BMCR 1999.11.07

Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity

, Haunted Greece and Rome : ghost stories from classical antiquity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. xvii, 148 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780292725089 $12.95 (pb).

The center of Haunted Greece and Rome is a detailed study of the central plot device of Plautus’s Mostellaria : the fraudulent haunted house story told by the clever and corrupt slave, Tranio, to keep his miserly master, Theopropides, from entering the house and discovering what debauches have been committed in the master’s absence. Such an investigation is an excellent place to start a discussion of ancient Roman and Greek beliefs about ghosts and hauntings because the appearance of this little narrative in a comic theatrical setting allows a modern commentator to draw a variety of direct inferences about the author’s expectations of audience knowledge and audience beliefs. Since common beliefs about ghosts, hauntings, revenants and the like were then, as now, largely a matter of the popular or unofficial mental landscape, tracing the discoverable origins, cognates and other connections of Tranio’s deceptive little story is an excellent way to illuminate that landscape in the absence of any comprehensive source from the Classical world itself. Felton’s book not only serves as an excellent introduction to Mostellaria and to the dramatic use of the plot device of the “ghost story” but systematically uncovers and explicates many of the folk beliefs illustrated in Plautus’s play.

The introduction makes clear, despite its title, that the book “undertakes to examine stories of hauntings from classical antiquity, giving particular attention to the longer tales of Pliny, Plautus and Lucian which center on haunted houses,” (p. xv) though the apparent purpose of attending to Pliny and Lucian is to provide context for the discussion of roman popular belief as discoverable in Plautus. Chapter one outlines the modern academic folklore definitions of various popular genres (folktale, legend, myth, anecdote, and the like) and identifies many of them in texts from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as pointing to those which we share with our literary ancestors, such as the likelihood of seeing ghosts at midnight. The second chapter deals with definitional and terminological problems, such as our difficulty in discerning, for example, possible shades of meaning between larvae and lemurae, or umbra, monstrum, simulacrum and the like at any given time or place or in any given author. In this chapter, Felton also proposes several categories of supernatural appearances which might be useful for the study of ancient Greek and Roman belief: Revenants, Crisis Apparitions, Poltergeists, and Continual Apparitions. “Haunted Houses,” ancient and modern are the subject of chapter three, in which Felton interestingly raises the common issue of whether resident ghosts lower property values and whether the seller is (or was) obligated to disclose their (alleged) presence, a matter crucial to the attempted trickery in Mostellaria.

Chapters four, five and six are directly concerned with Plautus’s, Pliny’s and Lucian’s descriptions of haunting and haunted houses, carefully noting the similarities and differences of belief amongst them. In these chapters, she shows herself able to deal with the complexities of assessing literary uses and re-uses of folklore material, examining, for instance, the extent to which Lucian’s haunted house story ( Philopseudes, 30-31) is directly dependent on the model of letter 7.27 of Pliny the Younger. Felton finds in this case that Lucian’s satiric story is more likely drawn from traditions similar to the one found in Mostellaria. The book closes with a chapter on the modern literary tradition of the ghost story, which, she argues, owes more than has been acknowledged to the classical training of nineteenth and early twentieth century writers. The focus on Plautus’s fraudulent ghost story and cognate material, while limiting the comprehensiveness of the book, allows for very useful rhetorical analysis of the small number of texts in question. By examining the authors’ expectations of audience knowledge and the stances established by actors and narrators, Felton is able to provide an interesting and provocative picture of certain kinds of Roman popular belief and how they are used in literary contexts.

The least useful thing about Felton’s book is the title. Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, promises many things, few of which are actually in this particular book, excellent as it is by itself. A reader of the title might reasonably expect the book to be a collection of such stories, which it is not, or a comprehensive study of what we (or the ancient Greeks and Romans) might call “ghost stories,” which it is not, or a historical study of genre, or of ancient folk belief, which it is not. The book is a study of the haunted house story in Mostellaria along with its analogues and enough comparative and historical information to place that story in the larger context of popular belief about ghosts in Plautus’s Rome, for which the story itself is one of the chief pieces of evidence. I assume that the choice of title was not that of the author and that it was driven by the sad marketing reality that libraries and other institutional buyers (including many prestigious research libraries) — as well as those using world-wide-web searches — buy according to apparent category rather than according to actual contents. Searches for “Plautus” and ” Mostellaria” produced no hits for this book at either of two major on-line booksellers, both of which carry the Felton book; and the University of Texas Press site found “Plautus,” (mentioned in its book-jacket blurb along with Pliny and Lucian) but found nothing under ” Mostellaria.” Futile as it may be, I take this opportunity to join the chorus calling for truth in advertising in academic book titles (at least after the semicolon!) It would save us all a lot of time and trouble.