Roman Ghost Stories and Superstitions on Societal Behavior

Roman tale of a ghost from the letters of Pliny the Younger.

Roman Ghost Stories and Superstitions on Societal Behavior: Analyzing Pliny the Younger’s Letter 7.27, Petronius’ The Satyricon, and Mostellaria

By Aidan Jones    



Ancient Roman literature has commonly portrayed ghosts in a satirical sense with the use of plays and short stories; however, it is clear that ghost stories have greater effects on Roman culture and society. By analyzing Pliny the Younger’s “Letter to Sura,” Petronius’ “Dinner at Trimalchio’s” in The Satyricon, and Plautus’ Mostellaria, we can determine how these texts reflect beliefs of the supernatural and hauntings, helping us understand the societal fear associated with ghost stories. Scrutinizing these texts and the works of other historians will reveal how ghost stories impacted Roman society, as well as the patterns that can be attributed to stories of the supernatural.


Pliny the Younger’s Intersection of Fear and Curiosity

Pliny’s letter to his friend Sura expresses how ghosts were representations of physical threats and the result of human fear caused by superstition (Pliny 7.27, trans. Tuttle 2023). Before recounting ghost stories he had heard, Pliny initially doubts his beliefs, pleading for answers on whether ghosts are “powerless and only receive their appearance from our fear” (Pliny 7.27, trans. Tuttle 2023). Pliny seems inclined to believe in ghosts, taking a superstitious approach regarding his belief with phrases such as “I am especially led to believe…” and “both more frightful and no less astonishing,” expressing his own bias in this instance. Notably, Pliny’s stories follow patterns similar to other ghost stories of antiquity as well as of the modern era, suggesting that ghost stories were not simply unique supernatural occurrences but rather stories influenced by common patterns. One such pattern was that dangerous ghosts would appear during the night but not the day, a belief reinforced by Pliny’s story of Curtius Rufus, who encounters a ghost named Africa during the day  ; she does not appear menacing but rather as a “warning apparition” (Felton 6). Debbie Felton suggests that these patterns are a result of cultural and religious influences. Concepts of the supernatural follow a similar suit to which Pliny contributes, furthering the relevance of this text within the context of ghost beliefs as a whole in the ancient world and, therefore, representations of haunted houses.

Additionally, Pliny the Younger’s descriptions are not presented as illusions of fear or questioned in their authenticity. Rather, Pliny recounts the various ghost stories with vivid detail and imagery as if they were reality. In describing the setting, he uses phrases such as “the rattle of chains” and “gloomy and dire nights,” evoking a real threatening presence, utilizing the authority of Athenodorus as further proof of this narrative, a surprise due to the philosopher’s rationalism (Crowley 14). Athenodorus is a stoic philosopher and, therefore, takes necessary precautions and steps to address the ghost. He follows an orderly fashion, preparing writing tablets and a process in which to clear his mind to confirm the truth of the specter (Pliny 7.27, trans. Tuttle 2023). To Pliny and his audience, the strength that Athenodorus has as a witness contributes even more to the reality of ghosts, as he makes an effort to take a most logical approach in regards to dealing with the supernatural.

However, in understanding this perspective, it is necessary to scrutinize Pliny’s specific word choices surrounding his uncertainty and curiosity about ghosts. At the end of the letter, Pliny reiterates, “I beg that you direct your erudition” and “the reason I consulted you was so that I could cease to be perplexed” (Pliny 7.27, trans. Tuttle 2023). These statements show that Pliny’s desire is not to be free of the danger that ghosts pose but rather to comprehend their reality, presenting not fear but more so curiosity toward ghosts. Such curiosity is especially shown through the story of Athenodorus, in which he became further intrigued after learning of the haunting tale of the house. This contradicts the socially accepted understanding that ghosts were always a cause of fear among people, as the logical approach that Pliny holds onto subverts this norm. From these details within Pliny’s “Letter to Sura,” it can be seen that behavior regarding haunted houses and ghosts was motivated not only by fear of physical threats but by interest in the stories themselves.


