War, Combat Trauma, and Poetry: Evidence for PTSD in the Latin Verse Inscriptions?

In my previous blog post, I introduced a text that provides an (albeit anecdotal) unusual view on the Roman army, its drill, its effectiveness, and the dehumanising, romanticising narratives that prevail around it.

The further one delves into the world of the Latin verse inscriptions, however, the more remarkable the material that one gets to encounter.

Recent years have seen a certain amount of professional and more general interest in evidence for combat stress reaction (WW I’s ‘shell shock’) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the classical world (see e. g. here, here, and here for such approaches, to offer but a small selection – a topic that created a more general media interest also).

Generally, while some interesting material has been compiled (and even utilised in attempts to provide treatment to soldiers and veterans suffering from such conditions), there remains a great deal of scepticism as to whether the evidence is strong enough to support the idea that PTSD really was a big(ger) issue in the ancient world or at least substantially comparable.

A source that – to my knowledge anyway – has not been mentioned before in this context is the following one, a funerary inscription (40 x 56 cm) from Henchir Suik / Tagremaret (Cohors Breucorum) in northwestern Algeria, where a Roman fort secured the Roman border of the province of Mauretania Caesariensis.

The inscription, written in somewhat irregular hexameters and dating to the third century A. D., reads as follows (CIL VIII 21562 = CLE 520):

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
hic situs est quondam iuvenis
generoso nomine miles Ulp(ius) Op-
tatus quiq(ue) regens virgam decus et
virtutis honorem gestavit, proles
laudanda propagine longa. hi[c]
multos domuit stravitq(ue) per hos un-
diq(ue) montes infandos hostes teme-
rataque bella subiit et quid n[on m]ulti
poterant iuvene[s] hic semper [solus a]-
gebat. cum suam totam nimium
depend[ere]t iram obvius ipse furo[r]
pugnae Romanum iuvenem per
hostica vulnera misit. ipse tam[en]
victor telis undiq(ue) clus[us – – -]
gentis nequid fe[ra- – -]-
renit ipse suis [- – -]
cladiq(ue) et vita [- – -].

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

Here lies a young man in former times, of noble name, a soldier, Ulpius Optatus. He sported a staff as an accolade and held a distinction of bravery, a praiseworthy offspring of an old lineage.

He vanquished and struck down many unspeakable enemies across these mountains around here, he engaged in many disgraceful campaigns, he always achieved entirely on his own what many young men could not do as a group.

As he unleashed his excessive anger in its entirety, that familiar rage of battle itself sent this young Roman straight into enemy-inflicted wounds.

Victorious, trapped by missiles everywhere, . . .

. . . of the tribe . . . nothing . . . wild . . . he himself for his . . .

. . . to the downfall and life . . .

Ulpius Optatus (presumably of African origin, as the name Optatus suggests), sporting both the noble name (generosum nomen) Ulpius – resembling that of Rome’s famous emperor Trajan! – as well as his military decorations, is described (presumably by his former fellow soldiers rather than his relatives, as the account contains little personal detail) as a daredevil soldier: he killed many enemies and thus distinguished himself.

But why are the enemies ‘unspeakable’ (nefandi)? Were they just deemed horrible – or is there more to this phrase? And why are the battles or wars that Ulpius Optatus fought described as disgraceful (temerata)? Was it the disgrace, the defilement (a meaning to which temeratus easily stretches), brought upon Ulpius Optatus, member of an African – perhaps even local? – elite (the inscription records his lineage as such!), because he had to fight against members of related tribes?

The wording seems too peculiar and emotional to be a mere criticism of a tactician’s planning. (Nothing much is known about the exact campaigns that are mentioned in this inscription; prior to the fouth-century revolt of Firmus, there is evidence for local insurgencies in this area of the Roman empire in the second half of the third century.)

Yet, despite all this, Ulpius Optatus managed to distinguish himself – to achieve single-handedly what even groups of young men could not achieve collectively.

And then the remarkable happened, it seems almost as though Ulpius Optatus snapped – he unleashed his entire exaggerated anger (cum suam totam nimium | depend[ere]t iram), and a familiar (obvius) rage of battle (furor | pugnae) sent him off into what, on the basis of the inscription’s account, sounds like a suicidal mission resulting from combat trauma – leaving Ulpius heavily wounded by the enemy, trapped under missile attacks from all around him.

The fragmentary nature of the text does not allow us to understand how the story ended for Ulpius Optatus – the few terms that stand out, though, suggest that it did not bode well for him: surrounded by enemies and under missile attack, he appears to have been able to achieve an initial victory – but what follows sounds less promising: we hear of a tribe (gens), of animal-like wildness (fera…), of a downfall or disaster of sorts (clades), and of life (vita) – a life lost, most likely, lost to exaggerated anger (ira) and battle-inflicted rage (furor).

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future, they say.

An almost equally difficult task is to diagnose illnesses and conditions of people who lived in the past without autopsy, without their account of what had happened, and, of course, without a degree or any other relevant qualification in medicine or psychology.

Lack of specialist knowledge in adjacent or not-so-adjacent disciplines, however, never seems to be much of an obstacle to the notoriously über-confident classicist.

In that regard one may be bold and suggest, on the basis of the terminology, that – at least in the eyes of his fellow soldiers – something must have snapped in Ulpius Optatus. Perhaps this was caused by the nature of his assignments (which are described as disgraceful and defiling in this inscription), something that already before had made him seek extreme dangers, and that eventually sent him off on a more or less predictable suicide mission, killing himself alongside a maximum number of enemy fighters.

Just like the inscription of an ultimately unsuccessful eques singularis that I discussed in my earlier blog post, I see this inscription as a valuable addition to our overall concept of what service in the Roman army – especially in extreme regions of the Roman Empire – was like.

Mentally and physically exhausting, the demands of serving the Roman army did indeed leave individuals in difficult personal conflicts over the nature of their assignment (as certainly appears to be the case in the inscription, above). What is more, this was hardly a one-off scenario, as the inscription refers to the furor pugnae that killed Ulpius Optatus as obvius, ‘familiar’.

The account does not give enough information to be confident in one’s diagnosis. Moreover, one would have to be extremely cautious in such diagnoses anyway, avoiding assumptions along the lines of ‘every veteran is a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode’ – a devastating and statistically entirely unjustified generalisation.

What gives a certain amount of safety in the assumptions over Ulpius Optatus, however, is the way in which his entire career is summarised as well as the way in which his exaggerated levels of sudden outbursts of aggressions are characterised.

Last but not least: one must not forget that the inscription is more than a historical document. It is a poem, commemorating Ulpius Optatus. It does so by using a lexicon of Roman epic and tragic poetry – creating a noble, brave, and distinguished persona of the deceased, a persona that then is confronted with sacrilegious personal conflict and overwhelming emotions beyond his personal, rational control.

Thus poetry and the language of images and metaphors became an opportunity for those who chose to commemorate Ulpius Optatus to give meaning and sense to his life – and his death.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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3 Responses to War, Combat Trauma, and Poetry: Evidence for PTSD in the Latin Verse Inscriptions?

  1. Peter Keegan says:

    Optatus’ furor pugnae reminds me strongly of a similar ferocity displayed by Sergeant First Class William James, the chief protagonist of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” – a modern aesthetic product which captures precisely the kind of PTSD evinced by the poetry composed by Optatus’ fellow soldiers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s really useful, thank you for this, Peter!


  3. chattykerry says:

    I have never before considered that as a militarized society, Rome must have had soldiers with PSTD. First class blog – I am astonished by your grasp of Roman history.

    Liked by 1 person

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