BMCR 2023.01.17

Monsters and monarchs: serial killers in classical myth and history

, Monsters and monarchs: serial killers in classical myth and history. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. Pp. 272. ISBN 9781477323571.



Anyone who has read any crime fiction set in ancient Greece or Rome, such as Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco series and its companion Flavia Albia series, or Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, for example, will be familiar with the concept of serial killers operating in ancient settings, whether the plots are based on historical figures and events, or entirely fictitious. But is there any actual evidence for the presence of serial killers in ancient Greece and/or Rome?

Debbie Felton’s Monsters and monarchs: serial killers in classical myth and history seeks to answer that question in the affirmative, thereby not only providing the first cultural history of serial killing in antiquity for the benefit of classicists and ancient historians, but also adding a significant amount of depth and breadth to the persistent and enthusiastic discussion of contemporary serial killers and killing that occurs in various types of media and has seen a significant rise in popularity over the last few years.

Since the modern definition of a serial killer is somewhat imprecise and there is some debate over whether mass murderers, spree killers, and other malefactors should be included, the definition used by Felton is rather broad. Her analysis incorporates not just the individual who kills multiple people of a similar type in a similar way, but also the individual who kills multiple people in any manner of ways, i.e. a mass murderer, and even the individual who kills on the orders of others, i.e. an assassin or contract killer.

The book’s introduction and first three chapters all do a variation on the same thing, which is to argue that there is evidence in ancient mythology, folklore, and even historiography for the existence of individuals whose actions correspond to what we would today consider serial killers and/or mass murderers. Using some well-known and some lesser-known examples from recent history as a baseline, Felton compares and contrasts these with some examples from antiquity. In chapter 1, she identifies specific individuals from antiquity, both mythological and historical, that she considers to be worth investigating. In chapter 2, she covers what makes a serial killer, identifying the key characteristics that might be possible to spot in ancient accounts of violent behaviour. In chapter 3, she explores potential motives for serial killing, and she likewise considers whether it might be possible to find these in ancient accounts of violent behaviour. In chapters 4 and 5, she sets out the ancient legal frameworks that covered various types of homicide in first the Greek and then the Roman worlds, highlighting key differences in how these neighbouring civilisations conceptualised homicide and what this meant for dealing with serial killing. Whereas ancient Greece had a detailed set of procedures that could cover most if not all types of homicide, including serial killing, for the Romans what mattered was who the victim was, which potentially left serial killers free to operate as long as they selected their victims carefully. Chapter 6 examines accounts of serial poisoning, seemingly a particularly Roman phenomenon. In chapters 7 and 8, she returns to Greece and the mythological realm, and focuses on Heracles and Theseus and the many evildoers that the two heroes reportedly encountered on their travels. In chapter 9, she covers the use of sports such as wrestling matches as a means to murder. In chapter 10, she does something similar to chapters 7 and 8, and considers localised murderers such as the Theban Sphinx, with a particular emphasis on mutilation murder. Chapter 11 covers so-called crimes of passion, and chapter 12 covers accusations and witchcraft and child murders. Finally, chapter 13 concludes the study, and underlines its validity by offering a brief survey of potential examples of serial killers from neighbouring ancient civilisations.

One of the key points of Felton’s overall argument is that the examples that she has highlighted are not necessarily always entirely factual (this is obviously particularly true with regard to the activities of early heroes such as Hercules and Theseus), but rather that certain aspects of them can be rationalised and are thus potentially factual. She notes that ancient authors such as Pausanias and Palaephatus were of the same mind, making the same points in their attempts to explain atrocities such as the Sphinx that terrorised Thebes until the intervention of Oedipus.

For all that Felton highlights the similarities between ancient and modern serial killing, she does take pains to differentiate between them and to interrogate the differences she identifies. For example, the vast majority of ancient serial killer victims mentioned in the textual evidence are men, whereas those of modern serial killers are women, and she explains that the differences between ancient and modern society account for these—women had much less freedom in ancient Greek society, and somewhat less in ancient Roman society, making them less vulnerable to this type of predator. However, what ancient and modern societies have in common are the frequency with which travellers come to grief on their journeys, with roads and temporary accommodation proving extremely dangerous locations. As far as the ancient accounts are concerned, this could be both literal, but also figurative, with people coming to grief the further they move away from civilisation.

Felton’s core argument is entirely convincing, although I feel that it could have been communicated more clearly and cleanly. There is an excessive amount of justification for her selection of the topic, and significant repetition of examples, both ancient and modern, throughout. Since she presents more than enough material to make her case effectively, this muddies the waters somewhat and detracts from her impressive achievement in making her case in a thought-provoking fashion.