Fear of Ghosts in Imperial Rome

Pliny, Natural History 27.98

“For treatment against night terrors and fear of ghosts it is suggested that a string of big teeth will help”

contra nocturnos pavores umbrarumque terrorem unus e magnis dentibus lino alligatus succurrere narratur.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 82.16

“Death should be hated more than it is customarily. For we believe many things about death. There has been a struggle among geniuses to increase its bad reputation. The world below is depicted as a prison and the region is oppressed by eternal night where:

“The huge guardian of death / laying upon half-eaten bones in his gory cave / horrifies the bloodless ghosts with eternal barking”*

Even if you can persuade someone that these are stories and that there is nothing there for the dead to fear, another fright comes over you. For they fear going to the underworld no less than they fear going nowhere.”

Mors contemni debet magis quam solet. Multa enim de illa credidimus. Multorum ingeniis certatum est ad augendam eius infamiam. Descriptus est carcer infernus et perpetua nocte oppressa regio, in qua

Ingens ianitor Orci

Ossa super recubans antro semesa cruento,

Aeternum latrans exsangues terreat umbras.

Etiam cum persuaseris istas fabulas esse nec quicquam defunctis superesse, quod timeant, subit alius metus. Aeque enim timent, ne apud inferos sint, quam ne nusquam.

*From Vergil’s Aeneid.

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Always Think about Death: Seneca is the Worst Pen-pal

Seneca, Moral Epistle 30.17-18

“If we want to clarify the causes of our fear, we will discover that some are there and others only seem to exist. We do not fear death, but the thought of death. For we are always distant by some degree from death. Thus, if death must be feared, it should always be feared. For what portion of our time is free from death?

But I ought to fear that you fear the length of this letter more than death. So, I will bring it to an end. Nevertheless, think about death always so that you may not fear it. Farewell.

Si distinguere voluerimus causas metus nostri, inveniemus alias esse, alias videri. Non mortem timemus, sed cogitationem mortis. Ab ipsa enim semper tantundem absumus. Ita si timenda mors est, semper timenda est. Quod enim morti tempus exemptum est?

Sed vereri debeo, ne tam longas epistulas peius quam mortem oderis. Itaque finem faciam. Tu tamen mortem ut numquam timeas, semper cogita. Vale.


Seneca, Moral Epistle 65

“Let us be brave in adverse fortune. Let us not fear injury, wounds, chains, or poverty. What is death? It is either the end or a transformation. I do not fear ending, it is the same as never having begun. Nor do I fear transformation, because I will not ever be as constrained as I am now. Farewell.”

Fortes simus adversus fortuita. Non contremescamus iniurias, non vulnera, non vincula, non egestatem. Mors quid est? Aut finis aut transitus. Nec desinere timeo, idem est enim, quod non coepisse, nec transire, quia nusquam tam anguste ero. Vale.

Image result for Ancient Roman Memento Mori

Seneca, Moral Epistles 115.5-6

“But if you are wise, measure all things by the human condition. Control both how you delight and how you fear. It is, indeed, worth much to delight in nothing too long so that you might not fear for too long. But why do I narrowly define this ill? There is nothing which you should think must be feared. All these things which trouble us, which keep us worried, they are empty. No one of us has sounded out what is true, but instead we entrust fear to one another. No one of us has dared to address what really bothers us, to recognize the nature and the good of fear. For this reason what is false and empty still have credence, because they are not countered. Let us consider it worthwhile to train our eyes on this: how brief, how uncertain, how anodyne are the things we fear.”

Sed si sapis, omnia humana condicione metire; simul et quod gaudes et quod times, contrahe. Est autem tanti nihil diu gaudere, ne quid diu timeas. Sed quare istuc malum adstringo? Non est quod quicquam timendum putes. Vana sunt ista, quae nos movent, quae attonitos habent. Nemo nostrum quid veri esset, excussit, sed metum alter alteri tradidit; nemo ausus est ad id, quo perturbabatur, accedere et naturam ac bonum timoris sui nosse. Itaque res falsa et inanis habet adhuc fidem, quia non coarguitur. Tanti putemus oculos intendere; iam apparebit, quam brevia, quam incerta, quam tuta timeantur.

Seneca goes on to cite a little bit of the following passage from Lucretius. Here’s more.

