Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 12, Part 4 of 4

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Unicorns were supposed to be tropical animals, but Carpophorus discovered that these horns were imported from the Baltic. This, he decided, explained why the Roman animal catchers in Asia and Africa had never gotten any unicorns.

He managed to scrape up an acquaintance with the crew of a Viking ship that had come to Ostia to trade and do a little piracy on the side during the voyage home.

The Vikings had some broken pieces of unicorn horns with them and Carpophorus was able to get one member of the crew drunk at Chile's tavern. The sailor told him that the horn came from a great fish which fishermen occasionally caught in their nets. The Vikings called it narwhal. The fish might be called a sea-unicorn for it had one long horn growing from the tip of its nose.

Carpophorus didn't swallow this yarn. The horn was ivory and fish didn't grow ivory. Still, he thought that unicorns might sometimes swim rivers and be caught in nets so that was how the legend started.

He traveled to the Baltic with a "negotiator ursorum," a bear-catcher, but was unable to get any unicorns. He got something almost as valuable—three great white bears unlike any he had ever seen before. These bears came in on icebergs near Ultima Thule, the last outpost of land to the north. Today we call it Iceland.

Carpophorus had the crazy idea that these bears must come from some great land lying to the west, for surely they could not spend all their lives on the floating icebergs.

On his way back with the bears, he advanced this theory to a young centurion who was in charge of one of the frontier forts in Scotland built to keep the Picts and Scots from raiding down into Roman Britain.

"There is no land to the west," the centurion told him confidently.

"How do you know?" the bestiarius demanded.

"Because if there were, this damn government would have us legionnaires over there policing the place," said the centurion downing a cup of strong wine.

The bears made a great hit in the arena. The Roman writer Calpumius describes how the arena was flooded and the bears dove into the water and fought seals. (Polar bears were exhibited in the arena, but at what period is uncertain).

But when the time came for the next act, the bears couldn't be moved. They were still eating the seals, and polar bears are mean animals to handle at the best of times.

The emperor motioned to the archers to kill the beasts for the shows ran on a strict time schedule. Carpophorus refused to see his precious bears killed. He plunged into the knee-deep water and tried to drive out the bears with his flail.

Hampered by the water, he could not avoid the animal's angry rushes. So he died, as did most of his profession, under the teeth and claws of his savage wards.

The Romans never realized that they held in their hands the clue to the discovery of a great new world.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Thirteen, Part 1 is next.

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