An Ancient Ghost Story
by Pliny the Younger
We tend to think
of the written horror tale as a relatively recent phenomenon. But in fact the
first hand circulated ghost stories date back at least two thousand years. This
one was related by several ancient authors, the historian Tacitus among them.
The version here, however, is by the Roman letter-writer Pliny the Younger
(A.D.61-115). In it are the staples of the horror tale: the restless corpse,
the rattling of chains, the beckoning finger. There's even a ghost breaker or
exorcist for later writers or film makers to build upon. The translation is
that of William Melmoth (1746), as slightly revised, with proper deference to
the Latin original, by R. W. Stedman.
There was in Athens a house, spacious and open, but with
an infamous reputation, as if filled with
pestilence. For in the dead of night, a noise like
the clashing of iron could be heard. And if one
listened carefully, it sounded like the rattling of
first the noise seemed to be at a distance, but then
it would approach, nearer, nearer, nearer. Suddenly
a phantom would appear, an old man, pale and
emaciated, with a long beard, and hair that appeared
driven by the wind. The fetters on his feet and
hands rattled as he moved them.
dwellers in the house passed sleepless nights under
the most dismal terrors imaginable. The nights
without rest led them to a kind of madness, and as
the horrors in their minds increased, onto a path
toward death. Even in the daytime--when the phantom
did not appear--the memory of the nightmare was so
strong that it still passed before their eyes. The
terror remained when the cause of it was gone.
as uninhabitable, the house was at last deserted,
left to the spectral monster. But in hope that some
tenant might be found who was unaware of the
malevolence within it, the house was posted for rent
happened that a philosopher named Athenodorus came
to Athens at that time. Reading the posted bill, he
discovered the dwelling's price. The extraordinary
cheapness raised his suspicion, yet when he heard
the whole story, he was not in the least put off. Indeed, he was eager to take the place. And
did so immediately.
As evening drew near,
Athenodorus had a couch prepared for him in the
front section of the house. He asked for a light and
his writing materials, then dismissed his retainers.
To keep his mind from being distracted by vain
terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he
directed all his energy toward his writing.
For a time the night
was silent. Then came the rattling of fetters.
Athenodorus neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid
down his pen. Instead he closed his ears by
concentrating on his work. But the noise increased
and advanced closer till it seemed to be at the
door, and at last in the very chamber. Athenodorus
looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it
had been described to him. It stood before him,
beckoning with one finger.
Athenodorus made a sign
with his hand that the visitor should wait a little,
and bent over his work. The
ghost, however, shook the chains over the
philosopher's head, beckoning as before. Athenodorus
now took up his lamp and followed. The ghost moved
slowly, as if held back by his chains. Once it
reached the courtyard, it suddenly vanished.
deserted, carefully marked the spot with a handful
of grass and leaves. The next day he asked the
magistrate to have the spot dug up. There they
found--intertwined with chains--the bones that were
all that remained of a body that had long lain in
the ground. Carefully, the skeletal relics were
collected and given proper burial, at public
expense. The tortured ancient was at rest. And the
house in Athens was haunted no more.