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Monsters and Monarchs

Monsters and Monarchs
Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History

This captivating study uses stories from classical antiquity to show that serial killers were almost as prevalent in ancient society as they are today, challenging the belief that such killers are an artifact of modern society.

Sales restrictions: For sale only in the United States, its dependencies, and Canada
July 2021
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240 pages | 6 x 9 | 27 b&w photos, 3 b&w maps |

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.

  • Introduction. Serial Killers in the Ancient World
  • Chapter 1. Identifying Serial Killers Then and Now
  • Chapter 2. Methods to the Madness
  • Chapter 3. Motives for Serial Murder across the Ages
  • Chapter 4. Murderous Greek Roof-Tiles and Other Legal Problems
  • Chapter 5. Murder and the Advantages of Roman Citizenship
  • Chapter 6. The Popularity of Serial Poisoning
  • Chapter 7. Heracles and the Headhunters
  • Chapter 8. Theseus and the Highway Killers
  • Chapter 9. How Boxing Evolved from Murderous Contest to Olympic Sport
  • Chapter 10. Serial Murders in Local Legends
  • Chapter 11. Serial Slaying of Suitors and Spouses
  • Chapter 12. Witches and Other Child-Murderers
  • Chapter 13. Serial Murder Then and Now, There and Here
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Image Credits
  • Index

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.


“This is the first serious, fully documented book to prove that murderous psychopaths—individuals we would now recognize as 'serial killers'—can emerge in any culture and were roaming the world thousands of years ago. I found the ancient cases from myth and history entertaining, educational, and provocative, and Felton’s interpretations and conclusions are persuasive and worthwhile. Murder plus mythology: irresistible.”
Adrienne Mayor, author of Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

“Felton’s use of a wide range of examples and sources to document the existence of ancient serial killers, her willingness to cite and discuss ambiguous examples (and make that ambiguity explicit), and her frequent comparisons to modern examples of serial killers make this book thought-provoking, persuasive, and a lot of fun to read.”
Craig Gibson, author of Interpreting a Classic: Demosthenes and His Ancient Commentators