Epistolary horror: Ghosts of Ancient Rome

History! It’s important that we know it, and that we learn from it. One of the reasons that I’m so into ghosts is how they represent history encroaching upon the present: literally, they can’t be ignored. This month has been full of historical events, great and terrible. So let’s talk about some historical ghosts: specifically, some ghosts from ancient Rome.

Very superstitious 

An important source of our knowledge about day-to-day life in the heyday of the Roman Empire comes from a fellow named Pliny the Younger (the Elder, apparently, didn’t make it out of Vesuvius). Pliny was a Roman author and administrator fond of literature, villas, and exchanging correspondence with prominent people. This correspondence–carefully crafted and edited and then published by Pliny himself–included accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius (sorry, Pliny the Elder), one of the earliest written mentions of Christians, and what we’re all here and excited for: ghosts. 

Roman colosseum at night
AMBIENCE

Book 7, Letter 27 of Pliny’s letters addresses one Sura, an influential Roman senator.  It contains not one, not two, but three accounts of the supernatural, varied in their intensity and weirdness. While there are some accounts of ancient Roman ghosts (or disproven ghosts) in other correspondence and plays, this seems to be one of the most famous, and the most fun to look into. 

Some context before we get started: in addition to being great at things like aqueducts and roads and public bathroom-building, the Ancient Romans were pretty superstitious. Like discriminate-against-left-handed-people and put-penis-necklaces-on-children superstitious. Their concept of ghosts was pretty similar to our modern Western one, but had some specific assumptions attached to them: 1) That hauntings were caused by improper burial, and 2) that ghosts, however ghostly, could not be seen in the dark of night: you had to shine a light on them for their horror to be revealed. 

Even given all their superstition, belief in ghosts doesn’t seem to have been a certain thing (or at least, no more certain than it is now, with 45% of Americans believing in presences from beyond the grave). Pliny’s letter starts with a request that Sura help him ascertain whether ghosts really exist based on the subsequent stories. 

“The present recess from business affords you leisure to give, and me to receive, instruction. I am extremely desirous therefore to know your sentiments concerning spectres, whether you believe they actually exist and have their own proper shapes and a measure of divinity, or are only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?”

Considering that all of the stories rather seem to support the existence of ghosts, we can guess that Pliny has already decided.

Story 1: Pretty Little Truths 

The first story goes something like this: a little-known, low-station nobody named Curtius Rufus joins the entourage of a newly made governor to Africa, only to come nose-to-nose with a startling vision:

“One afternoon as he was walking in the public portico he was extremely daunted with the figure of a woman which appeared to him, of a size and beauty more than human. She told him she was the tutelar Genius that presided over Africa, and was come to inform him of the future events of his life: that he should go back to Rome, where he should hold office, and return to that province invested with the proconsular dignity, and there should die.”

Funny thing: all of those predictions came true. Not in the least (and maybe especially because) after Curtius did achieve all that success, he couldn’t help but believe in the last part of the prophecy, too. And so when he arrived in Africa and saw the visage of the ghost again when stepping off his ship, he freaked out. He fell a ill, and though everyone thought he would recover, he so believed in the power of the prophecy that he gave up fighting and died. 

Curtius was a real dude. He really reported this vision (noted by Tacitus in Annals 11), and really died in Africa after climbing up from nothing to achieve his position in Africa. So, as Pliny hints, there is something to the story. 

And then there is the next one. 

Story 2: The Classic Too-Good-to-be-True Real Estate Deal

This tale will feel a lot more familiar (indeed, one scholar notes that it is so familiar as to fit into one of the Aarne-Thompson index, a compendium that classifies tales from around the world into over 2,000 basic types. For your reference, this is type 326A.). It goes like this:

A house in Athens is super dope–nice and spacious, a great deal. The only problem is that anyone who moves into it is promptly driven mad by fear and dies. Every night, the living lie in dread as rattling chains echo through the halls. The sound draws ever closer, inch by inch, until finally an old man appears before them, squalid, shaking his manacled feet and hands. As Pliny puts it:

“The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the spectre did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone.”