Lucretius 2.53-61

“But what if we see that these things are ridiculous and contemptible,
that, in truth, man’s fear and lurking anxiety
do not shudder at the sound of arms or fierce weapons
or when they bravely move among kings and the world’s rulers
if they do not revere the shine of gold or
turn at the bright shine of purple fabrics—
why do you doubt that real power is wholly the province of reason
especially when life labors completely in the shadows?
For just as children tremble at anything and
jump at dark shadows, so we remain afraid in the light
of things which should not be feared any more
than boys grow pale at shadows in imagining future dangers.
We must therefore dispel the mind’s fear and shadows
Not with a ray of sunshine or the clear shafts of day
But through nature’s clear vision and reason.”

quod si ridicula haec ludibriaque esse videmus,
re veraque metus hominum curaeque sequaces
nec metuunt sonitus armorum nec fera tela
audacterque inter reges rerumque potentis 50
versantur neque fulgorem reverentur ab auro
nec clarum vestis splendorem purpureai,
quid dubitas quin omnis sit haec rationis potestas,
omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret?
nam vel uti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis 55
in tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus
inter dum, nihilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam
quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura.
hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
non radii solis neque lucida tela diei 60
discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

 Reading this passage made me think of the “Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear” which shows up early in Herbert’s Dune (and yes, there was a time I had this memorized as a child):

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain


#DeadClassics Party: A Wonderful, Terrible Idea

P. Oxy. 1485.

“The Exegete would love for you to dine today, the ninth day, at the temple of Demeter at the seventh hour”

Ἐρωτᾷ σαι διπν[ῆ-]σαι ὁ ἐξηγητὴ[ς] ἐν τῷ Δημητρίῳ σήμερον ἥτις ἐσ-τὶν θ ἀπὸ ὥρ(ας) ζ.

Today we started something a little silly (after being serious for a few hours this morning). I think I was hungry, but I tweeted the following:

As you can probably imagine, the responses were fast coming, erudite and funny. I probably should have not been surprised by the eagerness of the responses. Unlike the other classics game which requires and even prizes a knowledge of the obscure–where people talk about the lost texts from antiquity–this one is fair game for almost anyone.

And it also has the imprint of antiquity: think of all the banquets that are settings for the remains of ancient literature, the Symposia of Xenophon and Plato, Petronius’ absurd feast, the imagined, endless meals of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists and Plutarch’s Dinner of the Seven Wise Men. Who doesn’t fantasize about a perfect, endless, raucous meal?

Seneca, Contr. 9.11

“A man was killed so that this asshole might dine more pleasantly with his girlfriend?”

Ut iste cum amica cenaret iucundius homo occisus est.

Martial, 2.18

“Eh, I am ashamed, but I’m looking, I’m looking for a your dinner invitation, Maximus.
And you’re looking for a different one. Now, for once, we are equal.”

Capto tuam, pudet heu, sed capto, Maxime, cenam.
tu captas aliam: iam sumus ergo pares.

Image result for Ancient dinner party

Here are just a few below. I storified the first few hours’ worth

Here are just a few tweets, to get you going.


Everyone knows that Catullus made the best dinner invitation ever. Here’s a post about Simonides’ memory and a disastrous dinner.

True Wealth: Happiness in Poverty

Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium 1.4:

“Do you know what limits the law of nature would fix for us? Not to feel hunger, thirst, or pain. To dispel hunger and thirst, it is not necessary to sit at the thresholds of fat-cats, not to suffer a weighty brow or even the insulting mass of humanity; nor is it necessary to try your luck on the sea or enlist as a soldier. What Nature wants is easily gotten and ready to hand. All of the sweating in life is over unnecessary trifles – those things which wear out a toga, which compel us to grow old under a tent, which push us to foreign shores. There lies at our fingertips what is enough. The one who finds poverty agreeable is rich indeed.”

Lex autem illa naturae scis quos nobis terminos statuat? Non esurire, non sitire, non algere. Ut famem sitimque depellas non est necesse superbis assidere liminibus nec supercilium grave et contumeliosam etiam humanitatem pati, non est necesse maria temptare nec sequi castra: parabile est quod natura desiderat et appositum. [11] Ad supervacua sudatur; illa sunt quae togam conterunt, quae nos senescere sub tentorio cogunt, quae in aliena litora impingunt: ad manum est quod sat est. Cui cum paupertate bene convenit dives est. Vale.


Cicero, Opportunist or Hypocrite

This is the rhetorical climax of a fragmentary speech, the beginning of which I posted last month.

