Life, my master Lucretius used to say, is one long struggle in the dark. I struggled over the Case of the Mostellaria or ‘Haunted House’.
“First my slave-girl Chlora, then my husband, both dead of the bloody flux,” explained the widow Primilla. “Now my mansion is uninhabitable because of this angry ghost.”
I took notes in Greek, but Lucretius never required them. He studied Primilla closely then instructed her to meet us at the villa after sunset.
I asked, “Has the Husband or the slave Chlora become the ghost?”
“No one becomes a ghost, Felix,” snapped my master. “They are mindless psychic impressions – eidola.”
We were at the villa, searching Primilla’s chamber.
“We are,” Lucretius said, “then we are not, whereupon we care not. Ah – as I thought!”
He had discovered a hidden phial of murky liquid.
A terrible scream came from downstairs.
“Come, Felix: the die is cast.”
In the atrium, Primilla cowered before a female spectre: grey as sea fog, but for the glistening tongue of blood welling from her nose and mouth. I stepped in front of the phantom, but she clasped me with her hideous claws.
“Felix,” Lucretius shouted, seizing Primilla before she could flee. “This woman poisoned her slave, out of jealousy. Then poisoned her husband with her love potions. See clearly!”
And I did see clearly. This was not a hideous ghoul, but an innocent woman, much wronged. She was fair, but hardened by sorrow, and seeking only love.
I told her “Chlora, you are beautiful.”
She pressed her cold lips to mine. Then she was no more.
At sunrise, Lucretius delivered Primilla to the tribune, explaining all her crimes. But I was perplexed.
“Master, if ghosts are insubstantial eidola floating aimlessly,” I pondered, “and if witnesses perceive them as hostile because their guilty feelings misconstrue them to be so…”
Lucretius looked up from his reading, awaiting my question.
“… Why did we perceive Chlora’s ghost to be so fearsome then so tender?”
“Master, I certainly did.”
Lucretius rolled up his scroll impatiently.
“While you believed Primilla to be innocent, you saw Chlora as a threat, but nothing is evil but that thinking makes it so. Study nature’s laws, Felix. They are elementary.”
He returned to his studies and I to my chores.
My master’s philosophy explained so much. But, to this day, I treasure the memory of Chlora’s last tender kiss.
Titus Lucretius Carus (c.99-c.44 BC) was a Roman philosopher-poet whose great work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) showcases his wisdom, wit and genial personality. Supposedly, he died after going mad from drinking a love potion! This little tale casts Lucretius as a philosophical detective, subjecting supernatural phenomenon to his Epicurean analysis, and assisted by his slave Felix. The dramatic reading is by my friend and classicist, Dr Robert Fielden.
The Daily Ghost
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