Q&A with Debbie Felton on Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History

Jack the Ripper. Jeffrey Dahmer. John Wayne Gacy. Locusta of Gaul. If that last name doesn’t seem to fit with the others, it’s likely because our modern society largely believes that serial killers are a recent phenomenon. Not so, argues Debbie Felton—in fact, there’s ample evidence to show that serial killers stalked the ancient world just as they do the modern one.

Felton brings this evidence to light in Monsters and Monarchs, and in doing so, forces us to rethink the assumption that serial killers arise from problems unique to modern society. Exploring a trove of stories from classical antiquity, she uncovers mythological monsters and human criminals that fit many serial killer profiles: the highway killers confronted by the Greek hero Theseus, such as Procrustes, who tortured and mutilated their victims; the Sphinx, or “strangler,” from the story of Oedipus; child-killing demons and witches, which could explain abnormal infant deaths; and historical figures such as Locusta of Gaul, the most notorious poisoner in the early Roman Empire. Redefining our understanding of serial killers and their origins, Monsters and Monarchs changes how we view both ancient Greek and Roman society and the modern-day killers whose stories still captivate the public today.

To celebrate the publication of Monsters and Monarchs, we asked Professor Felton some questions about her book.

The introduction to Monsters and Monarchs mentions several serial and mutilation murder examples from far earlier than the usual Jack the Ripper references. Is there a particular case that sparked your ideas, or do you have a “favorite” (inasmuch as one can have a favorite serial murder)?

Well, I definitely wouldn’t say I have a “favorite.” In fact, the material was pretty disturbing, even though accounts from antiquity don’t have the same immediacy or sense of reality as modern accounts. And there were several different cases that got me thinking about serial killers in the ancient world. The main one that sparked my idea for the book comes from the second century CE and is discussed in chapter 9. This story, by the Greek writer Pausanias, describes a drunken sailor who attacks a local girl and is then stoned to death by the townspeople, but who comes back as a ghost or reanimated corpse of some kind and starts killing the townspeople in revenge. It’s a very weird story and lends itself well to a lot of different interpretations. But some of the minor details brought to my mind aspects of serial killing, such as the characterization of the killer. The other cases that struck me as very serial killer–like were those involving the Greek hero Theseus—like Procrustes, for example, who invited tired travelers to stay overnight in his roadside home, but then murdered them in various ways to get them to fit his guest bed. He basically had a murder kit that included a saw (for cutting off limbs that were too long) and a hammer (for smashing limbs to extend them if they were too short). Procrustes’s attempt to make Theseus fit the bed doesn’t go quite the way he expected. So these cases were all from myth and legend. One of the more realistic cases, from the fourth century CE, describes a highwayman who doesn’t just rob his victims—he tortures them and cuts them into bits. 

In the first chapter, you tackle the difficulty of “trying to make arguments about what motivated people in antiquity” by affirming that “the human mind, human behavior, and human emotions have remained very much the same across time” (13). What were some of the challenges in approaching your work with this mindset? How did it enrich the work?

The main challenge, not surprisingly, was that despite the stated similarities in our minds and reactions, when we talk about ancient Greece and Rome we’re still dealing with substantially different cultures from long ago, when people dealt with death in a far more immediate manner than most of us do now. Aside from the frequent military engagements (both at home and abroad) that most adult men would have experienced at some point in their lives, deaths from illness and old age would usually occur at home, not in an impersonal environment (like a modern hospital). And revenge killing was common in early Greek culture; laws punishing certain types of homicide developed slowly over time. What surprised me was that the reaction to what could be classified (in modern terms) as serial mutilation murder was essentially the same as now: horror that one human being would do this to another, and frustration that the killer couldn’t possibly be punished sufficiently in proportion to the crimes. And these considerations enriched the work in the sense that they made me pay closer attention to Greek and Latin descriptions of the killings as well as of people’s emotional reactions.

The modern world of true crime is fraught with the tension between perpetrator, victim, and bystander; you take care to note Joseph DeAngelo (the “Golden State Killer”) and Ted Bundy alongside Nero and Agrippina. Does that same tension between observers (modern or ancient) exist in studying ancient murder?

