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Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus-Of Dreams & Ghosts

Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 – 79). Roman scientist and scholar. Date circa 70. Mary Evans Picture Library.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a follow-up from yesterday’s Tacitus’ post about the aftermath of Emperor Domitian’s death, with an excerpt from Pliny the Younger’s ‘Letters’, book VII, letter XXVII, translated by J. B .Firth, where he reveals, within the narration of ghost stories, that he had a narrow escape from prosecution, having been denounced by Emperor Domitian’s leading snitch, Mettius Carus. The Emperor having been assassinated, the ominous peril dissolved, as all pending cases were dropped.


[27] To Sura.

The leisure we are both of us enjoying gives you an opportunity of imparting, and me an opportunity of receiving, information. So I should very much like to know whether in your opinion there are such things as ghosts, whether you think they have a shape of their own and a touch of the supernatural in them, or whether you consider they are vain, empty shadows and mere creatures of our fears and imaginations. For my own part, I feel led to believe that they have a real existence, and this mainly from what I hear befell Curtius Rufus.

In the days when he was still poor and obscure, he had attached himself to the person of the governor of Africa. One evening at sundown he was walking in the portico, when the figure of a woman – but taller and more beautiful than mortal woman – presented itself before him and told Rufus, who was terrified with fright, that she was Africa and could foretell the future. She declared that he would go to Rome and hold high offices of state, and that he would also return with plenary powers as governor to that same province, and there meet his death. All these details were fulfilled. Moreover, when he was entering Carthage and just stepping out of his ship, the same figure is said to have met him on the beach. Certain it is that when he was attacked by illness, he interpreted the future by the past, and his coming adversity by his present prosperity, and, though none of his people were despairing of his recovery, he cast aside all hope of getting better.

Now I want you to consider whether the following story, which I shall tell you just as I heard it, is not even more terrifying and no less wonderful than the other. There stood at Athens a spacious and roomy house, but it had an evil reputation of being fatal to those who lived in it. In the silence of the night the clank of iron and, if you listened with closer attention, the rattle of chains were heard, the sound coming first from a distance and afterwards quite close at hand. Then appeared the ghostly form of an old man, emaciated, filthy, decrepit, with a flowing beard and hair on end, with fetters round his legs and chains on his hands, which he kept shaking. The terrified inmates passed sleepless nights of fearful terror, and following upon their sleeplessness came disease and then death as their fears increased. For every now and again, though the ghost had vanished, memory conjured up the vision before their eyes, and their fright remained longer than the apparition which had caused it. Then the house was deserted and condemned to stand empty, and was wholly abandoned to the spectre, while the authorities forbade that it should be sold or let to anyone wishing to take it, not knowing under what a curse it lay.

The philosopher Athenodorus came to Athens, read the notice board, and on hearing the price hesitated, because the low rent made him suspicious. Then he was told the whole story, and, so far from being deterred, he became the more eager to rent it When evening began to fall, he ordered his people to make him up a bed in the front of the house, and asked for his tablets, a pen, and a lamp. Dismissing all his servants to the inner rooms, he applied mind, eyes, and hand to the task of writing, lest by having nothing to think about he might begin to conjure up the apparition of which he had been told and other idle fears. At first the night was just as still there as elsewhere, then the iron was rattled and the chains clanked. Athenodorus did not raise his eyes, nor cease to write, but fortified his resolution and closed his ears. The noise became louder and drew nearer, and was heard now on the threshold and then within the room itself. He turned his head, and saw and recognised the ghost which had been described to him. It stood and beckoned with its finger, as if calling him; but Athenodorus merely motioned with his hand, as if to bid it wait a little, and once more bent over his tablets and plied his pen. As he wrote the spectre rattled its chains over his head, and looking round he saw that it was beckoning as before, so, without further delay, he took up the lamp and followed. The spectre walked with slow steps, as though burdened by the chains, then it turned off into the courtyard of the house and suddenly vanished, leaving its companion alone, who thereupon plucked some grass and foliage to mark the place. On the following day he went to the magistrates and advised them to give orders that the place should be dug up. Bones were found with chains wound round them. Time and the action of the soil had made the flesh moulder, and left the bones bare and eaten away by the chains, but the remains were collected and given a public burial. Ever afterwards the house was free of the ghost which had been thus laid with due ceremony.

I quite believe those who vouch for these details, but the following story I can vouch for to others. I have a freedman who is a man of some education. A younger brother of his was sleeping with him in the same bed, and he thought he saw someone sitting upon the bed and applying a pair of shears to his head, and even cutting off some hair from his crown. When day broke, his hair actually was cut at the crown, and the locks were found lying close by. A little time elapsed, and a similar incident occurred to make people believe the other story was true. A young slave of mine was sleeping with a number of others in the dormitory, when, according to his story, two men clothed in white tunics entered by the window and cut his hair as he slept, retiring by the way they came. Daylight revealed that his hair had been cut and the locks lay scattered around. No incident of any note followed, unless it was that I escaped prosecution, as I should not have done if Domitian, in whose reign these incidents had taken place, had lived any longer than he did. For in his writing-desk there was discovered a document sent in by Carus which denounced me. This gives rise to the conjecture that, as it is the custom for accused persons to let their hair go untrimmed, the fact that the hair of my slaves was cut was a sign that the peril overhanging me had passed away.

I beg of you to bring your erudition to bear on these stories. The matter is one which is worth long and careful, consideration, nor am I altogether undeserving of your imparting to me your plentiful knowledge. I will let you follow your usual habit of arguing on both sides of the case, but be sure that you take up one side more strongly than the other, so that I may not go away in suspense and uncertainty, when the reason I asked your advice was just this – that you should put an end to my doubts. Farewell.


Latin Original


1 Et mihi discendi et tibi docendi facultatem otium praebet. Igitur perquam velim scire, esse phantasmata et habere propriam figuram numenque aliquod putes an inania et vana ex metu nostro imaginem accipere. 2 Ego ut esse credam in primis eo ducor, quod audio accidisse Curtio Rufo. Tenuis adhuc et obscurus, obtinenti Africam comes haeserat. Inclinato die spatiabatur in porticu; offertur ei mulieris figura humana grandior pulchriorque. Perterrito Africam se futurorum praenuntiam dixit: iturum enim Romam honoresque gesturum, atque etiam cum summo imperio in eandem provinciam reversurum, ibique moriturum. 3 Facta sunt omnia. Praeterea accedenti Carthaginem egredientique nave eadem figura in litore occurrisse narratur. Ipse certe implicitus morbo futura praeteritis, adversa secundis auguratus, spem salutis nullo suorum desperante proiecit.

4 Iam illud nonne et magis terribile et non minus mirum est quod exponam ut accepi? 5 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. 6 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 Ibat illa lento gradu quasi gravis vinculis. Postquam deflexit in aream domus, repente dilapsa deserit comitem. Desertus herbas et folia concerpta signum loco ponit. 11 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.

12 Et haec quidem affirmantibus credo; illud affirmare aliis possum. Est libertus mihi non illitteratus. Cum hoc minor frater eodem lecto quiescebat. Is visus est sibi cernere quendam in toro residentem, admoventemque capiti suo cultros, atque etiam ex ipso vertice amputantem capillos. Ubi illuxit, ipse circa verticem tonsus, capilli iacentes reperiuntur. 13 Exiguum temporis medium, et rursus simile aliud priori fidem fecit. Puer in paedagogio mixtus pluribus dormiebat. Venerunt per fenestras — ita narrat — in tunicis albis duo cubantemque detonderunt et qua venerant recesserunt. Hunc quoque tonsum sparsosque circa capillos dies ostendit. 14 Nihil notabile secutum, nisi forte quod non fui reus, futurus, si Domitianus sub quo haec acciderunt diutius vixisset. Nam in scrinio eius datus a Caro de me libellus inventus est; ex quo coniectari potest, quia reis moris est summittere capillum, recisos meorum capillos depulsi quod imminebat periculi signum fuisse.

15 Proinde rogo, eruditionem tuam intendas. Digna res est quam diu multumque consideres; ne ego quidem indignus, cui copiam scientiae tuae facias. 16 Licet etiam utramque in partem — ut soles — disputes, ex altera tamen fortius, ne me suspensum incertumque dimittas, cum mihi consulendi causa fuerit, ut dubitare desinerem. Vale.

More about Pliny the Younger:🌿Source for the English Translation: 🌿 Source for the Latin original:
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus-Of Dreams & Ghosts

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