Representations of Combat Trauma in Sophocles’ Tragedies Philoctetes and Ajax
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In fifth century Athenian Theatre, going to war is glorified as the epitome of bravery and valor. In the works of Tragedian and General Sophocles, it is apparent that the strength of the comradery between brothers in arms, the willingness of self-sacrifice, and the desire to gain both fame and material glory for oneself and one’s ancestors are a key part of the Athenian idea of heroism. Also prominent in the theatre from this time period is the absence of concern for those who suffer from the aftermath of battle and the struggles that accompany it. There is a clear correlation between the psyche of the authors and the key symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when these works are examined. The people in Sophocles’ lifetime did not have the defined symptoms needed in order to address post-traumatic stress disorder. However, they were conscious of the effects of exposure to combat from their own historical experiences and previously written literature. The Athenian people were aware of the trauma and had methods not only to cope with it and to assuage the suffering of those afflicted on some level. They were aware of the isolating aspect of the disease, and some made efforts to bridge that gap. Sophocles’ experiences as a general in the Samian war would have made him conscious of the effects of long-term exposure to combat as it was a particularly bloody conflict and included acts that would have been especially reprehensible to someone who was a part of the Hellenic culture.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can be triggered by traumatic events occurring in a person’s life. For individuals in the military, triggers can include perpetrations of violence, killing an enemy, or witnessing the death of a comrade. Individuals with PTSD continue to experience the psychological effects of trauma, including re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance of similar stimuli, negative cognition and mood, and increased physical arousal, long after being removed to a safe environment (Ghaffarzadegan, Ebrahimvandi, & Jalali 2016). Along with these symptoms, other symptoms one may display include a significant change in mood and personality. They may feel a loss of interest or pleasure in activities that once engaged them. One suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may also experience varying degrees of emotional detachment or invasive thoughts. The symptoms of PTSD are highly likely to be comorbid with other mental illnesses that can occur following trauma such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
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During the fifth century B.C., more Athenian citizens were able to afford the luxuries that would allow them to actively participate in the public politics of the time thanks to an increased volume of business both on the civilian and the military level. Those who did not belong to the restricted Aristoi class were now able to afford slaves or servants in order to have leisure time that past generations of Athenians would not have had access to. During the fifth century Athens was increasing its influence as an imperial power and had ‘widened, amplified, and intensified’ the waging of war being “a constant source of death and destruction’ among the Greeks”(Hanson, 24).
The significant increase in military activities also brought about rapid change within Athenian society, as their imperial prowess relied on the strength of the city’s naval forces, which were powered primarily by rowers. Rowers generally came from Athens’s lowest classes and according to Elodie Paillard’s ArticleThe Structural Evolution of Fifth-Century Athenian Society, “Several literary sources record that this new military importance resulted in increased self-confidence and social prestige for the citizens who belonged to the lower part of the social latter”(80). Therefore, those who would not have generally participated in Athenian politics were becoming encouraged to not only discuss, but to influence decisions that would directly affect the Polis. At this point, those who would not have previously been able to attend theatre performances were able to attend these massive social events and further influence the cultural climate of Athens,
To the Athenian population, attending theatrical performances was much more than a source of entertainment- it was an important part of the system of democracy. In order for a democracy to function, one must have direct communication with those whom they are voting to benefit. Theatre allowed for the blending of ideas and for thoughts to be communicated through a blending of “Mouth to Mouth” and “Face to Face” communication. This was especially important during Sophocles’ lifetime, due to the fact that the fifth century was a period of radical cultural evolution. Civil war among city states was nothing new to the Hellenes, however war on the scale that it broke out in the fifth century B.C. was unprecedented. This exacerbated the schism between the city states as, within the Hellenic world there took place a “vast debate whose very terms vividly report the schism between the culture”(Arrowsmith, 34).” With the rapidly shifting social hierarchy, the split between physis (nature) and nomos (tradition) became more apparent. The Tragedians of the era would have been aware of the rapidly growing divide in the culture, and hints of this awareness can be seen in Sophocles’ tragedies Philoctetes and Ajax. To the Athenians, the theatre extended like a mass media beyond the range of the amphitheater, and it was a place for the beginning of the spread of ideas.
