Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered by many to have only gained due recognition in recent times, with new research showing that it has increased within the British army amongst veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But suggestions of the condition can be seen throughout the history of human warfare and its aftermath. Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam has turned the mythological war hero into an ancient example of PTSD and this has led to further readings of other figures in antiquity.
Epizelus was an Athenian solider who fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In Herodotus’ Histories he is recorded as having what we would now diagnose as hysterical blindness or a conversion disorder. Herodotus refers to the events of battle as leading to his blindness and evidence that supports our contemporary reading, of these symptoms as those of PTSD, can be seen later in the European Middle Ages.
The soldiers of William the Conqueror are recorded as nearly rebelling against their leader because they felt he had gone too far in the Harrying of the North, a brutal conquest that followed the Battle of Hastings. Later, 15th-century French soldiers were in fact celebrated for going ‘berserk’ due to the traumas of war whilst non-combatants were mocked.
But this viewing of historical trauma amongst soldiers through the filter of PTSD must not neglect the cultural norms of their societies and the attitudes towards combat. Killing rivals was culturally just and was certainly not observed with the pacifist sentiments of today. The rise of PTSD in our society can be in part be attributed to soldiers not receiving the validation and unquestioned approval of the majority of society.
Applicants for Classics and History can consider the way in which we interpret sources within our modern ideological psyche. Psychology applicants can try to apply this historical evidential support to other modern psychological developments.