Spooky Stories in Antiquity

It’s almost Halloween and Classics Ambassador Abigail F takes us on a ghostly trip to the ancient past where libations rather than pumpkins satiated the spirits of the dead.

As with many spectacles and traditions of the modern age, much of what we celebrate and experience today derives from the myths and history of the classical world. Thousands of years before pumpkins appeared on our streets, before spiders adorned front gardens and before Freaky Friday hit our screens, the ancient Romans had their own spine-chilling entertainment: ghost stories. Tales of encounters with the dead had long been abundant in ancient literature: Odysseus’ meeting with Elpenor and others in book 11 of The Odyssey was a direct influence on book 6 of Virgil‘s Aeneid when Aeneas encounters his father (and the silent fury of Dido) in the Elysian fields – the underworld’s resting place of brave soldiers who had died in battle. But Roman authors such as Apuleius and Petronius really latched on to the ghost story’s pervasive power to spook…

Through their tales of ghouls and ghosts, the Romans reflected their own interest in the importance of the soul, of proper burial and of spiritual pax (although remember that Roman tombstones didn’t read Requiescat in Pace  but D.M. for Dis Manibus, ‘for the spirits of the dead’); beliefs that have echoes in modern society and which many ghost stories today contain remnants of.

The Afterlife

In Ancient Roman culture, there was popular belief in life after death and that the soul continued after death. According to Cumont, Romans believed that in death the soul became a shade (umbra) which took on the likeness (simulacrum) of the person to who it had belonged to in life. Others speculate that the soul survives, and lives on after death, such an in the epitaph of ‘On the Tomb of a Happy Man’ it is indicated that death was not an end, but rather a change in one’s state of being. In the Ancient Roman afterlife there was believed to have existed three realms: the Elysian Fields, where one would go if they died a warrior in battle; the Plain of Asphodel if one died a good person; and the dreaded Tartarus, where one would go if they had been a bad person and would remain until the atonement of their sins.

One modern depiction of Hades!

When entering the afterlife, coins were placed in the mouths of the dead as payment to Charon the Ferryman to take the soul across the River Styx. Upon reaching the other side of the river you were greeted by the three-headed hound Cerberus, then you would stand before three judges who listened to the tale of your life and judged which realm you should be allocated. Once the judges had decided, the dead was given a cup of water from the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which made you forget your previous life. Overall, souls were not expected to return to earth, but sometimes did, for a few different reasons. Cumont’s thesis presents the Roman Underworld as very closely aligned to the Greek model and many Roman authors, including Cicero and Lucretius, reinforce this by referring to and reusing typological symbols of the world of the dead like the River Acheron and the Stygian pools.

Apuleius’ Metamorphoses

Apuleius’ Golden Ass

One of the two main reasons for the return of a spirit from the afterlife was the returned of a spirit to a loved one to ask to avenge their death if done indecently. One example of this in Ancient Rome was the tale of a young man named Thrasyllus, who falls in love with the wife of his friend Tleopolemus, who Thrasyllus murders while hunting. Tlepolemus’ spirit appears to his wife in her dreams, asking for her to avenge his unwarranted death. So, when Thrasyllus inquires as to whether he may court her and she declines, she does, however, allow him to visit her that night, when she uses the opportunity to drug Thrasyllus’ wine and, once under the influence, blind him with a hair pin, exclaiming that death would be too easy and that he must walk through life without seeing the world. Then, Tleopolemus’ wife travels to her husband’s tomb and explains to her husband’s corpse what she did and, in a fit of grief, stabs herself with his sword. Thrasyllus then shuts himself in the same tomb and starves himself to death as he cannot bear living forever in the darkness, or living in a world without his love. This story implicates the strong ties to honour and duty in Ancient Roman culture, and that taking a life for an unworthy cause would have consequences dire enough to wake the dead.

The Tale of Athenodorus by Pliny the Elder

The other main reason for a spirit to appear is due to an improper burial as they are in a state of unrest. Those who receive a proper burial enter the underworld and the Elysian fields (as long as they didn’t die as criminals), but bodies left improperly buried, or insepultum, are shown to have been denied access to the underworld, such as in Virgil’s Aeneid when Aeneas comes across the spirit of Palinurus along the banks of the River Acheron. In Pliny’s tale, the philosopher Athenodorus comes to Athens and hears of a house that is cheap because everyone was terrified of the ghost that haunted it. Unfazed, Athenodorus rents the house for a great price and that night hears the rattling of chains and awakes to discover a man in his room motioning for him to follow. Athenodorus follows the ghost to a spot in the courtyard where the spirit suddenly disappears, so the next day Athenodorus has a city magistrate dig up the spot where the remains of a man entwined with chains are found. Athenodorus then ensures the body is buried with proper burial rites, and from then on the house is no longer haunted and the spirit finally at rest. The lack of a genuine burial was considered by the Romans to be the prime reason for the return of a spirit, as the soul could not rest in peace until the end of their previous life was carried out respectfully and appropriately. 

Next time you go for a midnight wander in a Roman necropolis beware werewolves (read Petronius’ Satyricon to find out more – if you dare!)

Whatever their beliefs in the afterlife and the soul, the Romans did seem to have a strong grasp on how the dead should be treated properly, honourably and with respect. They worshipped the dead at the festivals – such as the Lemuria and Feralia – and within the home in the atrium where the household gods (the Penates) and wax imagines of the family ancestors were kept. This idea of respect flowed throughout the culture of Ancient Rome, as the Latin term pietas sums up quite nicely; it meant a ‘sense of duty’, as the Romans relied heavily on pleasing the gods to be a good citizen and, eventually, to travel to a place of paradise in the afterlife.

An examples of Penates

In the modern world, the dead are treated with respect equal to how those in Ancient Rome were, as a token of a life well lived, but also perhaps conveying our ever-lasting fear of the dead awakening for vengeance, for desired finality, as the lack of knowledge of what occurs after death, what lies beyond, frightens humans most of all. So, next time you’re out trick or treating, or playing hide-and-seek in the local cemetery, consider what power the deceased may possess as, even though they are dead, they are kept alive through our literature, which will continue to haunt humanity forever.

And for a bonus – watch this classic video to hear about house-haunting in Roman York!