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Did Roman legionaries suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The fight of the Romans with the barbarians
The fight of the Romans with the barbarians | Author: Chris Collingwood

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that occurs after intense stress (caused by a traumatic event, life-threatening, or killing another person) and which is not assimilable by the individual. Could Roman soldiers fighting in antiquity suffer from such post-traumatic stress?

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

The term appeared in 1980, but the phenomenon itself was noticed already during the American Civil War or World War I and II among war veterans. To this day, the phenomenon is not well understood and there are various theories among researchers about what causes PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself, for example, after traffic accidents, assaults, rapes, natural disasters or warfare. The last factor is popular among soldiers returning from military missions, including in Afghanistan or Iraq and thoroughly investigated.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder? Anxiety tensions, weakness, recurring and frightening memories and thoughts, nightmares, fear of confronting a stressful situation, illogical behaviour or even suicidal thoughts.

Given Anthony Riches1, there are two approaches to whether PTSD occurred in Roman times:

  • universalism – this approach assumes that the time that has elapsed from ancient times to today is so short that the human brain could not change enough to make the issue completely absent.
  • relativism – this approach, in turn, focuses on the conditions in which an individual has to grow up and develop.
Captured legionaries sacrificed after the battle in the Teutoburg Forest.
Author: Milka Jakubca

Roman sources

One of the ancient authors who describes the case of a person who may suffer from PTSD is Appian of Alexandria, a Greek historian from the 2nd century CE. In his work “Roman History” he shows us the figure of a Roman veteran Cestius Macedonicus, who during the civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian (41-40 BCE), fearing for his fate, he set fire to his house and he aimly burned alive. Gaius Octavian had previously ordered the sack and plunder of Perusia, which caused the man to “lose” his mind2.

Another author is Plutarch of Cheronea, who in “The Life of Marius” describes the eponymous Gaius Marius, who returned to Rome from exile in 86 BCE and once hearing the news about the planned return of the victorious Sulla, at the end of his life, suffered from terrifying dreams and insomnia. Marius was afraid of another war and wandering outside Rome. Problems with falling asleep forced him to abuse alcohol, which was supposed to help him soothe his nerves3. Marius died soon at the age of 71.

In some partially preserved inscription (CIL VIII 21562=CLE 520) from a tombstone in northwestern Algeria, dated to the 3rd century CE, we can read about a young soldier Ulpius Optatus (from the Cohors Breucorum unit), who, after years of courageous service and many victories in the defence of the Mauretania Caesariensis province, died in an extremely heroic manner. Optatus was guided by excessive anger and battlefield frenzy (furor or pugnae), which may suggest a suicide mission, which in case of high stress may be a symptom of PTSD.
More interesting information about the inscription here.

The ancient and contemporary world


We should remember that life in ancient times was radically different compared to today. The society of that time had to deal with blood, suffering and difficult conditions on a daily basis. Fires, hunger, epidemics were much more common than now, and healthcare was at a much worse level. Crowds of spectators went to the amphitheatres to admire the bloody gladiatorial fights, tossing the condemned to wild animals, public executions. The social masses have dealt with the brute force of the elite, which in turn has caused numerous social unrest throughout history. The worshipped deities required regular animal sacrifices, with each citizen making sacrifices in their homes. Just coming into the world was a challenge; it is estimated that in Rome 300 out of 1000 children died in childbirth; now the ratio is 10 to 10004. We even know Suetonius’ parable, how during Vespasian’s life a dog brought a human hand to the dining table: “Once when he was taking breakfast, a stray dog brought in a human hand from the cross-roads and dropped it under the table”Suetonius, Vespasian, 5" data-footid="5">5.

For a change, the present times are intended to guarantee a person as much safety as possible and to distract them from brutal views from an early age.

Graphics depicting the plundering of a village. Illustration from Ancient Warfare magazine.


