Chicago (2019) h/b 328pp £45 (ISBN 9780226648293)

The introduction, four chapters and epilogue of this volume, replete with texts and images that concern the dead, are packed with wide-ranging ideas and detailed discussion. The complexity of the subject is not hidden. The author has surmounted vast ranges of evidence. 

There is the assortment of words for ghosts and phantoms, whether in Greek (eidolonpsuchêphasmaphantasmapneumaskia), in Latin (umbralemureffigiessimulacrumimagolar) or in English (ghost, spirit, spook, phantom, shade, spectre, wraith). The time-range of literary evidence studied extends from the early first millennium BC to the 5th C AD. The Greek texts start with Homer and embrace tragedy and philosophy from Plato to the Second Sophistics, Pausanias and Lucian, and on the Latin side Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny, Juvenal, and Apuleius. The subject-matter varies from myths that concern such popular figures as Agamemnon, Alcestis, and Orestes to philosophical theories that stretch throughout classical antiquity to the Second Sophistics. The visual images are similarly widespread, from Greek painted pottery and terracotta figurines to Etruscan and Egyptian paintings, and Roman mosaics, murals (above and below ground), manuscripts and papyri, jewellery, and bronze and stone sculpture and sarcophagi. Many images are well known, some refreshingly less so, in colour or black and white.

The Introduction emphasises the ‘issues of pictoriality, the veridicality of perception, and questions of evidence’. Chapter 1 (‘A grammar of ghosts’) concerns spectral phenomena and the difficulty encountered of depicting a ghost. Illustrations show a spread of figures from a small winged figure over the head of the deceased on a 5th C BC white-ground Athenian lekythos to a close reading of the 2nd C AD sarcophagus of Protesilaus where the dead figures are shown with the same formal similarity as the living. 

Chapter 2 (‘The Chthonic Sublime’) contains a discussion of Polygnotos’ amazing wall-painting of the Underworld, described by Pausanias and figured on a wall-painting on the Esquiline, with such denizens as Charon, Ixion, Cerberus and Tantalus and such visitors as Orpheus and Eurydice, Odysseus and Aeneas. Ghosts rise and vanish on sepulchral itineraries—‘a veritable pipeline from earth to the deceased’.

Chapter 3 (‘Spectral Subjectivity’) refers to personal feelings, tastes and opinions, and there are discussions of some of the popular mythological figures who were carved in Roman sarcophagi, such as Orestes, Persephone, Alcestis and Protesilaus (again). The Alcestis sarcophagus illustrated on Figs. 3.6 and 7 has the heroine given the portrait of the dead woman, Metilia Acte. The importance of ghostly shrouds is stressed and their relation to aidôs (‘shame’). 

Chapter 4 (‘Phantoms in the Flesh’) focuses on the early Christian sarcophagi of ‘Doubting Thomas’ with Thomas trying to test the wound in Jesus’s side—‘tactile verification’. The famous series of the ‘Wounded Amazons’ with a raised arm displaying the wound, is discussed for comparison. The short Epilogue treats the subject of the ‘Geisterspiegel’ (‘Ghost Mirror’) of more recent times.

Two adverse comments: the subtitle of the book ‘Seeing the dead in Ancient Rome’ misrepresents the vast scale of the study, and the plethora of long abstract words (e.g. ‘veridicality’, ‘undecidability’, ‘constitutively’) tends to slow progress.

Brian A. Sparkes