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Fireside Friday: April 24, 2020

12 min read

Hey folks! Fireside this week, but next week, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the blog (the first post went up May 3rd) we’re diving into a look at Helm’s Deep in both the book and the film, to match the treatment I gave the Siege of Gondor last summer.. Operational planning, pillaging as a strategy, the small-army siege playbook, cavalry-on-cavalry engagements and even more logistics. But since we are doing that next week, I want to take this week to take a bit of a brief year in review, then I am going to muse a bit on the question of post-traumatic stress disorder in the ancient world, which had come up in the comments in response to last week’s trip through Bertran de Born.

So, Year-in-Review. As I write this, I’ve gotten just short of 650,000 page views since starting the blog (I am quite sure, by the time you read this, we will have passed that number), which is a lot more interest than I expected when I started! There’s a lot of month-to-month traffic variation, but over the last six months, the site has averaged 25,000 unique visitors each month according to the wordpress back-end. December was our busiest month, followed by March. The most popular thing, by far is the Siege of Gondor series, with more than 165,000 views over six posts. The least popular thing (excluding very recent stuff) has been poor Cicero and my brief essay on class and status in the early Church. So go read those!

But I am really blown away by how this project gone so far. There is pretty much always an active discussion going on in the comments (which I read, even if I do not always have time to respond) and it has also been a delight to see my ideas turned over (and perhaps beat up on a bit) on twitter, reddit and the like. And I’m of course grateful to my growing Patreon campaign – up to 86 patrons as I write this – whose patronage goes towards supporting my academic research (currently planning a number of book acquisitions, but also for funding academic conferences, should they still exist when the current crisis subsides). Having that crowd-funded research micro-grant really does give me a lot more confidence in sticking with my research plans even as the academic job world is out sick, quite possibly for several years.

The nerd, pictured in his natural habitat. Although I must confess, the absolutely awesome Lewis Chessmen mug there belongs to my better half.

For this Fireside’s musing, I want to answer a question I actually get quite frequently: was there post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the ancient (or medieval) world? And I’m going to tilt at that particular question here in a fireside in part because the absence of evidence doesn’t quite make for a riveting collections post and arguments from silence must always be cautious. And I should note that what follows is my impression from a fairly wide reading of the ancient sources; it is not a comprehensive review of them. But here we go:

I cannot speak for all pre-modern, ancient or medieval armies. But for the periods where I have read a wide chunk of the primary source material, I’d say there is vanishingly little evidence that people in the ancient Mediterranean or medieval Europe experienced PTSD from combat experience in the way that modern soldiers do.

That is often not the impression that you would get from a quick google search (though it does seem to be the general consensus of the range of ancient military historians I know) and that goes back to arguments ex silentio. A quick google search will turn up any number of articles written by folks who are generally not professional historians declaring that PTSD was an observed phenomenon in the deep past, citing the same small handful of debatable examples. But one thing you learn very rapidly as a historian is that if you go into a large evidence-base looking for something, you will find it.

That’s not a species of research positivity – it’s a warning about confirmation bias, especially if you do not establish a standard of proof before your investigation. It is all too easy to define down your definition of ‘proof’ until the general noise of the source-base looks like proof. In this case, we have to ask – before we go looking – what would evidence of PTSD in ancient societies (I’m going to start there because it is where I am best informed) look like?

Well, ancient societies engaged in a lot of warfare. Among the citizenry – the sort of fellows who write to us and are written about in our sources – combat experience was almost ubiquitous. That only really changes as we get into the Roman Empire, as violence levels both decline generally and are pushed to the frontier via a professional army. The percentage of veterans in the citizen population (again, citizen here is an important caveat, but then those fellows basically are our primary source base) probably equaled that of the WWI generation in Britain or France, except all the time (there’s a point in the Second Punic War where the Roman censors went through the entire rolls, checking to see how many had managed to avoid military service and found only a few thousand in a citizen body of c. 150,000 adult males). So what ought we expect from our sources? We should expect to see signs of PTSD everywhere. It should be absolutely pervasive in a source-base produced almost entirely by, for and about combat veterans, in societies where military mortality exceeded modern rates by a robust margin.

