Researchers studying ancient texts from Mesopotamia dating to 1300 BCE came across descriptions of symptoms that sound remarkably similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. As such, this may be the earliest depiction of PTSD in history.
The findings were reported in the journal Early Science and Medicine by Walid Khalid Abdul-Hamid of Queen Mary University of London and Jamie Hacker Hughes of the Veterans and Families Institute at Anglia Ruskin University. Speaking to BBC News, the researchers said that the Assyrian soldiers “described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle – and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.”
Nothing new under the sun
According to the researchers, professional soldiers enlisted by the Assyrian Dynasty in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, between 1300BC and 609BC first went through a year-long bootcamp, which also involved civil works like building roads, bridges, and other infrastructure for the kingdom. The soldiers were then sent to war for a year and, if they made it back in one piece, they were allowed to return their families for one year before repeating the cycle again.
But as the ancient texts analyzed by the researchers showed, although their bodies might have come back home intact, some of the soldiers’ minds were in shatters.
PTSD has only fairly recently been formally described by psychiatrists, after studies of Vietnam war veterans. Previously, doctors simply dismissed PTSD symptoms in soldiers as ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’.
“Ancient soldiers facing the risk of injury and death must have been just as terrified of hardened and sharpened swords, showers of sling-stones or iron-hardened tips of arrows and fire arrows. The risk of death and the witnessing of the death of fellow soldiers appears to have been a major source of psychological trauma,” the paper reads. “Moreover, the chance of death from injuries, which can nowadays be surgically treated, must have been much greater in those days. All these factors contributed to post-traumatic or other psychiatric stress disorders resulting from the experience on the ancient battlefield.”
Until now, the oldest reference to PTSD-like symptoms came from ancient Greece, in texts by Herodotus describing the aftermath of the infamous Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Herodotus claimed that some Athenian warriors had hallucinations and suffered from spontaneous blindness following their close encounter with death on the battlefield. Achilles, hero of the Trojan war, is commonly held to be an ancient sufferer of PTSD as well. And in one potential account of PTSD, one chronicler described the crusaders coming home from the Third Crusade (1189-92), writing that though these men “survived unharmed … their hearts were pierced by swords of sorrows from different sorts of suffering”.
Although PTSD is challenging (and sometimes impossible) to diagnose from text alone, these accounts show that trauma and distress haunted veterans likely since humans first waged war on one another.