Pseudo-Sallust, Against Cicero

“I ask you, Arpinian Romulus, you who have outpaced all the Pauli, Fabii and Scipios with your exceptional virtue, what place then do you possess in this state? What faction of the republic pleases you? Who is your friend, who is your enemy? The one against whom you intrigued in the state, now you’re his errand boy. You attack the man who demanded that you come back from exile in Dyrrachium. The men you used to call tyrants, now you uphold their power; those who seemed optimates to you before you now call rash psychopaths. You argue cases for Vatinius; you think poorly of Sestius. You assail Bibulus with the most childish words while you praise Caesar. You most sedulously serve the man you hate most! You stand believing one thing and then sit thinking something different about the republic. You slander some, you hate others. You move lightly, keeping your promise neither here nor there.”

Oro te, Romule Arpinas, qui egregia tua virtute omnis Paulos, Fabios, Scipiones superasti, quem tandem locum in hac civitate obtines? quae tibi partes rei publicae placent? quem amicum, quem inimicum habes? cui in civitate insidias fecisti, <ei>17 ancillaris. quo auctore18 de exsilio tuo Dyrrachio redisti, eum <in>sequeris. quos tyrannos appellabas, eorum potentiae faves; qui tibi ante optimates videbantur, eosdem dementes ac furiosos vocas. Vatini causam agis, de Sestio male existimas. Bibulum petulantissimis verbis laedis, laudas Caesarem. quem maxime odisti, ei maxime obsequeris. aliud stans, aliud sedens sentis de re publica. his male dicis, illos odisti, levissime transfuga, neque in hac neque in illa parte fidem

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The Accidental Birth of Demogorgon

C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

“Before leaving Statius I cannot forbear adding a paragraph(which the incurious are invited to skip) on a mere curiosity. In the fourth Book of the Thebaid he alludes to a deity he will not name-‘the sovereign of the threefold world ‘ (516). The same anonymous power is probably meant in Lucan’s Pharsalia (vi, 744) where the witch, conjuring a reluctant ghost back into the corpse, threatens it with Him

quo numquam terra vocato
Non concussa tremit, qui Gorgona cernit apertam.

Lactantius in his commentary on the Thebaid says that Statius ‘ means δημιουργόν, the god whose name it is unlawful to know’. This is plain sailing: the demiurge (workman) being the Creator in the Timaeus. But there are two variants in the manuscripts; one is demogorgona, the other demogorgon. From the latter of these corruptions later ages evolved a completely new deity, Demogorgon, who was to enjoy a distinguished literary career in Boccaccio’ s Genealogy of the Gods, in Spenser, in Milton, and in Shelley. This is perhaps the only time a scribal blunder underwent an apotheosis.”

Education, Degraded to a Trade

Mark Pattison, Suggestions on Academical Organisation

“For teaching, there is required a persuasion, as well as for advocacy, though of a different kind. The highest education cannot be given through a literature or a science which has no other than an educational value. Classical learning, or Greek and Latin, is often spoken of by its advocates in this country as if it had no intrinsic value, as if it was an instrument of training and nothing more. If this were the case, Greek and Latin, however proper a matter for school discipline, would not be an adequate subject of the superior education. The university is hereby distinguished from the school, that the pupil here takes leave of disciplinal studies, and enters upon real knowledge. The further consideration of this distinction belongs to the section on ‘Studies;’ it only concerns us here as it points to a difference between the school teacher and the university teacher. The student comes to the university to enter upon the studies of men, to grapple with those thoughts which are occupying the men of the time. He is the apprentice of a faculty which is to introduce him into the real business of life. The teacher here cannot be content with knowing a little more than his pupil, with reading ahead of him; he must be a master in the faculty. Our weakness of late years has been that we have not felt this; we have known no higher level of knowledge than so much as sufficed for teaching. Hence, education among us has sunk into a trade, and, like trading sophists, we have not cared to keep on hand a larger stock than we could dispose of in the season. Our Faculties have dried up, have become dissociated from professional practice at one end, and from scientific investigation on the other, and degrees in them have lost all value but a social one. The intrinsic value of knowledge being thus lost sight of, and its pursuit being no longer a recognised profession, it is easy to see how the true relations of teacher and learner have become distorted or inverted. The masters of arts, the heads and fellows of the colleges, who constituted the university, and who were maintained here ‘to godliness and good learning,’ have become subordinate to the uses of the students, for whom alone all our arrangements are now made. It is because our own life here is wanting in scientific dignity, in intellectual purpose, in the ennobling influences of the pursuit of knowledge, that it is owing that our action upon the young is so feeble. The trading teacher, whatever disguise he may assume whether he call himself professor or tutor is the mere servant of his young master. But true education is the moulding of the mind and character of the rising generation by the generation that now is. We cannot communicate that which we have not got. To make others anything, we must first be it ourselves.”

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