Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Homer, Virgil, and PTSD

Although warfare has been with the human race since recorded history began, around six to eight thousand years ago, societal understanding of war changes over time. While poets have long known that combat experience produce profound changes in the individual psyche, only recently has that knowledge been formalized into the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In modern times, large-scale mechanized conflicts have increased both the numbers of individuals in combat and the traumatic nature of that combat. The first well-known occurrence is the frequent diagnosis of “shell shock” WW1. The term ‘battle fatigue’ arose around 1944. The designation ‘PTSD’ arose around 1978 in relation to veterans who’d served in Vietnam.

Although the nomenclature may change, the phenomenon itself must have been around for millennia. Some scholars see a description of PTSD in Lady Percy’s soliloquy, found in Act II, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.

Going back further, the personalities of some of Virgil’s characters seem to be impacted by PTSD. Aeneas displays, e.g., seemingly uncontrollable fits of rage and sleeplessness.

Seven or eight centuries before Virgil wrote the Aeneid, Homer wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad, around 750 BC, although precise dates for Homeric composition are difficult and controversial.

Homer’s characters display questionable judgment and substance abuse in ways compatible with a diagnosis of PTSD.

Understanding the psychological aftereffects of combat may prove to be a useful interpretive tool for various works of world literature.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Founding of Rome: Competing Narratives

The most common hypothesis about the founding of Rome is a harmonization of the broad outlines of both the familiar mythological narrative and of archeological findings. Leaving aside the notion of twin baby boys abandoned in the forest and raised by a wolf, the events begin with veterans who’d fought in the Trojan War.

After the war ended around 1184 BC, these soldiers mustered out, and set sail to find a new home. They settled on the coast of Italy and founded a city known as Alba Longa.

Archeologists have found graves in Italy which seem to have been structured in the Trojan or Ionian fashion, and which seem to be from the centuries surrounding the Trojan War. Around 753 BC, colonists from Alba Longa eventually planted a daughter city. That city would eventually became Rome.

There are, however, alternative narratives which compete with this standard account of Rome’s founding.

This variant explanation starts with a patriarch named Sabinah, who descended from an earlier patriarch named Tubal, and who founded the tribe known as the Sabines. This narrative connects with the documented split of the Sabines into two groups, one of which merged with the Romans, and the other of which opposed the Romans.

The latter group eventually also joined the Romans, after many decades of conflict.

Early texts from the Ancient Near East use the word ‘Kittim’ or ‘Chittim’ to refer to, variously, inhabitants of a city on the island of Cyprus, or more generally, inhabitants of the Mediterranean world west of the Levant. Ken Johnson writes:

The most ancient history of Italy records that Sabinah, the grandson of Tubal, settled in Italy, founded a city, and named it after himself. Some time afterwards, Chittim (or Rome) was founded. In order for Rome to grow quickly, a decree was issued that any criminal that would come to help colonize Rome would be declared a free man and made a citizen of Rome. This attracted a lot of criminals and caused the sons of Tubal not to intermarry or trade with them.

A language called ‘Oscan’ is documented as belonging to ancient inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, but not to the Etruscans.

A variant of the Tubal and Sabinah narrative ties the speakers of Oscan neither to the Ionians nor to settlers from Cyprus, but to pioneers from somewhere near Greece or Macedonia.

Italian history has theorized that a tribe called the Sabini came from the Adriatic coast; possibly speaking a language called Oscan, and settled on the western coast of Italy.

Ken Johnson’s narrative accounts for the famous narrative about the rape of Sabine women. By his reckoning, it would have occurred around 1721 BC:

The Romans decided that since they could not trade or intermarry with the children of Tubal, they would secretly slip into their cities and steal as many of the young women as they could. They then took the women back to Rome. Tubal’s children gathered forces and started a war to free their daughters. The war lasted eight years.

A few years later, around 1713 BC, the two groups confronted each other. This version of the narrative fits with the archeological evidence that the Sabines split into two groups, one of which merged with Rome, and the other of which remained independent for a few more decades.

The Sabine daughters all had children of their own. The Romans stated if the Sabines did not stop the besiegement of Rome they would put their own daughters and grandchildren on the front lines. Like it or not, they were all now related. So Tubal’s children had no choice but to end the war and return home.

In historiography, a competition between two narratives is sometimes best resolved, not by a victory of one narrative over another, but rather by a harmonization of the two.

If Sabinah or Tubal can be identified with one, or more, veterans from the Trojan War, then there is at least the possibility that this competing narrative could be merged with the others.