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?

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    I believe this question would be improved if it contained less speculation and a tighter focus on the core question
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 27, 2014 at 13:31

2 Answers 2


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

  • Thank you, nice snippets of history there. Just a little thing, when you say Alexander's men mutinied, are you referring to when Alex' wanted to march further into India after defeating Porus?
    – Juicy
    Commented Apr 27, 2014 at 2:11
  • Largely, its a picture that seems likely. With the bit about Alexander's troops, there are varying interpretations of the mutiny. However, looking at it with this new lens of PTSD- I don't see why this can't be an equally likely cause.
    – Rajib
    Commented Apr 27, 2014 at 2:47
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    The Herodotus example is great, so +1. However, I think the example of soldiers maiming themselves is irrelevant to PTSD - they did it before the battle so we can't call it PTSD. Commented Apr 27, 2014 at 15:11
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    @FelixGoldberg Some people can get PTSD without ever being on the front lines.
    – Razie Mah
    Commented Apr 27, 2014 at 18:09

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.

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    The question asks about ancient writers, so you will need to add your source for the information presented in your answer.
    – justCal
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 0:33
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    It's not clear what you're describing is PTSD instead of fear. Commented May 16, 2017 at 2:58
  • What you have described -- men smothering themselves -- are examples of suicide in order to avoid becoming a prisoner of war. There were no Geneva Rules of War back then: prisoners of war could be murdered in creatively sadistic ways, or (if one were lucky) enslaved. (The same source describes how a Roman crippled in combat yet managed to kill one more Carthaginian with his teeth: their bodies were discovered together.)
    – llywrch
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 16:02

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