Ancient Rome and the Horror of H. P. Lovecraft

Manes, Lares, and Lemures. © Jason R. Abdale (August 21, 2021).


Halloween is nearly upon us. As October rolls through its days and nights, inching ever-closer towards the 31st, some of us may celebrate the spooky season by indulging in those things which frighten us. Some of us may visit haunted houses (both those which are set up as tourist attractions as well as those which are truly regarded as being haunted by ghosts or other entities), others may watch scary movies more often than usual, and others may read horror literature. One of the most renowned horror writers of all time, right up there with Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, is H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft (1890-1937) is arguably most well-known for his cosmology of malevolent primordial gods, such as Cthulhu, Azathoth, and Yog-Sothoth. It’s readily evident from his writings that Lovecraft possessed an extensive knowledge of history, and he seems to have had a curiosity for archaeology and old texts, as is evident from his numerous stories which feature such things, including “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, and “The Rats in the Walls” (1).

H. P. Lovecraft was fond of history in general, but he was a great admirer of ancient Rome in particular. Lovecraft relates that, in his youth, he used to have recurring dreams in which he was a legionary tribune named Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus fighting alongside Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars (2). One line from his short story “The Rats in the Walls” gives us a hint of Lovecraft’s appreciation and admiration of Classical antiquity…

We could not repress a thrill at the knowledge that this vault was built by Roman hands. Every low arch and massive pillar was Roman—not the debased Romanesque of the bungling Saxons, but the severe and harmonious classicism of the age of the Caesars. (3)

Except for Varius Avitus Bassianus, also known as Emperor Elegabalus, one of the most corrupt, decadent, despotic tyrants that ever sat on the imperial throne – Lovecraft really didn’t like him, as he relayed in one of his letters: “That insufferable young Asiatic…There are few persons I loathe more than that cursed little Syrian rat!” (4).

In an essay on Roman literature, Lovecraft himself says this…

Few students of mankind, if truly impartial, can fail to select as the greatest of human institutions that mighty and enduring civilisation which, first appearing on the banks of the Tiber, spread throughout the known world and became the direct parent of our own. If to Greece is due the existence of all modern thought, so to Rome is due its survival and our possession of it; for it was the majesty of the Eternal City which, reducing all Western Europe to a single government, made possible the wide and uniform diffusion of the high culture borrowed from Greece, and thereby laid the foundation of European enlightenment. To this day the remnants of the Roman world exhibit a superiority over those parts which never came beneath the sway of the Imperial Mother; a superiority strikingly manifest when we contemplate the savage code and ideals of the Germans, aliens to the priceless heritage of Latin justice, humanity, and philosophy. The study of Roman literature, then, needs no plea to recommend it. It is ours by intellectual descent; our bridge to all antiquity and to those Grecian stores of art and thought which are the fountain head of existing culture. (5)

In this article, I will be examining some of the stories which H. P. Lovecraft wrote featuring aspects of the ancient Roman civilization, and how these fictional musings related to the real-life civilization that conquered most of the known world in centuries past.

Government and Military Affairs

On November 3, 1927, Lovecraft recorded a dream in which he was a Roman government official stationed in northern Spain waging a war against the hill-dwelling barbarians who practiced demonic rites. This has since been given the title of “The Very Old Folk”, although Lovecraft himself never called it that. The dream is remarkable not only for its intricate detail, but also the fact that Lovecraft was able to remember so much of it so clearly.

Lovecraft sets the scene right away: late October, sometime during the waning years of the Roman Republic, in the tiny town of Pompelo (modern-day Pamplona, Spain) within the Roman province of Hispania Citerior. The inhabitants of the town ambled about uneasy and fearful, as if anticipating something terrible was about to happen. The threat did not come from the local Vascone tribe, which the Romans were well-acquainted with. Instead, the threat came from further beyond, from the strange people who inhabited the foothills of the Pyrenees. They were “the Very Old Folk”, people who had existed there for untold generations, who spoke an archaic language that nobody could understand, and were likely the original inhabitants of this region before the arrival of the Celts and Iberians who came afterwards. Mostly they kept themselves isolated up in the hills, but once in a while they’d send someone down to the towns to trade, communicating largely through hand gestures. Twice a year, on April 30th and October 31st, these people held their sacred rites on the high hilltops, with massive bonfires erected atop sacrificial altars, and the air filled with their near-demonic howling, shrieking, and chanting. The people who lived down below in the towns were always terrified around this time. Just before these rituals took place, some of their neighbors mysteriously disappeared, and were never seen or heard from ever again. Although it was never conclusively proven, everyone took it for granted that the Very Old Folk were behind these disappearances, likely carried off to be ritually sacrificed during their bi-annual pagan orgies (6).

