Ghost stories are probably as old as the human race, and the Greeks and Romans had their fair share of them. Pliny the Younger, writing in the first century AD, recounts one contemporary haunting.
Every night at a mansion in Athens in Greece, the ghost of an emaciated old man was said to appear, rattling iron chains. The occupants abandoned the place and no one would buy or live in it. Then the philosopher Athenodorus rented the house. Athenodorus, sometime tutor to the young Augustus who later became emperor of Rome, was not to be trifled with. Sending his servants away, he lit a lamp and sat down to write. In the middle of the night the clanking sounds began, but Athenodorus simply ignored them. Then the ghost appeared at the door, but the philosopher merely signaled it to wait. Impatient, the ghost stalked forward and began to rattle its chains over his head. Athenodorus followed it outside, and when the ghost finally disappeared in the courtyard, marked the spot with leaves. The next morning, he called upon the city’s magistrates to dig up the ground in the place he had marked, and they found the skeleton of a man in chains. When the remains had been given a proper burial, the hauntings promptly ceased.
Battlefields and the sites of ancient wars were considered the most likely places to be haunted. Damascius tells us in Vita Isidori that, after a great battle outside the walls of Rome against Attila and his Huns in AD 452, the ghosts of the dead were reported to have fought for three days and nights, the clash of their weapons being distinctly heard in the city. Pausanias’s Guide to Greece records that at Marathon, where the Athenians repulsed the Persians in 490 BC, the sounds of men fighting and horses neighing was still to be heard at night 500 years after the battle.
But most haunted of all, according to the Heroicus by Philostratus, was the plain outside Troy, where the ghostly heroes of the Trojan War (c. 1200 BC) were thought to have lingered for 1,000 years. Their appearances were even interpreted as oracles. Apparitions that were covered in dust forecast drought; specters drenched with sweat heralded rain; and when phantoms smeared with blood appeared, plague would follow. They were not to be insulted either. The ghost of Hector allegedly drowned a boy who was rude to him. The ghost of swift-footed Achilles, Hector’s killer, was said to appear in a whirlwind on the battlefield. But Maximus of Tyre wrote in Dissertations that Achilles spent the afterlife with Helen of Troy on the White Isle in the Black Sea, somewhere near the mouth of the River Danube. Noises of war were reputedly heard there at night, and passing sailors reported seeing a fair-haired youth in golden armour performing a war dance on the shore.
Roman emperors, especially those who died a violent death, were also likely to make ghostly reappearances. In his Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius writes that several times after Caligula’s assassination in AD 41 he appeared in Rome’s Lamian Gardens, where his body had been hastily buried. The haunting ceased when his sisters reinterred him with the proper ceremonies. The Emperor Nero was also said to walk in the city as late as AD 1099, more than 1,000 years after his death. He rested quietly only after a church was built over his tomb.