Did Roman troops suffer from PTSD?

History Asked by Juicy on November 27, 2020

After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there has been a lot of talking about how many soldiers suffer from PTSD when they return home.

I’m interested in knowing more about war trauma and PTSD in ancient warfare. It would perhaps be useful to narrow it down to the lets say the Roman era.

I imagine that wars back then can be considered more “brutal” than what we have today, most of the fighting happening in very close combat with many dead and dismembered bodies laying around (as opposed to the relatively small engagements modern armies are use to today and of course the fighting parties tend to keep greater distances between themselves nowadays). My initial guess would be that soldiers surviving these engagements would suffer from terrible trauma.

On the other hand, these people would have led more “brutal” lives than we have today. I imagine they would have been exposed to violence at younger ages (crucifixion of criminals, arguments ending up with swords, animal and possibly human sacrifices, more instances of death around them etc…). Additionally I imagine their culture and religions probably prepared them for this level of violence. Compare that with the childhood and the life the average (Christian, religion that doesn’t really prepare for war and violence) westerner lives before seeing war for the first time.

I’m particularly interested in knowing if any ancient writers left any records talking about war trauma in soldiers of their time?

2 Answers

PTSD, or stress reactions from battle, were well known during the Greek and Roman era. The Greeks understood it very well. Alexander the Great's men are said to have mutinied after suffering "battle fatigue."

These examples of Roman era PTSD are taken from a blog of ancient examples sourced from Max Hastings', An Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes:

According to Herodotus, in 480 B.C., at the Battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and 300 Spartans took on Xerxes I and 100,000-150,000 Persian troops, two of the Spartan soldiers, Aristodemos and another named Eurytos, reported that they were suffering from an “acute inflammation of the eyes,”...Labeled tresantes, meaning “trembler,”...

During the Roman siege of Syracuse in 211 B.C., a number of Greek soldiers defending the city were “stricken dumb with terror,” according to Greek historian Plutarch. Surdomutism, which is now recognized as a common conversion reaction to the stress of combat, was first clinically diagnosed during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

According to Peter Connolly, the Greek military historian Polybius wrote that as early as 168 B.C., the Roman army was quite familiar with soldiers who deliberately injured themselves in order to avoid combat.

According to The VVA Veteran, a Congressional Organization:

Aristodemos (example above) later hung himself in shame.

It relates the story of another Spartan commander who was forced to dismiss several of his troops in the Battle of Thermopylae Pass in 480 B.C.

"They had no heart for the fight and were unwilling to take their share of the danger.”


The Greek historian Herodotus, in writing of the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., cites an Athenian warrior who went permanently blind when the soldier standing next to him was killed, although the blinded soldier “was wounded in no part of his body.” So, too, blindness, deafness, and paralysis, among other conditions, are common forms of “conversion reactions” experienced and well-documented among soldiers today

Correct answer by Razie Mah on November 27, 2020

During Romans battles with Hannibal of Carthage, the battle of Cannae was the worst. 50 thousand Romans were encircled & killed in a matter of hours, when the dust settled and soldiers were able to burn the dead, they found Roman soldiers in the middle who had literally dropped and tried to smother themselves & escape the carnage by buring their heads in the earth. Apparently war has always brought men to terrifying and dark places. I can't imagine watching that level of carnage unfold in front of you and be remotely notmal again.

Answered by JoAnne Buck on November 27, 2020

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