This year, the townsfolk of Pompelo had cause to be even more fearful than usual. Three months ago in July, five of these curious people had come down from the hills to trade in the market. However, a fight broke out which resulted in three of them getting killed, and the remaining two escaped back to their homes in the hills. Strangely, there were no disappearances reported in late October, as was usually the case. However, rather than being relieved, the townsfolk were filled with dread. It was not within the Very Old Folk’s character to be lenient, and they were worried that the Very Old Folk were planning something big, surely intent on carrying out something especially horrible upon the town’s entire population (7).

These fears seemed to be confirmed. In late October, over a period of several nights, an ominous hollow booming drumming was heard resounding from the direction of the hills where the Very Old Folk lived. Finally not being able to ignore the danger any longer, the aedile of Pompelo named Tiberius Annaeus Stilpo sent a message to Gnaeus Balbutius, the commanding officer of the 12th Legion which was headquartered in the town of Calagurris (modern-day Calahorra, Spain), located thirty-eight miles to the south, with a request to dispatch a legionary cohort to Pompelo to provide security and to attack the Very Old Folk before they could enact whatever horrors they were planning. Balbutius refused to send any help. However, a close friend of the legion’s commander, a quaestor named Lucius Caelius Rufus, believed that the threat was far greater than Balbutius had supposed, and therefore Rufus sent a messenger to the city of Tarraco (modern-day Tarragona, Spain), the capital of the province, to speak to the governor Publius Scribonius Libo about these matters. The governor was convinced that the threat was indeed serious, and so he ordered Legate Balbutius to dispatch one of his cohort battalions to Pompelo. Upon their arrival in the town, they were instructed to march into the hills and crush the Very Old Folk before they could carry out their sinister plans. Once again Balbutius refused – a flagrant act of insubordination. The quaestor Lucius Caelius Rufus sent more letters to the governor, who resolved to look into this matter personally. Accordingly, Governor Libo ordered that an emergency conference be held at Pompelo to discuss these developments and to determine what exactly ought to be done about them. Attending the conference would be Governor Libo himself, the quaestor Lucius Caelius Rufus, Legate Gnaeus Balbutius of the 12th Legion, and Tribune Sextus Asellius of the 12th Legion’s 5th Cohort (8).

On October 31, the men met to discuss the recent developments and to formulate a plan about what to do concerning the Very Old Folk. Since his arrival in the town, Governor Libo had heard many stories from terrified civilians about what sort of atrocities the Very Old Folk were capable of, and he became determined to stamp out their threat once and for all. Legate Gnaeus Balbutius cautioned against the use of military force, stating that such a heavy-handed use of arms might stir up hostility amongst the native Vascone population which had only been recently pacified. His subordinate, the pompous and arrogant cohort commander Tribune Sextus Asellius, agreed with his commander’s hesitancy, saying that they could afford to alienate the population of one provincial town, but they could not afford to incur the anger and hostility of an entire tribe. The quaestor Lucius Caelius Rufus once again pressed for action, stating that the Vascones were adversaries that the Romans could deal with, but this new threat was something far greater and ought to be dealt with right away. He bravely, or perhaps naively, volunteered to accompany any military expedition that would be sent out. In the end, Governor Libo ordered that Tribune Asellius take his 300-man battalion into the hills and attack the Very Old Folk that very evening (9).

