“The Haunted House” by Pliny the Younger

Halloween Special:
The frugal and fearless, weird-seeking hero-philosopher Athenodorus is our kind of guy.
⁓The Voice before the Void

“The Haunted House”

from correspondence

Pliny the Younger

translated from the Latin by John Delaware Lewis and William Melmoth

edited by The Voice before the Void

The Greek Stoic Philosopher Athenodorus Rents a Haunted House by Henry Justice Ford Cananites Confronts the Spectre Pliny the Younger ancient ghost storyThere was at Athens a mansion, spacious and large, but of evil repute and dangerous to health. 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 chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and bristly hair, wearing shackles on his legs and fetters on his hands, and shaking them. Hence the distressed occupants, by reason of their fears, passed miserable and horrible nights in sleeplessness. This want of sleep was followed by disease, and, their terrors increasing, by death. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted and, condemned to solitude, was entirely abandoned to the dreadful ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of the fearful curse attached to the house, an advertisement was put up, giving notice that the house was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he had made inquiries and he heard the whole story, he was not only not discouraged but he was even more strongly inclined to rent the house, and, in short, did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a sofa to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for his notebooks, writing implements, and a light, directed all his servants to retire to the interior apartments. That his mind might not, from want of occupation, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, Athenodorus applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence. At length, a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard, yet Athenodorus never raised his eyes nor slackened his pen, but hardened his soul and deadened his ears. The noise grew and approached, till it seemed to be at the door, and at last inside the chamber. Athenodorus looked round, beheld, and recognized the figure exactly as it had been described to him. It was standing and signaling to him with its finger, as though inviting him. Athenodorus, in reply, made a sign with his hand that it should wait a moment, and applied himself afresh to his tablets and pen. Upon this, the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher as he wrote. On looking round again, Athenodorus saw it beckoning as before, and immediately arose, took up a light, and followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as though oppressed by its chains, and after turning into the courtyard of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus left to himself, made a mark with some plucked grass and leaves on the spot where the ghost left him. The next day he talked to the magistrates, and urged them to have that spot exhumed. This was done, and there were found there some bones attached to and intermingled with chains; the body to which they had belonged, putrefied and mouldered away by time and the soil. The bones were collected together and interred at the public expense, and thus, after the spirit was appeased by due sepulture, the house was ever afterwards haunted no more.

2 thoughts on ““The Haunted House” by Pliny the Younger

  1. reply posted at Paula Cappa’s blog:

    January 4, 2017 at 3:16 am
    Thank you for the link, Paula. I’d first encountered this story in a volume of “ghost stories through the ages” (or some such to that effect). There were a couple of older “ghost stories” in the book preceding this one of Pliny’s; I think they both were taken from the Tanakh. I suspect there must be examples of “ghost stories” present in other ancient literatures, such as Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese, in addition to the Mesopotamian that you mention. Nonetheless, I also suspect that Pliny’s story might be the oldest surviving “modern” ghost story – that is, a ghost story of a construction recognizably literary, even genre-rific, complete with a moralizing exhortation to honor the dead with proper funerary rites.

    Among the English translations of Pliny’s letters are included one by John Delaware Lewis and another by William Melmoth. I didn’t wholly like either of their translations for presenting dramatically, so I cobbled them together into the version you quoted. Their separate translations:

    John Delaware Lewis:
    “There was at Athens a mansion, spacious and commodious, but of evil repute and dangerous to health. In the dead of night there was a noise as of iron, and, if you listened more closely, a clanking of chains was heard…”

    William Melmoth:
    “There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. 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 chains…”

    I’m very much enjoying perusing your blog’s cache of previously profiled horror stories – you’ve uncovered some nuggets unknown to me (such as Wharton’s horror, and the work of Stenbock, and of Julian Hawthorne), which I must explore.

  2. Pingback: Ghost Story Aficionados | Paula Cappa

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