What Did Ancient Romans Believe About Ghosts?

While some aspects of Roman ghost beliefs may seem strange, like pouring wine into someone’s ashes or asking the dead to leave by clanging bits of metal together, other details may seem eerily familiar.

You may experience just such a familiar chill while reading the brief ghost story related by Pliny the Younger. As Pliny wrote, it all began when the philosopher Athenodorus arrived in Athens. He hears of an “ill-reputed and pestilential house” that’s haunted by the ghost of a filthy, malnourished old man carrying a set of chains (Jacob Marley, anyone?). People living in the house risk serious mental harm and even death. It’s soon abandoned and put on the market for a suspiciously cheap price. Athenodorus, his curiosity stoked, investigates. He stays in the house, keeps his cool when the ghost appears, and follows when it beckons, ending up in a seemingly innocuous spot in the home’s courtyard. But when he directs others to dig there, they find human bones — bound by iron chains. They give the skeleton a proper burial, and the old man’s ghost disappears.

Though the story is ostensibly set in ancient Greece, its inclusion in a Roman work indicates that it was interesting to Pliny’s readers, in part because it echoed the importance of burial and remembrance in their society. Failure to pay proper respect to the dead might result in them returning, again and again, until someone finally fixed the problem.

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