Petronius and Challenging Conventions of the Supernatural

Although the letter to Sura expressed Pliny the Younger’s belief and bias toward ghosts, The Satyricon of Petronius is an example of the illusion and doubt placed on ghost stories with a similar dependency on logic. While religion and belief in specters commonly follow blind faith, the philosophic representation within Rome promoted doubt and ridicule toward ghost stories and haunted houses alike (Collison-Morley 13–33). Petronius states, “I challenge your guardian spirits to come down heavily on me if I’m telling lies” as a way to reiterate the truth of the story and turn down those who would doubt it (Petronius 61–2, trans. Walsh 1997). Due to the philosophical approach to these specters, it is no surprise that the narrator would address doubts and concerns in his story. The passage itself is satirical and uses the trope of the werewolf to present to the audience the absurdity of societal behavior and the reliance on supernatural powers when faced with an inexplicable event. Trimalchio constantly reflects how supernatural events are the result of fear, as shown through his realization of his friend being a werewolf, not through concrete proof but rather various coincidences (Petronius 61–2, trans. Walsh 1997). The story, “Dinner at Trimalchio’s,” must be placed within the context of The Satyricon itself, given its satirical nature, to understand that Trimalchio does not simply hold traits that express the exaggeration of fear but embodies that fear, representing society as a whole.

The Satyricon does not only express how satire and ridicule were placed among stories of the supernatural but also holds patterns similar to those found in other ghost stories, such as Pliny the Younger’s “Letter to Sura.” The Satyriconholds true to the specter revealing itself in the night and in a graveyard, which is another example of the representation of death in supernatural events. Felton describes the significance of distinguishing ghost stories based on the different ghouls represented, such as specifying ghosts as their own form of haunting. However, the occurrence of the werewolf is nearly paralleled with other ghost phenomena. The similar patterns of supernatural tropes are an example of this, and when discussing ghost stories, it should be noted that The Satyricon also conforms to this pattern. While Felton adds that “the spirits of the dead are not involved in werewolf stories,” the tale presented in The Satyricon is still affected by the presence of the dead due to the graveyard (Felton 22). For this purpose, “ghost” can refer to the incarnation of the dead in the form of a specter, but “ghost story” should refer to all supernatural stories that hold the patterns of fear, nightly occurrence, and influence of death in a broader sense.


The Satyricon, Mostellaria, and the Influence of Societal Beliefs

Understanding the classification of ghost stories, the relationship between The Satyricon and other works of satire expresses how Roman superstitions were largely due to fear rather than physical endangerment. The representations of satirical work convey how the characters are never in real physical danger, and rather, the fear and confusion of the specters create suspense. This is also seen in another satirical work, Mostellaria, a play written by Plautus around 210 B.C., three centuries prior to the other haunted house within Pliny’s letter. The story showcases a comedic story set in Athens about a son who, with the help of his slave, convinces his father that their house is haunted by the ghost of a man who had been killed within it (Plautus 67–124, trans. Riley 1901). Both Mostellaria and The Satyricon use a satirical tone to describe the ghost stories, through which they comment on the underlying representation of fear within society and how it affects people. One notable difference between the two, however, is that Mostellaria has characters that actively fabricate the story of the ghost, a representation unique to the play. Rather than creating ridicule through the ignorance of all of its characters, Mostellaria uses the father as the fearful one and the slave as the one who creates the imaginary ghost, allowing the audience to see the fallacy of believing in the supernatural. The Satyricon, on the other hand, develops satire through the audience’s interpretation of the events that occur and their ability to differentiate their beliefs from the protagonist’s blind faith. Nonetheless, the satirical nature of both texts reveals how ghost stories affected societal behavior and fears, and rather than being truly afraid of being harmed by the dead, some Romans mocked these superstitions as being the result of fear.