So, predictably, no one wants to rent the house. Just as predictably, the property owner lowers the price, with the hope that some poor, out-of-the-loop sap would come in and take it off his hands.

Enter Athenodorus the philosopher (which philosopher it is not entirely clear, but as in the previous story, it might have been a real person). Athenodorus is not a sap; he knows right away when he sees the ridonkulously low price of the house that something is up. But when he is told that something is a haunting, instead of running, he is excited. Finally, something interesting to put his philosopher’s mind to–whether or not ghosts exist! So he rents the house and settles into his office for the night, applying himself to a bit of writing so as to pass the time.

athenodorus and the ghost
Seriously, brah?

In the dead of night, the faint clanking of manacles begins. Athenodorus ignores them. They come closer. Athenodorus continues to ignore them. At last, they sound behind him in his chamber. Athenodorus turns around and sees the old man standing there, exactly as he has been described, beckoning to him.

Athenodorus holds up his hand and tells the ghost to hold on a sec, and continues writing.

The clattering of chains rings in his ears; the ghost is right next to them now, shaking the manacles over his head. Finally, Athenodorus stands up, and follows the ghost in a painful shuffle out to the courtyard, where it vanishes. 

The next morning, Athenodorus has the spot dug up, and finds bones entangled with rusted fetters. He has them properly buried, and then poof! Haunting solved.

It’s funny that even 2000 years ago, solutions to hauntings were as obvious as any cliched horror movie. Humans really feel strongly about properly burying their dead. 

Story 3: DIY Haircuts

The last story is, in my opinion, the weirdest one. It’s also the one that hits Pliny closest to home, happening literally in his own house. 

cut hair
Poor bastard.

One of his servants is sleeping in bed one night with his brother, when he wakes to see a figure sitting there with them. The figure picks up a lock of hair from his brother’s head, shears it off, and scatters the hair all over the floor. In the cold light of morning, it’s revealed that the brother has indeed received a terrible haircut, and there really is hair everywhere. 

It happens again to one of Pliny’s slaves. This time, the boy himself watches figures in white come through the window, take his hair, and cut it off. Again they scatter the hair, and then leave the way they came. 

Pliny interprets the event in hindsight:

“Nothing remarkable followed, unless it were that I escaped prosecution; prosecuted I should have been, if Domitian (in whose reign these things happened) had lived longer. For an information lodged by Carus against me was found in his scrutore. Hence it may be conjectured, since it is customary for accused persons to let their hair grow, that this cutting of my servants’ hair was a sign I should defeat the peril that hung over me.”

As the scholar that I’ve been linking to this entire article points out, this story comes across as a little flimsy compared to the other two. Their argument is that this hair stuff is all just a set up for the real point of the letter, which Pliny so carefully slips in: that Pliny had an informant tell on him against one of the senate’s most hated emperors. In other words, Pliny wants Sura (and everybody) to know that even though he seemed to do just fine during Domitian’s reign, he was one of the cool kids that was prosecuted, too. 

So the whole hair thing could be totally made up–just a cheap framing device to sneak in that little tidbit. Or it could be just a prank the servants were playing on one another.

Or…it could be real. The afterlife could just be that alien. Ghosts could just be doing creepy things for unknowable reasons. In a way, the very weirdness of these kinds of ghostly encounters–that specificity–is perhaps the greatest argument for their truth. 

I’ll close things off as Pliny does:

“I beg, then, you will apply learning to this question. It merits your prolonged and profound consideration; and I am not myself an unworthy recipient of your abounding knowledge. And though you should, after your manner, argue on both sides; yet I hope you will throw your weightiest reasons into one scale, lest you should dismiss me in suspense and uncertainty, whereas I consult you on purpose to determine my doubts. 

Farewell.”

Who would you rather you rather cut your hair yourself or have a ghost cut it for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: Nilesh Rathod for the colosseum that has nothing to do with anything; Henry Justice Ford for the nice print; Vive la Rosière for sacrificing your own hair for the sake of Wikimedia images.

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