Troy, Tennyson, and the Tale of Gilgamesh: Trauma in Ancient Warfare

The Peculiar Past Column:

Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? How about those potato chips you had for lunch? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe our cuisine and modern luxuries. 

Since the 1980s more and more studies have been conducted about the effects of the anxiety disorder we now know as PTSD, usually associated with the victims of conflict. It’s gone through many a name, from ‘Soldier’s Heart’, during the American Civil War, to ‘Shell Shock’ in WWI to ‘Combat Fatigue’, in WWII. What’s never changed, though, are the horrific and long-lasting after effects of the disorder, from hallucinations of past events, that feel unshakably real, to paranoia and hyper awareness. The prevalent assumption with the affliction is that it’s a relatively modern ailment, but perhaps it’s more intertwined in history than we previously thought. Did the Ancient Greeks suffer similar symptoms, after and during battle, that contemporary soldiers do?


First, let’s address the clear differences between ancient and modern warfare. Back then, conflict was an entirely ritualised thing. Hordes of men were literally born and raised to triumph in battle, smiths made their entire careers out of crafting the best bronze and iron for their warriors (hence how common that last name has become). War in classical civilisations was practically a constant. Most importantly, battles themselves were very communal and involved complicated formations. There were no individuals in combat. So the pressure didn’t fall onto one person, but was instead split evenly between the combatants. Here’s another thing; if you got injured in those days you had less of a chance of recovery. You weren’t going to get patched up. They’d pray to Apollo or Asclepius or Eir or whatever God would listen to heal you. They hadn’t even invented the trusty blood-sucking leech method yet. So if you did encounter trauma through warfare, chances were you wouldn’t survive long enough to be haunted by it. It’s a huge contrast to mechanised warfare, with its isolated trenches, split-second decisions, chaos of constant gunfire, unpredictable explosions and eventually the terror brought about by diving aircraft. I doubt I need to go any further into the horrors of it all. You’ve seen the films, read the books and heard the tales from relatives. It’s because of the differences between the forms of war that we seem to disregard the fear and trauma that our more distant ancestors faced. But ancient texts, while there are few of them, seem to tell us the opposite.


The thing we probably remember the most about the Greek war against Troy was the miraculously improbable Trojan Horse, which was said to have been gifted to the unaware Trojans as a peace offering, only to have a tide of armed Greek soldiers pour out of its hollow belly at night, ending the war in a brutal massacre. But what we don’t remember as much from the story of the war was the effect on its soldiers. The Greeks, reflecting on the horrors they had committed, came back to their homeland broken and plagued by memories. The Odyssey, a story about a war hero Odysseus who is challenged with perilous tasks on his voyage home, facing sea monsters and temptation by sirens, is perhaps a metaphor for the emotional turmoil he, and many soldiers alike, faced on their journeys home. Upon their return, many felt isolated and disjointed from a world that they no longer recognised. In the ten years since their absence friends and families had moved on, houses had changed, and many, injured from the war, had no jobs. In these circumstances, many men committed suicide or changed their names. Odysseus himself does not recognise his wife, when he finally returns home. Those that stayed in Greece were sometimes equally driven to madness in their long wait. The painting ‘Clytemnestra’, by John Collier, shows us a woman devastated by the sacrifice of her daughter to the Gods, to grant the warriors safe passage to Troy, consumed by vengeance. In all her trauma, she kills her husband Agamemnon when he returns back from the war. Her intense eyes betray a woman both unhinged and resolute. These eyes tell us that both warriors and their families suffered from the famed war; It’s not just a lighthearted tale about a massive horse.


We can also read other Greek texts, although sparse, about war trauma. A report from the battle of Marathon in 440bc tells us about a man who, mid fight, was suddenly struck with terror and became blind, despite having no physical wounds, and for the rest of his life he is plagued by the ghosts of huge warriors. The Greek physician Hippocrates equally describes horrible nightmares felt by men who had recently been victims of conflict. It was probably much more common than we think. However, because of Greek masculinity and a need to maintain the image of a warrior, it is hard to find contemporary sources about the subject. 


Stories of the emotional turmoil, caused by the sack of Troy, aren’t exclusive to paintings or accounts of the great orators at the time, such as Homer (although some experts don’t think he existed, but was instead a bunch of tiny storytellers and poets hiding under one trenchcoat) and can be found through the work of more recent works. Tennyson’s lengthy poem ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ centered on Odysseus’ journey home in which his crew decide to relax and hallucinate on an island, instead of returning home to their responsibilities (sounds ideal, right?), perfectly describes the veterans’ feelings towards their isolation. Many modern war poets have described the feeling of ‘disappearing’ from their ordinary lives. Indeed, Tennyson is no different claiming that Odysseus’ sailors would return home ‘like ghosts to trouble joy’.In other words, they’ll have been massive party poopers to houses that have forgotten them. In the same stanza, he tells us ‘there is confusion worse than death’, referring to the inability for a lot of soldiers to separate their wartime lives from their home one, causing mental and emotional disorientation. Even though, in Tennyson’s day, they still lacked a full understanding of post traumatic trauma, he was still able to recognise it as the damaging condition that it is. The Lotus-Eaters is a poem that tells an idealised escapist tale on the surface level, but leaves us a great deal to reflect on, in terms of emotional stress, and I’d recommend reading it in full, if you have the time.


Does the underlying trauma caused by ancient conflict end with Troy? Certainly not, it even starts with the oldest known story known to man: The Epic of Gilgamesh. This Sumerian text features the titular , a king, and his adventures in ancient Mesopotamia, considered the cradle of civilisation. When Gilgamesh loses his companion Enkidu, in battle, he is struck by grief and his entire outlook on life changes, fearing that he must also face his end soon too. Through all his fear, from the loss of his friend, he tries to discover the secrets of immortality, because death now terrifies him. In the end, the trauma of losing his friend leads him to become a God, so at least there’s a happy ending, there.


In short, trauma has been around for forever. If the world’s first story features a tale of grief changing a man, then who are we to say that other conflicts haven’t led to forms of post-traumatic stress? It’s true, the circumstances of conflict have changed, but we can’t disregard the emotional pain felt by those in the more distant past. Just as their tales of heroism haven’t been lost to history, let us also remember their hurt and reflect on how we can help modern trauma victims in their daily struggles as well.

CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion of the Incan empire. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing cello and her previous residence in five different countries.

1 thought on “Troy, Tennyson, and the Tale of Gilgamesh: Trauma in Ancient Warfare

  1. Excellent article. I would say however – is humanity’s understanding of the experience of trauma necessarily be a psychiatric one? I would vouch that the percieved divide in our understanding of ‘trauma’ between modernity and antiquity rests on the modern eagerness to present trauma as a categorical and psychiatric condition, rather than a holistically human one. Of course trauma has always existed, it’s just gone by a different name. Nevertheless, our understanding of trauma as a 1) bad and 2) treatable circumstance has set the precedent for a society that cares about the rehabilitation of PTSD sufferers. Hopefully our zealous focus on psychiatric science will outlaw the need for war altogether.

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