Warning Apparitions: Greco-Roman



As we should expect, there are a number of instances of warning apparitions in antiquity; and it is interesting to note that the majority of these are gigantic women endowed with a gift of prophecy.

Thus the younger Pliny [“Ep.” vii. 27] tells us how Quintus Curtius Rufus, who was on the staff of the Governor of Africa, was walking one day in a colonnade after sunset, when a gigantic woman appeared before him. She announced that she was Africa, and was able to predict the future, and told him that he would go to Rome, hold office there, return to the province with the highest authority, and there die. Her prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, and as he landed in Africa for the last time the same figure is reported to have met him.

So, again, at the time of the conspiracy of Callippus, Dion was meditating one evening before the porch of his house, when he turned round and saw a gigantic female figure, in the form of a Fury, at the end of the corridor, sweeping the floor with a broom. The vision terrified him, and soon afterwards his only son committed suicide and he himself was murdered by the conspirators. [Plutarch, “Dion” ii. 55]

A similar dramatic story is related of Drusus during his German campaigns. [Dio Cassius, 55. 1. Cp. Suet., “Claud.”, i] While engaged in operations against the Alemanni, he was preparing to cross the Elbe, when a gigantic woman barred the way, exclaiming, “Insatiate Drusus, whither wilt thou go? Thou art not fated to see all things. Depart hence, for the end of thy life and of thy deeds is at hand.” Drusus was much troubled by this warning, and instantly obeyed the words of the apparition; but he died before reaching the Rhine.

We meet with the same phenomenon again in Dio Cassius, among the prodigies preceding the death of Macrinus, when “a dreadful gigantic woman, seen of several, declared that all that had happened was as nothing compared with what they were soon to endure”–a prophecy which was amply fulfilled by the reign of Heliogabalus.

 But the most gigantic of all these gigantic women was, as we should only expect from his marvelous power of seeing ghosts, the one who appeared to Eucrates in the “Philopseudus”. [Lucian, “Philops.”, 20] Eucrates has seen over a thousand ghosts in his time, and is now quite used to them, though at first he found them rather upsetting; but he had been given a ring and a charm by an Arab, which enabled him to deal with anything supernatural that came in his way. The ring was made from the iron of a cross on which a criminal had been executed, and doubtless had the same value in Eucrates’ eyes that a piece of the rope with which a man has been hung possesses in the eyes of a gambler to-day. On this particular occasion he had left his men at work in the vineyard, and was resting quietly at midday, when his dog began to bark. At first he thought it was only a favourite boy of his indulging in a little hunting with some friends; but on looking up he saw in front of him a woman at least three hundred feet high, with a sword thirty feet long. Her lower extremities were like those of a dragon, and snakes were coiling round her neck and shoulders. Eucrates was not in the least alarmed, but turned the seal of his ring, when a vast chasm opened in the earth, into which she disappeared. This seems rather to have astonished Eucrates; but he plucked up courage, caught hold of a tree that stood near the edge, and looked over, when he saw all the lower world lying spread before him, including the mead of asphodel, where the shades of the blessed were reclining at ease with their friends and relations, arranged according to clans and tribes. Among these he recognized his own father, dressed in the clothes in which he was buried; and it must have been comforting to the son to have such good evidence that his parent was safely installed in the Elysian Fields. In a few moments the chasm closed.

Dio Cassius [68. 25] relates how Trajan was saved in the great earthquake that destroyed nearly the whole of Antioch by a phantom, which appeared to him suddenly, and warned him to leave his house by the window. A similar story is told of the poet Simonides, who was warned by a specter that his house was going to fall, and thus enabled to make his escape in time.

I will include here a couple of stories which, if they cannot exactly be classed as stories of warning apparitions, are interesting in themselves, and may at least be considered as ghost stories. Pliny the Younger [“Ep.” vii. 27. 12] tells us how a slave of his, named Marcus, imagined that he saw someone cutting his hair during the night. When he awoke, the vision proved to have been a true one, for his hair lay all round him. Soon afterwards the same thing happened again. His brother, who slept with him, saw nothing; but Marcus declared that two people came in by the windows, dressed in white, and, after cutting his hair, disappeared.

