Although Halloween (or whatever variation you wish to call it), is a day that originates in Celtic and Christian traditions after the end of what we conceive of as the ancient Roman world, that doesn’t mean the Romans didn’t enjoy a good spooky story. Tied up within the various rites and practices of paganism and polytheism that dominated the ancient world were numerous superstitions, tales of transformation, and the threat of falling under the spell of a witch. Perhaps one of the best known examples of the latter comes from the second century AD writer Apuleius, whose novel The Golden Ass follows the adventures (and mis-adventures) of a man who is turned into an ass by a witch of Thessaly.
One of the most common themes is a straight-forward ghost story. What is interesting about these is that they relate directly to burial practices and observed rituals. In both stories that follow, the ghost is haunting his resting place, which is one that has been created without the completion of the necessary rites.
Suetonius Caligula 69
‘He lived twenty-nine years and ruled three years, ten months and eight days. His body was conveyed secretly to the gardens of the Lamian family, where it was partly consumed on a hastily erected pyre and buried beneath a light covering of turf; later his sisters on their return from exile dug it up, cremated it, and consigned it to the tomb. Before this was done, it was well known that the caretakers of the gardens were disturbed by ghosts, and that in the house where he was slain not a night passed without some fearsome apparition, until at last the house itself was destroyed by fire.’
Pliny Epistles VII.27
‘At first there was nothing but the general silence of the night; then came the clanking of iron and ragging of chains. He did not look up or stop writing, but steeled his mind to shut out the sounds. Then the noise grew louder, came nearer, was heard in the doorway, and then inside the room. He looked round, saw and recognized the ghost described to him. It stood and beckoned, as if summoning him. Athenodorus in his turn signed to it to wait a little, and again bent over his notes and pen, while it stood rattling its chains over his head as he wrote. He looked round again and saw it beckoning as before, so without further delay he picked up his lamp and followed. It moved slowly, as if weighed down with chains, and when it turned off into the courtyard of the house it suddenly vanished, leaving him alone. He then picked some plants and leaves and marked the spot. The following day he approached the magistrates, and advised them to give orders for the place to be dug up. Here they found bones, twisted round with chains, which were left bare and corroded by the fetters when time and the action of the soil had rotted away the body. The bones were collected and given a public burial, and after the shade had been duly laid to rest the house saw them no more.’
Slightly more disturbing is the idea of the raising of the dead. Although the idea of a zombie is a wholly modern one (the word was first used only in the nineteenth century), Romans did write of the re-animation of corpses, as was practiced by witches. Sextus Pompey, son of the great commander, wishing to know the future and the outcome of the Battle of Pharsalus, tracks down the most powerful witch in Thessaly, Erictho, to help him divine the future.
Lucan Civil War VI .624-673
‘Thus spake the hag
And through redoubled night, a squalid veil
Swathing her pallid features, stole among
Unburied carcases. Fast fled the wolves,
The carrion birds with maw unsatisfied
Relaxed their talons, as with creeping step
She sought her prophet. Firm must be the flesh
As yet, though cold in death, and firm the lungs
Untouched by wound. Now in the balance hung
The fates of slain unnumbered; had she striven
Armies to raise and order back to life
Whole ranks of warriors, the laws had failed
Of Erebus; and, summoned up from Styx,
Its ghostly tenants had obeyed her call,
And rising fought once more. At length the witch
Picks out her victim with pierced throat agape
Fit for her purpose. Gripped by pitiless hook
O’er rocks she drags him to the mountain cave
Accursed by her fell rites, that shall restore
The dead man’s life. Close to the hidden brink
The land that girds the precipice of hell
Sinks towards the depths: with ever falling leaves
A wood o’ershadows, and a spreading yew
Casts shade impenetrable. Foul decay
Fills all the space, and in the deep recess
Darkness unbroken, save by chanted spells,
Reigns ever. Not where gape the misty jaws
Of caverned Taenarus, the gloomy bound
Of either world, through which the nether kings
Permit the passage of the dead to earth,
So poisonous, mephitic, hangs the air.
Nay, though the witch had power to call the shades
Forth from the depths, ’twas doubtful if the cave
Were not a part of hell. Discordant hues
Flamed on her garb as by a fury worn;
Bare was her visage, and upon her brow
Dread vipers hissed, beneath her streaming locks
In sable coils entwined. But when she saw
The youth’s companions trembling, and himself
With eyes cast down, with visage as of death,
Thus spake the witch: ‘ Forbid your craven souls
‘These fears to cherish: soon returning life
‘This frame shall quicken, and in tones which reach
Even the timorous ear shall speak the man.
