Painting depicting the Greek hero Ajax, who had symptoms of PTSD. (Sorrowful Ajax, Asmus Jacob Carstens, ca. 1791)
Last September, I began a history course that was the culmination of my last four years of college. My “Senior Seminar” was definitely a challenge, and required a lengthy research project. I thought long and hard about what I would write about. Maybe it makes me a nerd, but I did not want to just do any paper just to get a grade, I wanted it to mean something to me. Then it hit me: I needed to combine my interests, both personal and academic. I have often kept myself motivated by remembering that I am not the first person to deal with PTSD after coming home from war. Since I had to write a paper, I decided to see how PTSD has affected others in ancient cultures. I looked into the ancient Mediterranean to see if the Greeks and Romans ever had trouble with PTSD. This was a great way for me to turn the page on the last four years, as my studies have taken me through human history, but my personal life has been rocked by the after effects of war. When I told Nicole what I was planning, she lit up. She was very interested in what I might find out, so once I saw her enthusiasm I knew that I was doing the right thing. When my professor returned my proposal, she also seemed interested, which actually worried me a little bit. I accepted the challenge, and the journey of writing the paper was one that I will always remember. It was a project that excited me, surprised me, exhausted me, and revealed the timeless nature of trauma.
When I first started doing the research, I thought I might have made a mistake. There are not a lot of sources that talk about PTSD in ancient Greece and Rome because it was not a recognized condition. But after some advice from my professor I looked at some great books from Vietnam veterans Lawrence Tritle (From Melos to My Lai: War and Survival) and Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the undoing of Character). These two soldiers and authors laid some great groundwork, and also reassured me that it was not an impossible task. Nicole helped me find some sources from the mental health world. After going through those sources, things started to come together.
Odysseus, of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, exhibited signs of PTSD (Head of Odysseus from a Greek 2nd century BC marble)
I read through some classics like Homer’s Illiad, and his Odyssey, and found out that both Achilles and Odysseus had shown symptoms of PTSD that were clearly described but not recognized. I also read the play Ajax by Sophocles, where the title character Ajax comes home from the Trojan War, has a sort of flashback, slaughters a herd of livestock, then runs away from his wife and tragically commits suicide. These were some of the examples that I found in ancient fiction, but there were also some realistic examples. I looked through a portion of “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius and where he wrote about the Roman general Gaius Marius having nightmares, waking up screaming in the middle of the night, and going mad after returning home from war.
I found myself relating to many of these stories as I read them. From Odysseus refusing to talk about his combat experience and crying when people sang songs about his heroism, to Ajax going on an irrational rampage, to Marius not being able to adjust after he returned home after war, I found myself stopping from time to time and realizing that PTSD has been around for thousand of years. Thankfully, we recognize and treat it now, but that has not always been the case.
It was incredible for me to discover that those of us who experience PTSD share a common bond with legendary generals like Gaius Marius, and Homeric heroes like Achilles or Odysseus. The psychological effects of trauma, combat related or otherwise, is transcends both time and place, and creates a bond between those who have experienced it. This paper was an emotional experience for me, but it was also a very enlightening experience. I could not have picked a better way to wrap up the last four years of my college career. I am very proud of the paper that I turned in, and I am happy to report that I got good grade on it. If you would like to read the paper, we have included a link. It may sound boring to most people, but I honestly enjoyed the journey of writing this paper. No matter how much I think I know about PTSD, I can still be surprised and there is so much more for me to learn.
Here is the link to the full paper: