Pliny the Younger and the first written 'Ghost Story' - Athendorus and the Ghost

29th July 2018. Reading Time: 7 minutes General, Famous Paranormal Cases. 3027 page views. 0 comments.

There are a lot of accounts written centuries ago of encounters with ghosts and poltergeists such as the Drummer of Tedworth and the Devil of Glenluce from the 1600's. It is thought however the first written account of a ghost was written sometime before 113 AD by Pliny the Younger in one of his famous letters.

Ghost stories have literally been around since the beginning of time. While our skepticism and religious beliefs have certainly changed since then, it seems our belief in ghosts has not. Experiences with Poltergeists and Banshees were written about in the 1600’s such as the famed Drummer of Tedworth and Devil of Glenluce.  The very first written account of a ghost was said to have happened between 61 & 113 AD by an author known as Pliny the Younger in one of his famous 247 surviving historical letters. It was a letter to a Roman Senator called Licinius Sura that is believed to contain the very first ghost story ever written.

Who was Pliny the Younger?

Pliny the Younger was born as Gaius Caecilius Clion 61 AD in Como Northern Italy. He was the son of Lucius Caecilius Cilo who died when he was a young boy. It is thought he lived with his mother Plinia Marcella. His mother was the sister of– Pliny the Elder who was a famous author and philosopher from the Roman Empire era. When Pliny the younger was around 18 years old, his famous Uncle died trying to save people from the Vesuvius eruption. He officially inherited his Uncle’s estate and it was shown in the documents that he was officially adopted by his uncle. He changed his name to Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus and became known as Pliny the Younger. He became a very well-known lawyer, author and magistrate in Ancient Rome thanks to the education his Uncle helped to provide. He was said to have written hundreds of letters to notable figures like Emperor Trajan about subjects such as an account of the Vesuvius eruption and religion. Within these letters, number 27 from book 7 to be exact (there are 10 published books of letters), is what was thought to be the first-ever written ‘Ghost’ story often referred to now as Athendorus and the Ghost

Pliny the Younger’s letter to Licinius Sura

(this is the English Translation of what was originally Latin text.)

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?

What particularly inclines me to give credit to their existence, is a story a which I heard of Curtius Rufus. When he was in low circumstances and unknown in the world, he attended the newlymade governor of Africa into that province. One afternoon as he was walking in the public portico he was extremely daunted with the figure of a woman which appeared to him, of a size and beauty more than human. She told him she was the tutelar Genius that presided over Africa, and was come to inform him of the future events of his life:�that he should go back to Rome, where he should hold office, and return to that province invested with the proconsular dignity, and there should die. Every circumstance of this prophecy was actually accomplished. It is said farther, that upon his arrival at Carthage, as he was coming out of the ship, the same figure accosted him upon the shore. It is certain, at least, that being seized with a fit of illness, though there were no symptoms in his case that led his attendants to despair, he instantly gave up all hope of recovery; judging, it should seem, of the truth of the future part of the prediction, by that which had already been fulfilled; and of the misfortune which threatened him, by the success which he had experienced.

TO this story, let me add another as remarkable as the former, but attended with circumstances of greater horror; which I will give you exactly as it was related to me. There was at Athens a large and spacious, but ill-reputed 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 meagre and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the gyves on his feet and hands. The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the spectre did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone. By this means the house was at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity which attended it, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.

It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and reading the bill ascertained the price. 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. 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 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. 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 Iying 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.

This story I believe upon the affirmation of others; 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. After a short interval, a similar occurrence gave credit to the former. A slaveboy of mine was sleeping amidst several others in their quarters, when two persons clad in white came in (as he tells the story) through the windows, cut off his hair as he lay, and withdrew the same way they entered. Daylight revealed that this boy too had been shorn, and that his hair was likewise spread about the room. Nothing remarkable followed, unless it were that I escaped prosecution; prosecuted I should have been, if Domitian (in whose reign these things happened) had lived longer. For an information lodged by Carus against me was found in his scrutore. Hence it may be conjectured, since it is customary for accused persons to let their hair grow, that this cutting of my servants' hair was a sign I should defeat the peril that hung over me.

I beg, then, you will apply learning to this question. It merits your prolonged and profound consideration; and I am not myself an unworthy recipient of your abounding knowledge. And though you should, after your manner, argue on both sides; yet I hope you will throw your weightiest reasons into one scale, lest you should dismiss me in suspense and uncertainty, whereas I consult you on purpose to determine my doubts. Farewell.

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