‘If I have power the Stygian lakes to show,
The bank that sounds with fire, the fury band,
‘And giants fettered, and the hound that shakes
‘Bristling with heads of snakes his triple head,
What fear is this that cringes at the sight
Of timid shivering shades? ”
Needless to say, it probably didn’t require a re-animated corpse to see that things weren’t going to end well for the Pompey family.
Cemeteries, in the ancient world much like today, were also the focus of odd nocturnal activities. Both Martial (Epigrams 1.34 and 3.93) and Apuleius (Met. 4.18) wrote about whores and thieves operating in cemeteries. Tombs offered hiding places for both stolen goods, and for entertaining clients. Witches also frequented burial areas, stealing bones and ashes from tombs or corpses from the funeral pyre (Tib. 1.11.41-48, Horace Epod. 5.15-24, and Lucan Civil War 6.510-830). For Petronius, it is also a place where one migth witness a startling transformation from man to wolf.
Petronius Satryicon 62
‘We got among the tombstones; my man went aside to look at the epitaphs, I sat down with my heart full of song and began to count the graves. Then when I looked round at my friend, he stripped himself and put all his clothes by the roadside. My heart was in my mouth, but I stood like a dead man. He made a ring of water round his clothes and suddenly turned into a wolf. Please do not think I am joking; I would not lie about this for any fortune in the world. But as I was saying, after he had turned into a wolf, he began to howl, and ran off into the woods. At first I hardly knew where I was, then I went to take up his clothes; but they had all turned to stone. No one could be more dead with terror than I was. But I drew my sword and went slaying shadows all the way till I came to my love’s house. I went in like a corpse, and nearly gave up the ghost, the sweat ran down my legs, my eyes were dull, I could hardly be revived. My dear Melissa was surprised at my being out so late, and said, “If you had come earlier you might at least have helped us; a wolf got into the farm and worried all our sheep, and let their blood like a butcher. But he did not make fools of us, even though he got off; for our slave made a hole in his neck with a spear.” When I heard this, I could not keep my eyes shut any longer, but at break of day I rushed back to my master Gaius’s house like a defrauded publican, and when I came to the place where the clothes were turned to stone, I found nothing but a pool of blood. But when I reached home, my soldier was lying in bed like an ox, with a doctor looking after his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I never could sit down to a meal with him afterwards, not if you had killed me first. Other people may think what they like about this; but may all your guardian angels punish me if I am lying.’
Pliny the Elder also wrote about werewolves, but he, in his usual pragmatic manner, finds these tales wholly ridiculous, and puts them down to the overactive imagination of the Greeks.
Pliny Natural History 8.34
‘That men have been turned into wolves, and again restored to their original form, we must confidently look upon as untrue, unless, indeed, we are ready to believe all the tales, which, for so many ages, have been found to be fabulous. But, as the belief of it has become so firmly fixed in the minds of the common people, as to have caused the term ‘Versipellis‘ to be used as a common form of imprecation, I will here point out its origin. Euanthes, a Grecian author of no mean reputation, informs us that the Arcadians assert that a member of the family of one Anthus is chosen by lot, and then taken to a certain lake in that district, where, after suspending his clothes on an oak, he swims across the water and goes away into the desert, where he is changed into a wolf and associates with other animals of the same species for a space of nine years. If he has kept himself from beholding a man during the whole of that time, he returns to the same lake, and, after swimming across it, resumes his original form, only with the addition of nine years in age to his former appearance. To this Fabius adds, that he takes his former clothes as well. It is really wonderful to what a length the credulity of the Greeks will go! There is no falsehood, if ever so barefaced, to which some of them cannot be found to bear testimony.
So too, Agriopas, who wrote the Olympionics, informs us that Demænetus, the Parrhasian, during a sacrifice of human victims, which the Arcadians were offering up to the Lycæan Jupiter, tasted the entrails of a boy who had been slaughtered; upon which he was turned into a wolf, but, ten years afterwards, was restored to his original shape and his calling of an athlete, and returned victorious in the pugilistic contests at the Olympic games.’
Considering some other practices the Romans engaged in, particularly regarding the rites of the dead, and in conjunction with their obvious appeal for a scary story or two, I can’t help but think that the ancient Romans would have quite enjoyed the idea of Halloween, and especially would have recognised aspects of Día de Muertos as akin to their own rituals. So today, I suggest you scatter some beans as in the practice of Lemuria to ward off evil spirits, and watch a scary film in honour of Halloween. Just don’t forget the chocolate.