And it simply isn’t there. There is one very frequently cited account in Herodotus (Hdt. 6.117) of a man named Epizelos experiencing what is generally understood as ‘conversion disorder’ (which used to be badly labeled ‘hysterical blindness’) in combat. Without being wounded he went blind at a sudden terror in battle and never recovered his sight. Herodotus terms it a θῶμα – a ‘wonder’ or ‘marvel,’ a word that explicitly implies the strange uncommonness of the tale. Herodotus is concerned enough about how exceptional this sounds that he is quick not to vouch for its veracity – he brackets the story (beginning and end) noting that it was what he was told (by someone else) that Epizelos used to say happened to him. In short, this was uncommon enough that Herodotus distances himself from it, so as not to be thought as a teller of tall-tales (though Herodotus is, in fact, a teller of tall tales).

This one example – cited endlessly and breathlessly in internet articles – is remarkable not because it is typical, but because it is apparently very unusual (also, it is my understanding – with the necessary caveat that I am not an expert – that while conversion disorder is a consequence of emotional trauma, it is not clear that it is associated with PTSD more generally). Meanwhile, in the war literature of the Romans, in their poetry (including that by folks like Horace, who fought in quite terrible battles), in the military literature of the Greeks, in the reflections of Xenophon (both on his campaigns and his commands), in the body of Greek lyric poetry…all of it – nothing. It is simply not there – not as a concern that such a condition might befall someone, nor a report that it had done so. Nothing. The lacuna baffled me for years.

My impression is that the medieval literature looks much the same: a few scattered passages that, if you squint hard enough, might be PTSD set against a vast backdrop of nothing in a society where literature was dominated by the war-fighting class. More examples than in the classical corpus (but then the medieval corpus is much larger; oddly, the examples I’ve seen all seem to concern crusading particularly), but nothing close to what we would expect given a literary tradition absolutely dominated by military aristocrats and their (often clerical) families. I call this my impression, because the medieval corpus is both much larger and I have read much less of it; but if there is a hidden reservoir of accounts showing clear symptoms of PTSD, I have not found it yet. I was always struck that – despite the fact that monastic life was often a destination for medieval military aristocrats troubled by their life of violence – none of the monastic rules I have read (admittedly, not all of them), which often have guidelines for abbots to deal with difficult monks, have had anything about how to deal with the symptoms of PTSD.

Now that’s not to say there isn’t grief at loss, mind you! The lamentations of defeat, the sorrow of losing a loved one (even in victory), the misery of war – that you find in the ancient texts in abundance. It occupies literary topoi, it is depicted in artwork, it gets entire tragedies to stretch out in, it is addressed by great big political speeches, it sits at the cornerstone of the Iliad‘s narrative (one reason, no doubt, that the Iliad remains a useful text for soldiers working through their experiences). But the persistent symptoms of PTSD, no. I haven’t been able to find one ‘flashback’ or combat-memory related dissociative episode in ancient literature. You might argue that they simply weren’t recorded, but that strikes me as unlikely in societies where other forms of war-damage were so fiercely valorized and which would have often seen – as with Epizalos – such symptoms as divine omens. There should be dozens and dozens of them. These are societies with active medical literature, after all!

I think the evidence strongly suggests that ancient combatants did not experience PTSD as we do now. The problem is that the evidence of silence leads us with few tools with which to answer why. One answer might be that it existed and they do not tell us – because it was considered shameful or cowardly, perhaps. Except that they do tell us about other cowardly or shameful things. And the loss and damage of war – death, captivity, refugees, wounds, the lot of it – are prominent motifs in Greek, Roman and European Medieval literature. War is not uniformly white-washed in these texts – not every medieval writer is Bertran. We can’t rule out some lacuna in the tradition, but given just how many wails and moans of grief and loss there are in the corpus it seems profoundly unlikely. I think we have to assume that it isn’t in the sources because they did not experience it or at least did not recognize the experience of it.

The more interesting potential question is why. Considering all of the competing theories for that, I think, would take its own collections post. But for my part, I tend to think the difference lies in part on the moral weight placed on warfare – it was viewed not generally a necessary evil in these societies, but a positive good – which may have meant there was less sense that what had taken place was trauma at all. If that is the case, the emergence of PTSD would speak to improvement in our society: we have become more averse to violence and do it less, and as a consequence, feel it more. If you will permit me, we have more wounded warriors because we have fewer dead ones, on account of having fewer wars in general.

But I also suspect that the raw ubiquity of the experience mattered too. For most men who went to war in the ancient world, there wasn’t likely to be the sense that they couldn’t discuss their experiences, or that their family or peers wouldn’t understand. Their family and peers were there experiencing it right alongside them, and nearly everyone in their social circle had shared the same experiences. And all of those people were telling them that what they experienced was good, right and appropriate, that it was a mark of growth and manhood – again, not trauma, but positive development. That may have aided in the transition back into civilian life.

