As it is that night of the year, I figured now was the time to have a bit of fun and talk about ghosts.
This is actually a long-time favorite subject area for me, as I was fascinated by ghosts, the supernatural and anomalous activity and para-science in general throughout childhood – largely because of a book I had a kid, which I utterly devoured over and over again; but also on account of a few anomalous experiences I had, which naturally rendered me partial towards the subject.
The book, by the way, was called The Supernatural and was written by the late, towering intellect that was Colin Wilson.
Though I’ve read lots of other books on these subjects, none have ever compelled me as much as Wilson’s. It helps that Wilson was such a great intellect and big thinker and wasn’t at all credulous or gullible: and so there was probably no one better to collate and try to draw understanding from several centuries of scientific, esoteric inquest, detailed investigations and vast amounts of recorded testimony, including the work of some of the greatest thinkers of the previous few centuries, while at the same time weeding out the charlatans, fakers and hoaxes.
There are still lots of charlatans, fakes and hoaxes today too – in fact, far more so than in the previous centuries. And about 90% of stories and claims are probably fake or opportunist: but what’s important is that the remaining 10% or so warrant serious consideration, and might hold vital information about the nature of reality and our existence if examined diligently.
All of that aside, the actual subject of this post is a specific area of ghost lore that Wilson actually didn’t really cover in his wonderful book, and that allows me to combine two of my favorite subjects: anomalous activity and ancient history, particularly the Roman world.
Specifically, ancient ghosts – or more accurately, ghosts in the ancient world. People often mistakenly think that the typical or familiar ghost stories are a fairly modern phenomenon or something dating from roughly the Victorian era. But most of what we think of as the archetypal elements of typical ghost stories in fact go far back into the ancient world.
This actually makes perfect sense, as in most ancient cultures, and in fact in most pre-industrial societies, superstition, along with belief in the supernatural – and in ghosts or spirits – were a part of every day life. Almost all cultures believed in an afterlife and in human survival beyond bodily death.
In ancient Babylon, it was believed that ghosts roamed the night while the living owned the daylight hours.
In Assyrian households, it was believed that anyone who hadn’t been honored with a proper burial would return to haunt the living as a ghost – and this, interestingly, is a theme that has recurred in multiple cultures and through virtually every era.
The dead were also believed to suck the life force from the living, leading the Assyrians to create complicated rituals to protect living people from being plagued by spirits.
The Egyptians were particularly obsessed with the afterlife; an obsession that permeated their burial customs, art and mythology. It is therefore no surprise that many, even more modern, superstitions and supernatural mythologies have been retroactively attributed to Egypt and Egyptology, such as the famous ‘Curse of Tutankhamen’ that is claimed to have plagued those involved in the excavation of the Boy Pharaoh’s burial chamber.
In 1915, Egyptologist Gaston Maspero published a partial translation of what can be described as an ancient Egyptian ghost story, pieced together from pieces of pottery. In the story, the ghost of a mummified man speaks to a high priest of Amun, telling him about his post-death conditions. “I did not see the rays of the sun. I did not breathe the air, but darkness was before me every day, and no one came to find me,” the spirit explains. Maspero wrote that the troubled spirit seemed to be complaining about something that had happened to either himself or his tomb, but the Egyptologist was unable to determine what precisely the cause of his ordeal was supposed to have been.
Christianity of course could be regarded as being centered on a ghost story – though I’m sure most self-respecting Christians would object to me describing Jesus as having ‘haunted’ his disciples as a ghost. Islam doesn’t seem to have talked about ghosts, but about non-human spiritual entities called ‘djinn’.
In some older Scandinavian cultures, it was believed by some that the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights were the spirits of stillborn babies.
As for the Romans – who we’re mostly focusing on here – they were a deeply superstitious society at every level. In their daily lives they not only communicated and interacted with their gods via offerings, rituals and supplications, but also observed a form of ancestor worship.
The Roman nobility are known to have displayed ancestral images – funeral masks or busts – in their homes, the masks being molded from wax from the face of the deceased and these objects being understood to palpably maintain a link between the spirits of the dead and the lives of the living.
Some tend to ask why ‘Roman Ghosts’ or ancient ghosts seem to never feature in modern ghost stories or modern urban myths; whereas there tends to be a preponderance of Victorian-era ghosts claimed to have been seen, for example, in Britain, or Civil War era apparitions reported in the United States.
Actually, this perceived absence of Roman apparitions isn’t strictly true – for one thing, there is the particularly fascinating phenomenon of the Roman ‘Ghost Armies’ or Legions in Britain, the stories of which go back quite a long time.
However, there are – even aside from the famous ghostly ‘legions’ – some ghost-related traditions involving the Roman era.
