Today, PTSD and mental trauma is a topic that rightfully gets a lot of awareness. But when you think about it, then that kind of awareness is pretty new and you don`t have to go that far back in history to find a time in which PTSD was not recognized. That got me thinking. Can we find evidence for PTSD (or at least for symptoms we would attribute to PTSD) in Antiquity and the Middle Ages? Or in other words. Did ancient and medieval warriors suffer from PTSD?
Several sources written by ancient Greek historians like Xenophon or Herodotus describe behavior that today would probably be described as PTSD. In ancient Rome, the so-called missio causaria allowed soldiers to leave the army because of physical or mental disabilities they suffered during their service. It seems likely that symptoms that we would describe as PTSD also occurred as a result of medieval warfare.
Let`s take a closer look!
Did ancient Greek soldiers suffer from PTSD?
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD is defined as „a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat (…)“. One of the many symptoms that people suffering from PTSD might show is re-experiencing memories of the traumatic event, for example in the shape of nightmares. Another symptom might be having difficulties finding their way into „normal“ life.
With that in mind, several ancient Greek sources seem to describe what we today would call PTSD. Now I chose the wording „seem to describe“ deliberately since it is impossible to diagnose anybody through a written source. With that said, I would now like to look at the evidence of PTSD in ancient Greek sources.
The first source we have to look at is a play written by the Athenian tragedian Euripides (who lived between 480 and 406 BC). The Athenian tragedian Euripides wrote several plays about the Trojan War. In one of them, the great Greek warrior Ajax began to have terrible nightmares in which he was haunted by his wartime experiences after he had returned home after the Greek victory over Troy. Influenced by one of his nightmares he slew a flock of sheep which he believed to be enemies coming for him. When he awoke from his nightmare he killed himself in distress.
Yes, that was just a theatre play. But the fact that Euripides wrote that kind of story into his play strongly indicates that there must have been real-life situations from which he could have drawn inspiration.
But there are more hints. And the next two hints can also not be found in plays but in the reports of actual battles.
The first report can be found in the Anabasis (often translated as „The March of the Ten Thousand“), 7 books in which the military leader, historian, and philosopher Xenophon (probably 430-355 BC) describes the expedition of a large Greek mercenary army in the Persian Empire. There, the army is hired by the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger to overthrow his brother, the Persian King Artaxerxes II.. Xenophon himself was actually a part of that army of mercenaries!
In the Anabasis, Xenophon mentions a Spartan warrior who most likely suffered from what we would call PTSD. After having been at war for too long, this Spartan officer could not find his way back into civilian life.
Now that is already a clear indication of PTSD in ancient Greece and ancient Sparta.
But an even clearer report of PTSD and the recognition of PTSD in Ancient Greece comes from the Greek writer Herodotus. In his report on the Greco-Persian Wars, Herodotus talks about a Hoplite called Epizelus who fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
In the following, I will quote from the Histories of Herodotus, a book that I can highly recommend to everybody interested in the Greco-Persian Wars and the origins of that series of conflicts between Greeks and Persians. You can find the Histories of Herodotus here* on Amazon.
„Epizelus, the son of Cuphagaros, an Athenian, was in the thick of the fray, and behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly he was stricken with blindness, without blow from sword or dart; and this blindness continued thenceforth during the whole of his after life. The following is the account which he himself, as I have heard, gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a huge beard, which shaded all his shield, stood over against him, but the ghostly semblance passed him by and slew the man at his side“. (Herodotus 6.117. 2-3)*
So Herodotus tells us about a Greek Hoplite who, without any physical wounds, went blind after one of his comrades was killed right next to him in the Battle of Marathon. That might sound odd, but sudden (often temporary blindness) has also been reported in both World Wars as a result of the impact of the battle on the mind.
So both Xenophon and Herodotus report incidents of Greek and Spartan warriors suffering from PTSD (or what we would call PTSD)
Speaking of Epizelus and his permanent blindness. When Epizelus and his surviving comrades returned to Athens after the Battle of Marathon he was equally treated like a war hero as somebody who, for example, had lost an arm.
So it shows that PTSD did not only exist in ancient Greece, it was also recognized as one of the potential consequences of going to war.
The recognition of PTSD as a consequence of going to war is even more obvious in the Roman era. Let`s take a look!
Did Roman soldiers suffer from PTSD?
While PTSD in Ancient Greece is mostly implied in the sources, the same can not be said for Ancient Rome. In Ancient Rome PTSD (or what we would call PTSD) was not only implied, but because of the so-called missio causaria we actually know of its existence!
The missio causaria allowed Roman soldiers who could no longer fight because of physical injuries and disabilities to leave the Roman military with all the benefits and the pension that an honorable discharge after fulfilling the full length of service brought with it.
Both the length of service in the Roman army as well as the retirement and pensions that a Roman soldier could expect after his honorable discharge are topics I already wrote articles on. Additionally, you can also find an article on the missio causaria and the 2 other ways to leave the Roman army alive in my article here.
But the missio causaria was not exclusive to physical disabilities!
The Missio Causaria (an honorable discharge because of disability that allowed soldiers to claim their full retirement and their pensions) could also be claimed for a condition that Romans called „a wounded mind“ (today we would probably call it PTSD). The condition had to be determined by a committee of 3 army physicians.
If the condition was determined and the soldier was seen as unfit to continue his service because of his wounded mind, then he would receive the missio causaria. Here you can find out more about what happened to these men and how they lived out the rest of their days.
So, the Romans knew mental trauma and PTSD and acknowledged it as a reason for an early, honorable discharge from the Roman military.
Now we have found indications of PTSD in both Ancient Greece and ancient Rome. But what about the Middle Ages?
Did medieval soldiers suffer from PTSD?
Well, unlike with the parts on ancient Greece and Rome, I actually struggled to find any sources for PTSD in the Middle Ages.
But since there are clear indications for PTSD in both ancient Greek and Roman warfare I think one can assume that the same can also be said for medieval warfare, especially since the technology used in medieval battles didn`t differ that much from the technology used by the Greeks and Romans.
Do you want to read more about medieval warfare and how medieval battles worked? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can for comparison find out how the Roman legions fought their battles.
To finish this article off I would like to return to the beginning and once again state that everything mentioned in this article is an indication. It is impossible to accurately state whether or not the described behavior was really PTSD as we would identify it today. I still hope you found our trip into the less-known side of ancient and medieval warfare and its consequences on the men fighting in it interesting.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Alan M. Greaves: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Ancient Greece: A Methodological Review.
Richard A. Gabriel: On ancient warfare perspectives on aspects of war in Antiquity 4000 BC to AD 637 (Philiadelphia 2018).
Korneel van Lommel: The terminology of the medical discharge and an identity shift among the Roman disabled veterans; in: The ancient history bulletin (2013).
Xenophon: Anabasis: The March Up Country (Translated by H.G. Dakyns, 2017).
Herodotus: The Histories (Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, 2003).