Did Serial Killers Exist in the Ancient World?

By Debbie Felton

Hello, Everyone! My name is Debbie Felton, and I study folktales in classical literature. My work involves identifying, comparing, and analyzing the relationship of folktales from antiquity to those in the present day. I’m especially interested in stories of the supernatural and monstrous and how they connect across the millennia. I’ve written about ancient ghost stories, witches in Greek and Latin literature, and how monsters in classical mythology have been used to express various cultural anxieties both in antiquity and today. More recently, my work has aimed to examine whether serial killers lurked in Greece and Rome (Fig. 1), and if so, how that might change our assumptions about serial murder in the modern world.

Coming from the University of Texas Press, Summer 2021

Fig. 1. Coming from the University of Texas Press, Summer 2021

What sources do you look at?

I first became interested in serial killers in the ancient world after reading modern theories that some monsters of myth and legend, such as Grendel from Beowulf and the werewolves of early modern Europe, may have been their culture’s means of expressing the difficult reality of serial mutilation murder. This led me to explore the possibility that stories about certain monsters and murderous human characters from ancient literature were based on an understanding of real-life serial killings. So, the sources I ended up consulting ranged across Greek and Latin literature from Homer through approximately the fourth century CE, and included many different genres. This allowed me to discuss Odysseus’s mass murder of Penelope’s suitors (Fig. 2), examine the development of Greek law from blood feuds down to the five courts of fifth-century Athens that dealt with various kinds of homicide, and look at how the Roman monarchy, Republic, and Empire all dealt with the intentional murder of fellow human beings. Along with the literature, there were bits and pieces of material culture that helped round out the picture—various artworks incorporating images of sphinxes attacking young men, vase paintings of mythological multiple murderers such as Antaeus and Procrustes, and epitaphs for children believed to have been killed by witches.

Odysseus slaying Penelope’s obnoxious suitors. Attic red-figure skyphos ca. 440 BCE. This is an example of a “spree” or mass murder, not serial murder; Odysseus felt justified given the suitors’ violation of xenia, but their families demanded blood vengeance. Athena had to intervene to prevent further massacre.
Fig. 2. Odysseus slaying Penelope’s obnoxious suitors. Attic red-figure skyphos ca. 440 BCE. This is an example of a “spree” or mass murder, not serial murder; Odysseus felt justified given the suitors’ violation of xenia, but their families demanded blood vengeance. Athena had to intervene to prevent further massacre.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scanned_B%26W_Images_Odysseus_slays_the_suitors_of_his_wife_Penelope_%26_Odysseus_Meets_Nausicaa.jp

How can this topic tell us about real people in the past?

The more I read, the more it seemed that the Greeks and Romans were aware of the phenomenon of serial killing even though they didn’t have a specific way to describe it—though on that point, it’s good to remember that our phrase “serial killing” and related terminology didn’t exist until the 1980s. For an example from antiquity, take a fictional character like Procrustes, from the myth of Theseus. Procrustes is usually described as a highway robber who lured unsuspecting travelers to his house with an offer of hospitality. Then, if they were too tall for the guest bed, he would hack off their limbs to make them fit it; if his unfortunate visitors were too short, he would hammer out their limbs to stretch them.  So, here we have a guy who targets a specific type of victim, has a specific modus operandi, and even has a “murder kit”—a group of items a killer uses regularly in the commission of his crimes, and in this case consisting of a blade (like an ax or saw) and a hammer (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Theseus killing Procrustes (note the bed). If Theseus hadn’t undergone ritual purification, he himself might have been considered a serial murderer for killing at least 5 people on the road from Troezen to Athens. Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440–430 BCE.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theseus_Minotaur_BM_Vase_E84_n3.jpg
Fig. 3. Theseus killing Procrustes (note the bed). If Theseus hadn’t undergone ritual purification, he himself might have been considered a serial murderer for killing at least 5 people on the road from Troezen to Athens. Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440–430 BCE.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theseus_Minotaur_BM_Vase_E84_n3.jpg

Myths like that of Procrustes and many others that involve travelers being brutally murdered by robbers reflect at least two important facts about real people in the past. First, it’s clear that highway bandits were a serious threat in both Greece and Rome, and it wasn’t safe for people to venture out alone. Even the Romans, with their vast armies, couldn’t patrol all the roads across the entire Empire, and the danger was persistent enough that interfectus a latronibus (“killed by bandits”) was a common formula used on Roman tombstones. Second, the torture-killings that occur in these stories go far beyond robbery for profit, indicating an awareness that serial mutilation-murders did occur in ancient society.

Other descriptions of such disturbing behavior tell us that the Greeks and Romans recognized developmental patterns that resemble those of modern serial killers. According to Nero’s unofficial biographers Tacitus and Suetonius, the future emperor exhibited deviant behavior even in childhood, and by the time he was a young man he regularly started fights, even cracking a man’s skull during one of them. He broke into shuttered shops and robbed them. He beat men savagely as they went home after dinner with friends, and if they resisted, he stabbed them and threw their bodies in the sewer. He enjoyed dressing up in animal skins and torturing people by binding them naked to stakes and attacking them as if they were his prey. This pattern of moving from lesser to greater crimes shows up elsewhere in classical literature, and is characteristic of many modern-day serial killers (such as Jeffrey Dahmer). Of course, Tacitus and Suetonius were hardly unbiased sources, and the point is not that Nero might really have been a serial killer in private before his crimes were exposed, but that ancient historians were familiar enough with the phenomenon of serial mutilation murder that they could smear political enemies by describing them in such terms.

Serial killing, which is a much rarer phenomenon than sensationalized media accounts would have you believe, has profound effects on the societies that experience it. Libanius, describing a fictional serial killer who was clearly based on real “murderer-thief” types, notes that the worst part of the ongoing murders was that the majority of those who died couldn’t even be buried, because most victims’ bodies had been hidden and because, after some victims had been found, people were too afraid to go outside the city gates to search for others, for fear of being killed themselves (Progymnasmata 1.12). Jack the Ripper was described as “terrorizing” London because the extreme viciousness of his crimes made people afraid to leave their homes. In short, the study of serial killing in ancient Greece and Rome doesn’t just provide information about real people back then; it highlights the fact that serial killing is not a phenomenon unique to modern society, but rather one that stretches across the ages.

Dr. Debbie Felton

Debbie Felton is Professor of Classics in the Department of Classics at UMass Amherst. She has a B.A. in English & Latin from UCLA, and an M.A. in Greek and Ph.D. in Classics from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has taught at UMass since 1999. The interdisciplinary nature of her research interests has led to her focus on folklore in classical literature, with particular attention to the supernatural and the monstrous. She has been Editor of the journal Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural (Penn State Press) since 2015, and has served as Associate Review Editor for the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts for many years.

Professor Felton’s current projects include editing A Cultural History of Fairy Tales: Antiquity (Bloomsbury Press) and The Oxford Handbook of Monsters in Classical MythHer book Monsters and Monarchs: Serial Killers of Classical Myth and History (University of Texas Press), which discusses the evidence for serial killers in ancient Greece and Rome, is scheduled for publication in 2021.

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