A Classical Ghost Story
Stephen Cullis and Simone Witney
It’s that time of year when the old skeleton onesies and skull balaclavas are prised out of the cupboard, while the more creative among us sharpen knives for pumpkin carving. For some it’s an excuse for a party, for others ghosts are serious phenomena. Though experience of sightings can vary, most ghosts seem content with quite a limited set of signs by which to be recognised: some are happy to twitch a curtain or create a cold draught. They’re the ones who torment ghost hunters by keeping silent for weeks then sniffing into the microphone. Others have no compunction about thumping along corridors, dragging chains and groaning from a head carried under their arm.
How long has this been going on? The first ghost to appear in chains is recorded in the 1st century BCE in a letter written by a Roman, Pliny, to his friend Licinius Sura*. In it he recounts the curious tale of a haunted house in Athens, plagued every night by the sound of rattling chains and the apparition of a bedraggled old man. The owners move out, being unable to stand the terror they are forced to endure every night and put the house up for rent hoping someone who hasn’t heard of its ill repute comes along.
This is where Athenodorus the philosopher comes in, who sees the TO LET sign and moves in attracted by, and slightly suspicious of, the absurdly low rent. That night as usual the ghost duly appears on cue and rattles and moans away, but Athenodorus, wrapped up in his books and writing tablets, pays the spectre no mind until finally the ghost comes right into his room and stands in front of him, rattling his chains even louder and beckoning to the unfazed philosopher with a bony finger. Athenodorus finally puts down his pen and follows the ghost into the courtyard where the spectre suddenly vanishes. The spot of the disappearance is marked and the next day after digging there, the mouldering remains of a old man in chains are discovered. Mystery solved!
This story has elements which writers use again and again, think of Dickens and Oscar Wilde. The ghost is asking for a wrong to be righted and only the man who doesn’t give in to superstition, the scientist or sceptic, has sufficient self-control to investigate, put things right and so lay the ghost to rest.
Pliny probably identified with Athenodorus as someone who could cope well in a crisis. He was only seventeen when Vesuvius erupted and his description of it gives us an eye witness account. He was a lawyer specialising in inheritance, had various posts in government, and managed a large estate. He wrote to over 100 people and these letters, ten books of them, provide a unique insight into the manners and customs of life in the 1st Century BCE and cover a wide range of subjects: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, garden design, you name it – it’s probably in there somewhere.
There are two other supernatural events recounted in the letter and it’s well worth a read to get you in the mood for this season of creepiness! Although of course we recommend you read the whole ten books!
*Book 7 letter 2
Pliny the Younger. Available in Penguin.