The recognition of symptoms of PTSD among soldiers and warriors in the Classical world has been especially popular in recent years. Most work on this topic has involved Greek history and literature. Jonathan Shay's books 'Achilles in Vietnam' and 'Odysseus in America' compared the experiences of Homeric heroes with Vietnam veterans in America. Shay's purpose was to demonstrate how his use of Homeric poetry had helped to rehabilitate combat veterans by allowing them to see that their experiences were similar to those that Homer described. Lawrence Tritle has also been instrumental in promoting the occurence of PTSD in the Classical sources for ancient warfare. His book, From Melos to My Lai, made clear links between combat experience in the ancient and modern worlds.
The study of the impact of PTSD has spread from medical research into the historical realm. Historians of 20th Century military history have a wealth of resources to explore in searching for evidence of the impact of PTSD in the lives of veterans. Ancient historians have far fewer sources to utilise, particularly when it comes to the private lives of combat veterans. The purpose of Melchior's article is to examine whether it is valid to assume that Roman soldiers were as prone to PTSD as their modern counterparts.
The scarcity of accurate descriptions of the private thoughts of Roman veterans makes it extremely difficult to identify whether they were in fact traumatised by their experiences of combat. The appearance of soldiers in literary texts, such as Juvenal or Apuleius' Golden Ass, are not reliable sources for the appearance of PTSD. Military tombstones tend to glorify combat and martial valour. Even the sources which do describe combat tend to use narrative techniques which obscure or ignore the full horror of Roman warfare.
Due to these deficiencies, ancient military historians have long used comparative material to explain or illustrate their depiction of Classical warfare. Problems are created, however, when psychological conditions are imposed on armies of the past from a comparative perspective. Melchior notes that the Roman relationship with death was much different to that of the modern world. Pain would have been a familiar feature of life in the Roman world. Mortality levels were higher, and life expectancy shorter. From an early age, Romans would have been exposed to violence, blood and death in the amphitheatre. Dead bodies would have been familiar to them.
Psychological stress factors would also have been different for Roman soldiers. They need not fear suicide bombers, stray explosives or IEDs. Melchior highlights a recent study of PTSD symptoms in soldiers returning from Iraq (C.B. Nemeroff et al., 'Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A State-of-the-science Review', Journal of Psychiatric Research 40, 2006). The study suggests that there is a correlation between concussive injuries and the occurence of PTSD symptoms. Concussive injuries are clearly linked to the use of explosives. Concussive injuries would probably not have been a particularly common type of injury for Roman soldiers, compared to slash wounds, for example. Could this indicate that the prevalence of PTSD as a result of combat is directly linked to the use of explosives in modern warfare?
Melchior's article is a timely reminder of the need for caution when identifying the symptoms of PTSD in Classical sources. The use of comparative material is an essential feature of ancient military history - but we should always question how valid that material actually is.