New Eyes on Combat Trauma

Trying to study ancient history without discussing the topic of warfare is like making a tuna sandwich without any bread... or tuna for that matter. Warfare may not be a pleasant topic in the modern world, but in ancient Greece and Rome it was a constant reality which they obsessed over.

 The topic of war was ever-present in Greek and Roman art work, in their dramas, in their philosophies, and of course, in their histories - warfare was a major focal point of both classical cultures. Yet, as we know from modern studies into the psychological traumas experienced by our modern combat veterans, warfare is not a pleasant experience and can have some very damaging, long lasting, effects on the minds of its participants. Which raises an interesting question: did the soldiers of the classical world experience similar psychological effects from war?

Today this topic of trauma comes under the title of ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD), with the term ‘Combat Trauma’ used to separate the specifically military related experiences that caused the trauma. Before now this phenomenon has had a variety of names such as Battle Fatigue (2nd World War), Shell-shock (1st World War) and Soldier’s Heart (American Civil War). The symptoms of PTSD are wide ranging and include things like depression, flashbacks and nightmares, being ‘on-edge’ or hyper-vigilant, and even substance abuse. While the full range of factors involved in someone suffering with PTSD is still being extensively researched, what is interesting for the historian is that our ancient sources offer portrayals of behaviour similar to what we now recognise as indicating possible combat trauma.

The Roman poet Lucretius, writing in the mid-1st century BC, describes the impact of dreams on even the mightiest men. He is describing how people act out in dreams what they do in real life, with specific reference to combat related nightmares:

“Kings capture cities, are themselves led captive, join battle, and cry out aloud as if they were being stabbed then and there. Many struggle desperately and give groans of pain and, as though they were being devoured by the jaws of a panther or savage lion, fill the whole place with loud shrieks.” (On the Nature of Things, 4.1011-20)

One such ‘mighty man’ in the Roman Republic was the general, and military innovator, Gaius Marius. In his biography, written by Plutarch in the late 1st to early 2nd century AD, the impact of war becomes self-evident:

“But Marius himself, now worn out with toils, deluged, as it were, with anxieties, and wearied, could not sustain his spirits, which shook within him as he again faced the overpowering thought of a new war, of fresh struggles, of terrors known by experience to be dreadful, and of utter weariness . . . Tortured by such reflections, and bringing into review his long wandering, his flights, and his perils, as he was driven over land and sea, he fell into a state of dreadful despair, and was a prey to nightly terrors and harassing dreams . . . And since above all things he dreaded the sleepless nights, he gave himself up to drinking-bouts and drunkenness at unseasonable hours and in a manner unsuited to his years, trying thus to induce sleep as a way of escape from his anxious thoughts.” (Life of Gaius Marius, 45.3)

We can find a similar reflection in a few classical Greek sources, such as that of the 5th century BC rhetorician called Gorgias who tried to explain the impact of fear on soldiers:

“And some people before now, on seeing frightful things [in war], have also lost their presence of mind at the present moment; fear so extinguishes and expels thought. And many have fallen into groundless distress and terrible illness and incurable madness; so deeply does sight engrave on the mind images of actions that are seen.” (Encomium of Helen, 16-17)

Gorgias was writing during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), and his description does have an earlier precedent, which we find in Herodotus:

“an Athenian, Epizelus son of Couphagoras, was fighting as a brave man in the battle when he was deprived of his sight, though struck or hit nowhere on his body, and from that time on he spent the rest of his life in blindness . . . he saw opposing him a tall armed man, whose beard overshadowed his shield, but the phantom passed him by and killed the man next to him.” (Histories, 6.117.2-3)

Struck blind in the midst of battle, without physical injury, Epizelus stands as a strong case for some experiential continuity in the face of battle between modern and ancient soldiers. But to claim that our soldiers’ experiences are the same as the soldiers of the ancient world is a mistake; where we differ most is in our cultural reactions to these traumatised veterans, but that is a topic for another post.

Owen Rees is a freelance historian and writer.