The Earliest Roman Ghost in Britain January 4, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Owen Davies in his fascinating The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts notes the way that strangely (or obviously if you are a sceptic like Beachcombing) ghosts follow the fashions and interests of their times. Take OD’s thoughts, for example, on Roman ghosts in the UK.
The most recent addition to the corpus of heritage hauntings is also the most venerable of all – the roman [sic and below] legionnaire. A search on the internet reveals numerous sightings in diverse places such as London, Derby, the Isle of Wight, and an old Roman road near Weymouth. Some readers will be familiar with a well-known case of a troop of soldiers seen by a plumber working in a York cellar in 1953. However, such sightings are a modern phenomenon with nearly all of them dating to the last 50 years. The earliest reports I have found concern a Roman centurion seen patrolling the Strood, Mersea Island, which was first recorded in 1904, and a ghostly Roman army that marched on certain nights along Bindon Hill, Dorset, to their camp on Ring’s Hill during the 1930s. Distinguishing between the ghost of a Bronze Age warrior and an Iron Age one would be a task for an archaeologist, but thanks to ‘swords and sandals’ film epics, and the inclusion of the Roman invasion in the curricula, the dress of the roman soldier has become as recognisable as that of a monk or a cavalier. Clothes truly make the ghost.(42)
It would be fun to chase this 1904 ghost back down the ladder of time and see if it really was spotted in Edwardian times. OD references The Lore of the Land, p. 269 if anyone has a copy to hand: Westwood and Simpson. A quick look on the internet turns up a lot about ‘Romano-British barrows’ in the area, which is a rather bizarre phrase for all but perhaps the very early period of Roman occupation. There is also the difficulty that the Stroud was built by a Saxon king a couple of hundred of years after the Romans had left the area. Then even more suspiciously it seems the ghost has been appropriated by a local pub: the Peldon Rose!
Beach spent a few aimless minutes looking for evidence for Roman ghost sightings in Britain prior to 1904 and came across two unsatisfactory comments – can anyone do better, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com? The first is from a novel (sorry) dating to 1863 that might be an imaginative recreation of York? At one point in a crypt ‘Alice’ states:
‘I am glad I thought of bringing you here and the old Roman ghosts that they say haunt this place have not meddled with you whilst we have been away?’
Note that the context leaves no doubt that these are antique ghosts rather than Roman Catholic ones!
Another fragment comes in a newspaper article from the 1880s but is probably more a rhetorical point than a factual statement.
Those old Roman ghosts who still haunt the scenes of their victories over their Saxon foes have laid aside the toga and have forgotten their native tongue; after having patiently endured many changes which were meaningless to them, they now wear the commonplace black coast and top hat, and talk Cockney English.
This reminded Beach in turn of a paragraph in a Grant Allen short story – alluded to in the Wells’ Time Traveller – that he hopes to include in a packet he is preparing for his readers for epiphany.
All the spirits of all that is, or was, or ever will be, people the universe everywhere, unseen, around us, and each of us sees of them those only he himself is adapted to seeing. The rustic or the clown meets no ghosts of any sort save the ghosts of the persons he knows about otherwise; if a man like yourself [an intellectual] saw a ghost at all – which isn’t likely – for you starve your spiritual side by blindly shutting your eyes to one whole aspect of nature – you’d be just as likely to see the ghost of a Stone Age chief as the ghost of a Georgian or Elizabethan exquisite.
Which brings us back to Owen David’s initial point.
