Reflections on PTSD-like Symptoms in Greek Literature

Reflections on PTSD-like Symptoms in Greek Literature(1).
By James R. Holbrook

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about PTSD-like symptoms experienced by an Athenian warrior in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The warrior went blind when the soldier next to him was killed, even though the blinded soldier “was wounded in no part of his body.”

Herodotus also reports that, at the battle of Thermopylae Pass in 480 B.C., the Spartan commander Leonidas dismissed some of his troops from joining in the battle because they were psychologically worn out from previous fighting: “They had no heart for the fight and were unable to take their share in the danger.”

Homer’s poems describe the loss, rage, guilt, and madness that psychologically wounded soldiers have experienced for thousands of years. In Homer’s poem “The Iliad,” the warrior Ajax, arguably suffering from PTSD, goes mad, kills a flock of sheep he thought were the enemy, and then commits suicide. In “The Iliad,” Achilles goes berserk after the death in battle of his friend Patroclus and proceeds to slaughter hundreds of Trojans.

In Homer’s poem “The Odyssey’,” Odysseus suffers from PTSD-like symptoms, takes a 10-year long journey confronting numerous trials and challenges, as he tries to return home after war.   

Sophocles wrote two plays “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” 2,500 years ago that explore the effects of war on warriors’ minds. Sophocles even used expressions that have been translated as “the thousand yard stare” and “shell-shocked.”

1. See generally, Steve Bentley, A Short History of PTSD: From Thermopylae to Hue:
Soldiers Have Always Had A Disturbing Reaction To War, The VVA Veteran (March/April 2005), http://www.vva.org/archive/TheVeteran/2005_03/feature_HistoryPTSD.htm.


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