Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Diagnosing Ancient Mental Illness

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Exekias Suicide d Ajax 01NEW YORK, NEW YORK—The study of ancient mental illness can at best be characterized as an "inexact science," but it is a passion of Columbia University historian William V. Harris, who studies such conditions in ancient Greece and Rome. Take for instance, the event we now know as the marathon. The inspiration comes from the courier Pheidippides's vision of Pan, the god of nature, during his run from Athens to Sparta to enlist the Spartans' help in defeating the Persians at Marathon. Harris characterizes Pheidippides seeing Pan as a possible hallucination.


In 2010, Harris started two conferences on mental illness in the ancient world. Now the findings of those events are being published, including a sort of glossary of descriptions in the classical world. One example is the word "phrenitis," which in ancient texts seems to correspond to bouts of delerium, fever, and death. To contemporary doctors, they would probably chracterize such a condition as encephalitis. According to Harris, "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."