Mostellaria contributes to the concept that the fear and action surrounding ghosts and haunted houses were due to fabricated stories through its reflection of the father, Theopropides (Plautus 67–124, trans. Riley 1901). As previously mentioned, Roman society greatly relied on logic and philosophical ideals when approaching the supernatural. Theopropides opposes the traditional nature of philosophers, as suggested by Felton, given that “Plautus, in his Mostellaria, seems to exploit this traditional type of protagonist: as we shall see, Tranio (Theopropides’ servant) counts on Theopropides’ not being such a man” (42). The comparison between the two protagonists reveals that Plautus wished to expose the concept of the supernatural through this satire, expressing how easy it is for a ghost story to take hold of society. As the story caught on, Theopropides became convinced that the house was haunted and treated it as such, motivated not by the reality of physical endangerment but by the societal acceptance of skewed stories. Ronald Finucane, in Appearances of the Dead, states how Plautus, in Mostellaria, was “like all comedians, building upon a widely-known, commonly accepted attitude, belief or event… Satire… must be rooted in events current in society” (13). Finucane differentiates “authentic” stories from satirical ones, and the effects on society can be seen through various lenses. The satire provided in Mostellaria shows how ghost stories were not always taken seriously by society and were sometimes interpreted as products of cunning and misinterpretation, while Pliny the Younger’s story is an example of how ghost stories created genuine curiosity and panic in society. A similarity between the two instances is that both are the result of the stories themselves. The characters are not afraid because of the known danger of ghosts but rather because of the lack of understanding implanted within them due to stories passed on from others. This suggests that the fears surrounding Roman ghost stories were the result of assumptions formed by the stories and not fear of endangerment.


Patterns of Burial Rites

The patterns surrounding ghost stories suggest that ghosts were approached in a logical sense and were thought to follow rules, which further shows how assumptions held dominance in Roman behavior. In Pliny the Younger’s “Letter to Sura,” he details how Athenodorus handles the ghost by following the proper burial rites, stating, “Afterward, since the manes had been properly interred, the house was free from them” (7.27). Particularly, the use of the word “since” shows how, although Pliny is questioning the existence of ghosts throughout the letter, he still assumes that the ghost follows laws and behaviors that correspond with the burial rites of Rome. Contrary to this, the Latin text reads “Domus postea rite conditis manibus caruit,” which has no direct translation to “since” but rather “postea,” loosely translating to “afterwards.” This expresses how Pliny does not create a direct correlation between burial rites and the disappearance of the ghosts, but it can be inferred from the chain of events . Allison Emmerson speaks on a distinct practice within Rome tied to proper burials known as os resectum, “a ceremony that legitimized the grave, concluding the proper internment of the deceased and cleansing the family of death pollution” (13). Death pollution is the belief that the dead could cause the living to become unclean, an offense to the living and the gods, and was a common superstition associated with funerary rites in ancient Rome. This ceremonial process, although not what occurs directly within Pliny’s letter, is an example of how Romans believed that the dead could affect the living from beyond the grave and that the only way to cleanse themselves or the surrounding location would be through proper burial. Within Pliny’s story, the house itself is affected by death pollution and, therefore, must be cleansed through the internment of the deceased. The haunting and the specter are manifestations of this death pollution, and Pliny assumes that only through proper burial can the dead be removed. Another such instance is seen within Lucian’s Philopseudes, a satirical text mocking the belief in magic, specifically detailing an account between Eucrates and Arignotus, in which Arignotus exorcizes a haunted house. The story is concluded through a means similar to Pliny, “they took it out of the ground and gave it a proper burial, and from that time the house ceased to be troubled by ghosts” (Lucian 154–155, trans. Ogden 2002). This pattern, being utilized within a satirical work, shows how proper burials were recognized among many different audiences and used regularly within ghost stories. While death pollution was feared among those like Pliny, societal behavior also mocked these beliefs, treating them as assumptions surrounding ghosts and not all-powerful rules that governed ghosts.


Oral Traditions through Pliny’s Narrative

The effect that ghost stories have on society also depends on how these stories are told. Felton states, “Although Pliny does not specify his sources, several characteristics in his retellings point to an oral tradition for the stories” (62). Felton, in regards to the story detailing an account from Pliny’s servants, further states, “Most commentators…think that Pliny somehow didn’t realize a joke was being played on him” (63). Although there is no way to confirm this, the suggestion could provide another interpretation of Pliny’s stories and, therefore, an even greater understanding of ghost stories within Roman society. Both The Satyricon and Mostellaria are satirical works designed to ridicule and mock the Roman approach to supernatural events, but Pliny’s story is written with complete confidence in the topic being discussed. Given the possibility that Pliny may not have been fully aware of the validity of his stories and that they were passed on through oral tradition, there is a great amount of uncertainty and error present in the facts and especially their accuracy. As Patrick Crowley notes about Pliny the Younger, “Like any good historian, he established the credibility of his primary source…it is only when he introduces the secondary piece of testimony…that Pliny interrupts the narrative flow…dropping in a subtle ita narrat, ‘so he says’” (15). Here, Crowley implies that Pliny manages to remove the issue of not experiencing these events firsthand, approaching the stories in the most logical way possible given what he knew, thereby reducing uncertainty. Contrary to Crowley’s argument, however, the oral storytelling removes the validity of Pliny’s argument and rather conveys the significant impact that these stories had on Roman society. Stories passed orally show the acclaim that they must demand to maintain their relevance, which leads to the unreliable details that could arise from the lack of written material. Additionally, although not as likely, Felton’s suggestion of Pliny being given intentionally false information could be applied to the other stories as well. This overarching theme of oral tradition shows just how innovative these stories were and the ease with which they spread, providing their impact on Roman fears of ghosts.


