The riddle of the Roman ‘ghost legions’ is one of the most fascinating anomalies or urban legends around, particularly in Britain.
As it’s that time of the year, I want to briefly come back into this area – particularly for how the mystery of the spectral legions can also lead us into questions about the nature of time, space, consciousness and reality.
Previously, I posted a piece about ghost stories and traditions from the Roman world. This time, I wanted to focus in on something much more specific: the so-called Phantom Legions.
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 Colin Wilson – and it is the ultimate guide to and analysis of centuries worth of investigation into these subject areas.
Though Wilson’s exhaustive book doesn’t actually explore the subject of the ghost legions, as far as I recall. It does, however, explore a couple of specific ideas that I will touch on in this article in an attempt to try to understand the ghost legion phenonemon.
In fact, it appears that it’s Britain – and not Italy, as you might expect – that has the strongest tradition of Roman era ghostly activity being reported.
This includes a spectral Centurion seen patrolling Mersea Island in 1904, a phantom Roman army marching in Dorset in the 1930s, and an assortment of incidents going back at least to Edwardian times.
Possibly the most famous of these is the case of plumber Harry Martindale in York in 1953.
Martindale was installing a heating system in the cellar of York Treasurer’s House when he suddenly heard the exotic sound of the ‘buccinae’ (the brass horn used by Roman armies to transmit battlefield orders). The story, as it comes down to us, has the bewildered plumber listening and noticing the noise drawing nearer and nearer (and louder).
Then, from one of the basement walls emerged a ghostly horse cart, followed by a troop of spectral Roman soldiers who apparently looked downcast and disheveled. Martindale reported that the soldiers were all only discernible from the knees upward – this being due to the fact that they were walking the ancient Roman road, which was situated some fifteen inches below the 1953 floor level (and had only fairly recently been discovered during excavations).
What was also particularly fascinating about this story was the plumber’s report that the soldiers may have been bearing the insignia of the Ninth Legion.
The Ninth Legion is known to have inhabited some of the area around the city of York, and is also a subject of permanent historic curiosity, as the fate of the Ninth Legion has baffled historians for centuries. No one is entirely certain what happened to the 5,000 men, though it is assumed by most that they were slaughtered in the north.
Still, the somewhat romantic image of the Ninth Legion vanishing into the Scottish mists never to be seen again has prevailed for centuries: and a York plumber in 1953 claiming to have seen the legion marching through the cellar in ghostly form somewhat adds to that legend.
The phantom Roman Army is in fact a phenomena elsewhere in Britain too.
Flower’s Barrow, an Iron Age hillfort built over 2,500 years ago, is claimed to have been haunted by a Roman army, going all the way back to 1678. Located in Dorset, the spectral troops were first allegedly sighted by a local squire and several workmen, who all witnessed the anomaly, allegedly even able to hear the clank and friction of the armour as the ancient soldiers walked.
The story has it that, in all, around 100 people ended up witnessing the Roman soldiers, along with their horses. And we are told the ghostly sight appeared so real that messengers were sent ahead to the next town to warn of an approaching army – which of course never arrived.
The Roman soldiers were supposedly seen again multiple times in the area, as well as nearby in Bindon Hill and Knowle Hill.
Accounts of these stories can be found in Haunted England: The Penguin Book of Ghosts by Jennifer Westwood.
What’s interesting about the stories of the ghostly legions is that they suggest all kinds of possibilities – assuming the stories are true, of course, or not just hallucinations.
In no accounts do the ‘ghosts’ interact in any way with their observers or display any awareness of being witnessed. And in Harry Martindale’s case, the soldiers were walking at the Roman-era ground level and not the contemporary floor level.
This seems, for me, to rule out hallucination or imagination on Martindale’s part – if he was going to hallucinate a Roman Legion, why input the extra detail of having them be cut-off at the knees?
It suggests that what was being experienced was either a kind of naturally occuring ‘photo/video’ recording, in line with what a number of researchers call ‘stone tape theory’; the idea being that electrical/mental impressions released – particularly during a traumatic event – are somehow ‘stored’ in moist rocks and other particular conditions and are sometimes replayed.
This idea was originally conceived by Thomas Charles Lethbridge, a British archaelogist and parapsycholosit, in 1961, though a similar theory was forwarded by philosopher H.H Price in the 1940s – both of which I first read about the aforementioned Colin Wilson book I read as a child.
It may sound like a wacky idea, but there is plenty we still don’t know about science and nature; and a couple of hundred years ago the idea of what we now call ‘photography’ – the idea that you can record moments in time and preserve their image forever – would’ve sounded insane.
Seriously, can you imagine trying to explain television or video to a 1st century Roman?
On the other hand, another possibility is that the human brain somehow has a faculty to somehow partially see back in time.
The 19th century researcher, Joseph Rhodes Buchanan, came to the theory – based on methodical, careful research involving multiple human subjects – that everything in the universe has its entire history ‘recorded’ on it and that – in some conditions – the human mind appears able to access or ‘play back’ this recording.
