rhinoceros = Nose-horn or Hippopotamus = river-horse. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 10, 2021 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ Your list of examples forgot stegosaurus in Cambodia 😉. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Apr 11, 2021 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ I am most curious about "colonial germany". $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Apr 11, 2021 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk By "colonial Germany," I was referring to German East Africa pre-WW1. Sorry if I worded it strangely. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2021 at 19:04

2 Answers 2



enter image description here

The word Dragon comes from Ancient Greek mythology, where it is used to refer to a handful of different large reptiles. Ancient Greek was as much an auxiliary language to Latin, as Latin is to modern English. Roman Nobility typically spoke Greek amongst themselves and were often sent to Greece for part of their education. Latin is a sufficiently vague language that I can imagine the word "draco" being used for a large real reptile.

Probably they'd add an extra word to distinguish it from other named mythological dragons. So Draco Galliae (Dragon from Gaul) after the country where they found it, Or Draco Agrippae (Agrippa's Dragon) after the General who led the expedition.

For some tips on how the Romans named new animals see Giraffe = cameleopardis = camel-leopard or Ostrich = Struthocamelus = sparrow-camel. They also used Ancient Greek names like Rhinoceros = Nose-horn or Hippopotamus = river-horse. Since the names are so vague to begin with I think Gallic Lizard or Agrippa's Lizard would work just fine.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe that part of the basis for the myth of dragons is that ancient people heard about the dinosaur fossils lying on the ground in parts of central Asia. So, seeing a live dinosaur would have confirmed that the myth of dragons was real. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Apr 11, 2021 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ Note that both cameleopardis and struthocamelus are also Ancient Greek, like rhinoceros or hippopotamus. Also, why do you say the Roman nobility spoke Greek amongst themselves? Are you perhaps thinking of Byzantine nobility? $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Apr 12, 2021 at 8:48

Some manner of bird: Hippalectryon?

enter image description here It is a contentious topic, but nowadays museums portray Tyrannosaurus with feathers. The Romans, being the sort of literal-minded people who declared that all spotted hyenas are male based on observation, would certainly not hesitate to call a feathered animal - any feathered animal - a bird. This is particularly likely to be true if they had the opportunity to see young (the NYT photo linked above is how a 1-year-old is thought to look)

But ... what kind of bird? The Romans probably did not have a strong notion of the half-human tengu to use, while they would have too precise an image for the Bennu. The Roc, among other things, is too good a flyer. Depending on the creature's vocalizations, they might call it an Alectryon or a Harpy.

My guess, however, is that they will call it a Hippalectryon (ἱππαλεκτρυών). This is a terrible stretch from the illustration from Wikipedia below, yes! But the hippopotamus doesn't really look that much like a river horse, does it?

Besides, every warrior in the audience will have one daydream above all else: not to slay the beast, but to build a howdah on its back, and atop that throne, lead an army to ceaseless victory! enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ New skin impressions discovered revealed that T-Rex was actually mostly, if not entirely covered in a scaly skin, a trait that was probably observed in their earlier stages, so it turns out they did look superficially more like giant biped lizards than giant monster birds. I can say however that if it truly was devoid of feathers and appeared in ancient Greece, Diogenes wouldn't stop until he managed to either capture or lure it just so he could show his "man" to Plato. $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2021 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ This is a valid reference - but note it precedes the 2019 museum exhibition I linked above. Patches of the adult skin are known to be featherless - but if any significant feathers remained, this would not escape the notice of the Romans. Also, the half-horse nature of the Hippalectryon would help to excuse the bare patches. $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2021 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ The Bennu is Egyptian, which should be well familiar to Romans. Almost half their empire was in Africa. As I said the tengu should be unfamiliar, but it is possible that the Romans had more travellers, books, or legends than we know. $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2021 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex what's your Diogenes' "man" story a reference to? $\endgroup$
    – minseong
    Apr 11, 2021 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @theonlygusti Congratulations, you are one of today's lucky ten thousand! Plato and his Academy once defined man as a "featherless biped". Diogenes the cynic, being Diogenes the cynic, plucked a chicken and held it up to the Academy saying "Behold, a man!" Subsequently, the Academy redefined man as a "featherless biped with broad flat nails". $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Apr 11, 2021 at 13:18

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