For the Ides of March, a Roman ghost story about the notorious Emperor Nero.
The early history of [Santa Maria del Popolo] is a strange one. After the suicide of Nero in A.D. 68, the Senate expressed its loathing of his character by a decree of Memoriae damnatio, and by prohibiting his interment in the Mausoleum of Augustus, the burial-place of the Caesars. His body was therefore interred by his mistress Acte and two faithful servants in the Tomb of the Domitii on the Collis Hortulorum, or Pincian Hill. But even here the unquiet spirit of Nero found no rest. Many centuries after, the people of Rome were affrighted by shrieks as of tortured souls and ghostly apparitions, which were seen at nightfall in the woods and thickets of the Pincian slopes, so that, as the Monkish chronicler says, “No man dared pass that way for fear of what he might hap to see and hear.” In their trouble the people appealed at last to the Pope Paschal II., who was Pontiff at the time when these ghostly visitations reached their climax ; and he, advised in a dream by the Virgin herself, went in procession with all the Cardinals and Arch-priests of Rome to the haunted spot, and there, with his own hands, sawed down a certain walnut-tree, which had been the centre of the ghostly sights and sounds; this he did regardless of the demons, who with roarings like that of lions strove to terrify the holy Father. Under this tree the body of Nero was found– cause of all the hellish riot—and on this very spot Paschal II. laid the foundation of the high altar of a church dedicated to the Virgin, under the name of Santa Maria ad Portam Flaminiam.
This happened in the year 1099….
The name S. Maria del Popolo, by which this church is usually known, was given to it from the fact that it was founded to relieve the terrors of the people, and built, partly at least, by a public subscription. That the story about its origin is not a mere popular legend, but a solemnly accredited tradition of the church, is borne witness to by a large inscribed slab in the pavement of the retrochoir.
The Portfolio: An Artistic Periodical, Vol. 16, Philip Gilbert Hamerton, editor, 1885: pp. 118.
Those roaring “demons,” seem to have been an infestation of crows roosting in the walnut tree.
There, at the northern gate of the city, where the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo now stands, was once the tomb of Nero. Over it grew a great walnut-tree, and in its branches multitudes of crows were wont to caw and chatter, unmindful of the travellers who passed in and out through the gate below. In the closing days of the eleventh century, Pope Paschal the Second had a dream, which told him that these evil-omened birds were demons, waiting upon the detested spirit of the Roman emperor, who came out at night and wandered on the Pincian, attended by the unclean brood. To lay Nero’s uneasy ghost, the Pope tore down the remnants of the tomb, scattered his ashes, and built upon the spot a church to the Blessed Virgin, with money collected from the common people, hence ” del Popolo,” — of the people, — a name which has since been given to the piazza and the gate as well. But the demon crows, driven from Nero’s walnut-tree, moved higher up the Pincian, and it is supposed that Nero’s ghost still wanders here, for the crows are yet in evidence, and why should they remain if their master spirit has departed?
Rome, Vol. 1, Walter Taylor Field, 1905 : p. 27
Ms Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is, of course, the Ides of March, a day of several religious rituals for the ancient Romans and best-known for being the fateful day of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. There is no record of Caesar haunting the site of his death or appearing to his assassins, but somehow the phrase “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” entered the lexicon as an expression of frustration.
“Great Nero’s Ghost!” might have been a more accurate catch-phrase. The wicked Emperor Nero, whose name is a byword for the decadence and excess of the Roman Emperors, did not rest easily in his tomb. There were legends persisting for centuries that he did not, in fact commit suicide, but had fled to a far country and (like our King Arthur) return in the Empire’s time of need. He also seems to have been—and rightly so—concerned about his post-mortem reputation:
The spirits of the worst of the Roman Emperors were, as we should expect, especially restless. Pliny tells us how Fannius, who was engaged upon a Life of Nero, was warned by him of his approaching death. He was lying on his couch at dead of night with a writing-desk in front of him, when Nero came and sat down by his side, took up the first book he had written on his evil deeds, and read it through to the end; and so on with the second and the third. Then he vanished. Fannius was terrified, for he thought the vision implied that he would never get beyond the third book of his work, and this actually proved to be the case.
Greek and Roman Ghost Stories, Lacy Collison-Morley, 1912
Nero was known for his sensitivity to criticism. He had an army commander executed for imprudent remarks about the Emperor at a private party and exiled a politician who wrote a book critical of the government. And he thought highly of his own talents to the bitter end. It is said that Nero’s last words were “What an artist dies in me!”
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.