At sunset, as the Roman legionnaires prepared to march, the low rumbling of drums could be heard echoing down from the hills. Governor Libo and Legate Gnaeus Balbutius insisted on accompanying the cohort into battle. As the column marched into enemy territory in the dark, they soon became keenly aware that they were being watched. Meanwhile, the dreadful drumming persisted, getting steadily louder and louder. And then…the horror began. The troops’ horses, which had been left below at the base of the hill, all started shrieking and screaming. At that exact same moment, bonfires spontaneously burst aflame from all of the surrounding hilltops, while all of the torches that the legionnaires were carrying began to die out. The entire column had blundered into an ambush, and one that was not carried out with arrows and javelins, but something far more sinister – black magic. The temperature suddenly and dramatically dropped. Gigantic shadowy entities were seen vaguely silhouetted against the night sky, and then all of the stars above instantly went black. As the terrified legionnaires realized that they got more than they had bargained for and cried out in panic and fear, the only light that was left came from the hilltop bonfires, raging columns of flame, and seen around them were not men, but giant hideous beasts and demons madly leaping and dancing around the Hellfire. The whole while, the pounding of the drums had grown louder and louder until they were like thunderclaps. Then, a freezing cold current of air, like an invisible icy serpent, descended down from the hills and ensnared the frightened soldiers, trapping them and leaving them flailing and thrashing to break free in their final desperate moments of life. Governor Libo’s last words were “The Old Evil, it is the Old Evil. It has come. It has finally come” (10).

“The Very Old Folk” is perhaps the most remarkable of the stories which Lovecraft wrote concerning ancient Rome because it touches on so many things which were integral to the way that the Roman Republic and Roman Empire operated on a day-to-day basis. Among the things which are addressed in this story are:

  1. The “Romanization” of conquered territories through the establishment of civilian colonies and imposing Roman customs and practices upon the natives.
  2. Government bureaucracy in the Roman Republic.
  3. The relationship between the provincial governments and Roman military forces.
  4. How governments and military units respond to real or perceived threats.

Following the end of the First Punic War, the Romans had begun to encroach into northern Spain. Conflict would eventually rise again in Spain between the Romans and Carthaginians, leading to the Second Punic War. In the aftermath of Hannibal’s defeat, many Roman citizens relocated to Spain to set up their homes and businesses. Military coloniae might have been set up as places for veterans to retire following their discharge.

Roman government officials and military commanders who were stationed in Spain tried hard to keep the peace between the natives and the Roman newcomers. Roman military commanders operating in Spain were granted much more latitude and authority to prosecute their agenda than other Roman commanders elsewhere. In addition to being given much more elbow room to conduct their operations, the Roman commanders in Spain used their position to create and cement alliances with the various Iberian and Celtic tribes that they came into contact with, mostly for the purpose of opposing the Carthaginians. Treaties were drawn up, or simple “you scratch my back” agreements were made between the Roman generals and the tribal chiefs in which the chiefs supplied warriors to serve as Roman allies in exchange for this or that. Patron-client arrangements were made and agreements of friendship were sworn. During the Second Punic War, the Roman force which opposed the Carthaginians in Spain was only half-Roman; the other half was made up of Iberian or Celtic warriors who fought alongside the Roman legions (11). In Lovecraft’s story, the local Vascones intermingled with the Roman settlers and colonists living in the town of Pompelo, existing in a sort of uneasy modus vivendi of “live and let live”.

For those locals who realized on which side their bread was buttered, the rewards could be quite lucrative. Even those who were not wholly of Roman birth could ascend to moderate positions of authority within the provinces. One well-known historical example of this concerns the Britonic chief Cogidubnus, the leader of the Regnense tribe, located in what’s now south-central England. When the Roman legions invaded Britannia in 43 AD during the reign of Emperor Claudius, he was quick to declare himself as an ally and friend of Rome, presumably as a way to spare his tribe the horrors of Roman war should he put up any kind of resistance. He also might have seen the advantages of having the Romans as your allies in inter-tribal conflicts, and he might use his new Roman connections to make himself Rome’s vassal chief over all of Britannia, but that’s just idle speculation on my part. Regardless of whatever his motives may have been, the Romans rewarded his loyalty by lavishing enough money and luxuries upon him to live a life fitting with a Roman nobleman. The remains of the Roman villa at Fishbourne, which many believe was Cogidubnus’ house, shows that he lived an extremely opulent lifestyle following the Romans’ arrival in his lands. He was even awarded Roman citizenship, and he took the name Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus (12). Another example centers on the Germanic resistance leader Arminius, who led his tribesmen to victory over the 17th, 18th, and 19th Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg in 9 AD. Prior to this, he had served as a soldier in the Roman Army. He evidently performed his duties exceptionally well, for he was rewarded for his battlefield courage by being granted Roman citizenship and he was also knighted into the Equestrian Order, thus making him a member of Rome’s aristocratic class (13).

