Battle scars: Did Achilles suffer from PTSD?

A historian mulls modern and ancient soldiers’ susceptibility to PTSD

September 4, 2014

Source: Alamy

War: hoplites faced limited threats

Were ancient Greek warriors the relentless killing machines we find in popular culture or did they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder just like their modern counterparts?

The dispute goes back to the aftermath of the Vietnam War, says Jason Crowley, lecturer in ancient history at Manchester Metropolitan University, when traumatised veterans were sometimes accused of being “morally weak or part of a decadent generation”. One of the responses was to claim that soldiers have been psychologically damaged by war since the dawn of time, and that “if Achilles could suffer from PTSD, anyone could suffer from it”.

Many scholars, as Dr Crowley puts it in his forthcoming paper “Beyond the universal soldier: combat trauma in classical antiquity”, have now retrospectively diagnosed ancient Greek fighters as “traumatised by their experiences of war”. In order to test the validity of this idea, he decided to compare the American infantryman with the Athenian hoplite.

Both, the paper acknowledges, shared the same “grim task to close with and kill the enemy”. Both found combat “intensely frightening” and notable for “physical hardship”. Yet in every other respect their experiences were utterly different.

American infantrymen grew up in a society based on “Christianised norms and values, stressing peace, mercy and the sanctity of human life”. They largely “served in military units comprised of complete strangers” and often had to fight round the clock for extended periods. They could do little more than “seek safety in cover and concealment” on battlefields “traversed by red-hot, razor-sharp shrapnel and high-velocity gunfire”. Sleep deprivation, lack of social support, enforced passivity in the face of lethal danger and a sense of going against their underlying values all combined to make war deeply traumatic.

None of this, Dr Crowley’s paper goes on, applied to Athenian hoplites. They lived in a “profoundly pugnacious” society that “venerated war”, and where “battlefield bravery” was “considered an unqualified social good”. Soldiers “mobilised, deployed and fought alongside” those from their local communities in “a close-order formation predicated on mutual protection and tactical interdependency”.

“Largely protected against progressive exhaustion and sleep deprivation”, they faced a limited range of threats from “warriors armed with muscle-powered weapons”.

All these factors, Dr Crowley’s paper concludes, protected ancient soldiers against the dangers of PTSD.

“The whole idea of feeling bad after harming an enemy is totally alien to Greek culture,” says Dr Crowley. “Grave markers include tallies of the numbers a soldier has killed, something very hard to imagine today.”

Dr Crowley’s paper appears in a new book, Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks (edited by Peter Meineck and David Konstan), shortly to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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