The Latin dictionaries I checked suggest that the word draco is attested in classical literature and it is often translated as "dragon". However, it is my impression — which may well be wrong! — that the current dragon imagery in popular culture comes mainly from China or that region of Asia more broadly. Therefore I suspect that my intuitive image of a dragon might be far from what the Romans meant by a draco.

So, what was a draco? Could it be just any snake or serpent, or did it refer to something more specific? Have we identified a species that the Romans would call draco? Was it a real thing or something more mystical? Are there illustrations of what a draco is?

1 Answer 1


The word dragon is far older than the Medieval dragon or the West's knowledge of the Chinese dragon. In fact, it's no coincidence, either, that dragon is derived from draco. It's the meaning of the former which has changed, so as an archaicism, dragon is still a fine translation.

As to what the Greeks and Romans thought of draco (and δράκων), these would be simply "large snakes." In Greek mythology, δράκοντες were large enough to be enemies to heroes and gods: Cadmus slew the Ismenian dragon, which you can see represented on a vase here:

Cadmus battles the Ismenian Dragon

This really is just some monstrous snake, and is likely what ordinary people thought of when they heard the word.

However, they could also be true monstrosities, having multiple heads or being underwater nightmares.

In some places, like Odyssey 12.202, it's just a regular snake, and Lewis & Short list a number of pet dracontes:

I. Prop. (those of the tame sort, esp. the Epidaurian, being kept as pets by luxurious Romans), Cic. Div. 2, 30; 66; Plin. 8, 17, 22, § 61; 29, 4, 20, § 67; Suet. Aug. 94; “Sen. de Ira, 2, 31

In short, when you see draco, think snake first, but allow for the possibility of some monstrous snake as well.


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