In the story, the aedile of the town of Pompelo, Tiberius Annaeus Stilpo, was described as being half-Roman and half-native. His mother was Helvia who was of pure Roman stock, the daughter of Marcus Helvius Cinna who had fought in Spain as a soldier (possibly an officer) in the Roman Army under General Scipio Africanus. Tiberius Stilpo’s father, who is un-named in the story, was one of the native tribesmen of this region, probably a member of the local Vascone tribe, but this is never specified. It’s likely that Stilpo’s father was not just an ordinary warrior, either. He was almost certainly one of the more high-ranking members of the tribe, possibly even the chief, whom the Romans kept on as their local lacky, acting as Rome’s “man” in the region while still retaining a superficial veneer of tribal autonomy, and later acquired Roman citizenship for himself as a reward for his service to his imperial masters. No doubt his son, who also possessed Roman citizenship, would have been raised up as a Roman and given a Roman education. The fact that Tiberius Annaeus Stilpo was an aedile, a middle-ranking position in the Roman provincial bureaucracy, shows that he had already entered public service sometime earlier and had ascended through the cursus honorum, “the running of offices”, holding low-ranking offices beforehand. He was a man on the make, and was currently serving as a medium-ranking government official in a small frontier town – a good stepping-stone for someone who was not of pure Roman blood. If he performed his duties well, it was possible that he could even be knighted into the Equestrian Order, thus making him eligible for even more prestigious postings. However, at this stage in Roman history, it was extremely unlikely, if not impossible, that someone who did not possess 100% pure Italian-born Roman blood could ascend to the highest offices in the land, so poor Tiberius was not likely to ever serve as the governor of northern Spain.

The governor of the province of Hispania Citerior, Publius Scribonius Libo, held the rank of proconsul, meaning that he was a provincial governor who had formerly served as a consul in the Roman Senate. This would make him a member of the highest rank of the aristocracy in ancient Rome. Indeed, for a long time, only members of Rome’s elite senatorial class could become governors. A Roman governor was given the authority by the Roman Senate (and later by the emperor) to wield supreme political and military authority within his province. Even so, within the story, Governor Libo is not portrayed in the story as some unapproachable figure dwelling in an inaccessible ivory tower. On the contrary, it was taken for granted that you could send letters and petitions directly to the provincial governor concerning issues which you felt were serious, and there was the possibility that these matters would be addressed by him personally. Indeed, in the story “The Very Old Folk”, it shows that Governor Libo was paying close attention to the concerns of government officials who were serving within his province.

A Roman governor was not just a political official, but he was also the overall commander of all Roman military units which were operating within his jurisdiction. A Roman provincial governor served as both a bureaucrat and a general. He could order his subordinate commanders to go out on missions, or he himself could lead troops into battle, especially if the threat was deemed to be very serious. Thus, it was perfectly in accordance with Governor Publius Scribonius Libo’s power that he could order the commanding officer of the 12th Legion to dispatch one of his cohort battalions northwards to provide increased security to the frontier. It was also perfectly within his power to lead Roman military forces into battle himself if he wished. This would explain why Governor Libo insisted on accompanying a single cohort into battle against the Very Old Folk, who were deemed to be a much greater threat to the Roman settlers than the local Vascone tribe.

