Classics and pop culture / History / Random thoughts / Resources

Tonight we dine in hell!

Have you ever wondered if truly all the Greek hoplites were as fearless in the face of battle as all those movies make us believe? Or if Achilles really never for one moment felt remorse over all the blood he spilt, fighting against the Trojans?

In recent years, a lot of new research on violence and how humans react to it has been conducted. Out of this research the so-called evolutionary theory of violence was developed. It claims that violence is something that is innate to humans due to evolution and that it is just part of our life. For many centuries, philosophers have discussed whether violence was something within every human or is only created through the societies we live in, but now it seems there’s proof that evolution does play an important role.

Despite this being quite a depressing thought, scholars in various disciplines used this theory as a starting point to look at war and violence throughout history in a different way. What if ancient soldiers sometimes were just as traumatised by their experiences as soldiers in Vietnam were, seeing injury, blood and death every day? The first one to really think about this was psychologist Jonathan Shay in his books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America”. For us classicists Homer and the Trojan War is such a normal topic, something we encounter almost every day in some way or another in our ancient sources, that we hardly ever stop in our tracks and think: Was there ever the possibility for peace? What if the story of Achilles is not a story of a great hero and fighter, but someone experiencing all the horrors of war which Homer’s audience would have quite probably experienced themselves?

For Homer  certainly does not sugarcoat the realities of combat, just take a look at the way he describes the fighting:

Il. 4,518-526

… for with a jagged stone was he struck on the right leg by the ankle, and it was the leader of the Thracians that struck him, Peiros, … The two sinews and the bones did the ruthless stone utterly crush; and he fell backwards in the dust and stretched out both his hands to his dear comrades, gasping out his life; and there ran up he who struck him, Peiros, and dealt him a wound with a thrust of his spear beside the navel; and out on to the ground gushed all his bowels, and darkness enfolded his eyes.

Il. 16,313-316

And the son of Phyleus as he watched Amphiclus that was rushing upon him, proved quicker than his foe, and smote him upon the base of his leg, where a man’s muscle is thickest: and round about the spear-point the sinews were rent apart; and darkness enfolded his eyes.

Achilles fighting Menon, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 510 BC

Achilles fighting Memnon, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 510 BCE

But not just Homer’s depiction of the reality and cruelty of war is surprisingly realistic, his account of the psychology of being in combat is very close that of modern day soldiers. Shay, working with veterans suffering from PTSD and other traumata, realised while reading the Iliad and the Odyssey that a lot of these elements sound a lot like the things his patients experienced. When in Vietnam soldiers often felt in some way betrayed by their superiors who ordered them to do things they thought were wrong or assigned them to an especially dangerous mission simply because they didn’t like them. Their re-telling of these incidents sound a lot like the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad. When Patroclos dies and Achilles suddenly feels a rage he never experienced before, the same “berserk-state” can be found in modern day combat soldiers after they have lost a close comrade.

But what about the 300, I hear you asking? Surely they were true heros, fighting on their own against the Persians?


In his 7th book (7,229ff.), however, Herodotus tells the story of Aristodemus who  became the sole survivor of the battle at the Thermopylae. He was therefore constantly mocked for being a coward by his fellow Spartans that in the next battle he fought so recklessly, determined to win back his honour, that he was killed. The same phenomenon, the so-called “survivor guilt”, is something experienced by todays combat soldiers. Another incident recorded by Herodotus (6.117) that casts doubt onto the claim that Greek soldiers were not affected by the horrors of war and combat at all, is the story of Epizelos at the battle of Marathon:

“… a certain Athenian, Epizelus, son of Cuphagoras, while he fought in close combat and showed himself to be a brave man, lost the sight of his eyes, although he had been struck by neither sword nor missile, and from that moment on remained blind for the rest of his life. I have heard that he told the following story about this event: a tall man in amour seemed to come up against him … passed by him, but killed the man standing next to him.”

This episode becomes especially interesting when hearing that very similar experiences, i.e. seeing close comrades die or simply witnessing the brutal reality of war, can cause temporary blindness in modern day veterans. One could therefore assume that the same thing happened here – only about 2500 years ago.

Or just think of Greek tragedy: the madness of Heracles in Sophocles’ Heracles Furens, the suicide of Sophocles’ Aias and the isolation of Philoctetes, all heroic warriors struggling  to come to terms with war and their experience of violence. But it’s not just male warriors who wonder: “War, what is it good for?” Take for instance Euripides’ Trojan Women, how carefully and emotionally he depicts what it means to have survived a war as a woman, witnessing your husbands and sons die and standing in the ruins of your home. All those plays were created in the 5th century BCE in Athens, an era that makes us think of the Persian Wars, of fearless Leonidas and his 300 fighting to the bitter end, or Pericles, defending Athens against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. And yet, many of our literary sources do not praise heroic fighters, but ask difficult questions we still ask ourselves today: “When is war and killing someone justified? Should soldiers disobey orders in certain situations? And can there ever be a true victor in war?

Exekias_Suicide_d_Ajax_01_glare_reduced_white_bg (1)

Aias preparing for his suicide, Attic Black-Figure Amphora, ca. 530 BCE

Some therefore claim that this was the very reason tragedy was created at that time. It was meant to support all those warriors fighting for Athens to help them understand and come to terms with their experiences. Greek tragedy would have been something created by combat veterans for combat veterans. The plays definitely seem to help modern day soldiers: Various projects are currently taking place were military organisations use ancient texts to help veterans discuss their own time in war zones and have great success with this approach.

So, what do you think? Were Greek hoplites really the heroic fighters we so often imagine them to be? For whom war was just an everyday thing and therefore nothing to really contemplate about? Can we compare modern and ancient soldiers, or have both training and performance of duty changed so much that their experience of a battle must have been very different? And is war truly something that is in our nature, something that affects us today, just as it had affected the Greeks 2500 years ago?

Further reading:

Victor Caston/Silke-Maria Weineck, Our Ancient Wars. Rethinking Wars through the Classics. Ann Arbor 2016

Bryan Doerries, The Theatre of War. What Ancient Greek Tragedies can teach us today. Melbourne 2015

Peter Meineck/David Konstan (eds.), Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks. New York 2014

Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam. Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York 1994

Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America. Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York 2002


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