I re-encountered this passage on Hallowe’en 2014, a few years after I first read it, while writing a small article on the history and evolution of the horror story. On reading it again, I was struck by its elegant simplicity and use of so many elements that we might consider to be cliché (ghost haunting a space until its body is laid to rest) or that we might attribute to another author (the concept of a ghost in chains is linked very much to Dickens and his ‘Christmas Carol’ which is considerably younger than Pliny’s story!)
Erat Athenis spatiosa et capax domus sed infamis et pestilens. Per silentium noctis sonus ferri, et si attenderes acrius, strepitus vinculorum longius primo, deinde e proximo reddebatur: mox apparebat idolon, senex macie et squalore confectus, promissa barba horrenti capillo; cruribus compedes, manibus catenas gerebat quatiebatque.
Inde inhabitantibus tristes diraeque noctes per metum vigilabantur; vigiliam morbus et crescente formidine mors sequebatur. Nam interdiu quoque, quamquam abscesserat imago, memoria imaginis oculis inerrabat, longiorque causis timoris timor erat. Deserta inde et damnata solitudine domus totaque illi monstro relicta; proscribebatur tamen, seu quis emere seu quis conducere ignarus tanti mali vellet.
Venit Athenas philosophus Athenodorus, legit titulum auditoque pretio, quia suspecta vilitas, percunctatus omnia docetur ac nihilo minus, immo tanto magis conducit. Ubi coepit advesperascere, iubet sterni sibi in prima domus parte, poscit pugillares stilum lumen, suos omnes in interiora dimittit; ipse ad scribendum animum oculos manum intendit, ne vacua mens audita simulacra et inanes sibi metus fingeret.
Initio, quale ubique, silentium noctis; dein concuti ferrum, vincula moveri. Ille non tollere oculos, non remittere stilum, sed offirmare animum auribusque praetendere. Tum crebrescere fragor, adventare et iam ut in limine, iam ut intra limen audiri. Respicit, videt agnoscitque narratam sibi effigiem.
Stabat innuebatque digito similis vocanti. Hic contra ut paulum exspectaret manu significat rursusque ceris et stilo incumbit. Illa scribentis capiti catenis insonabat. Respicit rursus idem quod prius innuentem, nec moratus tollit lumen et sequitur.
Ibat illa lento gradu quasi gravis vinculis. Postquam deflexit in aream domus, repente dilapsa deserit comitem. Desertus herbas et folia concerpta signum loco ponit.
Postero die adit magistratus, monet ut illum locum effodi iubeant. Inveniuntur ossa inserta catenis et implicita, quae corpus aevo terraque putrefactum nuda et exesa reliquerat vinculis; collecta publice sepeliuntur. Domus postea rite conditis manibus caruit.
In Athens, there was a large, spacious house. Unfortunately, it had a malicious reputation as if it were filled with pestilence. You see, in the dead of night, a noise like the clashing of iron could be heard. Perhaps it was the rattling of chains. At first, the noise seemed to be far in the distance, but it would gradually get closer and closer. Suddenly, an old man would appear from nowhere, filthy and emaciated, with a wild beard and hair that looked as if it had been blown by the wind. The chains which had signaled his approach bound his feet and hands.
The people who lived in the house spent many a sleepless night terrorised by things that we can only imagine. This lack of sleep began to drive them mad as they fell victim to disease and, eventually, to death. Even during the day, when the noises could not be heard and the apparition could not be seen, the fear remained and eventually the remaining inhabitants fled, leaving the house deserted and damned.
However, in the hope that money could be raised, the house was put up for sale. It so happened that the philosopher Athenodorus came to Athens and, needing somewhere to stay, he read the posted advertisement. The cheap price raised his suspicions, so the vendor was honest with him and told him all about the ghost and the madness of the previous occupants, but this didn’t put Athenodorus off. In fact, he was eager to take the house and made preparations to move in immediately.
As the evening drew in, he set himself up in the front section of the house. In order to keep his heart and his mind from dwelling on imaginary noises and movements from the corner of his eye, he focused all of his energy on his writing. So, he requested a light and some materials to write with, and then dismissed his manservants.
At first the house was silent. Then came the rattling of the chains. At first, Athenodorus refused to be distracted, but the noise got louder and louder and came closer and closer until it seemed to be by the door. And then in the room with him. Athenodorus looked round and he saw the gnarled ghost of the old man, exactly as the vendor has described, beckoning to him.
Again, Athenodorus refused to be distracted and signaled to the ghost that it should wait until the writing was finished. However, the ghost would not be halted and began to shake its chains over Athenodorus’ head. Athenodorus could ignore the ghost no longer and, taking up his lamp, he followed the slow-moving apparition into the courtyard, where it vanished. Now completely alone, Athenodorus marked the spot where the ghost had vanished with a handful of grass.
The next day, Athenodorus summoned the magistrate, who ordered that the spot be dug up. Enterred, and wrapped in chains, they found piles of bones. The only remnants of a body which had been long since buried. Very carefully, the skeletal remains were collected and given a public burial, with the appropriate prayers and supplications. Never again did the old man visit that Athenian house.
Translation by Darren Lester.
The above text is provided by the Perseus Digital Library.
- A good story to tackle around Halloween, if your school operates a calendar curriculum.
- Pliny is often one of the set text authors, especially for GCSE. This story shows another side to his writing.
- A good example of “strange and exotic things happen in far off places” – could be linked to other stories which use foreign lands to examine supernatural phenomena OR to consider imperialism in literature and how conquering empires use foreign territories to examine the ‘otherness’ of foreigners.