When threats did arise, Rome’s political and military arms needed to respond quickly and correctly. While it’s true that Rome’s usual response to a perceived threat was to send in the troops, this might not have been appropriate under all circumstances. In the story, the aedile Tiberius Annaeus Stilpo dispatched a terrified letter to the 12th Legion’s commanding officer Gnaeus Balbutius saying that his town was under threat of attack by the barbarians and he urged Legate Balbutius to quickly send one of his cohorts to defend it. When Balbutius refused, the issue was forwarded to the governor, who exerted his power and put some muscle on Balbutius to do something to counter this menace. When Balbutius again refused, saying that the report of the threat was exaggerated and responding to it might do more harm than good, a conference was convened in Pompelo in which government and military personnel assessed the dangers posed against Roman provinces and discussed the best way to go about dealing with them. Rome’s hold in Spain was still rather tenuous, and the legions were often dispatched to deal with troublesome tribes who resisted Rome’s dominance of that region. Legate Balbutius expressed concerns that displaying a massive and perhaps disproportionate show of military force in the region might be taken as a threat towards those native tribes who had only been recently pacified, such as the nearby Vascones, and might induce them to take up arms against Rome once again. Some might call Balbutius’ decision cowardly, but it seems more likely to be calculated. Balbutius was a man who weighed his options and carefully considered all possibilities. From his point of view, sending in the troops might alleviate the fears of the townsfolk of Pompelo, but it might stir up resentment and hostility amongst the natives who far out-numbered the Roman settlers.

While the notion of military and government officials meeting together to discuss options for how to respond to a potential crisis is in itself understandable, I find the circumstances of this particular example to be utterly unbelievable. If a leading political official sent word that there was a threat, I’m not sure if the nearby military commander would have hesitated or even refused to respond. Furthermore, seeing as how the Roman governor exercised supreme military authority within the province, Balbutius initially refusing the governor’s order to march to Pompelo is unthinkable – that would have NEVER happened in reality. Any subordinate commander who outright defied the governor’s order would have been immediately arrested and charged with insubordination, mutiny, and possibly even treason for daring to defy the governor’s authority. Despite the fact that this story contains elements of witchcraft and demonic rights, I find this particular section to be the most unbelievable part of Lovecraft’s tale. In the end, Governor Libo ordered that a battalion of troops should be dispatched to Pompelo to conduct a tactical strike. This decision would have fatal consequences.

Religions and Cults

Religion was a dominant feature of day-to-day life in ancient Rome. So much of people’s lives and even affairs of State revolved around one’s duties and devotions to the gods and spirits. From my own study of ancient Roman religious practices, I can attest that many of their beliefs and customs were downright bizarre. In some cases, even ancient Romans themselves, such as Plutarch, questioned why certain beliefs and rituals existed (click here for Plutarch’s writings). Because these sacred rites had been practiced for so long, nobody remembered the original reasons why they were practiced, and therefore they continued to be carried out purely out of tradition and custom.

This trend of carrying out rites and rituals which were, for all intents and purposes, nonsensical or in some cases deranged purely because these same rituals had been carried out for centuries and centuries, for as far back as anybody could remember and beyond, and since there was the imperative that the mos maiorum, “the ways of the ancestors”, the old traditions and customs, needed to be preserved at all costs, all of this served as the central focus of one of H. P. Lovecraft’s most well-known short stories entitled “The Rats in the Walls”. This is widely regarded as one of Lovecraft’s best works, and it’s one of my personal favorites as well.

The story goes like this: After the end of World War One, a man from Massachusetts named Mr. Delapore (his first name is never mentioned) travels to England to restore the ruins of his family’s ancestral home, Exham Priory. The site had a long history, with evidence of habitation dating back as far as the pre-Roman period, but the place was also universally hated by the people who lived near it, and the De La Poer family who lived there were equally reviled. After a great amount of work and expense, Mr. Delapore moved in, changing his name to the original De La Poer spelling which was used during Norman times. However, shortly after his decision to stay, he was disturbed by the continuous sounds of scratching and movement inside the walls. Believing his home to have suddenly been infested with mice or rats, he and some companions investigated these disturbances, travelling down to the basement…only to discover that there was yet another basement that lay underneath which nobody knew existed. When the blocked-up entrance way was opened, they were horrified at what they saw. In an underground cavern, which Exham Priory had been built atop, hundreds of thousands of skeletons were found. It turns out that the De La Poer family were cannibals, and for four centuries, they had farmed people as human livestock, keeping them locked up in cages inside this cave. This ancestral cannibalism went back for thousands of years. The Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, and Celts who inhabited this particular spot all practiced cannibalism, which they apparently copied from the primitive ape-like cave men who first called this place their home. The revelation of all of this literally drives Mr. De La Poer insane, and in his madness, he kills one of his companions and starts eating him. He is seized and locked up in a mental asylum for the rest of his life (14).

