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Nkima Speaks

Fabulous Tales from a Papyrus Scroll:
Tarzan and the Lost Empire

David A. Adams


This article first appeared in
The Burroughs Bulletin
New Series #42, Spring 2000


A young man is wrapped in a long robe that spreads across the floor, flowing beneath a marble table, for it is cold at night in the Wiramwazi mountains. The wick floating in the pool of an oil lamp casts flickering shadows upon the stone wall like a huge, dancing giant as he pours over the manuscript spread out before him.

The young man’s name is Erich Von Harben, and although the decade of the 1920’s had already passed mid-point, it appears this scene is from a time in the ancient past, for his surroundings and dress are from the age of Imperial Rome. In a sense we are in the past, for Von Harben is at a place where time seems to have ceased its inexorable march.

Erich is an archeologist and a linguist who came to this distant land as a modern explorer; yet he has been welcomed to the island city of Castrum Mare as a barbarian chief from Germania of old. How these strange events came to pass can be read in the twelfth Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, TARZAN AND THE LOST EMPIRE -- an account which stands midway in the 24 novels about this jungle hero. According to Burroughs, information about the origin of this lost Roman outpost was discovered in a papyrus scroll that Erich Von Harben has before him this evening at Castra Mare.

He is reading the original manuscript of one, Marcus Crispus Sanguinarius, a man who lived nearly eighteen hundred years ago. Von Harben is excited, for this is a find that comes once in a lifetime, to say nothing of discovering a whole Roman city still intact with its people living as they had in the ancient world.

Marcus Crispus Sanguinarius, the original founder of the first camp called Castra Sanguinarius had traveled down the Nile to this hidden site in the mountains with his cohort of 480 men (a cohort had a nominal strength of 600 men) and since that day in 98 AD their descendants have not heard a single word from Rome.

Here are the words Von Harben is reading:

“Sanguinarius, a praefect of the Third Cohort of the Tenth Legion, stationed below Thebae in AEgyptus in the 846th year of the city, immediately after Nerva assumed the purple, was accused of having plotted against the emperor.”

“About the fifth day before the calends of February in the 848th year of the city a messenger came to Sanguinarius from Nerva commanding the praefect to return to Rome and place himself under arrest, but this Sanguinarius had no mind to do, and as no other in his camp knew the nature of the message he had received from Nerva, Sanguinarius struck the messenger down with his dagger and caused the word to be spread among his men that the man had been an assassin sent from Rome and that Sanguinarius had slain him in self-defense” (ERB, 147).

Sanguinarius went on to relate how he deserted his post and fled with his cohort into the mountains, later founding a city there and elevating himself to the rank of Emperor. It was an account without president in the annals of Rome.

As Von Harben reads the manuscript of Sanguinarius, he becomes aware of certain discrepancies that seemed to contradict the history he had been taught at school. He begins to doubt the veracity of the writer since it was the gentle Nerva who recalled the exiles, moderated the sentences, and restored the property of those who had been sent away by the previous mad emperor, Domitian.

Von Harben thinks it is more likely that the enemy of Sanguinarius was indeed, Domitian, for during the final years of his reign, this paranoid emperor grew increasingly suspicious of everyone, even the members of his own household, which fact finally brought him to his death in 96 A.D.. This emperor was so mad that he lined the porticoes of his palace with mirrors so that he might prevent an assassin from sneaking up behind him. Although perhaps he was not so mad after all since he was finally assassinated with the aid of his wife’s servants. (Durant 292).

Domitian’s successor, Nerva, only reigned for sixteen months before he passed away in 98 AD. Perhaps a previous order had been sent by Domitian, and Sanguinarius only imagined that the arrest came from Nerva. After all communications to lower Egypt may have been slow in those days. Even Von Harben’s host, Mallius Lepus, had once told him that “it would have been more interesting had the old assassin written the truth.” (ERB 149).

Then agin, Sanguinarius claims that he had already earned the enmity of Nerva in the year 90 AD, while Nerva was only a counsul, so it is possible that he had a deadly enemy in Rome in this gentle Emperor known as “The Divine Nerva.” Yet it is remarkable and one of those odd coincidences of history that Nerva died the very day Sanguinarius took his cohort south.

This period in Roman is history is filled with intrigues and sudden changes of fortune. The real master of the Roman Empire was the Roman army, especially the Praetorians who guarded Rome. After Domitian’s murder, the Praetorians forced his successor Nerva to punish the very conspirators to whom Nerva himself owed the throne. (Davis, 307). So perhaps after all the threat to Sanguinarius was a real one. It seems that it was real enough for the desertion of an entire cohort of the Roman army in Egypt.

