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The Belief in Ghosts in Greece and Rome

by Lacy Collison-Morley

Ghost stories play a very subordinate part in classical literature, as is only to be axpected. The religion of the hard-headed, practical Roman was essentially formal, and consisted largely in the exact performance of an elaborate ritual. His relations with the dead were regulated with a care that might satisfy the most litigious of ghosts, and once a man had carried out his part of the bargain, he did not trouble his head further about his deceased ancestors, so long as he felt that they, in their turn, were not neglecting his interests. Yet the average man in Rome was glad to free himself from burdensome and expensive duties towards the dead that had come down to him from past generations, and the ingenuity of the lawyers soon devised a system of sham sales by which this could be succesfully and honourably accomplished.

Greek religion, it is true, found expression to a large extent in mythology; but the sanity of the Greek genius in its best days kept it free from excessive superstition. Not till the invasion of the West by the cults of the East do we find ghosts and spirits at all common in literature.

The belief in apparitions existed, however, at all times, even among educated people. The younger Pliny, for instance, writes to ask his friend Sura for his opinion as to whether ghosts have a real existence, with a form of their own, and are of divine origin, or whether they are merely empty air, owing their definitive shape to our superstitious fears.

We must not forget that Suetonius, whose superstition has become proverbial, was a friend of Pliny, and wrote to him on one occasion, begging him to procure the postponement of a case in which he was engaged, as he had been frightened by a dream. Though Pliny certainly did not possess his friend's amazing credulity, he takes the request with becoming seriousness, and promises to do his best; but he adds that the real question is whether Suetonius's dreams are usually true or not. He then relates how he himself once had a vision of his mother-in-law, of all people, appearing to him and begging to him to abandon a case he had undertaken. In spite of this awful warning he persevered, however, and it was well that he did so, for the case proved the beginning of his succesful career at the Bar. His uncle, the elder Pliny, seems to have placed more faith in his dreams, and wrote his account of the German wars entirely because he dreamt that Drusus appeared to him and implored him to preserve his name from oblivion.

The Plinies were undoubtedly two of the ablest and most enlightened men of their time; and the belief in the value of dreams is certainly not extinct among us yet. If we possess Artemidorus's book on the subject for the ancient world, we have also the 'Smorfia' of to-day, so dear to the heart of the lotto-playing Neapolitan, which assigns—not excluding 'u murtu che parl' (the dead man that speaks)—for the guidance of the believing gambler in selecting the numbers he is to play for the week.

Plutarch placed great faith in ghosts and visions. In his Life of Dion he notes the singular fact that both Dion and Brutus were warned of their approaching deaths by a frightful spectre. 'It has been maintained,' he adds, 'that no man in his senses ever saw a ghost: that these are the delusive visions of women and children, or of men whose intellects are impaired by some physical infirmity, and who believe that their diseased imaginations are of divine origin. But if Dion and Brutus, men of strong and philosophic minds, whose understanding were not affected by any constitutional infirmity—if such men could place so much faith in the appearance of spectres as to give an account of them to their friends, I see no reason why we should depart from the opinion of the ancients that men had their evil genii, who disturbed them with fears and distressed their virtues . . .'

In the opening of the Philopseudus, Lucian asks what it is that makes men so fond of a lie, and comments on their delight in romancing themselves, which is only equalled by the earnest attention with which they receive other people's efforts in the same direction. Tychides goes on to describe his visit to Eucrates, a distinguished philosopher, who was ill in bed. With him were a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Platonist, and a doctor, who began to tell stories so absurd and abounding in such monstrous superstition that he ended by leaving them in disgust. None of us have, of course, ever been present at similar gatherings, where, after starting with the inevitable Glamis mystery, everybody in the room has set to work to outdo his neighbour in marvellous yams, drawing on his imagination for additional material, and, like Eucrates, being ready to stake the lives of his children on his veracity.

Another scoffer was Democritus of Abdera, who was so firmly convinced of the non-existence of ghosts that he took up his abode in a tomb and lived there night and day for a long time. Classical ghosts seem to have affected black rather than white as their favourite colour. Among the features of the gruesome entertainments with which Domitian loved to terrify his Senators were handsome boys, who appeared naked with their bodies painted black, like ghosts, and performed a wild dance. On the following day one of them was generally sent as a present to each Senator. Some boys in the neighbourhood wished to shake Democritus's unbelief, so they dressed theselves in black with masks like skulls upon their heads and danced round the tomb where he lived. But, to their annoyance, he only put his head out and told them to go away and stop playing the fool.

The Greek and Roman stories hardly come up to the standards required by the Society for Physical Research. They are purely popular, and the ghost is regarded as the deceased person, permitted or condemned by the powers of the lower world to hold communication with survivors on earth. Naturally, they were never submitted to critical inquiry, and there is no foreshadowing of any of the modern theories, that the phenomenon, if caused by the deceased, is not necessarily the deceased, though it may be an indication that 'some kind of force is being exercised after death which is in some way connected with a person previously known on earth,' or that the apparitions may be purely local, or due entirely to subjective hallucination on the part of the person beholding them. Strangely enough, we rarely find any of those interesting cases, everywhere so well attested, of people appearing just about the time of their death to friends or relatives to whom they are particularly attached, or with whom they have made a compact that they will appear, should they die first, if it is possible. The classical instance of this is the well-known story of Lord Brougham who, while taking a warm bath in Sweden, saw a school friend whom he had not met for many years, but with whom he had long ago 'committed the folly of drawing up an agreement written with our blood, to the effect that whichever of us died first should appear to the other, and thus solve any doubts we had entertained of the life after death.' There are, however, a number of stories of the passing of souls, which are curiously like some of those collected by the Society for Physical Research, in the Fourth Book of Gregory the Great's Dialogues.

Another noticeable difference is that apparitions in most well-authenticated modern ghost stories are of a comforting character, whereas those in the ancient world are nearly all the reverse. This difference we may attribute to the entire change in the aspect of the future life which we owe in modern Christianity. As we have seen, there was little that was comforting in the life after death as conceived by the old pagan religions, while in medieval times the horrors of hell were painted in the most lurid colours, and were emphasized more than the joys of heaven.

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