Athenodorus and the Ghost Who Waited

In one of his letters, Pliny the Younger (61/62 CE-c. 113 CE) recounts an anecdote about Athenodorus, a legendary ghost hunter. Pliny describes this figure as “a philosopher” and seems to be referring to an actual person, but we don’t know exactly who that person was. There are two main contenders: Athenodorus Cananites, who was born around 74 BCE and died in the year 7 CE, and Athenodorus Cordylion, who was an old man in 47 BCE. It’s easy to simply say they were both from the 1st century BCE. In addition, both were born near Tarsus (in what is now Turkey), and both traveled to Rome. Both were philosophers of the Stoic school. You see why they’re easily confused.

If we’re right so far, Pliny was retelling a tale set around 100 years earlier, making his “Athenodorus” something like Robin Hood: possibly based on some actual person, but so tarnished — or should I say so polished — by oral tradition as to have taken on a life of his own. There appears to be no evidence that the ghost hunt ever really happened, and when I say Athenodorus was “a legendary ghost hunter,” I mean that literally.

While Pliny’s transcription of the legend is brief, it’s also a fascinating glimpse into how Classical Rome understood ghost hunting techniques and the characteristics of an effective ghost hunter. Lately, I’ve been looking at English translations of that chunk of Pliny’s letter. William Melmoth appears to have offered one of the earliest translations in 1747. This translation was later “revised” by F.C.T. Bosanquest, and you might find that a bit easier to read. Alternatively, you might try John Delaware Lewis’s 1879 translation.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this:

There was a spacious house in Athens, one said to be haunted. Residents had heard chains clanking and saw the phantom of a withered old man. The sightings only occurred at night, but often enough to have driven away those residents. The house stood empty for a long time, no one wanting to rent or buy it — even at the cheap rate at which it became advertised.

But then Athenodorus strutted into town. Intrigued by the low price, he asked around. He learned about the ghost. That only made him more intrigued, and he agreed to take the place. On his first night, Athenodorus began his investigation. Knowing that expectation exerts a powerful influence — that humans tend to find what they want to find — he kept himself busy with something other than ghosts. He focused, instead, on a writing project.

And he stayed focused on his writing even when he started to hear the clinking of chains. The sound came nearer. And nearer. Still, Athenodorus riveted his attention to his work. Once the rattling arrived at his door, he finally glanced up to see the specter of the elderly man! That ghost was motioning for the philosopher to follow him.

Here’s where Athenodorus shows his resolve. He neither crumbled in fear nor fled from the house. He did not freeze in place. He didn’t even get up to follow the ghost! No, cool as can be, Athenodorus raised his hand and gestured for the ghost to be patient. Wait there a bit. Let me finish writing down this thought. Athenodorus went back to his pen and paper — well, his stylus and tablet.

None of the translations I found confirm this, but at this point, I like to picture the apparition tapping its phantom foot and crossing its ethereal arms.

At last, Athenodorus turned back to the ghost, followed it to a spot where the figure melted into the ground, and then marked that spot. The next day, he persuaded the officials to dig there. A skeleton wrapped in chains was found. With due ceremony, those bones were reinterred elsewhere, and the house was never again troubled by ghosts.

There’s the feeling of a parable, a fable with a moral, here. Yet there’s more than one lesson to be learned:

  • Don’t automatically fear ghosts — maybe they’re asking for help.
  • A good ghost hunter resists expectation (which is especially tough if you’ve spent $300 on ghost-hunting equipment!)
  • Don’t hesitate to ask a ghost to wait — they tend to have flexible schedules.

While rummaging through ghost-hunting chronicles from many centuries later, I’m occasionally reminded of the ending of Athenodorus’s adventure. Skeletal remains, lending credence to and explaining an alleged haunting, show up again in the Hinton Ampner case of the mid-1700s. In 1904, a skeleton was reported to have been discovered under the cabin of the Fox Sisters, and since the bones appeared about 50 years old, some saw it as supporting the sisters’ 1848 claim regarding a murdered peddler making contact with them there. In his 1918 book, The New Revelation, Arthur Conan Doyle concludes an anecdote about a poltergeist investigation he participated in by saying, “Some years afterwards, … I met a member of the family who occupied the house, and he told me that after our visit the bones of a child, evidently long buried, had been dug up in the garden.” Most likely, there are additional ghost hunting chronicles that end with the discovery of a backyard burial.

Are these hints that the legend of Athenodorus was influencing ghost hunting chronicles during those centuries when Pliny’s letters were being translated into English? Well, the legend also appears in this magazine article about ghosts, in this liberal retelling of the tale, and even in this version for children. Presumably, it appeared elsewhere, too, so it wasn’t known only to select scholars in the 1700s and 1800s. It might have had some influence on how Hinton Ampner, the Fox Sisters’ home, and Conan Doyle’s own case were remembered.

On the other hand, there might be a line of disgruntled ghosts waiting to have their hidden bones unearthed. Regardless, Athenodorus stands tall (when he gets around to standing up) as a model for ghost hunters, not just in ancient Rome, but also during the Victorian period and, to some extent, still today.

UPDATE: In this post, I dive deeper into reports of skeletal remains found at sites said to be haunted.

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