For centuries historians and scientists alike have believed that the legendary Roman general Julius Caesar suffered from epilepsy. New research, however, disagrees with this theory and argues that Caesar might actually have been stricken by stroke.
In his later years the great military leader credited for the rise of the Roman Empire was hounded by numerous health problems from vertigo and dizziness to insensibility and limb weakness. A new review of his symptoms says that Caesar’s ailments might in fact have been owing to a series of mini strokes.
So serious were his infirmities that the once robust soldier would in fact fall over on occasions. The most quoted example is his collapse in the thick of the battle of Thapsus in 46BC. In his biography of Caesar, the Greek historian Plutarch attributed the fall to an epileptic attack–a view that has survived literally unchallenged for hundreds of years since.
In a new research doctors at Imperial College, London, however, overturn this long held belief and argue that the symptoms chronicled in Greek and Roman point in an entirely different direction, indicating a number of mini-strokes that damaged him physically and triggered changes in his mental state too.
Says Francesco Galassi, a medical doctor at Imperial who conducted the analysis with Hutan Ashrafian, “The symptoms reported in Caesar’s life point to multiple mini-strokes,” Born in 100BC, Caesar burst through the political system, captured Gaul and traversed the Rubicon river in a rampaging run that sparked the civil war and made him emperor of the Roman dynasty. His rule ended prematurely when he was assassinated in the Senate on March 15, 44BC.
Galassi and Ashrafian claim that the incidents in the king’s life recorded by scholars are not consistent with epilepsy but can be explained as having been the result of a series of mini-strokes. Caesar is said to have suffered from depression and changes in personality changed towards the end if his life. This was potentially through damage to his brain caused by strokes, say the researchers.
Historians recount in graphic details his emotional response to a speech by Cicero in his later years. “On hearing the great orator Caesar’s complexion changed, he began to shake, and he dropped a handful of documents,” writes one scholar. This might have been because of a stroke. Another attack might have been responsible for his failure to stand up as senators honoured him, an act that was interpreted as defiant.
“The idea that he was epileptic is unfounded,” says Galassi. In his treatise, Pliny the Elder says that both Caesar’s father and another forefather died for no apparent reason while putting on their shoes. Galassi and Ashrafian argue in the journal Neurological Sciences that a stroke or heart attack appear to have been the most probable causes of their death.