Pliny’s Christmas Carol

During this previous Fall quarter one of the graduate seminars that I took at UCI was a “Survey of Latin Literature” course in which we translated a variety of Latin authors from different periods of Roman history. One of the assigned readings we had in the seminar was a large selection of Pliny the Younger’s letters from the Sherwin-White edition of Pliny’s epistles.

Reading ancient epistles is very interesting, since the authors who corresponded with each other frequently discuss incidental details and personal anecdotes that are often not preserved in other genres of literature. Ancient letters can provide us with direct, day-to-day glimpses into the lives of those who wrote and received them, furnishing valuable historical and biographical details that we would not know about otherwise. For example, in Pliny’s letters we learn all sorts of bizarre personal stories from Pliny, such as when he boasts about his hunting exploits to the Roman historian Tacitus (1.6) or when he describes an unpleasant dinner party to his friend Avitus (2.6).

While reading a number of Pliny’s letters, I came across a particular bizarre story that is probably one of the most ridiculous tall tales that I have heard from all of antiquity! In book 7, letter 27 of Pliny’s epistles, Pliny writes to the Roman senator Lucius Licinius Sura about an alleged haunted house that he had heard about in Athens. Pliny describes the house as being haunted by the ghost of a haggard old man, with a pale complection, shaggy hair, and a bristling beard, who would haunt his victims by rattling iron chains over them.

When I first read about this ancient ghost story, I could not help but laugh, as I was poignantly reminded of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is haunted by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who appears to him in the form of a pale ghost bound in iron chains!

jacob-marley

Pliny writes the letter to Sura to ask his opinion about the existence of ghosts:

“The present recess from business affords you leisure to give, and me to receive, instruction. I am extremely desirous therefore to know your sentiments concerning spectres, whether you believe they actually exist and have their own proper shapes and a measure of divinity, or are only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?”

Pliny, despite being an educated Roman governor, is not at all skeptical of ghosts or the supernatural, as he relates to Sura a number of ghost stories, which Pliny states, “particularly inclines me to give credit to their existence.”

One such story is that of the old man with the iron chains, which Pliny states, “I believe upon the affirmation of others” (Oops, so much for apologists claiming that people always checked things out for themselves in the ancient world!). So what is this story that Pliny believes is credible? It starts with the story of the haunted house in Athens:

“There was at Athens a large and spacious, but illreputed and pestilential house. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of fetters; at first it seemed at a distance, but approached nearer by degrees; immediately afterward a phantom appeared in the form of an old man, extremely meager and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the gyves on his feet and hands.”

To this haunted venue arrives a philosopher who rents the house and who is visited by the ghost in a manner very similar to that of Ebenezer Scrooge:

“It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and reading the bill ascertained the price [of the house]. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged, that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the forepart of the house, and after calling for a light, together with his pen and tablets, he directed all his people to retire within. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he applied himself to writing with all his faculties. The first part of the night passed with usual silence, then began the clanking of iron fetters; however, he neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen, but closed his ears by concentrating his attention. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber.”

Just like Ebenezer Scrooge, who originally believes that he is hallucinating from food poisoning and tells the ghost of Marley, “There is more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!,” the philosopher Athenodorus originally tries to dismiss the ghost:

“He looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger. Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and bent again to his writing, but with the ghost rattling its chains over his head as he wrote, he looked round and saw it beckoning as before. Upon this he immediately took up his lamp and followed it.”

After finally following the ghost, Athenodorus solves the mystery of why the old man is haunting the house, when he discovers that the old man’s bones are buried in the courtyard:

“The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains; and having turned into the courtyard of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus being thus deserted, marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains; for the body had mouldered away by long lying in the ground, leaving them bare, and corroded by the fetters. The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense; and after the ghost was thus duly laid the house was haunted no more.”

Now, forgive me for my “naturalist presuppositions,” but I find this story of Pliny’s to be absolutely ridiculous. The ghost of an old man with iron chains? Seriously? The story that Pliny relates muppet Marleyshows how all sorts of ridiculous rumors circulated in the ancient world that were regularly believed in without serious investigation or confirmation, even by educated Romans like Pliny (I recall Pliny elsewhere describing another superstitious cult of people who even believed in a fabulous god man named “Christ” *wink wink*). The tale of the old man with iron chains haunting the house in Athens is so blatantly cartoonish and unrealistic that you could literally tell the story with muppets! And yet, despite these clear elements of fantasy, people still believed the fable to be true.

Pliny, of course, also states that he has personal experience that leads him to believe in ghosts. Does he provide strong evidence? Nope, as his personal testimony consists of little more than:

“I can myself affirm to others what I now relate. I have a freedman named Marcus, who has some tincture of letters. One night, his younger brother, who was sleeping in the same bed with him, saw, as he thought, somebody sitting on the couch, who put a pair of shears to his head, and actually cut off the hair from the very crown of it. When morning came, they found the boy’s crown was shorn, and the hair lay scattered about on the floor.”

Oh really? We can’t possibly explain poor Marcus losing his hair with anything more probable than “a ghost did it”? Marcus’ brother couldn’t possibly be pulling a fast one on him?

In like manner, people who believe in miracles will look anywhere and believe anything in order to find them, whether it be a girl finding a lost pet parakeet or a couple praying for money (again and again without success) finally getting some. I even know of one man who is so crazy that he claims to have been visited in a vision by a dead man who called him to be an apostle! I can only imagine how many other similar types of delusional people must have lived throughout history (*cough* Paul of Tarsus *cough*)…

Regardless of these stories’ falsehood, however, they still make for fun and amusing tales to celebrate during the Holidays. I doubt that Charles Dickens was aware of Pliny’s ghost story (if anyone has evidence that he was, please let me know), but stories about phantoms, miracles, virgin births, and people who make appearances after death are such common fables that almost every culture has produced some version of them in their mythology. I appreciate Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for what it is: a fictional story that can be entertaining while teaching valuable lessons about life. This Christmas Eve and tomorrow we will likewise be celebrating all sorts of fictional stories that make up the mythology of the Winter Holiday season.

One does not need to believe myths to enjoy their stories and to have a good excuse for a holiday. I hope that everyone catches up on some rest and has a good time with family and friends today and tomorrow.

Happy Holidays!

Matthew Ferguson

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One Response to Pliny’s Christmas Carol

  1. Just shows to go ya……..even very smart people are capable of believing the ridiculous.

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