5 Jan 2012: First of all an apology, I put up the wrong passage from Grant Allen! ‘It’s a very odd fact,’ Dr. Porter, the materialist interposed musingly, ‘that the only ghosts people ever see are the ghosts of a generation very, very close to them. One hears of lots of ghosts in eighteenth-century costumes, because everybody has a clear idea of wigs and small-clothes from pictures and fancy dresses. One hears of far fewer in Elizabethan dress, because the class most given to beholding ghosts are seldom acquainted with ruff’s and farthingales; and one meets with none at all in Anglo-Saxon or Ancient British or Roman costumes, because those are only known to a comparatively small class of learned people, and ghosts, as a rule, avoid the learned – except you, Mrs. Bruce – as they would avoid prussic acid. Millions of ghosts of remote antiquity must swarm about the world, though, after a hundred years or thereabouts, they retire into obscurity and sense to annoy people with their nasty cold shivers. But the queer thing about these long-barrow ghosts is that they must be the spirits of men and women who died thousands and thousands of years ago, which is exceptional longevity for a spiritual being don’t you think so, Cameron?’ Then KMH on the metaphysics of ghosts. ‘There is much confusion over ghosts. They are left behind after death, rather than being escorted to another realm, because they are not ready to go due to some tragic event or psychological condition. Ghosts are more likely in the primitive religions than the modern ones and more likely in degenerative times than positive ones. Contrary to popular opinion they do not exist forever as ghosts since they gradually lose their energy as the years pass. Eventually they are picked up (what is left of them) by a higher being and sent to their appropriate realm. Any ghost over five hundred years is infrequent and any over one thousand years (the adamic limit) should not be thought of as simply a ghost. They may have been given ‘demonic’ ability to function as a spirit much in the same way a poltergeist – a human spirit given demonic powers – would. So, the apparitions of ‘roman soldiers’ are not really ghosts.’ Thank KMH and apologies again!
6 Jan 2011: Leif A writes in making a connection that Beach should have thought of ‘Another (fictional, sorry) reference to Roman ghosts in Britain can be found in Arthur Machen’s novella ‘The hill of dreams’ [written 1895-1897, published 1907]. Since you mentioned him on your ‘HP Lovecraft’s invisible library’ page, you may be interested. This novella is freely available on the web. Search ‘ghosts’, but in fact the theme runs throughout the entire work. Late 19th century archeology brought a series of discoveries about ancient Rome, and there was a popular fascination with the subject. Years ago, I toured a reconstruction of a Roman fortress in the Taunes (near Frankfurt am Rhein), and I remember hearing that it was constructed by Wilhelm II, who had a strong interest in the period.’ Thanks Leif!
28 March 2012: Invisible writes in From More Ghosts & Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside, Kathleen E.E. Wiltshire, p. 48 Many people believe a Roman Centurian is sometimes seen riding along the Roman road at Bulkington, near Poulshot. He is said to be wearing a full red or crimson cloak, which streams from his shoulders as he gallops alone. (Collected at Hilmarton Women’s Institute, November, 1975) p. 156-7 A very strange story is told of a gentleman who lived in the Salisbury disrict, but at the time was engaged in excavations of a late Bronze Age field near Bournemouth. he was returning home one evening, and had reached a spot near the Roman road, between Sixpenny Handley and Cranbourne Chase, just before the Wiltshire border. He saw in the distance a horse-man, going in the same direction as himself, and as they came nearer he was surprised to see that, though a beautiful animal, with flowing mane and tail, the horse had neither bridle nor saddle. Its rider seemed chiefly clad in a long cloak, his arms seemed to be bare, and he was waving some armament over his head in a threatening manner. He kept up with the car for about a hundred yards, then suddenly vanished. The next day the archeologist drove along the road again and found the spot where the rider had disappeared was a low round barrow which he had not noticed before. He looked for some object, such a bush, which he might have mistaken for this man, and found nothing. A friend of his who lived near Sixpenny Handley asked a number of people int eh district if anyone had seen such a ghost, and an old shepherd had said, “Do you mean the man on the horse that comes out of the opening in the pine-wood?” The gentleman said he had no doubt that the pre-historic rider, with his horse, lies buried in the “low, round barrow.” Kings Barrow, two hundred yards north of Boreham, near West Wood and East Kennet, is one of the largest in Wiltshire. It is 206 feet in length, 56 feet in width, and 15 feet in height. It was opened in 1800, when two human skeletons, the horns of a stag, the tusks of a boar, and fragments of pottery were found. p. 158’Thanks Invisible!!!