Marathon Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A piece in the Scotsman on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder includes this tidbit:

The modern understanding of PTSD dates from the 1970s, largely as a result of the problems that were still being experienced by US military veterans of the war in Vietnam.

One of the first descriptions of PTSD was made by the Greek historian Herodotus. In 490 BCE he described, during the Battle of Marathon, an Athenian soldier who suffered no injury but became blind after witnessing the death of a fellow soldier.

I couldn’t recall this one, so I tracked down what Herodotus said (6.117 – Rawlinson translation):

There fell in this battle of Marathon, on the side of the barbarians,
about six thousand and four hundred men; on that of the Athenians,
one hundred and ninety-two. Such was the number of the slain on the
one side and the other. A strange prodigy likewise happened at this
fight. Epizelus, the son of Cuphagoras, an Athenian, was in the thick
of the fray, and behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly
he was stricken with blindness, without blow of sword or dart; and
this blindness continued thenceforth during the whole of his after
life. The following is the account which he himself, as I have heard,
gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a huge beard,
which shaded all his shield, stood over against him; but the ghostly
semblance passed him by, and slew the man at his side. Such, as I
understand, was the tale which Epizelus told.

Pseudo Plutarch tells the same story in passing, but gives a different (but similar name … Babbitt translation):

Datis, the Persian satrap, came to Marathon, a plain of Attica, with an army of three hundred thousand, encamped there, and declared war on the inhabitants of the country. The Athenians, however, contemning the barbarian host, sent out nine thousand men, and appointed as generals Cynegeirus, Polyzelus, Callimachus, and Miltiades. When this force had engaged the enemy, Polyzelus, having seen a supernatural vision, lost his sight, and became blind.

The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus (p. 214-15) labels this as a case of “hysterical blindness” … not sure that’s the current term for it. Of course, the locus modernicus for all this PSTD in the ancient world is Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam … I couldn’t find a reference to this case therein; not sure if it’s included in Odysseus in America (on my ‘to buy’ list) …

One thought on “Marathon Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

  1. The diagnosis of this case must be considered highly speculative. It is a non-trivial task to diagnose PTSD in a living, breathing individual. Not to put too fine a point on it, but simply stating that this is a case of PTSD cannot be taken very seriously.

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