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Ancient Greece and Mental Disorders

ancient greeceWilliam V. Harris, a history professor, has spent many years studying Ancient Greece and Rome, but in the last few years he has been focused on specifically studying the mental illnesses of the time. One may think that this is a job for a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but the professor said, “I have always been interested in psychiatry and psychology, which I see as a quite natural interest for a historian.”
Harris, the Columbia Center for the Ancient Mediterranean Director, has explored many ancient times subjects from war to economic history. Recently he began focusing on the emotional state of the people of that time. He is studying books such as Restraining Rage: the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity or Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity.
Professor Harris has chosen to do an essay on hallucinations stating that “describing a hallucination is not an impossible task, it tends to be relatively brief. Try describing 20 years of depression. That is a very challenging task.”
He claims that certain famous ancient people such as Pheidippides, the Athenians who ran to Sparta, were hallucinators, given that he claimed to have seen the god Pan.
He and his collaborators attempted to create some sort of Diagnostic Statistical Manual for mental disorders in ancient times by sorting and classifying the terminology.
“The names of mental disorders that the very best ancient thinkers have used don’t often correspond to anything that exists in the modern world in a neat and tidy way,” he said. Continuing, he gave the example of the word “phrenitis” that was used to describe a state of delirium, fever and eventually death, or as we call it today, encephalitis.
However, modern-day medicine doesn’t always help in understanding the illnesses of the past.
“There is always a temptation among historians of ancient medicine to do retrospective diagnoses and to say, for example, that so-and-so was a paranoid schizophrenic. But ancient descriptions of cases are seldom complete enough to allow for a retroactive diagnosis,” he said.
It is important to remember that ancient times didn’t have anything close to today’s scientific community and support.

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