Moreover, these societies tended to have rituals surrounding the transition out of war. There were ritual purifications for a Greek or Roman army returning from battle. Offerings to be made to the gods for survival or triumph. Priests who could tell you “if you are bothered, do this and it will be ok.” In the medieval world too, there were religious experts who could tell you the rituals necessary to come back to a right relationship with both God and your society. Of course many veterans turn to religion for comfort, but most modern religious traditions respond with the same ‘yes, but…’ and ‘necessary evil’ approach. For the Roman miles or the medieval knight, there was no such ambiguity: do these rituals and all is well. Placebos are powerful and I suspect that sort of thing also aided the transition from war to peace, providing a sense of closure that it is hard for our societies to provide (I suppose the Roman would merely suggest that we were foolish to stop doing rituals which had obviously worked so well).

Alright, that’s a long, grim discussion. Now, recommendations, starting with this video from Lloyd (Lindybeige) trying to work out spear combat with some field experiments. I think this kind of experimental archaeology is important, but I want to temper the conclusions it reaches here. Now I don’t think it is fatal to these experiments that not everyone here is super experienced because no less authority than Xenophon tells us training is not a must for spear-and-shield in formation (Xen. Cyrop. 2.1-9-16, discussed more by me here).

No, my main issue is the size and spacing of the formations. And I know this is hard, because getting a whole lot of people together to try something out is extremely difficult. But the fact is spear-and-shield close-combat was normally done in fairly large units: hundreds and thousands, not a dozen. And now, both the question of the spacing between lines and the density of the press and the force of the press are all subjects of lots of debate. But where we are given spacing (in the Hellenistic period, for Roman and Macedonian armies admittedly using swords and pikes) it is fairly tight (the Romans have a bit more space) both side to side and front to back. There is a limit to how far you can go backwards or to the sides (along with a very clearly fearsome expectation in most of these societies that a man stand his place). I particularly wonder about this given Lloyd’s dismissal of fighting ‘shield to shield.’ The issue is, we have sources – Tyrtaeus most notably – who tell us that happened. If we cannot understand why, I might suggest that it is we, and not the Greeks, who are missing something.

And so I wonder in these exercises what changes if we add 5 or 7 more ranks. What does it mean when someone can’t retreat? When the space behind you is occupied (one suggestion I have seen is that overarm grip is valuable because, while tiring, it puts the butt of the spear in the air rather than in your buddy). And what does it mean for shield-presses and the like when you have not only the physical weight, but the morale-weight of seven fellows behind you. People in crowds, in dense masses, move and behave very differently from individuals. What I’d love to see is to get the kind of turnout you see for something like American Civil War reenactments: to get a few hundred people, in protective kit, with shields and boffer spears and see how this all works on the scale it really happened in.

All of that sounds very negative and I don’t want to be down on Lloyd – he’s doing good work and creating an evidence base for future, more detailed investigation. The video is well worth a watch.

Another recommendation is this blog post detailing the latest phase of work combing through archaeological materials in the archives of the Lugdunum museum looking for graffiti on pot sherds. It is always worth remembering, when thinking about the ancient evidence, that we often gain as much these days digging in museums as we do in the ground. There is a tremendous amount of unpublished or underpublished material lurking in museum collections all over the Mediterranean world.

And finally, a book recommendation. This week I’m going to recommend Nevile Morley’s Metrpolis and Hinterland: The City of Rome and the Italian economy: 200 B.C. – A.D. 200 (1996). New copies can be expensive, but you can get used copies fairly easily. Morley is driving a very particular argument in this book, suggesting a way that the cities of antiquity might have driven growth in their hinterlands, arguing that cities such as Rome were more than just parasites. That argument fits in to a long-standing debate as part of the nature of the ancient economy. But I think beyond that, Morley’s book – which is quite readable – is a useful introduction to thinking in complex ways about the ancient economy. It forces you to think about settlement patterns, land-use, trade (both overland and by sea) and how all of those factors shaped the human terrain of Rome and Italy (and everywhere else too). It’s a great book if you are doing pre-modern world-building and want to think a bit more deeply about the world of peasants and commoners (for this, read it together with our previous recommendation, Erdkamp’s The Grain Market to get a better sense of how Morley’s big economic picture translates to day-to-day activities in the countryside).

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