A reader on PTSD in ancient Greece

Editor’s note: reader Stephan Berry, who also contributed to Ancient Warfare in the past, sent me his comments regarding the interesting debate article on PTSD in ancient Greece, written by Jason Crowley and Owen Rees and published in our fiftieth issue. I print his letter below with only minor edits. For those interested in further information on this topic, an article on PTSD in ancient Rome will be published in the near future in a forthcoming issue of Ancient Warfare.

I found the article on ‘PTSD in ancient Greece’ (Ancient Warfare IX.4) by Owen Rees and Jason Crowley very interesting, in particular since I have been asking myself the very question for some time: why are there apparently no ancient accounts of psychological problems – similar to our modern PTSD – given the fact that war must have been a cruel and stressful experience then as much as it is today.

As Rees has shown, there are examples of exactly such behaviour in the sources. In addition to the three cases he has presented (the ‘madness’ described by Gorgias; Epizelus and Clearchus as candidates for PTSD themselves), I am confident a systematic survey of the literature would find more instances, from both ancient Greece and other cultures.

The occurrence of PTSD (or related conditions) in Antiquity cannot come as a surprise. Research in the fields of anthropology, neurobiology, psychology, and psychiatry has accumulated evidence for universal mechanisms in the human brain, irrespective of the particular culture one lives in. The way the brain reacts to  traumatic experiences is surely one area where this applies.

How do relativists tackle this kind of evidence? Basically, they just do not discuss it in depth, and this tendency is also present in Jason Crowley’s article. Equally conspicuous seems that Crowley picks up only one example out of three given by Rees for discussion. Even if one would follow Crowley’s analysis of Clearchus’ particular case as presented by Xenophon, it is still merely a single case.

I am also unconvinced by the way Crowley plays down the hardships of ancient warfare, in order to demonstrate that modern warfare is much more stressful compared to those earlier times. Admittedly, a shrapnel exploding next to you can have a much more terrible effect than a single stab with a sarissa or a pilum could ever have had. However, one must not underestimate the dangers ancient fighters were exposed to, and one must not think only of set piece battles here: an army marching through enemy terrain was extremely vulnerable, probably more so than its modern counterpart. Likewise, logistics was much more difficult than today, and an army had to split at times into small groups of soldiers for foraging, with a high risk of being captured or killed by the enemy.

Crowley’s views depend crucially on the notion that different culturally-encoded values can have a decisive effect: ancient Greeks were living in a society that glorified fighting, so the hoplite never experienced a moral dilemma when he killed other humans, while modern soldiers live in societies influenced by Christian values, yielding problems of conscience and ultimately – in some instances – PTSD. This is a basic tenet of all relativist positions: it is assumed that by choosing the proper set of values, a society could in principle shape human behaviour into any conceivable form.

But, first, it should be noted that a moral dilemma is not a necessary ingredient for developing PTSD: modern victims of crimes or survivors of natural disasters are frequently affected by it, and not because they feel they have transgressed moral boundaries.

Second, I think once again that Crowley exaggerates the differences between ancient and modern conditions to make his case. A modern society can both value military skills (pacifism and the idea of all-embracing forgiveness surely don’t play a central role in the training of modern units such as, say, the US Marines), and appreciate the benefits of peace at the same time. Ancient societies had to cope with this contradiction, too: as Arthur Eckstein has shown in his Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (2009), Greek city-states lived in a constant state of war and concomitant fear, not because they valued war so much higher than anything else, but because their political system was unable to provide the lasting peace that so many people desired.

And even Sparta, certainly one of the societies with the most stringent brainwashing regimes throughout world history, could not eradicate natural behaviour like flight or surrender from the brains of her hoplites, despite a centuries-old tradition of training to achieve exactly this.

Therefore, I remain highly skeptical whether having ‘different values’ than us was effective to keep ancient fighters from developing a condition such as PTSD.

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