To Von Harben, the most interesting part of the manuscript has to do with the questionable location of the 10th Legion in Egypt at this time. Being an excellent scholar, he is well aware that the three legions of Egypt and Africa at the time of Nerva were III Cyrenaica, XXII Deiotariana (in Egypt) and III Augusta (in northern Africa). Perhaps Sanguinarius by a slip of the pen wrote cohort III of legion X, when he really meant to write cohort X of legion III. (This is possible since there were ten cohorts in every legion.) (Webster, 109). Yet, it does seem unlikely that a general in a proud Roman legion would make such an error. It is more likely that Sanguinarius led the tenth cohort of the 3rd Legion into the wilderness, and used a simple transposition of numbers as a ruse since he was a man in hiding.

Von Harben remembers that the tenth legion had indeed been in Africa in earlier days at the time of Caesar’s African Wars. He recalls the breaking of C. Avienus, a military tribune of the tenth legion when he arrived at the battle around Uzita with a shipload of his own slaves and horses rather than transporting a single soldier. (Caesar, The African Wars, Chapter 54). However, he also knows that it is an historical fact that the 10th. Germina Legion was busy on the Rhine frontier at the time of Nerva since it had been moved there from Spain by the Emperor Domitian to reinforce the lines there as Tacitus noted in his “Germania.” (Webster, 50-51.)

Von Harben recalls the location of the legions of Egypt. “The two Egyptian legions (III Cyrenaica and XXII Deiotariana) were concentrated in one camp at Nicopolis, which they continued to occupy despite Domitian’s regulation (only one legion per camp) till at least 199 A.D.” (Parker, 194). Yes, Sanguinarius must have been in the 3rd legion and not the tenth.

Von Harben works long into the night, pouring over this manuscript that actually tells so little about how this city came to be. He thinks about Sanguinarius, who was a praefectus cohortis peditatae. He was a leader of men, a daring young soldier who had just begun his career in the legions who might later expect a high position in the civil service as a procurator. This young equestrian with the right connections might even have attain senatorial status, but here he was deep in the Wiramwazi, a man in disgrace, bitter and dangerous. (Webster 113).

Sanguinarius set himself up as the Emperor of a city named after himself, and his reign lasted for twenty years. He was assassinated in the year 20 Anno Sanguinarii, which corresponds to the 873rd year of Rome. (ERB, 149).

Acording to Von Harben’s friend, the centurian, Mallius Lepus, for a hundred years after the founding of the city conditions grew more and more intolerable until finally Honus Hasta revolted and led a few hundred families to an island at the eastern end of the valley where he now sat upon this dark night in the city of Castrum Mare, a city seventeen hundred years old, locked in a time that had turned old Rome to ruins in the outside world. (ERB, 150).

Yet Von Harben continues to wonder about the soldier, Sanguinarius. The young scholar racks his memory for a name, and finally one comes to him from the flickering shadows - - Liternius Fronto! What had Josephus written? There had been detachment from the Egyptian legions sent to crush the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D. Most likely Liternius Fronto decided to command the vexillationes himself and had put the remnant of the legions left behind in the care of one of his subordinate officers. (Parker, 196). This could be the time Sanguinarius led his cohort into the desert! Yes, the conditions were right for such a desertion, but the dates were wrong. Sanguinarius wrote that his flight was during the reign of Nerva in 98 A.D. Yet with so many other discrepancies in the record perhaps the “official history” had been altered here as well.

Von Harben assembles the clues one-by-one and comes to the conclusion that the papyrus scroll of Sanquinarius is a fabrication from first to last. Sanguinarius complains that he was “relegated to the hot sands of this distant post below the ancient city of Thebae in far Aegyptus” (Burroughs, 147), yet the Egyptian post was an important one since the grain stores of Rome came from this land. The appointment to praefectus legionis in Aegypto was considered to be an important steppingstone in the civil service of Rome - - a coveted post rather than a demotion - - and thus, the complaint of Sanguinarius does not ring true. (Parker, 204).

Yes, everything seems wrong: the names, the dates, the tale of deception told by a master of deception. Von Harben shakes his head in dismay. That wily, old Sanguinarius was a sanguine man indeed, and perhaps he is being a bloody fool to believe one word of this fabrication.

The rosy fingers of dawn touch the stone walls of the library while Erich Von Harben lifts his weary eyes to the new day. He rolls up the scroll and ties it with the cord knowing that he will never know the truth, yet the tale may make a story to tell some day at another time in another Empire.


Works Cited

Burroughs, Edgar Rice, Tarzan and the Lost Empire, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., 1928-1929.

Caesar, Julius, The African Wars, The Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics, 1994-1998.

Davis, W.S., A Day In Old Rome, Biblo and Tannen, 1960.

Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization III: Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, 1944.

Parker, H.M.D. The Roman Legions, W. Heffer and Sons, Ltd., 1958.

Webster, Graham, The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D., University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.