Serial Killers In Ancient History?

Just wondering if there are recorded incidents of serial killers in ancient history - and I don’t mean Attila The Hun or any warriors, I am thinking in terms of one crazy person who might have gone from village to village.

Did they ever get caught, by whom and how?

The reason for my curiosity is that someone in conversation mentioned that serial killers are only found in recent generations. I couldn’t think of any in ancient history, but then again, it was not like there were lots of newspapers and law enforcement agencies reporting facts back then.

Well there was Thug Behram in India who may have murdered 931 people through strangulation in the 1700 and 1800s. He was eventually hanged. Then you have Elizabeth Báthory who is said to have killed up to 600 people between 1560 and 1614. She died a natural death while under house arrest.

Police forces as we understand them today came about in 1850’s or so. Forensics, which you need to link crimes together is a twentieth century invention. There were certainly earlier candidates for serial killers, such as Gilles de Rais or Elizabeth Bathory, but without actual evidence all we have is guesswork.

Who can ever forget the Brit Gilles de Rais who offed between 80 and 200 children beween 1435 and 1440. He eventually was hung.

I think that answer is yes there have been serial killers throughout recorded history.

From what I can see he was a Breton, not what we’d call a Brit (meaning someone from the British Isles).

I wouldn’t doubt that there were serial killers way back when. I think the recognition of people committing such heinous acts might have been questioned back then though. Perhaps they blamed such acts on demons and the like. I swear I read a book in my teenage years that essentially speculated that ancient ‘supernaturally blamed’ killings were simply the work of serial killers.

I can’t recall the title or much else about the book now though…

Note that Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory got away with it for a long time, if the stories were true, partially because they were wealthy aristocrats with the resources and free time to indulge their compulsions. That’s also why we know about them. Similarly driven peasants likely just remained frustrated, or very quickly met with a prompt and undocumented execution at the hands of an outraged village.

Locusta was a Gallic woman in the 1st century A.D. famous for poisoning people. She later became a hired killer, but only after her kills had become so infamous they knew of her in Rome.

I would suspect that in Rome itself, where prostitution and slavery and gladiatorial games and bloody rituals were all legal and open and the congestion and poverty intolerable there were probably plenty of serial killers and little investigation. If you were rich enough you could buy and kill slaves with impunity.

Not ancient, but the legends of Sawney Bean and his clan may have had some initial kernel of truth. Certainly there were killers and robbers who preyed on travelers.

The Greeks even had a myth about a serial killer:

I was looking through some 14th century English coroner’s rolls recently, and running across a number of bizarre cases, some of which might be perpetrated by what we’d define now as serial killers.

Home invasions, followed by maiming and murdering of residents, crop up numerous times. Also plenty of people just plain turned up dead in odd circumstances that might have been accidental or suicide, but could’ve been foul play.

area SDMBers don’t know what “ancient” means

There was Samson the Sadducee Strangler and Silus the Syrian Assassin.

For 99.9% of human history we lived as hunter-gatherers, in small family groups of 5-20 individuals that came together a couple of times a year into groups of a few hundred to perhaps a couple of thousand. You were related to and personally knew everybody in your clan group. Anybody outside of your clan group and territory was your sworn enemy and would kill you on sight and vice versa. At this stage serial killer was a meaningless term. Anybody who wanted to kill a stranger simply went on a raid into enemy territory and killed someone. It wasn’t an action that was questioned, though the chances of getting away with it multiple times was probably not high.

Following the invention of agriculture people started living in towns and cities. Even at this stage, the scope for serial killing was limited. There weren’t that many cities, and most were still only ten thousand people or so people. In a city of that size the chances of a serial killer being able to operate unnoticed even today is remote. Even in the larger cities, the nature of the society made serial killing difficult to sustain. Everybody but the ultra-rich slept 5 or more people to a room. Very little happened after dark due to the expenses of lighting, so any noises at night drew a rapid response. Unlike today, group infrastructure was paramount; everybody was expected to know all the goings on of their entire group. So the scope for a serial killer was limited. You couldn’t gab people off the street, you couldn’t readily find people to invite home to kill as Dahmer did, and even if you could, your neighbours would know all about it.

There may be a reason why serial killers became more prevalent following the industrial revolution. As people began moving to cities looking for work the social group began to break down. Secrecy became easier and the increase in nighttime activity made targets easier to find.

I don’t doubt that there were people who were psychologically serial killers in ancient times, but it would have been much more difficult to get away with multiple murders because of the way the world was. People disappearing were more likely to be noticed, and any unusual activities were also more likely to be noticed by the neighbours. None of this means that they didn’t exist, just that they were unlikely to run up a score of dozens of victims before being caught.

so in another word these psychologically serial killers would instead be prized warriors, inquisitors or some such?

Cite please for your last statement here?

Why, are you disputing it?

Well, do we include the priests of Baal, or the Aztecs? Ritual slaughter and torture were institutionalized in some cultures, and not criminal. Whole systems of torture were developed, and eventually became the subjects of literature. That seems unlikely without a pool of sadistic folks to do the inventing of methods.

Roving gangs of murderers probably existed in extremely ancient times, and individuals who took targets of opportunity for the same psychological reasons that modern sociopaths do certainly could keep up their behavior for a long time. What didn’t exist was a way for that information to be preserved and passed on.


Sadist =/= serial killer.

Mass murder =/= serial killer.

If they were in gangs then they were almost certainly not serial killers. While serial killers are sometimes accompanied by a companion, I have never heard of them being willing to join a gang.

Sociopath =/= serial killer.


I can certainly picture that “rival” groups might indeed see each other as rivals, and that further they might have a “kill or be killed” attitude towards each other. But I don’t see that what might well be true of one set of groups in a specific place will be true of all others in other places (which is what your post asserted).

Traditional Australian aborigine societies were hunter-gatherers, yet neighbouring groups routinely traded with each other even when not speaking the same language.

I’m curious about what a serial killer’s motivation is. It’s sort of off topic, I know, but when you say frustrated…is it like, most serial killers just have this urge to kill and they feel anxious when they can’t, like someone with a scary killing version of OCD? Or is it more like a hobby–man, I’d really like to be out murdering, the way most of us think we’d rather be golfing (or reading or playing D&D)?