An Ancient Greek Ghost Story

For a change of pace let’s celebrate Halloween with what is possibly the oldest written account of a haunted house.

This is a “true” story found in a first century AD letter from Pliny the Younger to Lucius Sura. Actually, it’s one of three ghost stories. He begins his letter by writing:

I am extremely desirous therefore to know whether you believe in the existence of ghosts, and that they have a real form, and are a sort of divinities, or only the visionary impressions of a terrified imagination.

What Pliny ultimately wanted was some advice about a personal situation: accounts of a ghost or ghosts cutting hair from the heads of both a young family member and an ex-slave while they were sleeping! He prefaced his own story with two others that had been told to him, which he may or may not have believed but thought them worth sharing with Sura anyway.

Below is one of the second-hand stories written in Pliny’s own words. The text is directly from his letter,  LXXXIII — To SURA, translated by William Melmoth.

It begins with a large abandoned house in Athens with an interesting backstory:

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. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm.

Whoever owned the house put it up for sale or for rent, hoping someone unaware of its history would move in.

Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.

Athenodorus comes to Greece, looking for somewhere to live.

It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention.

Some paranormal activity begins…

The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but in order to keep calm and collected tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber.

Athenodorus_-_The_Greek_Stoic_Philosopher_Athenodorus_Rents_a_Haunted_House
The Greek Stoic Philosopher Athenodorus Rents a Haunted House. Henry Justice Ford, c. 1900. Public Domain.

He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed 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.

Athenodorus has the city dig up his garden.

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.

LXXXIII — To SURA


The Afterlife in Ancient Greece and Rome

Whether or not you believe in ghosts or haunted houses, this story is pretty interesting from a historical perspective.

All of the people involved were highly educated, prominent men in Roman society. Not the types of people who you’d think would want to make up such stories, let alone openly believe them.

For reference, here are some fast facts about Athenodorus, Pliny and Sura:

  • Athenodorus Cananites (approx. 74 BC- 7 AD) was a first century Greek Stoic philosopher. He was a personal friend and associate of Cicero, Strabo and Eusebius and was a teacher of a young Octavian, who would later become Caesar Augustus. Of note is his adherence to Stoicism, a focus on logic, reason, integrity and emotional self-control.
  • Gaius Plinius Secundus aka Pliny the Younger (61 AD – 113 AD) was a well-known lawyer, writer and Roman treasurer/magistrate. His letter to Sura seeking an opinion on ghosts and the paranormal is only one of many pieces of correspondence. A large collection of Pliny’s letters survive.
  • Lucius Licinius Sura (40 AD – 108 AD) was a Roman senator from Hispania (now Spain) and was a contemporary of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian.

To add context to the story you might be interested in learning more about Roman and Greek beliefs about ghosts and the afterlife. Keep in mind that there were believers and skeptics then, just as there are now.

Rome

There were a variety of religious beliefs in ancient Rome, but many private practices involved honoring the house or family spirits that watched over them (PBS). Publicly, pagan Romans did not believe in the concept of heaven or hell, per se, but in three distinct areas of the underworld. After judgment, good people would go to the Fields of Elysium (if a warrior or hero) or the Plain of Asphodel (ordinary folks). Bad people and criminals would go to Tartarus where they were tortured until their debt to society was paid, then they were released to Asphodel. Moral behavior didn’t necessarily dictate which area a soul went to; judgement was based more on adherence to laws, regular cult worship and religious rituals.

It was very important to Romans that loved ones be buried properly to ensure their entrance to the underworld. If they were denied entrance, they were stuck between worlds for eternity unless the situation was fixed by the living. For this reason it was actually quite common for Romans to believe in spirits and hauntings, which usually involved some issue with burial. In Pliny’s story, Athenodorus’ home was cleansed of spirits only after burying the bones properly and publicly. Not all spirits were bad, though, and many people believed they could be visited or warned by their dead loved ones in dreams.

Greece

In contrast, ancient Greeks did not believe as strongly in ghosts and superstitions as the Romans did. The general belief was that when a person died, he/she would go to Elysium (good) or the pits of Tartarus (bad) or would end up aimlessly wandering around Hades in a state of neutrality if their rites weren’t completed or their memories were forgotten by the living. A soul’s destination was determined by his actions on earth and how well he avoided angering the gods. It was also extremely important for the living to remember those who had passed on and remember them well in order for them to stay in Elysium. This concept of “Eusebia” (piety), a form of ancestor worship in a way, was a Greek citizen’s absolute duty to the family and the community at large.

Greek ghosts were similar to Roman in that a spirit might return if funeral rites weren’t done properly, but more likely to avenge a death or right some wrong. Necromancers (both Roman and Greek) might conjure up ghosts to pester their enemies, but the ghosts really didn’t appreciate being disturbed.  While theologically possible, it was generally believed that spirits very rarely left Hades for a casual visit. If they did at all, it was usually by invitation for specific festivals, like Anthesteria. Greeks were far more preoccupied with life than with death so they typically didn’t worry about such things.


Ghost stories from antiquity are not only entertaining, but they provide fascinating insight into the daily lives and beliefs of ancient peoples. Paranormal beliefs and religious concepts also morphed and changed over the early centuries, influencing spirits’ appearance (from disinterested mist to full-body apparition) and whether or not they were to be feared.

It wasn’t until later with the rise of Christianity that ghosts, if they even existed, were considered evil and linked with demonic influences. And while ghost stories in modern popular culture are surprisingly similar to some of the ancient legends, it was far more culturally acceptable back then to openly express a genuine belief in the supernatural. These days we typically reserve such things for Halloween and sleepovers.

Do you believe in ghosts?


Sources and Further Reading

 

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