Julius Caesar is undoubtedly one of the most famous historical figures of all time. He is popularly remembered for his major military victories, his transformation of the Roman republic into an empire, and, of course, his assassination.
Much has survived which tells the story of this great leader, and in amongst the evidence there are some curious facts about Caesar the man. For years, people have believed that Caesar may have suffered from epilepsy.
In fact, Shakespeare’s famous play Julius Caesar even goes so far as to state that the ruler had epilepsy. But did Caesar actually have epilepsy, or was he suffering from any other health condition? What evidence is there that Caesar suffered from epileptic fits? Are there other explanations? And how did his health impact Caesar?
Evidence of Julius Caeser’s Epilepsy
Julius Caesar himself never mentioned his health condition. So, historians rely on the ancient biographers who lived at the time of Caeser’s rule. In a number of writings, it has been mentioned that Julius Caesar suffered from some form of chronic illness.
Some of the symptoms he experienced included sudden seizures, vertigo, and headaches. Traditionally, the disease was identified to be epilepsy, as per the ancient writers. However, the exact disease that caused these attacks is unclear.
One of the prominent pieces of evidence that talks about Caesar’s epilepsy is the account of Ploutarchos of Chaironeia. Better known as Plutarch, the Middle Platonist philosopher and Greek biographer, mentions about the illness of the ruler in his biography named The Life of Julius Caesar.
As per this account, Caesar suffered from several epileptic seizures and had a sickness in the head. In his biography, Ploutarchos of Chaironeia has written three times about the illness of Caesar. In one of the incidents, Caesar was not even able to rise up to honor the praetors, consuls, and others of the Senate who approached him. As Julius Caesar was feeling dizzy, he was not able to stand up. This resulted in the violation of customary norms.
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Another ancient biographer who has made mentioned about epilepsy of Caesar in his writing is Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. In Life of Julius Caesar, the Roman biographer mentioned how the military ruler suffered from seizures.
He mentions that Caesar experienced sudden fainting fits. Unlike Ploutarchos of Chaironeia, Suetonius talks about the illness of Caesar in a very brief manner. He does not write about the different situations in which the rule suffered from epileptic attacks.
Another account of Caesar epilepsy is that of Appianos of Alexandria, the Greek historian. In his history, The Civil Wars, he mentioned that the Roman emperors had epilepsy. According to his accounts, the illness bothered Julius Caesar a lot when he was not active. Therefore, Julius Caesar preferred going on different military campaigns.
Yet another piece of evidence states that Alexander the Great also suffered from epilepsy. By drawing parallels between the epileptic episodes of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, many ancient writers try to conclude that Caesar indeed suffered from the illness. However, the fact that Alexandar the Great suffered from such seizures is likely to be a false claim, and evidence of Caesar’s health from this source must be considered unreliable.
Could it be Something Else?
The writings of the ancient biographers are the only source stating that Caeser had epilepsy, and this allows doubt to creep in. Many historians believe that the descriptions provided by the ancient writers are quite vague and are not authentic.
At that time, epilepsy was not new in ancient Rome. If Caesar actually suffered from epilepsy, there would have been more accounts of the epileptic episodes of the emperor, and his ailment would surely have been named.
A significant argument against the belief of Caesar having epilepsy is the fact that he himself has never mentioned the illness in any of his writings. Not in Commentarii de Bello Civili or in Commentarii de Bello Gallico has he mentioned suffering from epilepsy, although understandably he may have wished to play down this weakness.
Moreover, other authors who were considered to be contemporaries of Julius Caesar, like Cicero, have not mentioned the illness of the emperor in their works. The idea of Caesar’s epilepsy seems to have started with Ploutarchos of Chaironeia, who was writing nearly over a century after the death of Julius Caesar. The lack of sufficient contemporary evidence shows that there is a possibility that the claim made was false.
Another explanation that states Julius Caesar might not have had epilepsy is that Caesar’s father and one of his close relatives had a sudden death. Sudden deaths can be associated with cardiovascular complications or stroke episodes.
If the close relative and Caesar’s father actually died of a heart attack, it is quite plausible that the ruler had a family history of cardiovascular diseases. So, Caesar might have also suffered from mini strokes, which were assumed to be epileptic episodes by the people. Moreover, the manner in which the epilepsy episodes of Julius Caesar have been mentioned by the ancient writers is different from the conditions stated by modern medical science.
Another strong explanation is that epilepsy could be used as a means of portraying Julius Caesar as more powerful. In ancient times, epilepsy was considered to be a “sacred disease”. It was especially believed by most of the uneducated people of that time.
Epilepsy was often associated with divine possession. Many historians believe that Caesar might have convinced people that he suffered from epilepsy in order to portray himself as a god-like figure.
Epilepsy and Julius Caesar
Most of the evidence that states Caesar epilepsy is from the writings of ancient writers. However, all the writings are mostly vague. Detailed descriptions are not available. Moreover, as it is not possible to diagnose Julius Caesar with the use of modern medical tools, determining whether he actually had epilepsy or not is difficult.
Many medical experts state that the health problem of Caesar could be anything from hypoglycemia to a brain tumor, cerebrovascular disease, and parasitic brain infection. It could be possible that Julius Caesar suffered from both epilepsy and heart problems. However, the real truth remains a mystery. The speculations relating to the illness of Caesar still continue.
Top Image: Did Julius Caesar suffer from epilepsy, or was there another cause for his affliction? Source: Antikensammlung Berlin / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri