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6 famous ghosts from the ancient world
2,000 years ago the people of the classical world were lovers of all things supernatural. Greeks and Romans believed in the afterlife and ghosts. The literature of Ancient Greece and Rome is brimming with ghostly portents, haunted places, and killer revenants. From the legend of Rome's founder Remus appearing out of nowhere as a ghostly warning, to the ghosts in the Odyssey, the epic poem by Greek writer Homer.
But what about ‘true’ accounts of ghosts in the ancient world? Here we look at six of the most famous ‘real’ ghosts of ancient history.
1. The Haunted House of Athens
Roman lawyer and busy letter-writer, Pliny the Younger, told a story of a chain-rattling ghost in Athens, in perhaps the most famous haunted house of the ancient world. Pliny related the spooky yarn in a letter to his friend, Licinius Sura.
In the letter, Pliny said that the large house was haunted by the sound of clanking chains at night. People inside could hear the chains getting louder and louder, as though moving closer to them.
The spirit making the demonic din turned out to be a dishevelled old man with a long scraggly beard and hair. The phantom pensioner eventually forced one set of owners to sell up, until a philosopher named Athenodorus bought the house at a very low price.
Athenodorus, hearing about the resident ghost, decided to sit and wait for it one night. He moved his bed into the main court of the house, near the front door, and sent his servants home.
While reading in the dead of night, Athenodorus started to hear the dreaded ghost. The sound of the chains grew louder and louder, and when he turned around he saw the spectre of the chain-rattling OAP.
Athenodorus was amazed to see the spirit beckon him outside into the courtyard. The curious philosopher followed him out and saw the apparition vanish. The next day, he had the spot where the ghost disappeared dug up. The skeleton of a man, bound in chains and with signs of violent death was found beneath the surface. The remains were given a proper funeral and the hauntings ceased forever.
2. The Haunted Baths of Chaeronea
Plutarch was a Greco-Roman priest and historian. Lurking in his mass of writings is an account of a ghost in his hometown of Chaeronea in Greece.
Plutarch says that a man named Damon was murdered in the public baths in the city. The baths were thereafter reported to be haunted by groaning and crying ghosts. The haunting was so sinister and terrifying that the doors were bricked up and the building was sealed forever. Locals apparently continued to see and hear strange phenomena emanating from within the spooky site.
3. The Ghost of Nero
The Romans were keen to believe that their most oppressive rulers would continue to terrorise them after their deaths. Pliny the Younger recorded a story of how Nero’s biographer, Gaius Fannius, was interrupted in his work by his own subject.
One dark, eerie night, Fannius was busy penning the next instalment of his life of Nero, when Nero himself sat down and started reading aloud from the previous chapters. Then Nero vanished, scaring Fannius half to death. The author knew that it was a portent of his own death, and he was right. Fannius died soon after before he could ever finish the biography.
4. Brutus’s Ghostly Visitor
Great Caesar’s ghost! Well, not quite. The apparition that famously warned Brutus of his death is commonly thought of, thanks to Shakespeare, as the ghost of Julius Caesar. But there is no mention in the source history, by Plutarch, that the spirit was Julius Caesar.
Brutus was a Roman politician, best known as one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. According to Plutarch’s The Life of Brutus, late one night, while taking his army across Asia, Brutus had an eerie encounter. While the camp was still and silent, Brutus was awake, meditating. He heard movement, as though someone was coming into the tent. He turned around and saw a ‘dreadful apparition, a monstrous and fearful shape standing silently by his side’.
Brutus questioned the spirit, who told him that he would see him ‘at Philippi’. Brutus didn’t seem too rattled about this omen of death. It proved right, however. At the Second Battle of Philippi (in modern-day Greece), the forces of Octavian and Mark Antony crushed his army, and Brutus committed suicide by falling on his sword.
5. The Poltergeist of Velletri
Poltergeists, as we think of them today, are essentially unrecorded in ancient history. Some accounts of ghosts have come close, though. A villa just outside of Rome reportedly had a poltergeist-like ghost haunting it. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the house in which Caesar Augustus (the first Roman emperor) was born, had a ‘small room, like a pantry’, that nobody dared to enter. People believed that anyone entering the room would be ‘exposed to something monstrous and terrifying’.
Suetonius, an owner of the villa at the time of his writing, decided to sleep in this mysterious room on one occasion. In the middle of the night, according to the story, the owner was thrown violently from his bed and onto the floor. He was ‘lying half dead and wrapped in his bedsheets'.
6. The Haunted Battlefield of Marathon
The famous victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC didn’t just haunt the losers, but apparently the victors too.
According to one ancient chronicler, the site of the battle, at Marathon in southern Greece, was haunted for many years by the strange sounds of men fighting and horses neighing. Curious visitors who went to the battlefield site with the hope of seeing and hearing the ghosts would have bad luck, but those who experienced it by accident, did not.
There were even accounts of ghosts during the battle itself. The Athenian soldier, Epizelus, used to recount how the ghost of a fellow soldier protected him in the thick of the battle and even killed an enemy fighter.