Ajax was written somewhere between 430 B.C. to 444 B.C, during the rise of the Samian war or shortly after it. According to Sophocles, Ajax is a soldier admired for his feats in battle, as he is considered second only to his cousin, Achilles. Sophocles uses this fact and his relation to Achilles to validate his rage at that after his cousin’s death Odysseus was given the Armor of Achilles instead of himself. Odysseus himself is an antagonist in more than one of Sophocles’ works, being portrayed as a shrewd and sometimes cowardly man who claims achievements of the soldiers on the battlefield as his own and iw unhesitant to abandon those who he sees as damaged or no longer useful to him. Ajax experiences events that, in combination, are catalysts for combat trauma: “a loss of faith in the commanding officer or other representative of the system, and hence in the justification for the war; and second, the death in battle of an especially close friend” (Konstan, 3). Ajax is a hero and this part of his nature cannot be changed, even so he has been shamed in the eyes of others and lost the fame and honor that Ancient Greeks used to define themselves. He conspires to attack his commanding officers, however in a fit of madness suggested to be brought about by the goddess Athena, he murders a pen of livestock instead.
The shame brought on by this event is enough to drive Ajax to kill himself, leaving his wife Tecmessa and young son to go into the woods where he impales himself with his own sword. Despite the frantic efforts of Tecmessa and his troops to intervene before it is too late, he succeeds in taking his own life. When his body is discovered and the truth of his actions are unveilled there is a long debate between the commanding officers regarding whether or not he is worthy of burial. In the Classical World, to deny a man the right to a proper burial would have either delayed or prevented his access to the afterlife, and therefore was one of the most extreme ways that one could defile another after death. This would mean that the sight of unburied bodies would have been particularly disheartening or disturbing to an Athenian soldier as compared to one who was not from the Hellenic region of Europe. As a general, Sophocles would have bore witness to these events and been aware of the mental effect it had on the soldiers he commanded. He also incorporates this idea into Ajax, as shortly after the play’s namesake commits suicide after a fit of rage and paranoia, the debate begins as whether or not he is worthy of being given a proper burial. It is not unlikely that the fact that they come to the conclusion that he is worthy of burial is a statement from Sophocles on the Hellenic states policy of leaving the bodies of those that they considered traitors exposed.
The officers’ words offer a key look into the social hierarchy and power dynamics of ancient Greece, as Agamemnon attempts to invalidate Ajax’s brother Teucer’s claims that his brother deserves a proper burial due to the face that Teucer was born a slave while the other questions Agamemnon’s heritage by suggesting that his grandfather is a barbarian- someone who is not of Hellenic heritage. This once again highlights strict hierarchy present within Athenian culture, as the two men do not criticize each other’s personal beliefs but rather debate as to whether the other’s social standing and heritage even grants them the right to speak on the subject at hand. Eventually it is Odysseus himself who intervenes on the matter and states that Ajax deserves burial because his feats in battle have been greater than his crimes and his hatred towards Odysseus. Odysseus intervenes in this instance with a form of respect and empathy as he recognizes what Ajax has been through to lead him up to the point of blind murder and madness. This almost empathetic depiction of Odysseus is uncommon in works by Sophocles, as he escalates from a self-serving opportunist in Ajax to the main antagonist of Philoctetes.
Philoctetes was written after Sophocles’ time in the military, and it details the story of its namesake, a Greek warrior abandoned by his commanders as they head on to Troy. According to Sophocles, he was abandoned on the island of Lemnos due to an incurable wound he suffered as the result of being bitten by a poisonous snake that left him with a weeping disease that leaves him immobilized in pain and begins to rot his flesh. This caused him to be shunned by others due to his bouts of madness and anguished wailing caused by the pain of his rotten foot. However, after a decade of isolation, Philoctetes and his weapon become critically necessary for a Grecian victory against Troy. Odysseus returns to Lemnos and brings Neoptolemus, the son of Philoctetes’ former comrade Achilles, in order to capture the bow and Philoctetes with trust. Odysseus is aware that he would not be able to even approach Philoctetes due to the fact that he is one of the officers who abandoned him, much less regain his trust, so Odysseus coaches the young man on what to say. He tells him to be careful and to appeal to his sympathy, saying “You know I could never speak to him as you can/ He will trust you, and you will stay safe” (Sophocles, 70-1).
