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Did people from ancient cultures also suffer from PTSD?

There’s a very common misconception held by many who do not suffer from mental health issues that they are a very recent, new type of affliction. This is an incorrect and harmful assumption, as it can further stigmatise those who suffer from mental illness, and can lead to people dismissing their issues as something that has been recently "invented". In fact, there are records of mental health symptoms from thousands of years ago, including a recording of what is contested to be a case of PTSD from ancient Greece.

As someone who is very interested in ancient history, alongside other time periods, I decided to write this article to illuminate a topic that has existed for as long as we have, but which has historically received very little attention until recently. Namely, the study and investigation of mental health.

The oldest documented case?

Herodotus was a Greek historian and geographer, who is thought to have travelled extensively around the Greek World, the Persian Empire, and Pharaonic Egypt. He wrote the book "Histories", which is widely considered the first history book in Western literature. The entire work is split into nine books, and in the sixth, during his description of the famous battle of Marathon, Herodotus mentions a soldier called Epizelus, who was struck blind by fear upon seeing an enormous enemy soldier kill the man fighting next to him.

Translated into English, this intriguing passage reads as follows:

“- an Athenian, Epizelos the son of Cuphagoras, while fighting in the close combat and proving himself a good man, was deprived of the sight of his eyes, neither having received a blow in any part of his body nor having been hit by a missile, and for the rest of his life from this time he continued to be blind; and I was informed that he used to tell about that which had happened to him a tale of this kind, namely that it seemed to him that a tall man in full armour stood against him, whose beard overshadowed his entire shield; and this apparition passed him by, but killed his comrade who stood next to him. Thus, as I was informed, Epizelos told the tale”.

While Herodotus is often doubted for the truthfulness of his sources, and is often suspected of embellishing details, we can see from this excerpt possible evidence of several symptoms of PTSD, and even neurological symptoms brought on by psychological trauma.

Since the term PTSD was coined, the case of Epizelus was often pointed to as the first documented case. However tempting this diagnosis is, due to its similarity in being caused by a traumatic event, there is considerable pushback against this idea, as many say that he actually suffered from what is known as "Conversion Disorder".

Like PTSD, Conversion Disorder is a rare phenomenon in which stressful events and trauma can cause periodic or lasting symptoms such as paralysis, slurred speech, and issues with vision, among others. In this case, it is speculated that Epizelus was suffering from a form of Conversion Disorder which caused him to become blind as a response to the trauma of seeing such violence around him. Presumably, this was the body’s way of blocking out the possibility of seeing even more horrific events. Also, like many cases of PTSD, the trauma was not caused by physical violence committed on the sufferer, but instead is caused by witnessing it.

However, there is an even earlier case of suspected PTSD, which this time can’t easily be mistaken for something different. This time it comes from ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), from the time of the Assyrian Dynasty, which lasted from 1300-609 BC. The people of Mesopotamia were the first in the world to develop writing, with the oldest discovered text being from the ancient city of Uruk and dated from 3200 BC. Because of the thousands of years writing has existed in this region, many of their records have survived to this day, often in the form of clay tablets.

Many of these take the form of medical texts, which attempt to help Ašipus (people who practiced Assyrian medicine, typically in armies) diagnose and treat different illnesses. For example, they talk of soldiers words being "unintelligible for three days", or "depression keeps falling on him for three consecutive days", and even an individual who "sees either a living person or a dead person (...) and becomes afraid". This last example is theorised by the authors of this paper, Walid Khalid Abdul-Hamid and Jamie Hacker Hughes, to be a reference to hallucinations caused by PTSD. In fact, it is very likely that similar afflictions were common during this time, as all villages and towns were obliged to supply a certain number of volunteers to fight on a three year cycle, due to the ever-present nature of war during this period.

The ancient Mesopotamians believed that these symptoms were punishments from the Gods. Specifically, they believed the Gods would allow the spirits of those a soldier had killed in battle to attack them, causing the symptoms seen above. Nowadays of course, we can use modern science and the benefit of hindsight to be more sure of what caused this. Although the term was only coined in 1980, the actual disorder of PTSD has existed as long as violence has existed.

So, what can we learn from this discovery?

Well, sufferers of PTSD and other traumas may feel reassured to learn that people have always suffered from mental health problems, and may also be glad we live in an age when they are better understood and more easily treated. It’s also a good distinction to make that PTSD is not only caused by involvement in war. It can equally be caused by accidents, assault, and exposure to traumatic events, and it is always useful to contact a professional if you suspect you may be affected by it.


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