Pliny Tells Ghost Stories

June 22, 2020

Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113). Letters.
Vol. 9, pp. 311-314 of The Harvard Classics

Pliny, who lived in the first century after Christ, tells of a ghost who dragged his jangling chains through a house in Athens and so terrified the inmates that they fled panic-stricken. But the ghost met his equal.

LXXII. To Maximus

YOU did perfectly right in promising a gladiatorial combat to our good friends the citizens of Verona, who have long loved, looked up to, and honoured you; while it was from that city too you received that amiable object of your most tender affection, your late excellent wife. And since you owed some monument or public representation to her memory, what other spectacle could you have exhibited more appropriate to the occasion? Besides, you were so unanimously pressed to do so that to have refused would have looked more like hardness than resolution. The readiness too with which you granted their petition, and the magnificent manner in which you performed it, is very much to your honour; for a greatness of soul is seen in these smaller instances, as well as in matters of higher moment. I wish the African panthers, which you had largely provided for this purpose, had arrived on the day appointed, but though they were delayed by the stormy weather, the obligation to you is equally the same, since it was not your fault that they were not exhibited. Farewell.

LXXIII. To Restitutus

THIS obstinate illness of yours alarms me; and though I know how extremely temperate you are, yet I fear lest your disease should get the better of your moderation. Let me entreat you then to resist it with a determined abstemiousness: a remedy, be assured, of all others the most laudable as well as the most salutary. Human nature itself admits the practicability of what I recommend: it is a rule, at least, which I always enjoin my family to observe with respect to myself. “I hope,” I say to them, “that should I be attacked with any disorder, I shall desire nothing of which I ought either to be ashamed or have reason to repent; however, if my distemper should prevail over my resolution, I forbid that anything be given me but by the consent of my physicians; and I shall resent your compliance with me in things improper as much as another man would their refusal.” I once had a most violent fever; when the fit was a little abated, and I had been anointed, 1 my physician offered me something to drink; I held out my hand, desiring he would first feel my pulse, and upon his not seeming quite satisfied, I instantly returned the cup, though it was just at my lips. Afterwards, when I was preparing to go into the bath, twenty days from the first attack of my illness, perceiving the physicians whispering together, I enquired what they were saying. They replied they were of opinion I might possibly bathe with safety; however, that they were not without some suspicion of risk. “What need is there,” said I, “of my taking a bath at all?” And so, with perfect calmness and tranquillity, I gave up a pleasure I was upon the point of enjoying, and abstained from the bath as serenely and composedly as though I were going into it. I mention this, not only by way of enforcing my advice by example, but also that this letter may be a sort of tie upon me to persevere in the same resolute abstinence for the future. Farewell.

Note 1. Unction was much esteemed and prescribed by the ancients. Celsus expressly recommends it in the remission of acute distempers: “ungi leniter que pertractari corpus, etiam in acutis et recentibus morbis oportet; in remissione tamen,” &c. Celci Med. ed. Almeloveen p. 88. M.

LXXIV. To Calpurnia

YOU 1 will not believe what a longing for you possesses me. The chief cause of this is my love; and then we have not grown used to be apart. So it comes to pass that I lie awake a great part of the night, thinking of you; and that by day, when the hours return at which I was wont to visit you, my feet take me, as it is so truly said, to your chamber, but not finding you there I return, sick and sad at heart, like an excluded lover. The only time that is free from these torments is when I am being worn out at the bar, and in the suits of my friends. Judge you what must be my life when I find my repose in toil, my solace in wretchedness and anxiety. Farewell.

Note 1. His wife.

LXXV. To Macrinus

A VERY singular and remarkable accident has happened in the affair of Varenus, 1 the result of which is yet doubtful. The Bithynians, it is said, have dropped their prosecution of him, being convinced at last that it was rashly undertaken. A deputy from that province is arrived, who has brought with him a decree of their assembly; copies of which he has delivered to Cæsar, 2 and to several of the leading men in Rome, and also to us, the advocates for Varenus. Magnus, 3 nevertheless, whom I mentioned in my last letter to you, persists in his charge, to support which he is incessantly teasing the worthy Nigrinus. This excellent person was counsel for him in his former petition to the consuls, that Varenus might be compelled to produce his accounts. Upon this occasion, as I attended Varenus merely as a friend, I determined to be silent. I thought it highly imprudent for me, as I was appointed his counsel by the senate, to attempt to defend him as an accused person, when it was his business to insist that there was actually no charge subsisting against him. However, when Nigrinus had finished his speech, the consuls turning their eyes upon me, I rose up, and “When you shall hear,” I said, “what the real deputies from the province have to object against the motion of Nigrinus, you will see that my silence was not without just reason.” Upon this Nigrinus asked me, “To whom are these deputies sent?” I replied, “To me among others; I have the decree of the province in my hands.” He returned, “That is a point which, though it may be clear to you, I am not so well satisfied of.” To this I answered, “Though it may not be so evident to you, who are concerned to support the accusation, it may be perfectly clear to me, who am on the more favourable side.” Then Polyænus, the deputy from the province, acquainted the senate with the reasons for superseding the prosecution, but desired it might be without prejudice to Cæsar’s determination. Magnus answered him; Polyænus replied; as for myself I only now and then threw in a word, observing in general a complete silence. For I have learned that upon some occasions it is as much an orator’s business to be silent as to speak, and I remember, in some criminal cases, to have done even more service to my clients by a discreet silence than I could have expected from the most carefully prepared speech. To enter into the subject of eloquence is indeed very foreign to the purpose of my letter, yet allow me to give you one instance in proof of my last observation. A certain lady, having lost her son, suspected that his freedmen, whom he had appointed coheirs with her, were guilty of forging the will and poisoning him. Accordingly she charged them with the fact before the emperor, who directed Julianus Suburanus to try the cause. I was counsel for the defendants, and the case being exceedingly remarkable, and the counsel engaged on both sides of eminent ability, it drew together a very numerous audience. The issue was, the servants being put to the torture, my clients were acquitted. But the mother applied a second time to the emperor, pretending she had discovered some new evidence. Suburanus was therefore directed to hear the cause, and see if she could produce any fresh proofs. Julius Africanus was counsel for the mother, a young man of good parts, but slender experience. He is grandson to the famous orator of that name, of whom it is reported that Passienus Crispus, hearing him one day plead, archly said, “Very fine, I must confess, very fine; but is all this fine speaking to the purpose?” Julius Africanus, I say, having made a long harangue, and exhausted the portion of time allotted to him, said, “I beg you, Suburanus, to allow me to add one word more.” When he had concluded, and the eyes of the whole assembly had been fixed a considerable time upon me, I rose up. “I would have answered Africanus,” said I, “if he had added that one word he begged leave to do, in which I doubt not he would have told us all that we had not heard before.” I do not remember to have gained so much applause by any speech that I ever made as I did in this instance by making none. Thus the little that I had hitherto said for Varenus was received with the same general approbation. The consuls, agreeably to the request of Polyænus, reserved the whole affair for the determination of the emperor, whose resolution I impatiently wait for; as that will decide whether I may be entirely secure and easy with respect to Varenus, or must again renew all my trouble and anxiety upon his account. Farewell.

Note 1. See book v. letter xx.
Note 2. Trajan.
Note 3. One of the Bithynians employed to manage the trial. M.

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