According to Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks Philoctetes summarily also experiences the combined events that are catalysts for combat trauma: “first, a loss of faith in the commanding officer or other representative of the system, and hence in the justification for the war; and second, the death in battle of an especially close friend”(Konstan, 3). He is abandoned by his officers after being wounded, and subsequently spends 10 years isolated on the island of Lemnos. Despite the fact that initially Neoptolemus connects with him using a fabricated story, he is still able to connect with the older man and eventually ease him back into civilization when the truth of the situation is revealed. While he is not present for the deaths of his comrades such as Achilles and Ajax, he is powerless to stop them due to his injury and isolation on Lemnos. Philoctetes shows the destructive nature of war on the human psyche as subjected to harsh necessity, expressing a startling new range of behavior, chaotic, and uncontrollable. Neoptolomus becomes what Philoctetes sees as an invaluable friend, and a friend that he believes is acting out of good will. Though he is traumatized by betrayal, Philoctetes still reaches out through trust. When he finally rejoins society at the urging of a divinity, he is both physically healed of his wound and mentally healed.
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The fifth century war between Athens and Samos was initiated by Athenian intervention in a war between Samos and Miletus over the city of Priene. Milesians were tributees to Athens and were militarily weak, while Samos was one of only three fully independent states in the Delian League (Kagan,170). The Athenians had an obligation to side with the Milesians, as the city state had deprived them as their means of defense due to previous rebellions from the population. Therefore, Athens now must see that this state was not taken advantage of by the neighboring populations. When the Milesians and some private citizens of Samos appealed to Athens, they responded promptly with an invasion and replaced the existing oligarchy with a democracy. However, this was not an easy transition for the state to make, and after the Samian war ended with an Athenian victory in 439 BCE, as many of the island’s inhabitants were massacred and enslaved by the Athenian forces.
Many of Sophocles’ tragedies such as Ajax and Philoctetes deal with the personal aftermath of war. When Sophocles wrote Ajax, he was a seasoned playwright, and has also served as a general in the Samian War. He would have been witness to the exposed bodies and heads that lined Samian roads after the Grecian victory, along with the bodies of those considered traitors by the Grecian army(McDonald 9). There are multiple references throughout accounts of the Samian war to deserters being left out in the open to die, and their bodies remaining exposed as both a threat to others and further punishment to the deceased. Furthermore, the killing of civilians in the aftermath of the Samian surrender would have been another disturbing aspect of the Samian war to the average Athenian soldier.
Athenian physicians in the fifth century did not make any effort to define or treat the effects of combat trauma. “First, the fact that otherwise sensitive and observant Hippocratic physicians turned a blind eye to a series of worrying conditions they could neither explicate nor treat is a warning to modern practitioners and researchers who may dispense with facts that do not match their theory”(Combat Stress Disorders and their Treatment in Ancient Greece, 1). The Athenians never came up with a clear pathology of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or even a name for the symptoms expressed by those returning from war. This however, is not exclusive to Athenian society, as the effects of battlefield trauma did not begin to be acknowledged as a disorder until well into the twentieth century.
The Athenian population would have known how emotionally jarring the site of the battlefield was. Sophocles draws much of his inspiration from Homer, who masterfully depicts the stress of the battlefield: his heroes were often stricken with horror or burst into tears at the sight of the enemy. While the Athenians were aware of the fact that it is not safe to break down crying in battle, they also knew that the emotions associated with the battlefield could not be repressed. War would have pervaded the routine of daily life for those living in fifth century Athens, they would have seen it depicted in murals and in statues, witnessed it in their tragedies and comedies, they would have competed in war games at their Panathenaic festivals, and discussed it in the shops, tavernas, and assemblies. Cases of extreme stress resulting from exposure to combat were described by Greek historians, and several of these symptoms can be compared to disorders defined by modern Psychology. Gorgias, a 5th century scholar, writes: “Speech is… able to dispel fear (phobos), to assuage grief (lupê), to inculcate joy, and to evoke pity” (Encomium of Helen, 8). This idea is prevalent in Greek culture, as speech and performance is seen as an integral part of the function of the polis. The previously mentioned Panatheic One can also see this in the interactions between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus, where a human connection and conversation helps him to regain trust and eventually rejoin society.
While the physicians in Sophocles’ lifetime did not have the vocabulary to define the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Athenian people were aware of the long-term effects of mental stress produced by warfare. As a general during the Samian War, he witnessed events that would have made him well aware of the consequences of long-term exposure to one on one combat could cause. Furthermore, his plays reflect the concept of therapy through recounting the events one has witnessed to someone else in order to begin to heal the mental wounds- a form of therapy still used in the modern world to treat PTSD. The actions not only of his protagonists but of the characters that they interact with further affirm these ideas. Where Ajax is failed by those around him, Philoctetes is raised back into the world of the living by those who reach out to him with empathy before it is too late. By examining classical texts one can gain an awareness of the persistence of combat trauma throughout history along with a new sense of how the treatment of this disorder in this culture was not so radically different from how it is in our own.
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