“Life is the game that must be played, this truth at least, good friends, we know; so live and laugh, nor be dismayed as one by one the phantoms go” – Arthur Rubinstein
Chaeronea is a quiet little city in Boeotia, Greece roughly 80 kilometers east of Delphi, and the hometown of the historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (46-120 A.D.), or Plutarch to his chums, where he lived his whole life as the senior priest of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi. Good work if you can get it, since it mainly consists of rendering the gibberish auguries of the Pythia (the priestess who some toxicologists say was high on Nerium oleander – one of the most poisonous commonly grown garden plants) into iambic pentameter. Obviously, translating for an oracle isn’t a full time gig, so Plutarch supplemented his income as a celebrity writer and lecturer in the Roman Empire. Occasionally he would drop odd little facts about the place of his birth, including a particularly sordid story about Chaeronea’s haunted bathhouse, an unsavory tale of obsessive love, political intrigue, and murder.
A young lad named Damon was the descendant of the 5th Century B.C. Thessalian prophet Peripoltas, his esteemed ancestor having established family roots in Chaeronea right after the Thessalians drove a rowdy bunch of barbarians out of Boetia. “The descendants of this race, being men of bold attempts and warlike habits, exposed themselves to somany dangers, in the invasions of the Mede, and in battles against the Gauls, that at last they were almost wholly consumed” (Plutarch, Life of Cimon). Damon Peripoltas was the last man standing of the family line, and was renowned for his both his beauty and strength of spirit, as well as his rude and undisciplined temper. Plutarch doesn’t give an exact date for the events he relates, but since we know it involves Roman General Lucius Licinius Lucullus (of which, believe it or not there are at least eight men by that name between 200-60 B.C.) and happens during the initial Roman annexation of Greece, we know it is somewhere in the 1st Century B.C.
Now, apparently Damon was such an extraordinarily handsome example of Grecian beauty, the local Roman legionary captain became obsessed with him. “A Roman captain of a company that wintered in Chaeronea became passionately fond of this youth, who was now pretty nearly grown a man. And finding all his approaches, his gifts, and his entreaties alike repulsed, he showed violent inclinations to assault Damon. Our native Chaeronea was then in a distressed condition, too small and too poor to meet with anything but neglect. Damon, being sensible of this, and looking upon himself as injured already, resolved to inflict punishment. Accordingly, he and sixteen of his companions conspired against the captain; but that the design might be managed without any danger of being discovered, they all daubed their faces at night with soot. Thus disguised and inflamed with wine, they set upon him by break of day, as he was sacrificing in the market-place; and having killed him, and several others that were with him, they fled out of the city, which was extremely alarmed and troubled at the murder” (Plutarch, Life of Cimon).
The town council of Chaeronea was deeply disturbed by this, not out of any particular concern over the grievances of Damon with the grabby Roman captain, or about whether the captain’s murder was just, rather they were concerned that murdering a Roman soldier would bring the wrath of the Empire down on their heads. They immediately assembled and pronounced a sentence of death on Damon and his accomplices. Hearing this, Damon was incensed, and along with his compatriots, slipped back into Chaeronea the night after his sentence was pronounced, and together they slaughtered all the magistrates, again fleeing back into the countryside where he preceded to live the life of a brigand and outlaw.
At this time Roman General Lucullus happened to be passing through with a sizable army and heard about the incident, opting for a brief stay in Chaeronea to make some inquiries. In a remarkably enlightened move, Lucullus figured the Roman captain had it coming (although Damon’s death sentence stood), and the city was not at fault. Lucullus moved on to salt the earth somewhere else.
Chaeronea breathed a collective sigh of relief. But they still had a Damon problem to deal with, as he ravaged the surrounding countryside, robbing people and burning stuff in a fit of pique. They hit upon a devious plan. The citizens of Chaeronea let it be known far and wide that Damon was looked upon favorably now that the threat of Roman retribution had passed, and they named him Gymnasiarch (some sort of public office involving supervision of the public gymnasium, apparently quite an honor at the time). Damon unwisely returned and was set upon and killed as he was anointing himself in the local bathhouse.
There’s seemed to be a whole lot of injustice going around, and we generally like to think that increases the likelihood of somebody getting ghostly. “For a long while after apparitions continued to be seen, and groans to be heard in that place, so our fathers have told us, they ordered the gates of the baths to be built up; and even to this day those who live in the neighborhood believe that they sometimes see spectres, and hear alarming sounds” (Plutarch, Life of Cimon). Apart from the hauntings, this would seem to have ended the matter, but alas, the neighboring city of Orchomenia, jockeying for power and prestige with Chaeronea, decided to try and take advantage of the situation and bring the might of the Roman Empire down on their heads by denouncing the murder as politically motivated and sanctioned by the Chaeroneans to the Praetor of Macedonia (the Romans had not yet installed a governor). “Then the Orchomenians, ‘being near neighbours unto the Chaeroneans, and therefore their enemies,’ hire an ‘informer’ to accuse all the Chaeroneans of complicity in the original murder; and it is only the just testimony of the Roman general, Lucullus, who again chances to be marching by, which saves the town from punishment. An image is set up to Lucullus which Plutarch has seen; and even to his day ‘terrible voices and cries’ are heard by the neighbours from behind the walled-up door of the bath-house, in which Damon had died” (Wyndham, 1919, p150).
Isn’t it remarkable that across time and culture, were we simply to change the names, places, and dates, this ghost story from the 1st Century B.C. reflects almost every ghost story ever told? One might argue that human history is the compounding of one wrong with another wrong, a never-ending cycle that will only end in making us all phantoms. Perhaps in walling off our ghosts, we deny each other’s essential humanity, or as Sophocles said, “I pity the poor wretch, though he’s my enemy. He’s yoked to an evil delusion, but the same fate could be mine. I see clearly: we who live are all phantoms, fleeing shadows.”
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. London: D. Nutt, 1895.
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives: The Translation Called Dryden’s. Boston: Little, Brown, and company, 1875.
Wyndham, George, 1863-1913. Essays in Romantic Literature. London: Macmillan, 1919.