There is a portion of this story when Mr. De La Poer and his companion Capt. Edward Norrys are in the basement of the house, and in the center of the room is a large stone altar which is attributed to the Romans. It is later discovered that this altar is actually covering up a passageway into a subterranean chamber. This sounds remarkably like the temple of Dis Pater, the ancient Roman god-ruler of the Underworld. Dis Pater’s temple consisted of a subterranean room, round in shape, with a large round altar in the middle. The altar itself was hollow, and was regarded by the Romans as a portal to the Underworld. Three times per year (one of which was on October 5), the ancient Romans would remove the large table-stone and cast sacrificial offerings into the pit which the altar covered up. Being a man who was well-educated in Roman history and lore, I imagine that H. P. Lovecraft came across the description of Dis Pater’s temple and the rituals associated with it, and decided to include something akin to it in his own writings.

In “The Rats in the Walls”, Lovecraft makes an accusation that the followers of the goddess Cybele (also known as Magna Mater, “the Great Mother”) and her lover Attis practiced cannibalism. To be fair, Lovecraft elaborates that Exham Priory, where this story takes place, began its life as a holy site amongst the Celts and possibly even before; afterwards when the Romans arrived and erected a temple to Cybele upon the same spot, they incorporated some of the Celtic rituals which had been practiced there into their own. Among these was the eating of human flesh.

Piecing together the tales which Norrys collected for me, and supplementing them with the accounts of several savants who had studied the ruins, I deduced that Exham Priory stood on the site of a prehistoric temple; a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge. That indescribable rites had been celebrated there, few doubted; and there were unpleasant tales of the transference of these rites into the Cybele-worship which the Romans had introduced. Inscriptions still visible in the sub-cellar bore such unmistakable letters as “DIV… OPS… MAGNA MAT…” sign of the Magna Mater whose dark worship was once vainly forbidden to Roman citizens. Anchester had been the camp of the third Augustan legion, as many remains attest, and it was said that the temple of Cybele was splendid and thronged with worshippers who performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian priest. Tales added that the fall of the old religion did not end the orgies at the temple, but that the priests lived on in the new faith without real change. Likewise was it said that the rites did not vanish with the Roman power, and that certain among the Saxons added to what remained of the temple, and gave it the essential outline it subsequently preserved, making it the centre of a cult feared through half the heptarchy. (15)

We could not repress a thrill at the knowledge that this vault was built by Roman hands. Every low arch and massive pillar was Roman — not the debased Romanesque of the bungling Saxons, but the severe and harmonious classicism of the age of the Caesars; indeed, the walls abounded with inscriptions familiar to the antiquarians who had repeatedly explored the place things like “P. GETAE. PROP… TEMP… DONA…” and “L. PRAEC… VS… PONTIFI… ATYS…”. The reference to Atys made me shiver, for I had read Catullus and knew something of the hideous rites of the Eastern god, whose worship was so mixed with that of Cybele. Norrys and I, by the light of lanterns, tried to interpret the odd and nearly effaced designs on certain irregularly rectangular blocks of stone generally held to be altars, but could make nothing of them. We remembered that one pattern, a sort of rayed sun, was held by students to imply a non-Roman origin, suggesting that these altars had merely been adopted by the Roman priests from some older and perhaps aboriginal temple on the same site. On one of these blocks were some brown stains which made me wonder. The largest, in the centre of the room, had certain features on the upper surface which indicated its connexion with fire—probably burnt offerings. (16)

Sir William, standing with his searchlight in the Roman ruin, translated aloud the most shocking ritual I have ever known; and told of the diet of the antediluvian cult which the priests of Cybele found and mingled with their own. (17)