The famous Roman senator Pliny the Younger, who lived until 113 AD, recounted a ghost story that survived for thousands of years; and bears some resemblances to some of the more ‘typical’ ghost-story ingredients of more modern tales.
Addressed as a letter to his friend, Licinius Sura, he wrote, “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,” he wrote, describing a haunting not dissimilar to Dickens’ classic Jacob Marley.
The disturbances in the home culminate in the emergence of a spectral “form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and disheveled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands.”
When a philosopher named Athenodorus heard the ghostly story, he is said to have rented the house in order to encounter the ghost. The ghost appeared and rattled around before vanishing. The story goes that Athenodorus marked the spot where the ghost vanished and, the next day, instructed for that spot be dug up. “This was accordingly done,” Pliny explains, “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 moldered away from the (chains).”
After being given a respectful burial, the ghost was seen no more and the house was never disturbed again.
Here, in this 1st century tale from Pliny, is virtually a blueprint for many of the haunting stories that cropped up hundreds of years later, increasing in the Victorian era and proliferating through the early 20th century, forming what has now for some time been one of the archetypal stories in ghost lore. So many of these later or more modern stories involve alleged disturbances or hauntings where excavation later reveals improperly buried remains – and once the remains are dealt with properly, the disturbances reportedly cease.
It is entirely unclear, however, whether that indicates the presence of a real ‘spirit’ or ghost, or whether the unconscious or subconscious mind of the experiencer has somehow ‘detected’ the presence of improperly buried remains in the property and has played out what is essentially a hallucination as a way of prompting action.
Wilson’s aforementioned book The Supernatural is full of cases – from different eras and cultures, including the 20th century – that match this template precisely; suggesting either that this is an archetype that exists in our collective consciousness (or Collective Unconscious, according to Carl Jung) or that the same basic story has been passed down from generation to generation and culture to culture, albeit with a few alterations here and there.
Of the 53 Emperors of the Western Empire, the only one with a famous ghost legend was the mad Emperor Nero.
Which in some ways is surprising, as the Romans were highly superstitious people and the Emperors, particularly in the Julio-Claudian line, were considered divine, which, you would think, would lead naturally to lots of ghost stories and myths.
You would expect there, for example, to be all kinds of stories about the ghosts of Augustus or Claudius or Tiberius – although, given how much Roman literature is lost to us (however many Roman texts we think we have access to, we actually only possess a tiny fraction of the Roman literature that once existed), maybe all the supernatural stuff was contained in lost works.
Nero, who was murdered in 68 BC, has supposedly been seen on the Via Nomentana, where he met his death. He was also seen to haunt the Piazza del Popolo, where was where his tomb used to be.
The myth was that a ‘cursed tree’ grew up from his grave, which was haunted by black crows and where Nero’s ghost was believed to linger alongside witches and demons. In 1099, apparently after people had been frightened enough, Pope Pasquale II had the tree burnt down and a chapel built in its place, while Nero’s tomb was dug up and thrown into the Tiber.
This story, we might suspect, wasn’t true.
For one thing, the stories of ghostly disturbances appear to have been going on almost a thousand years after Nero’s lifetime and don’t appear to originate in the century of Nero’s death. For another, the Pope desecrating the tomb (which, today, would qualify as a crime against world heritage) and building a chapel on it suggests the entire story might’ve been a piece of early Christian propaganda to symbolize the ills of the old Roman pagan era and the virtues of the new Christian era.
The most famous ghost mythology concerning a known historic Roman character – and not just a random figure – would be that of Messalina, the scandalous wife of the Emperor Claudius.
Messalina, who we are told lived a debauched, promiscuous lifestyle behind the back of her husband, was eventually put to death. The accounts of her death are pretty grim, even by Roman standards; she was given a dagger and instructed to kill herself in front of dutiful Roman soldiers.
But though she tried to fatally cut herself, she struggled to do it effectively – in the end, a soldier put the necessary muscle into it and she died. The scene is very powerfully depicted – albeit with some artistic license – in the I Claudius TV drama, as well as in various artworks and literature through the ages.
The legend has continued all the way to the modern day that her ghost still walks around the area of the Colle Oppio – which is very similar to the stories of Anne Boleyn’s headless ghost in England; which raises the question of whether we perhaps have a cross-cultural archetype of (or fascination with) the ‘wronged’ or vengeful woman being unable to find rest due to end-of-life trauma.
However, Anne Boleyn’s ghost isn’t reported to pinch men’s arses – which Messalina’s ghost is claimed to do. Which is just as well – as the idea of a headless Anne Boleyn pinching people’s bottoms is just a little too much.
The stories about the ghost of Messalina are almost certainly not true anyway, just old wives’ tales.
