CHAPTER XXIII. THE LAST SCENE OF ALL - BURIAL AND TOMBS
Whatever conceptions may have been entertained as to existence beyond the grave, there was no doubt in the Roman mind as to the claim of the dead to a proper burial and a worthy monument. It had once on a time been a matter of universal belief that the spirit which had departed from an unburied corpse could find no admittance to the company in the realms of Hades. It could not join "the majority" below. Originally no doubt the notion was simply that, as the body had not been consigned to the earth, the spirit also remained homeless above ground. Gradually this fancy shifted to the notion that, through neglect of burial, the dead man was dishonoured - he had no friends - and that his spirit was thereby disgraced and unworthy of reception by the powers beneath. It must therefore remain shivering on the near side of the river across which the grim Charon ferried the more fortunate souls. Even when the body had been decently buried, the spirit, though received into the gloomy realm, called for continued respect on the part of its friends on earth. Unless it received its periodical honours and was commemorated by a fitting sepulchre, it would meet with slights from other ghosts and would feel its position keenly. Naturally it would then do its best, by some form of haunting, to punish the living for their disregard and forgetfulness. From such considerations there arose in very ancient days in Italy, as in Greece, a great anxiety to perform scrupulously "the dues" of the defunct. Even if the body could not be found, it was obligatory to perform the obsequies and to build a cenotaph. If a stranger came across a dead body he must not pass it by without throwing at least three handfuls of dust or earth upon it and bidding it "Farewell."
Though the burial customs still employed sprang from old fancies like these, we are not to suppose that such notions were in full life in the Roman world of our period. Poets might play with them, and some ignorant folk might still vaguely entertain them. The mere belief in ghosts was doubtless general, and even the learned argued the question of their existence. Here are parts of another letter culled from Pliny already several times quoted. He writes to his friend Sura: "I should very much like to know whether you think that apparitions actually exist, with a real shape of their own and a kind of supernatural power, or that it is only our fear which gives an embodiment to vain fancies. My own inclination is to believe in them, and chiefly because of an experience which, I am told, befell Curtius Rufus." He then speaks of a phantom form which prophesied that person's fortune. "Another occurrence, quite as wonderful and still more terrifying, I will relate as I was told it. There was at Athens a house which was roomy and commodious, but which bore an ill-name and was plague-stricken. In the silence of the night there was heard a sound of iron. On closer attention it proved to be a rattling of chains, first at a distance and then close at hand. Soon there appeared the spectre of an old man, miserably thin and squalid, with a long beard and unkempt hair. On his legs were fetters, and on his hands chains, which he kept shaking. In consequence the inhabitants spent horrible and sleepless nights; the sleeplessness made them ill, and, as their terror increased, the illness was followed by death.... As a result the house was deserted and totally abandoned to the ghost. Nevertheless it was advertised, on the chance that some one ignorant of all this trouble" (note the commercial morality) "might choose to buy it or rent it. To Athens there comes a philosopher named Athenodorus, who reads the placard. On hearing the price and finding it so cheap, he has his suspicions" (the ancient philosopher had his practical side), "makes enquiry, and learns the whole story. So far from being less inclined to hire it, he is only the more willing. On the approach of evening he gives orders for his couch to be made up in the front part of the house, and asks for his tablets, pencils, and a light. After dismissing his attendants to the back rooms, he applies all his attention, as well as his eyes and hand, steadily to his writing, for fear his mind, if unoccupied, might conjure up imaginary sounds and causeless fears. At first there was the same silence of the night as elsewhere; then there was a shaking of iron, a movement of chains. The philosopher refused to lift his eyes or stop his pencil; instead he braced up his mind so as to overcome his hearing. The noise grew louder; it approached; it sounded as if on the threshold; then as if within the room. He looks behind him; sees and recognises the apparition of which he has been told. It was standing and beckoning to him with its finger, as if calling him. In answer our friend makes it a sign with his hand to wait a while, and once more applies himself to tablet and pencil. The ghost began to rattle its chains over his head while he was writing. He looks behind him again, sees it making the same signal as before, and promptly picks up the light and follows. It goes at a slow pace, as if burdened with chains, then, after turning into the open yard of the house, it suddenly vanishes and leaves him by himself. At this he gathers some grass and leaves, and marks the spot with them. The next day he goes to the magistrates and urges them to dig up the spot in question; and they find bones tangled with chains through which they were passed... These they put together and bury at the public charge. The spirit being thus duly, laid, the house was henceforward free of them."