Haunted Houses and Superstitions

The fear of ghosts and supernatural phenomena being connected to physical presence is a notion often attributed to ghost stories, but as indicated, this is more so in forms of modern media. For example, modern haunted houses often are related to houses of grandeur, with isolation being provided as a symptom of the proportional size that the location provides concerning the character. Felton states that “the image of a haunted house is already well fixed through literature and popular culture,” thereby making the exterior of the houses irrelevant (38). The representation of a haunted house creates fear and evokes an ominous feeling, therefore providing the audience with a threatening image. However, ancient representations of haunted houses cannot have been the same, as the concept of a large estate was practically non-existent. Sherwin-White, in a commentary of different texts from Pliny, describes how “the feebleness of many ancient ghost stories, judged by modern standards, may be due in part to the material factor of the classical environment. The relatively small size…did not allow the free development of the ‘haunted house’ and ‘lonely castle’ themes” (436). Given the impact of social behavior and the lack of ability for a house to be overwhelmingly mysterious, haunted houses in the ancient world were not embodiments of fear and disaster but rather results of improper burial. The stories of haunted houses must provide a further account of the fear and anguish experienced rather than the appearances themselves, as the houses could not physically provide a threatening image. Pliny himself states that “the gloomy and dire nights held the inhabitants awake in terror,” an example in which the story itself, rather than the location, evokes fear in the audience (7.27). The house is described as “spacious and unwholesome,” but it is the ghost that is feared, not the house itself (Pliny 7.27, trans. Tuttle 2023). This powerful imagery is similarly shown in The Satyricon, in which Petronius states, “I drew near to pick up his clothes, but they had turned to stone. No one has ever been more frightened to death than I was then” (61–2). This expression of fear and confusion within The Satyricon is due to the supernatural events that occurred rather than the graveyard around the character. This suggests that in Pliny’s letter and The Satyricon, fear and mystery were fabricated by the narrator, and the description of these events implies that societal fear was dependent on these visualizations rather than the physical reality of haunted locations.



Pliny the Younger’s “Letter to Sura” and Petronius’ “Dinner at Trimalchio’s” in The Satyricon offer intuitive and insightful glimpses into the motivations of Roman superstitions surrounding ghost stories. While these ancient texts respectively offer a serious and satirical take on ghosts, analysis reveals that Roman superstitions and fears regarding ghosts and haunted houses were largely motivated by stories rather than actual physical threats. In future papers, further research can be done to understand a broader amount of case studies and find various interpretations among them, allowing for more perspectives on the effect that ghost stories have on societal behavior.


Aidan Jones is a freshman at UC Berkeley majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies.


Works Cited

Arbiter, Petronius. The Satyricon, 61–2. Translated by Peter G. Walsh, Oxford World’s Classics, 1997.

Collison-Morley, Lacy. Greek and Roman Ghost Stories. England: B. H. Blackwell; Simpkin, Marshall, 1912, 13–33.

Crowley, Patrick R. The Phantom Image: Seeing the Dead in Ancient Rome. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019, 10–82.

Emmerson, Allison L. C. “Re-Examining Roman Death Pollution.” Journal of Roman Studies 110 (2020): 5–27.

Felton, Debbie. Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

Finucane, Ronald C. Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984, 4–28.

Lucian, “Philopseudes,” in Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Translated by Daniel Ogden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 154–155.

Plautus, Titus Maccius. The Captivi and the Mostellaria of Plautus. Translated by Henry T. Riley. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1901, 67–124.

Pliny the Younger. Letter 7.27. Translated by Darcy Tuttle, 2023.

Sherwin-White, A. N. The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, 435–438.