There was also Julia Berenice (early 1st Century AD), who was the daughter of King Herod Agrippa I (and grandmother of the Salome who appears in the Gospel stories) and mistress of the Emperor Titus: a ghostly tradition is associated with her too.
There are, it appears, common reports of minor paranormal phenomena at the Coliseum; mostly people reporting ‘cold spots’, otherworldly whispers and the like. Workers in the Coliseum have supposedly reported hearing uncommon noises and both human and animal screams. There have been some claims of a ghost – apparently of Julius Caesar – being seen in the Coliseum by visitors; but, assuming there was any ‘ghost’ at all, it is unlikely to have been Caesar’s, as the Coliseum wasn’t built until decades after Caesar’s lifetime and he would’ve had no connection to that space.
This suggests people are simply seeing what they, on some level, expect to see – even if that preconception doesn’t fit the historic facts.
It is also likely that the evocative atmosphere of the Coliseum simply triggers a psychosomatic effect, leading people to think they’re experiencing echoes from the distant past. On the other hand, various parapsychologists would’ve suggested that locations where powerful, emotional or traumatic events occurred – especially over an extended period of time, such as in the Coliseum – might ‘record’ strong impressions that in turn are picked up on by particularly sensitive people for reasons we don’t fully understand yet.
On a more serious note here, this would be a variation on what I think is one of the most fascinating and under-explored ideas from early twentieth century speculative science – what is called ‘Stone Tape Theory’.
‘Stone Tape Theory’ forwards the idea that electrical/mental ‘impressions’ released – particularly during a traumatic event – are somehow ‘stored’ in moist rocks and other particular conditions.
This idea was originally conceived by Thomas Charles Lethbridge, a British archaeologist and parapsychologist, in 1961, though a similar theory was forwarded by philosopher H.H Price in the 1940s – both of which I first read about in the aforementioned Colin Wilson book I read as a child. The Coliseum would, in theory, be a massive example of such a location, given its long, bloody, traumatic history and the presence of so much ancient stone.
Or, like I said, just psychosomatic. Whatever you prefer.
Aside from Pliny’s tale, mentioned earlier, the famous 1st century historian Plutarch (45 to 120 AD), told the story of how, in the city of Chaeronea in Greece, there was a boy named Damon who drew the affections of a Roman commander, who is said to have fallen in love with him.
The boy rejected the commander’s advances. Knowing that the offended commander would respond harshly, the boy was said to have gathered a gang of friends and attacked the Roman, killing him (along with several other Roman personnel). Chaeronea’s city council condemned him and his accomplices to death. The story has it that the Damon then had the council killed before his own death sentence could be carried out, then fled with his friends into the Greek countryside.
Knowing that he would be killed if he did nothing, Damon got a group of friends together, ambushed the Roman commander (and several other Roman soldiers), killing them. The city council of Chaeronea condemned Damon and his friends to death. After that proclamation, Damon, who had not been killed, had the council members killed. Some time later, ‘Damon’ returned to the town, but was later killed in the bath house. Later it was reported that ghostly incidents occurred in the place. Plutarch wrote, “certain phantoms appeared in the place, and groans were heard there,” reporting that “the door of the vapour-bath was walled up, and to this present time, the neighbors think it the source of alarming sights and sounds.”
Both Plutarch, and the aforementioned Pliny, were both highly intelligent, erudite figures and don’t necessarily present their respective ghost stories as fact, rather as simply tales passed on via word-of-mouth. Even highly educated Romans, however, were probably still superstitious though, as it was simply embedded in the culture, along with belief in an afterlife – so it is also entirely possible they both fully believed these stories.
Here’s one more.
Among other supernatural stories from the Roman world, there was at least one that reads like it was written many centuries later by the Brothers Grimm. Professor Debbie Felton, who studies folklore concerning the supernatural, is the author of Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, which examines some of the stories of ghosts and hauntings from ancient eras.
One of her oddest stories from Roman times concerns, not a ghost, but apparently either a werewolf or a shapeshifter.
The story is told by the Roman writer Petronius in ‘Satyricon’, in which a man leaves Rome and is headed to a country villa to meet his mistress and a soldier offers to accompany him on the journey. Pausing to rest by a cemetery outside the city, the soldier takes off his clothes and turns into a wolf. Terrified, the man runs for some time towards the location of the villa, but finds that the flocks there have been ravaged by a wolf. But, the story goes, one of the servants fought and managed to wound the wolf.
When the man goes back to Rome, he later encounters the soldier again and finds him being treated by a doctor for his wound. If that story were being told today, it would certainly be regarded an urban myth – which is probably what it was.
Or, you know, it was a werewolf. Whatever you like. But it’s probably the most suitable of the Roman horror stories for Halloween purposes.