The army of Alexander the Great and combat stress syndrome (326 BC)

The Battle of Issus - Alexander the Great - jan BrueghelThe army of Alexander the Great and combat stress syndrome (326 BC)

F.P. Retief and L. Cilliers

Acta TheologicaVol. 26:2 (2005)


In the summer of 326 BC, Alexander the Great’s triumphal seven-year campaign in Asia was unexpectedly halted in the upper reaches of the Indus river — not by enemy action, but by the troops’ refusal to march further eastwards. A possible reason for such drastic action by an army which had, until that point, followed its king with blind devotion, was that severe combat stress may have set in. This syndrome, as it is defined today, has been thoroughly researched. The present article investigates the possibility that combat stress perhaps provides an explanation for this dramatic occurrence in which Alexander’s dream of an empire extending to the ends of the earth was shattered.

The first description of combat stress as the cause of specific psychiatric attrition among soldiers dates back to the American Civil War (1861- 1865). Hammond, the Physician-General of the Northern forces, de- scribed it at the time as “nostalgia”, a form of severe depression caused by prolonged absence from one’s home and family (Louw 1989:145- 8; Bourne 1969:219-36). During the First World War a comparable condition was identified and termed “shell shock”. This was initially ascribed to micro-vascular brain damage caused by close-range explo- sions, but it was gradually realised that only a small minority of patients had in fact sustained organic brain damage. Eventually, psychiatric trauma emerged as probable aetiology (Louw 1989:145-8; Marmar & Horowitz 1988:81-103; Bourne 1969:219-236).

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