I have not found any mention in the ancient Roman sources that the worship of Cybele was replete with barbarous and unspeakable rites, nor have I found any mention that the worship of this goddess had been outlawed by the State. H. P. Lovecraft mentions the writings of the ancient Roman poet Catullus, and presumably the old author made reference to some horrifying things that went on in connection with Attis. “Poem 63” is the one which is almost certainly the one that Lovecraft is basing this anecdotal reference upon (18). While it’s true that the Galli – the fanatically devoted priests of Cybele and Attis – deliberately castrated themselves, whipped their own backs, and inflicted all manner of corporal punishments upon themselves in their ecstatic devotions (please click here to read an article that I wrote about this), there is no mention whatsoever that they inflicted torture upon anybody, or performed human sacrifices, or practiced cannibalism. So, as to what the “hideous rites” were which Lovecraft is referring to in connection with Attis and Cybele, they are likely products of his fertile and furtive imagination.

As to the cannibalism which is mentioned in the story, it is stated by Lovecraft that the worshipers of Cybele and Attis didn’t always do this – they adopted this practice from the people who had previously enacted their holy rites upon this spot before the Romans took the place over and made it their own. This implies that, as a whole, the worshipers of Cybele and Attis did not practice cannibalism. However this particular congregation, for whatever reason, did. Perhaps the prospect of eating human flesh was so alluring and tantalizing to them that they just HAD to do it, and from then on, they didn’t stop. I’ll learn ye how to gust – “I’ll teach you how to love the taste of it”.

This Too Shall Pass

“Ibid” was written by H. P. Lovecraft in either 1927 or 1928, but it wasn’t published until January 1938. Unlike many of Lovecraft’s work, this one is not a horror story. It is, instead, a parody of academic literature. The story is presented as an antiquarian’s biography of a Roman rhetorician named Ibidus who lived in Italy from 486 to 587 AD. This fictional biography is full of tropes associated with academic publications, such as its incessant use of Latin phrases and abbreviations, contesting and negating the claims put forwards by other historians and antiquarians, nit-picking and quibbling over minor trivial factoids which aren’t really all that important to the overall story, citing obscure academic tomes (especially those written in German) as references, and automatically assuming that the reader knows exactly what he is talking about (19). Click here to read an article which I wrote concerning this particular issue.

In this fictional biography, Ibid’s life story begins with varied reports of his uncertain parentage, with some authors claiming that he was a Roman and others saying that he was in fact a Visigoth who had adopted Roman culture. It’s uncertain if he was born in Rome or Ravenna, but it’s acknowledged that he was educated in Athens. In 512 AD, he worked in Rome as a rhetoric instructor, and held the consulship four years later. In 526 AD, he retired to private life to compose his verses, written in the elaborate Shakespearean Latin of Cicero. However, soon afterwards, he was summoned by the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy to serve as a member of his court. He was imprisoned for a time, but was afterwards freed by the Byzantines when they took possession of Rome and he served as a soldier in General Belisarius’ army. He relocated to the Byzantine Empire and served as a prominent member of Emperor Justinian’s court. The aged Ibid died peacefully in his bed on October 26, 587 AD at the glorious age of 102 (20).

And then, things get very complicated. His body was entombed in Ravenna, Italy (the place where he was presumably born). However, when the Lombards invaded northern Italy, his tomb was broken into and the skull removed from the rest of his body. Ibid’s skull became part of the Lombardic crown jewels, passed from one king to the next, until it was taken as a spoil of war when Charlemagne defeated the Lombards. The skull subsequently was in the possession of various historic and non-historic personages, from Charlemagne, to William the Conqueror (who believed that the skull belonged to a Christian saint), to various others, down through the centuries until it was finally discarded near what would become the present-day site of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (21).

