“The Story of a Ghost”
From a “Letter to Sura”
Pliny, the Younger*, ca. 70s AD
Our leisure furnishes me with the opportunity of learning from you, and you with that of instructing me. Accordingly, I particularly wish to know whether you think there exist such things as phantoms, possessing an appearance peculiar to themselves, and a certain supernatural power, or that mere empty delusions receive a shape from our fears. For my part, I am led to believe in their existence, especially by what I hear happened to Curtius Rufus.
While still in humble circumstances and obscure, Curtius Rufus was a hanger-on in the suit of the Governor of Africa. While pacing the colonnade one afternoon, there appeared to him a female form of superhuman size and beauty. She informed the terrified man that she was “Africa,” and had come to foretell future events; for that he would go to Rome, would fill offices of state there, and would even return to that same province with the highest powers, and die in it. All which things were fulfilled. Moreover, as he touched at Carthage, and was disembarking from his ship, the same form is said to have presented itself to him on the shore.
It is certain that, being seized with illness, and auguring the future from the past and misfortune from his previous prosperity, he himself abandoned all hope of life, though none of those about him despaired.
Is not the following story again still more appalling and not less marvellous?
I will relate it as it was received by me:
‘There was at Athens a mansion, spacious and commodious, but of evil repute and dangerous to health. In the dead of night there was a noise as of iron, and, if you listened more closely, a clanking of chains was heard, first of all from a distance, and afterward hard by. Presently a spectre used to appear, an ancient man sinking with emaciation and squalor, with a long beard and bristly hair, wearing shackles on his legs and fetters on his hands, and shaking them. Hence the inmates, by reason of their fears, passed miserable and horrible nights in sleeplessness. This want of sleep was followed by disease, and, their terrors increasing, by death. For in the daytime as well, though the apparition had departed, yet a reminiscence of it flitted before their eyes, and their dread outlived its cause. The mansion was accordingly deserted, and condemned to solitude, was entirely abandoned to the dreadful ghost. However, it was advertised, on the chance of someone, ignorant of the fearful curse attached to it, being willing to buy or to rent it. Athenodorus, the philosopher, came to Athens and read the advertisement. When he had been informed of the terms, which were so low as to appear suspicious, he made inquiries, and learned the whole of the particulars. Yet none the less on that account, nay, all the more readily, did he rent the house.
‘As evening began to draw on, he ordered a sofa to be set for himself in the front part of the house, and called for his notebooks, writing implements, and a light. The whole of his servants he dismissed to the interior apartments, and for himself applied his soul, eyes, and hand to composition, that his mind might not, from want of occupation, picture to itself the phantoms of which he had heard, or any empty terrors. At the commencement there was the universal silence of night. Soon the shaking of irons and the clanking of chains was heard, yet he never raised his eyes nor slackened his pen, but hardened his soul and deadened his ears by its help. The noise grew and approached: now it seemed to be heard at the door, and next inside the door. He looked round, beheld and recognized the figure he had been told of. It was standing and signaling to him with its finger, as though inviting him. He, in reply, made a sign with his hand that it should wait a moment, and applied himself afresh to his tablets and pen. Upon this the figure kept rattling its chains over his head as he wrote. On looking round again, he saw it making the same signal as before, and without delay took up a light and followed it. It moved with a slow step, as though oppressed by its chains, and, after turning into the courtyard of the house, vanished suddenly and left his company. On being thus left to himself, he marked the spot with some grass and leaves which he plucked.
‘Next day he applied to the magistrates, and urged them to have the spot in question dug up. There were found there some bones attached to and intermingled with fetters; the body to which they had belonged, rotted away by time and the soil, had abandoned them thus naked and corroded to the chains. They were collected and interred at the public expense, and the house was ever afterward free from the spirit, which had obtained due sepulture.’
The above story I believe on the strength of those who affirm it. What follows I am myself in a position to affirm to others. I have a freedman, who is not without some knowledge of letters. A younger brother of his was sleeping with him in the same bed. The latter dreamed he saw someone sitting on the couch, who approached a pair of scissors to his head, and even cut the hair from the crown of it. When day dawned he was found to be cropped round the crown, and his locks were discovered lying about.
A very short time afterward a fresh occurrence of the same kind confirmed the truth of the former one. A lad of mine was sleeping, in company with several others, in the pages’ apartment. There came through the windows (so he tells the story) two figures in white tunics, who cut his hair as he lay, and departed the way they came. In his case, too, daylight exhibited him shorn, and his locks scattered around.
Nothing remarkable followed, except, perhaps, this, that I was not brought under accusation, as I should have been, if Domitian (in whose reign these events happened) had lived longer. For in his desk was found an information against me which had been presented by Carus; from which circumstance may be conjectured—inasmuch as it is the custom of accused persons to let their hair grow—that the cutting off of my slaves’ hair was a sign of the danger which threatened me being averted.
I beg, then, that you will apply your great learning to this subject. The matter is one which deserves long and deep consideration on your part; nor am I, for my part, undeserving of having the fruits of your wisdom imparted to me. You may even argue on both sides (as your way is), provided you argue more forcibly on one side than the other, so as not to dismiss me in suspense and anxiety, when the very cause of my consulting you has been to have my doubts put an end to.
(*Translated from the Latin by John Delaware Lewis and William Melmoth)
About the Author
Greeks, Ghost Hunts, & the First Haunted House Story
“From ghoulies and ghosties And long-leggedy beasties And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!” ~ Old Scottish Saying
‘Stories of ghosts, the spirit world, and things “that go bump in the night” are common threads found deeply woven into the historical and cultural fabric of most nations and people of the world. The earliest recorded story involving the supernatural is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,000-year-old Sumerian saga describing the journey to the spirit world by a Mesopotamian Priest-King of the city of Uruk in his quest for immortality. To his despair, he finds that the gods retain this gift beyond price for themselves. This epic first set forth the notion that the gods shaped humankind from clay, then breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. In time, that “breath of life” has become the thing that survives corporeal death: the spirit.
However, it’s Greeks that hold the prize for the first recorded tale that has all the trappings of the modern haunted house ghost story. Set down in a letter by Pliny the Younger (lawyer, an author and a natural philosopher of Ancient Rome) sometime during the last century B.C., the story takes place in Athens in a stately, deserted house with a “reputation for being unhealthy.” Hmm, sounds familiar…
As the story goes, residents of the house were tormented night after night by the clamor of clanking chains. The unsettling din would grow louder and louder until the ghost of an emaciated, disheveled old man—shackled and chained—appeared. Eventually no one would stay in the house, and it was abandoned.
One day, the Greek philosopher Athenodorus, intrigued by the story, rented the dwelling, determined to wait for the ghost’s appearance and to discover its purpose. I suppose he might be considered the original ghost hunter and this the first official ghost hunt. At any rate, late that night, as hoped, the clatter of chains began to sound throughout the house, growing ever closer until it filled the room where he waited. Then the decrepit apparition materialized … and beckoned.
Stoically, Athenodorus followed. As the ghost reached an open area in the house, it suddenly disappeared. Quickly, Athenodorus marked the spot with a clump of grass. The following day, under the supervision of a local magistrate, the spot was dug up, revealing the shackled and chained skeletal remains of a man.
So, as you can see, the concept of spirits that walk the Earth and interact with the living has a very old and well-established foundation. Humankind, since earliest antiquity, has believed in the existence of the unseen. Thousands of years of belief have been woven in our collective psyche, allowing for the acceptance (at the very least) of the possibility of ghosts and hauntings. Even the staunchest skeptic carries the seeds of belief. As Mark Twain reportedly once said, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.”’