When Ghostbusting Amounts to Cruelty

Danielle Bostick |

In a Roman Law Court, A Wife Sues Her Husband For Hiring a Magician To Get Rid of a Ghost

 The Memento Mori mosaic, Naples Archaeological Museum.The Memento Mori mosaic, Naples Archaeological Museum.

There is no shortage of ghost stories in ancient Roman literature. Most involve fictional accounts of the spirits of the unburied haunting the living. The appearance of ghosts can serve as an entertaining anecdote, as is the case with Pliny’s tale of a house haunted by the spirit of a man who did not receive a proper burial (also the subject of a charming Magister Craft video suitable for novice Latinists). It can also be a plot device in a larger narrative, such as Aeneas’ encounter with the spirit of Hector during the fall of Troy in Book Two of the Aeneid. If you are looking for a unique ghost story to read or share with students, Quintilian’s tenth Greater Declamation (or Pseudo-Quintilian’s; many scholars now do not believe Quintilian wrote the Declamationes Maiores) is an engaging story with a very unique angle.

In this work once attributed to Quintilian, the author writes about the ghost of a young man who haunted his mother. What sets this piece apart from other ancient Roman texts on ghosts is that the haunting is not a plot device or the subject of philosophical contemplation. Instead, it is the subject of a lawsuit. The mother sues her husband for mistreatment (mala tractatio) after her husband hires a sorcerer to banish the ghost, resulting in an unique, painful double loss — once through his death, and again through ghost-busting (sola omnium supra fidem infelix in uno filio iam alteram patitur orbitatem (“alone of all people she was unlucky beyond belief, now enduring in one son a second loss of a child” (1)). The second loss was even worse than the initial loss because, in her words to her son, “after your death I saw you” (post mortem te tuam vidi, (12)).

The impetus for the visits is different than most hauntings recounted in ancient Roman literature. Normally, it is the unburied who experience post-mortem unrest and visit the living. Here, the son has received a proper funeral and still does not remain at rest in his tomb. Even though the visits from her son provided the mother enjoyment and a sense of relief, her husband secures the services of a sorcerer in order to keep their son in his tomb by casting a spell (horrido murmure imperiosisque verbis (7)) and securing the tomb with chains. Both practices had precedent in ancient Rome, but were generally reserved for the spirits of people who had experienced some form of perimortem mutilation or were considered predisposed to seeking vengeance among the living. The author of this declamation addresses this very issue, listing the kinds of circumstances that usually necessitate the services of a necromancer:

Tu sic filium tuum clusisti, tamquam nocentes ad inferos revocari soleant animae, quae inter languentium familiam et tristes penatium morbos vagae errantesque magica sanitate captantur. laqueone vitam damnatus eliserat, noxium per sua viscera exegerat ferrum, an ex conscientia venena praesumpserat, nec recipiebat se nisi carmine inclusus? quando domum tuam funereus et squalidus, quando te terruit?
You have imprisoned your son in the same way you would if you were dealing with guilty spirits called back to hell, who wandering among their weak family and disease-afflicted household are captured by incantations. Had he hung himself after he was convicted? Had he driven a murder weapon through his gut or poisoned himself because of a guilty conscience, unable to get back unless he was restrained by a spell? When was he moving about your house destructive and squalid? When did he frighten you? (16)

Hence, in addition to the formal charge of cruelty, the author insinuates that the husband has sullied his son’s reputation by resorting to measures reserved for pernicious ghosts: crudelissime omnium pater, de filio tuo malam umbram fecisti (“cruelest father of them all, you have made a bad ghost of your son!” (16)). As a final blow, the author brings up the possibility that the son blames the mother for these actions:

quid? ‘illa mater, ad quam ire consueveras, has tibi catenas, haec vincula pro merito reddidit?’ ita infelicissima omnium mulier, et si magus etiam recedat, hoc periclitatur, ne filius se putet venisse ad invitam.
“What? Did the mother you visited pay you back with these chains and clamps?” Most miserable of all women, even if the spell should be broken, there would still be the risk that her son would think that he had visited a mother who did not want to see him.

The modern, ghost-skeptical reader is probably more comfortable with a story designed to entertain than an account of court proceedings predicated on the idea of the reality of a ghost. After all, the predominant worldview in the United States privileges rationality and tends to frame supernatural encounters as a symptom of mental illness, reaction to psychological stressors, or function of a social or intellectual deficit. Only 18% of Americans believe they have seen a ghost and over half say ghosts do not exist. In research related to mental health, there is a strong tendency to medicalize visits from ghosts as symptoms related to trauma. Authors of a 2020 article, for example, surmised that encounters with ghosts were “a key part of the trauma ontology among Cambodian refugees” and found that “the severity of being bothered by ghosts” increased in proportion to the severity of PTSD. Similarly, survivors of childhood abuse have been found more likely to adopt paranormal belief systems since, according to researchers, it may provide a “sense of control” and “powerful emotional refuge.” In the absence of trauma, scholars over the years have also linked belief in the paranormal to schizophrenic traits, cognitive deficits, social marginality, and lower educational attainment.