“Ibid”, in addition to being a mockery of academic literature, also speaks to a certain degree of the ludicrousness of historical events. Things occurred within poor Ibid’s life and after it by pure happenstance or by peculiar twists of fate. The detail about William the Conqueror believing that the skull belonged to a Christian saint, and then having it ensconced within a holy reliquary where it was prayed to by the innocent and naïve who believed that it was sacred, is especially laughable, since it’s highly likely that many supposed holy relics aren’t actually holy at all. Life, to a certain degree, is purely random. Ibid’s legacy may have been forgotten, for nobody remembered him as a teacher, soldier, and royal courtier, but his physical self lived on in the form of his severed skull, passed down through the ages as a plundered spoil, then as a venerated Christian relic, and then finally as a quaint curio to display on a shelf in one’s house, with no knowledge whatsoever of the life of the man that it once belonged to. Our study of ancient history is like this to an extent. There is simply so much that we don’t know. Whenever archaeologists uncover broken pieces of pottery, or jewelry, or perhaps the ruins of a house, most of the time we don’t know who these things belonged to. Yes, we have the physical objects themselves, and we can analyze the hell out of them in terms of their physical properties, but in terms of what these objects meant to the person who owned them, that will remain forever unknown to us. When bones are found in a grave, most of the time their identity remains mysterious – it’s very rare to find a name attached to human remains from so long ago. Nearly all of the time we have no idea what their names were, how they lived their lives, if they had families, if they were happy, if they were loved, and if they were missed when they were gone. Most of the time, these things remain forever hidden to us. One wonders how our own remains will be looked at by future generations several thousand years from now, when our gravestones have been broken and the surviving inscriptions worn flat and illegible. Will people look on our bones and imagine some average person living out a tedious mundane day-to-day existence, or will they fantasize that our lives were filled with adventure and glory? Who can say?


H. P. Lovecraft was many things – scholar, writer, poet, introvert, Romanticist, and racist. He was, to a great degree, a man who was born in the wrong time, better suited to the sensibilities of the 18th Century than the modern world. He died young at the age of just 46 from intestinal cancer, and he died impoverished and unknown. During his life, very few people read his stories and few knew his name. In life he was a failure, but in death he became a roaring success…similar in some ways to the curious story of Ibid. Lovecraft had been relegated to being an obscure footnote for nearly four decades following his death, but beginning in the 1970s, people began to take a greater interest in Lovecraft’s work. Today, H. P. Lovecraft is regarded as one of the greatest horror writers of all time (22).

Source Citations

  1. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. Narrated by Robin Atkin Downes. Directed by Frank H. Woodward. 2008.
  2. “The Very Old Folk”, by H. P. Lovecraft (letter sent from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei on November 3, 1927).
  3. “The Rats in the Walls”, by H. P. Lovecraft (March 1924).
  4. “The Very Old Folk”, by H. P. Lovecraft (letter sent from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei on November 3, 1927).
  5. “The Literature of Rome”, by H. P. Lovecraft.
  6. “The Very Old Folk”, by H. P. Lovecraft (letter sent from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei on November 3, 1927).
  7. “The Very Old Folk”, by H. P. Lovecraft (letter sent from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei on November 3, 1927).
  8. “The Very Old Folk”, by H. P. Lovecraft (letter sent from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei on November 3, 1927).
  9. “The Very Old Folk”, by H. P. Lovecraft (letter sent from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei on November 3, 1927).
  10. “The Very Old Folk”, by H. P. Lovecraft (letter sent from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei on November 3, 1927).
  11. Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 7 – “Romans and Carthaginians in Spain”.
  12. A History of Britain, episode 1 – “Beginnings”. BBC, 2000.
  13. Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 118.
  14. “The Rats in the Walls”, by H. P. Lovecraft (March 1924).
  15. “The Rats in the Walls”, by H. P. Lovecraft (March 1924).
  16. “The Rats in the Walls”, by H. P. Lovecraft (March 1924).
  17. “The Rats in the Walls”, by H. P. Lovecraft (March 1924).
  18. “Carmen 63”, by Catullus.
  19. “Ibid”, by H. P. Lovecraft (January 1938).
  20. “Ibid”, by H. P. Lovecraft (January 1938).
  21. “Ibid”, by H. P. Lovecraft (January 1938).
  22. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. Narrated by Robin Atkin Downes. Directed by Frank H. Woodward. 2008.


Categories: History, Uncategorized

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2 replies

  1. It’s easy to find writings about Lovecraft. It’s hard to find new pieces that say anything new about him. This is a thoroughly fascinating – and to my knowledge – unexplored look at Lovecraft’s interest in Roman history and where it showed up in his stories and his grand mythos! I’m sure I’ll revisit this essay again.

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