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12: Julius Caesar

For the next few weeks, I thought it would be interesting to write about historical figures that lived with epilepsy. Although there are many, perhaps the most influential of all was Julius Caesar. So I will begin with him.


There is a broad debate among historians about whether Julius Caesar experienced the seizures described by ancient biographers. When old sources say he had some sort of illness that caused him to have some obvious seizures, I am willing to believe older sources, but when it comes to the exact identity of this disease, I remain agnostic. It's not that ancient historians didn't understand epilepsy, it is simply that ancient histories can often go incomplete.

The assumption that Gaius Julius Caesar suffered from epilepsy is supported by several sources dating back to Roman times. Based on comments made by Plutarch in 130, Caesar is believed to have suffered from the disease. There is also the possibility that he suffered from cardiovascular disease and was prone to strokes, but ruled in his private state.

By combing ancient literature, Galassi and Ashrafian came to different interpretations of the symptoms reported by Caesar. Galassi believes that there are numerous accounts in history of Caesar in epileptic episodes and that he may have suffered from epilepsy in ancient Rome.

Galassi and Ashrafian argue that despite Plutarch's diagnosis of epilepsy Caesar's late health problems were limb weakness, dizziness, and headaches due to mini-strokes that can occur when the brain is temporarily deprived of blood. It is not known that Caesar suffered seizures in his youth, and it is rare for someone to develop such seizures in later life. Researchers acknowledge that epilepsy is a possibility, but it could stem from diseases that occur in adults, such as head trauma, neurocystecosis, arteriosclerosis, syphilis, malaria, tuberculosis and glioma.

The Greek biographer of the Middle Platonic philosopher Chaironeia, who lived between c. 46 and c. 119 AD, wrote in his biography The Life of Julius Caesar (172) that Caesar suffered from a headache and suffered epileptic seizures. In 2003, the psychiatrist Harbour F. Hodder published the so-called Caesars Complex Theory. In it he argued that Caesar suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy and that the debilitating symptoms of the disease were a factor in his conscious decision to forego personal safety in the days leading up to his murder. Christopher Pelling, professor of Greek at Oxford University, said: "Caesar's disease is now considered epilepsy.

The famous words of the Greek historian Plutarch offer tantalizing clues to the cause of Julius Caesar's illness before his assassination by Ides in March 44 BC. The author discusses and quotes Plutarch and several other historical descriptions of Caesar and his health.

The authors combine their medical knowledge with their classical science to challenge Caesar's widely accepted diagnosis of epilepsy. They examine the historical context and information about his health. They note that Caesar had "morbus comitialis," as the Romans called it, which did not manifest itself in his later life, but was nevertheless a rare case of epilepsy.

Although Caesar was known for his physical toughness, some historians have written that a stroke or heart attack is a possible explanation for his illness. Towards the end of his life Caesar suffered from depression and his personality changed, which may have damaged his brain and caused a stroke.

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