While the great philosopher is often remembered for his method of questioning and devotion to the laws and justice, he is also a famous example of one who ‘hears voices’. In his trial he admits to having a ‘daemon’, a heavenly voice that occasionally speaks to him and guides him along his path of inquisition and philosophical exploration.
The daemon never explicitly tells Socrates what to do, but it whispers to him and deters him away from certain paths. It was the daemon, Socrates says, that warned him that he should not become a politician.
“You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, which my accuser Melitus ridicules and sets out in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of being a politician”.
It’s at this point that Socrates remarks, humorously, that this was probably a good idea. For if the citizens of Athens want to execute him as a philosopher, how much sooner would they have executed him if he were a politician?
Normally when folks think of madness in the ancient world, it is Caligula, Rome’s third emperor, that they conjure in their minds. After all, we’re talking about the man who, if ancient scholars are to be believed, was planning to name his beloved horse the highest and most coveted position on the Roman Senate, consul.
Adding to the list of excesses, Caligula elevated himself to godhood, allegedly cut open his wife’s stomach to see the sex of the baby, carried on a love-affair with his own sister, brazenly, in front of her husband, and made the battle-hardened Roman Legion pick up seashells on the coast of the English Channel after attacking the sea.
And one time, when there were no criminals to throw to the beasts at the Colosseum, he had his guard force an entire section of the crowd in instead.
Clearly, Caligula wasn’t all there.
While Nero may look positively levelheaded compared to Caligula, he did enough horrible things to make one question his sanity. Not only rumored to have started an immense fire in Rome in order to clear space for his new palace, he also had his mother and brother in law murdered. His first attempt at his mother’s life involved creating a special boat that could be sunk on command, but she when she survived, he was forced to resort to more standard methods.
But he gets much darker than that… An early persecutor of Christians, Nero famously burned them alive in order to light his garden. He kicked his pregnant wife to death and was so reviled that it’s thought the Book of Revelations’ Antichrist is a veiled reference to his cruel and torturous ways.
4. Oracle of Delphi
As mentioned in the previous newsletter, the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi, was the most prestigious and authoritative oracle among the Greeks, but were thought by many, including Plutarch, to be mad.
One theory is that her oracular powers derived from vapors, hallucinogenic gases, from the Kerna spring waters that flowed under the temple. Another hypothesis is that her prophecies were the result of the poisonous plant, Oleander.
Either way, she wielded great influence through her advice and suggestions over the rich and powerful in the ancient world… even if her words were not always sensical.
Caracalla, ruler of Rome from 198 to 217 AD, was a big fan of ordering murder and violence, and the only people who didn’t hate him were the soldiers he paid off.
He also had no problem killing on scale. For instance, cities that displeased him, like Alexandria, suddenly had much smaller populations after he visited, as all the people that came to greet him were killed.
Once around 20,000 were slaughtered in days of looting and violence. Another time, Caracalla tricked an enemy nation into thinking he had accepted a treaty and marriage proposal from them, and then slaughtered the girl and all the guests.
You may remember him from the Gladiator movie (played by Joaquin Phoenix), but Commodus was essentially bred by his father to be a nasty piece of something or other. He is best known for his love of the coliseum where he would fight and kill gladiators… who were armed with toy swords and usually heavily wounded before they even stepped into the ring. Commodus bragged that he killed 100 bears… all of which were immobile and tied up. And he bankrupted the people of Rome, having charged them an insane “appearance fee” for these acts.
Moreover, he kept a harem of kidnapping victims for orgies and auctioned off state positions and anyone who stood against him was murdered. Eventually he was killed… strangled by a gladiator.
Emperor from 218 to 222, Elagabalus was obviously deeply mentally disturbed. Having ascended the throne at a young age, he replaced the pantheon with a new Sun god… and then proclaimed himself its avatar.
He scandalized even the sexual libertines, due to his multiple marriages and affairs, especially when he married and deflowered a vestal virgin, causing her to break her sacred vow and be buried alive.
He also supposedly dressed as woman and prostituted himself out on palace grounds. Desperately wanting female genitalia, Elagabalus suggested giving himself a vagina by slicing open his stomach. He had a favorite slave who he called husband and who called him wife. Rumours include having his men hunt for well-hung men around the country, and forcing them to be castrated, and encouraging his “husband” to beat him for straying.
His was assassinated after only four years as emperor.
8. King Herod
King of Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC, Herod was famous for wanting to kill Jesus and for the “Massacre of the Innocents”, where he ordered every boy at the age of 2 or younger in Bethlehem to be killed. Responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, Herod killed the high priest, his rivals, grandfather-in law, mother-in law, brother-in law, uncle, wife, 3 sons (one of which was murdered only a few days before Herod’s death)… and just about anyone else who he distrusted and thought was a threat to him.
A more loveable ‘crazy’, Pythagoras is best known for his mathematical genius and eponymous theorem we all learned in school. However, he had a few strange quirks, including a strange religion he created.
The main tenets of his cult were that souls are reincarnated… and beans are evil. No, not figuratively… actual beans.
Commandments include oddities such as: Do not eat beans (obviously), do not step over a crossbar, sit on a quart or walk on highways. Do not leave the pot’s impression in the ashes after removing it from the fire, or stir a fire without iron, or let swallows nest under the roof.
His sect had a few more ‘sane’ rules like vegetarianism and pacifism, but he broke those when he slaughtered an ox. He ironically died in a fight.
A Greek Scientist & Philosopher, 490-430 B.C., Empedocles is equal measures genius and insane. While he discovered that light travels at a speed, the Earth is a sphere, centrifugal force, and an very crude theory of evolution…. He also thought he was a God, with a capital G.
To prove his immortality, Empedocles announced that he would jump into a volcano–Mt Etna–and come back out unscathed. He didn’t.