The Ghost From 100 AD

Ghost_Story_Collage

They say there are only so many stories to tell, just different ways to tell them. Take the classic ghost story about a spirit that cannot rest until something or other is resolved. I never realized how old that story was until I saw this.

Pliny the Younger was an elected official in ancient Rome. He and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, were both witnesses to the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 AD. The elder Pliny was killed during the eruption while attempting to rescue some friends by boat.

Pliny the Younger was also an author who wrote hundreds of letters that have survived to this day. His letters have enabled historians to learn much about ancient Rome. One of the earliest non-Biblical references to Christianity is in a letter from Pliny to the Greek Emperor Trajan, asking for advice on how to conduct trials for Christians (most likely for the crime of not bowing to statues of the Emperor).

Pliny does not necessarily present the ghost story as fiction. In his letter to a Roman Senator named Sura, Pliny writes, “I am extremely desirous to know whether you believe in the existence of ghosts, and that they have real form . . . or only the visionary impression of terrified imagination.”

Pliny follows up his question with two stories. The first story is about a man who sees a vision of a beautiful woman who accurately predicts his death.

The second story begins:

There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued.

Naturally, no one wants to live in the house. No one, that is, until a philosopher named Athenodorus comes along and, being fully apprised of the fearful circumstances, decides to buy the house and live in it. The story ends when the philosopher sees the apparition one night and follows it:

The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones being collected together were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.

You can read the entire letter, and all the letters of Pliny the Younger, here at Project Guttenberg. For the “ghost letter” scroll down to LXXXIII — To SURA.

 

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