Also, it is worth to note the discipline of the Roman army. Its assumption was that the legionaries should fear their commander more than the enemy. For any insubordination, a soldier could be sentenced to fustuarium – the penalty of beating. Polybius mentions that the condemned soldier was touched with a stick or a reed by a tribune, and then his colleagues beat him. A similar punishment may also affect officers for failing to pass properly the orders, e.g. optio helping the centurion to command the unit. Properly motivated and disciplined soldiers guaranteed good fulfilment of orders and diligently guarded the posts6.

Another heavy punishment for insubordination was decimatio (decimation), which was applied to a cowardly or rebellious group of soldiers. The cohort destined to be decimated was divided into groups of ten soldiers. Each one drew lots and the one who failed was killed by his nine companions by stoning or killing them with clubs. The survivors received barley instead of flour and were punished with additional quarters outside the fortified camp until they had cleared their sins in the fight.

More about punishments in the Roman army

Comparing Roman standards with modern ones, it seems hard for us to imagine a similar treatment of soldiers in the Polish or American army. It would involve scandal and lawsuits.

Way to fight

The fighting style was also different. Currently, soldiers can die at any time and without the direct involvement of an enemy soldier: drones, mines, artillery, snipers or machine guns. Soldiers are subjected to constant stress and bewilderment due to loud bangs and explosions. There is also a relatively greater chance of dying at the front when the first lines of the army were directly threatened in ancient times. Surely the prospect of hand-to-hand combat would be a powerful fear for anyone.

In antiquity, a Roman legionary was subjected to different stress: shield-to-shield combat, directly with the enemy; thrown spears, stones, arrows, charges of cavalry or even elephant attacks. It was also not an accident, that veterans were placed at the rear of the army to possibly support the breaking lines. Moreover, they were used to terrifying sights, and their nervous system was able to “accept” the sight of murdered, torn and trampled legionaries from the front.

What certainly connects both worlds is the fact that in the ancient and modern army we could meet people with an extremely strong psyche, for whom the fear of death or disability was a factor that motivated to act. At times, the soldiers could be overwhelmed by “war frenzy”, which led to extremely bold actions. Naturally, among the troops, we dealt with legionaries who treated the fight as a compulsion. Their main goal was to survive and avoid dangerous situations. Hidden stiffly behind shields, they dodged or parried enemy blows, while hitting the enemy. During this time, they nervously waited for the exchange of ranks and withdrawal to the safe rear of the army.
Certainly, some modern soldiers, for example, those from the general conscription, have exactly the same attitude towards the war.

Elephants in the Battle of Zama


In my humble opinion, the awareness of hand-to-hand combat was as stressful for the ancients as it was for the contemporaries to fire from the weapon on the front. In antiquity, legionaries faced charging cataphracts, while now a soldier must face tanks; catapults and scorpions have been replaced by artillery and drones.

PTSD itself appeared in ancient times, but it may be suspected that it was less common. The conditions in which the people of antiquity lived were extremely harder and more brutal than today. This, in turn, made the psyche relatively resistant to some stressful stimuli.

  1. Anthony Riches, Did Roman Soldiers Suffer PTSD?, "Histora MAG", 29.09.2017
  2. Appian, Roman history, V.5.49
  3. Plutarch, Marius, 45
  4. Anthony Riches, Did Roman Soldiers Suffer PTSD?, "Histora MAG", 29.09.2017
  5. Suetonius, Vespasian, 5
  6. Polybius, Histories , VI.37
  • Aislinn Melchior, Caesar in Vietnam: did roman soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder?, "Greece & Rome", 2011
  • Did Ancient Soldiers Get PTSD? DOCUMENTARY, "Invicta"
  • Anthony Riches, Did Roman Soldiers Suffer PTSD?, "Histora MAG", 29.09.2017
  • War, Combat Trauma, and Poetry: Evidence for PTSD in the Latin Verse Inscriptions?, "The Petrified Muse", 13.11.2015

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