I would have to say that this tension does not exist or occur in antiquity in quite the same way, mainly because it is not possible to indisputably identify even one specific individual serial killer from ancient Greece or Rome. Rather, my research indicates that what we would call serial mutilation murder was recognized as a phenomenon, but without what could be considered any serious or reliable forensic evidence. Ancient “evidence” consisted primarily of witness testimony—which, of course, is often biased and highly unreliable—and confessions, which themselves were often likely to be compelled rather than entirely voluntary. And in the cases of what sound like serial killings, we have neither witnesses nor confessions. So, for example, with Nero, our sources are highly biased historians and biographers who were writing with hindsight and who were keen to depict the emperor in an extremely unflattering light, and his victims and bystanders in a sympathetic one. What’s especially interesting about Nero is how the sources describe him as having the sort of behavioral progression we associate with serial killers—being callous and violent even as a very young man, with his (alleged) crimes escalating over the years from bar fights and rape to torture and murder.

The accounts of ancient serial murder in your book stem from various tellings of myth, such as those found in epic poetry and tragic drama, but also from historical records. How do the transformations, simplification, and dissemination of these accounts affect our contemporary reading of them?

I think the sort of simplification you mention is precisely the reason why there has been very little previous discussion of serial killers in antiquity or even discussion of the possibility of serial killers in antiquity. This project met with quite a lot of skepticism from academic colleagues when I first mentioned it, whereas, when I started researching, it was quickly obvious that the general public on social media were already raising questions about similarities between mythological characters such as Procrustes and modern serial killers—the same questions I had been asking myself! So the questions seemed worth answering. And I think our contemporary reading of these accounts results in a certain amount of surprise, from the recognition that—even without the level of psychological and forensic detail available for modern serial killings—the motivations and methods in antiquity are recognizable. Take Medea, for example. She’s a mythological character, a princess who is also a witch, who first kills out of amorous obsession, chopping her brother into bits and strewing them in the sea so that her father, who is pursuing her and her lover Jason (who has stolen the Golden Fleece), will have to slow down to retrieve the body parts for burial. Later, she arranges the murder of Jason’s rival for the throne. But when the relationship sours—when Jason rejects her for another princess, a Greek rather than a foreigner like Medea—she gets her revenge on him by killing not only his new fiancée but also the two sons Medea had borne him. Although Medea is a character from Greek myth, her story serves as a prototype for what forensic psychologists identify as “spousal revenge,” one of the main reasons parents kill their children. This type of filicide (child killing) sometimes occurs when a spouse discovers their partner is cheating on them, or during especially bitter divorce proceedings, such as when the partner who gets custody threatens to move away with the children.

The arguments in Monsters and Monarchs open the door to many new possibilities and connections between mytho-historical accounts and the reality of our world. You explore, for example, the notion that the Sphinx of Thebes was a real bandit—and then later mention that posing riddles is sometimes a practice of contemporary perpetrators like the Zodiac Killer. What is the value that you see in reading history across periods in this manner—not necessarily answering an extant question, but broadening the application of a definition? 

First, I think it’s important to point out that the notion of the Theban Sphinx as a real-life bandit was already a theory more than two thousand years ago. Even in ancient Greece there were philosophers and mythographers who questioned the reality of mythological stories—who wanted to interpret them more literally, or at least more rationally. So you’ve got a figure such as the little-known Palaephatus, from the fourth century BCE, who wrote a book providing rational explanations for myths. He noted how absurd it was to believe that monstrous hybrid creatures could ever physically exist (their anatomy and physiology simply wouldn’t work!), and suggested that the Sphinx story grew out of a local Theban legend about a female bandit who robbed and killed travelers in the vicinity of the city. Second, I don’t think it’s useful to insist, as Palaephatus did, that virtually every case of a monster killing people can and should be rationalized into a more realistic scenario. A lot of monsters can be taken as metaphors for the unknown, for our own mortality, or, even less abstractly, as dangers present in nature—a swamp emanating poisonous vapors perhaps becomes personified as the Lernaean hydra (a swamp monster), for example, though such metaphors are themselves a type of rationalization. About posing riddles, there are several different aspects to consider: In a case like that of the Sphinx, we have a monstrous killer taunting her victims—a method of psychological torture, since the victims hold out hope that they might answer correctly and be released. But in folktales and possibly even in recorded history riddles have been posed to the potential suitors of princesses, and the suitors’ failure to provide the right answer results in, at best, their humiliation and, at worst, their execution. Contemporary serial killers, both fictional and real, may use riddles to torture their victims (see pages 142–143), but more often they use them to taunt the police, sending them letters in code, as the Zodiac Killer did. So did the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader. Reading fictional and nonfictional accounts across time that present and try to explain these details provides the sort of long view of human behavior that can make us rethink our assumptions about the uniqueness of modern serial killing.

Debbie Felton, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the author of Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity and editor of Landscapes of Dread in Classical Antiquity: Negative Emotion in Natural and Constructed Spaces.