The term he invented to describe this was ‘psychometry‘. A follower of Buchanan’s from the same time, William Denton, pursued Buchanan’s theories further, conducting substantial tests involvong ‘sensitive’ human subjects. Denton would hand people objects that they knew nothing about in advance and then ask them to form impressions from the object and offer descriptions of what they saw in their mind; often with apparently extraordinarily accurate results.
Fittingly enough, for the purposes of this post, this also brings us to a tale involving one of the most famous and enduring Roman figures, the orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Colin Wilson recounts in The Supernatural how Denton tested his wife by handing her a fragment of mosaic from the villa of Marcus Cicero, which had been dug up in 1760. He had told her nothing about what the fragment was or where it had come from; but he had expected, and hoped, she would come out with descriptions of the villa and of the great Roman statesman.
What she offered, though it was discernibly a description matching an ancient Roman villa, environment and climate, didn’t seem to Denton to describe Cicero very accurately. He decided it was close enough, being at least an impression of the correct time period and environment. However, years later he discovered that the same villa had belonged to the dictator, Sulla, prior to belonging to Cicero: and that his wife’s descriptions seemed to have been of Sulla (who died in 78 BC) and not Cicero.
This, to his mind, suggested that he hadn’t had any influence on his wife’s reading – as he had been hoping for descriptions of Cicero and hadn’t even known that Sulla had also once lived in the villa.
Sightings of apparitional Roman legions or soldiers – again, if they’re real sightings and not total hallucinations or made-up claims – could really be a gateway into developing understanding of the nature of time, as well as aspects of the mind; possibly combining elements of ‘stone tape theory’ and Buchanan’s ‘psychometric universe’, along with other ideas.
In essence the apparitions wouldn’t be ‘ghosts’ in the classic sense, but recordings or ‘impressions’ made somehow in the living environment.
There is a different thought that always occured to me, but that I obviously can’t overly substantiate or demonstrate: specifically that someone like the York plumber was somehow seeing a fragment of a live moment in time.
In other words, that he was seeing a fraction of the past – but that the past was/is simulteaneous to the present.
The notion that past, present and future all exist simultaneously isn’t actually very radical – and a number of leading scientific minds, including Einstein and Hawking, support that idea.
So, if you think about that for a moment, it means that the ‘past’ isn’t the ‘past’, but is happening right now, as is the future.
I have a decent analogy for this, because I was once trying to explain the idea to my little sister. Picture all of the chapters or scenes of a movie in the menu of a DVD: you have all the ‘chapters’ on the screen in little boxes, all simultaneously playing looped sections of each chapter. When you look at it – until you select the scene or chapter you want – all of the movie (from beginning, middle, to end, and everything inbetween) appears to be playing at once.
That’s how I’m thinking of time.
So, in that context, I consider the possibility that – under certain sets of conditions, for whatever reason (perhaps the ‘stone tape theory’ still works here, but not as a ‘recording’ but rather some kind of frequency-shifter) – there might be minor anomalies where, for a brief moment (a glitch in the programme, if you like), there’s a kind of overlap or crossover, not dissimilar perhaps to when you’re listening to SIDE A of a cassette tape and, during the white-noise, you can faintly hear part of SIDE B playing backwards.
When we’re talking about the case of the York plumber and the Ninth Legion, you have to bear in mind that the nature of the anomaly isn’t random – the Romans were specifically connected to that area, and therefore the legion could’ve conceivably been marching through precisely that spot at some time 1900 or so years earlier.
In the same way that a single audio tape can hold two different sequences of tracks on either side, we should consider that – if all time is simultaneously happening now – then in every location in the world, everything that has ever happened in that location or on that spot is still happening at the same time.
In other words, Harry Martindale is fixing the heating system in that building in York and, at the same time, the Ninth Legion is marching through that space nineteen centuries earlier.
So certain conditions or glitches in the environment or in perception might simply create a momentary overlap where two different time-periods on the same spot cross. The plumber is not so much seeing the past and the legion isn’t so much intruding onto the present; but, rather, the two are simultaneous moments in time.
That idea – or something like it – could actually account for a number of ‘ghost’ sightings or other anomalous incidents, such as the fact that a ‘ghostly figure’ in Arab dress is – according to urban myth – sometimes seen in the roads around where T. E Lawrence once lived, or the Versailles ‘time slip’ incident (more commonly refrred to as Moberly–Jourdain incident), in which two women apparently and randomly wandered into Versailles in the time of Marie Antionette.
There is still a hell of a lot that mainstream science doesn’t know about the nature of time, consciousness and the universe.
If, some day, it does become apparent that we can – under certain conditions – peel back the barrier and see the past or future, we might even develop the ability to do it on purpose.
Whether or not that would be a good idea is another matter.
Read more: ‘Are We Living in a Dream Reality?‘ ‘From Pliny to Nero – Ghosts & Hauntings in the Roman World‘, ‘Neglected History – The Ben Hur Villa & the Palace of Nero‘, ‘Palmyra – 2,000 Years of History‘, ‘Transcending the Uncanny Valley – AI & the Societal Landscape‘…