“Nothing astonishing happened,” adds Pliny, “except that I was not prosecuted, as I undoubtedly should have been, had Domitian lived; for this happened during his principate. Perhaps the cutting of my slave’s hair was a sign of my approaching doom, for accused people cut their hair,” as a sign of mourning. One may be allowed to wonder whether, after all, a fondness for practical joking is not even older than the age of the younger Pliny.

This story, like nearly every other that we have come across, has a parallel in the “Philopseudus”. Indeed, Lucian seems to have covered almost the whole field of the marvellous, as understood at that time, in his determination to turn it into ridicule in that amusing dialogue. In this case we are told of a little statue of Æsculapius, which stood in the house of the narrator of the story, and at the feet of which a number of pence had been placed as offerings, while other coins, some of them silver, were fastened to the thighs with wax. There were also silver plates which had been vowed or offered by those who had been cured of fever by the god. The offerings and tablets are just such as might be found in a Catholic church in the South of Europe to-day; but the coins, in our more practical modern world, would have found their way into the coffers of the church. One would like to know what was the ultimate destination of these particular coins–whether they were to be sent as contributions to one of the temples of Æsculapius, which were the center of the medical world at this period, and had elaborate hospitals attached to them, about which we learn so much from Aristides.

In this case they were merely a source of temptation to an unfortunate Libyan groom, who stole them one night, intending to make his escape. But he had not studied the habits of the statue, which, we are told, habitually got down from its pedestal every night; and in this case such was the power of the god that he kept the man wandering about all night, unable to leave the court, where he was found with the money in the morning, and soundly flogged. The god, however, considered that he had been let off much too easily; and he was mysteriously flogged every night, as the welt’s upon him showed, till he ultimately died of the punishment.

Ælian [Fragment, 84] has a charming story of Philemon, the comic poet. He was still, apparently, in the full vigour of his powers when he had a vision of nine maidens leaving his house in the Piraeus and bidding him farewell. When he awoke, he told his slave the story, and set to work to finish a play with which he was then busy. After completing it to his satisfaction, he wrapped himself in his cloak and lay down upon his bed. His slave came in, and, thinking he was asleep, went to wake him, when he found that he was dead. Ælian challenges the unbelieving Epicureans to deny that the nine maidens were the nine Muses, leaving a house which was so soon to be polluted by death.

Many stories naturally gather round the great struggle for the final mastery of the Roman world which ended in the overthrow of the Republic. Shakespeare has made us familiar with the fate of the poet Cinna, who was actually mistaken for one of the conspirators against Caesar and murdered by the crowd. He dreamt, on the night before he met his death that Caesar invited him to supper, and when he refused the invitation, took him by the hand and forced him down into a deep, dark abyss, which he entered with the utmost horror.

But there is a story connected with the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar that certainly deserves to be better known than it is.[ “Julius” 32.] It is only fitting that an event fraught with such momentous consequences should have a supernatural setting of some kind; and Suetonius relates that while Caesar was still hesitating whether he should declare himself an enemy of his country by crossing the little river that bounded his province at the head of an army, a man of heroic size and beauty suddenly appeared, playing upon a reed-pipe. Some of the troops, several trumpeters among them, ran up to listen, when the man seized a trumpet, blew a loud blast upon it, and began to cross the Rubicon. Caesar at once decided to advance, and the men followed him with redoubled enthusiasm after what they had just seen.

It is to Plutarch that we owe the famous story of the apparition that visited Brutus in his tent the night before the battle of Philippi, and again during the battle. Shakespeare represents it to be Caesar’s ghost, but has otherwise strictly followed Plutarch. It would be absurd to give the scene in any other words than Shakespeare’s.[ “Julius Caesar” iv. 3]

  BRUTUS. How ill this taper burns! Ha! Who comes here? I think it is the weakness of mine eyes, that shapes this monstrous apparition. It comes upon me. Art thou anything? Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil, That mak’st my blood cold, and my hair to stare? Speak to me what thou art!

  GHOST. Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

  BRUTUS. Why com’st thou?

  GHOST. To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

  BRUTUS. Well; then I shall see thee again?

  GHOST.   Ay, at Philippi.

  BRUTUS. Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then. Now I have taken heart, thou vanishest: Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee. But it had already disappeared, only to meet Brutus again on the fatal day that followed.


BY: Lacy Collison-Morley

CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pomeraan


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