Anticipating skepticism from his audience, the author asserts that it does not matter if the ghost is objectively real. At the beginning of the declamation, he asserts that it is the mother’s belief in the ghost that legitimizes the loss, not the legitimacy of the ghost itself (multum perdidit mater, si contingebat hoc illi, non minus, si videbatur, (“the mother has lost much,if this was happening to her; but not less if it only appeared so” (2)). The author also shares the husband’s position is that his wife’s grief has caused her to hallucinate. When asked, “Would you have locked up your son if he had visited you?” (tu clusisses filium, etiam si ad te veniret?), the husband insists, “The magician did not imprison a ghost; he relieved you of your delusion. The reason you think that he is no longer visiting is because he wasn’t visiting you to begin with” (nec magis inclusit umbram, sed persuasioni tuae succurrit, ideoque putas non venire illum, quia nec ante veniebat (18)).

Despite the allowance of the possibility that the ghost might have been only a hallucination, it is clear the premise of this lawsuit is based on the actual existence of the ghost. The author presents the idea that ghosts reward the bereaved with their presence, visiting the living because they are impressed by their grief, not as grief-generated figment of the imagination. In fact, the deceased perceive and judge the emotional reactions of mourners at their funerals and urges his audience to be even more effusive in their grief to inspire post-mortem visits:

Cum inter gementis iacet medium cadaver, et cum omnis videtur remisisse curas, tunc sentit aliquid et intellegit et inter suos iudicat. moneo te, orbitas, moneo, effusius fleas, effusius efferas, numquam perisse credas. filii sui umbra cui non apparet, irascitur.
When a corpse lies among the groaning mourners, and when it seems to have put away all cares, it still has sense and understanding and makes judgements among its people. I warn you, all you who are bereaved, cry more abundantly, make a greater to-do at funerals, do not believe your children are entirely gone. When the shade of a child does not appear before someone, it is angry at her. (10.3)

This theory is played out in this oration, as the author writes, “The ghost that came to her was not fabricated by a mourner’s unfounded delusion or belief, and it was not a false image that was stirring up untrustworthy dreams” (non inani persuasione nec cogitationibus ficta lugentis umbra veniebat, nec agitabat incertos levis imago somnos (7)). Instead, the son visited his mother since she missed him more than his father, who felt no emotion at the loss and is described as having a heart of iron:

Igitur, iudices, nemo miretur, si ad tuam crudelem, ad tam immitem patrem umbra non venit. sciebat, ubi lacrimas, ubi posset invenire singultus, a quo magis desideraretur. namque isti ferreum pectus et dura praecordia, nec sunt de orbitate sensus.
Therefore, judges, no one would be surprised if a ghost did not come to such a cruel and unfeeling father. He knew where he could find tears and sobs, he knew who missed him most. For the father has an iron heart and emotions of stone, and no feelings about the loss of his child. (3)

The husband’s callousness, which is presented as a character flaw elsewhere in the passage, is framed as the reason he denies the existence of ghosts:

Agit iam hoc loco nobiscum maritus gravius, altius, sapientius, ut homo sine dolore; negat ullos esse manes, contendit omnia perire cum corpore.
Now at this point the husband does something weightier, loftier, wiser, as a man who doesn’t experience grief; he says ghosts don’t exist, contends that everything dies with the body.” (16).

The husband’s position, however, is undermined by the event that prompted the trial. Why would he retain the services of a necromancer if he didn’t believe in ghosts? Quod si ita est, magum ad quid advocavit? (16).

The tenth of the Greater Declamations is a worthwhile read as a standalone piece, but it also presents an opportunity to consider how variances in attitudes about belief in the supernatural across time and cultures. In modern literature, spectrality has been deployed as a literary device to convey the post-traumatic experience in both individuals and communities (Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jesamyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied Sing are apt examples). And outside of the United States, belief in ghosts is less marginalized. In Vietnam, for example, encounters with ghosts are a cultural phenomenon acknowledged by “the highest levels in Vietnam as both real and a problem,” according to the late anthropologist Mai Lan Gustafson. Declamatio Maior 10 not only tells a compelling story, but it invites the reader to suspend skepticism and engage with the supernatural in a different way than most accounts of ghosts in ancient Roman literature allow.


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Danielle Bostick

Dani Bostick has over 15 years of experience teaching high school Latin and is also a former mental health counselor. She writes and presents on the congruence between traditional Classics education and white supremacy.


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