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An Ancient Ghost Story by Pliny the Younger

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posted on May, 15 2012 @ 10:50 AM
I was doing a little research into the history of ghost stories, looking at their similarities and differences over time, and came across this story written a couple thousand years ago by Pliny the Younger. One of the things that sticks out in the story is that it sounds just like the ghost stories that we hear today.

The purpose for creating this thread is to ask whether ghost stories are a phenomena that have many recurring elements in them because of the nature of the universe, or are the stories made to "fit the mold" that was established thousands of years ago, and the stories we hear today are just a reflection of tales of old?


Well, it's not the oldest, but it is very old. Dating to a couple of thousand years ago, Pliny The Younger records a ghost story complete with all the so-called modern trappings.

There is a restless spirit, rattling chains and other strange noises, nightmares, the appearance of a phantom, and to top it off, the price for the house was slashed considerably which again is something that is said to occur today with reportedly haunted houses.

2nd Source

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.

Below is the story by Pliny the Younger, as translated by William Melmoth:

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 chains. At 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.

Any 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.

Damned 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 or sale.

It 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.

Athenodorus, now 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.

Latin Version

edit on 15-5-2012 by isyeye because: (no reason given)

posted on May, 15 2012 @ 11:17 AM
Here's another version with a slighly different translation, and some additional details on the story.
edit on 15-5-2012 by isyeye because: (no reason given)

posted on May, 15 2012 @ 11:19 AM
Very cool find. Thanks for sharing S + F. I can't help but think after reading the story that there is some inherhent human condition that makes us fashion these kinds of tales. If I had not known that Pliny the Younger wrote the story I would have sworn it came out of a modern day Ghost Story book.

posted on May, 15 2012 @ 11:27 AM
reply to post by countduckula24

Some of the common occurences in ghost stories do seem to relate to the human experience. The ghost themselves a reflection on death, and then there is the chain that binds us to death and keeps us from returning to the land of the living. Even the pointing finger is represented in "death", the grim reaper. Most of the elements in ghost stories seem explainable when you look deep into the psychology of humans. These things my have been realized by ancient philosophers and thinkers, and their words have been carried thru history to be reused today.
edit on 15-5-2012 by isyeye because: (no reason given)

posted on May, 15 2012 @ 11:51 AM
I think it was Carl Sagan who said that you can basically track the evolution of stories throughout time - first it was angels and demons, then witches and their familiars, and now it's aliens and UFOs. This is interesting though because this is basically the classic ghost story.
It ends happily though, so that's nice. Long live Greek philosophers.

posted on May, 15 2012 @ 07:16 PM
Good story. I like the philosopher character. Not many people would tell a malevolent spirit to wait a minute while he finishes his writing.

It just shows that hauntings have been similar throughout the ages. Ghost stories are frightening because they are so similar to actual experiences. It's no wonder modern stories haven't changed much from ancient times if genuine hauntings remain roughly the same.

posted on May, 16 2012 @ 08:23 AM
what a brilliant read thank you for posting this little gem.

the style reminded me of Algernon Blackwood.

And i agree with the author all ghosts have a story to tell or a message to get out, some need to be acknowledged so they can have some peace.
again awesome read thank you

love and harmony

posted on May, 17 2012 @ 11:21 PM
Thank you for sharing this.

I find it interesting that, despite the time since this story was written down and the myriad changes that have happened both technologically and socially, the "ghost story" has remained relatively unchanged.
In my opinion that speaks more to the occurrences being legitimate instead of fanciful.
To borrow Sagan a moment, if stories have, indeed, developed as man has developed, why would this story remain so true to it's kind? There is no difference between this story and other more recent experiences.
I do believe that there are "ghosts" (as i've said in another post on the topic) Though I don't claim to know what they are. here it seems that this "ghost" was, in fact, the departed spirit of a man that could not rest until his body was given a proper funeral.
Now, does that speak to the nature of "ghosts" or the individual "spirit"? Does one become a "ghost", bound to it's inappropriate resting place, because of improper funerary rights? Or is that part and parcel with the living persons beliefs?
Take, for instance, a man without beliefs such as "christianity" or, in a more basic sense, even a basic belief in an afterlife. Would that person fail to become a "ghost" upon a similar death (to that of the man in the story)? If he is without a belief in the spirit ascending to Heaven or the afterlife (underworld, Valhalla, etc.) would he not be bound to this realm by the improper handling of his corpse (as in the story)?
In laymen's terms: Do we, by our beliefs in life, effect what becomes of us after death? Does the Atheist cease to exist? Does the devout christian ascend to Heaven? Does the sinner go to hell? do the wronged inhabit our world?
These aren't questions any of us can answer, though I'm curious to see what people think.

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