A new medical diagnosis for Julius Caesar

Caesar 1

Medical experts from London’s Imperial College now think Julius Caesar had a series of mini-strokes. But how do they know? Why is this discovery so important? And what can the application of modern medical knowledge to ancient sources reveal about our past?

Julius Caesar is probably one of the most famous faces from Ancient Rome. A great military leader, and a key figure in the founding of the Roman Empire, he was posthumously granted the title Divus Iulius (the ‘divine Julius’).

But new research suggests that the man behind these achievements and political and military glory was not the strong and healthy man he was portrayed to be.

A new diagnosis

The Greek historian Plutarch, along with the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, both document symptoms reportedly suffered by Caesar, including vertigo, dizziness, headaches, insensibility and limb weakness. These symptoms have commonly been assumed to be a sign of epilepsy, a disease which was known as Morbus Comitialis by the Romans, or ‘curse from the gods’, as it was believed to be a spiritual affliction.

But, after a more detailed re-examination of ancient sources, medical experts London’s Imperial College have concluded that Caesar may have in fact suffered from a cardiovascular complaint; most likely a series of mini-strokes.


17th Century engraving of the Battle of Thapsus

The evidence

Ancient sources report that Caesar suffered a fall in his campaign in Cordoba and famously collapsed and had to be carried to safety during the Battle of Thapsus in Africa in 46BC.

In further instances, he was reported to have become pale and shake uncontrollably during a speech given by Cicero (traditionally assumed to have been an emotional response to the orator’s great speech), and on another occasion he was unable to stand as the senators honoured him, which was interpreted as an act of defiance by those present.

A new interpretation

According to this study’s researchers, these symptoms are all compatible with the occurrence of multiple mini-strokes. They also suggest that a history of cardiovascular disease may have run in Caesar’s family, as Pliny notes that both Caesar’s father and another forefather, both reportedly died suddenly whilst putting on their shoes (clearly a dangerous exercise!), most likely from a stroke or heart attack.

To further support these conclusions the researchers also suggest that damage to the brain caused by these strokes could well account for the change in personality and ‘darker mood’ that affected Caesar later in life.

These conclusions are based on the medical experts’ interpretation of the original sources, and although they may or may not be accurate, it demonstrates that there is still much to be learned from contemporary texts.

Rethinking history?

The suggestion that Caesar may have suffered from these strokes is hugely important in that it affects the way that we interpret significant historical moments. Was Caesar demonstrating a strong act of defiance when he did not stand to acknowledge the senators, or were his actions the result of this medical condition? We will never know the truth, but there’s a chance that he might have intended to behave differently and was prevented from doing so.

Applying modern medical knowledge to historical sources

This study highlights the importance of studying disease and medical conditions in history, as it may well change the way that we interpret events or the actions of certain individuals. By applying modern medical knowledge to instances and symptoms documented in ancient sources, we can potentially reveal more about important figures from the past.

It also helps us get closer to people from the distant past, as it helps us to see them as the people that they once were, experiencing similar problems and ailments, rather than as ‘characters’ from history. We start to empathise with them, and the more we do so the more we come to realise that they were real people like us.

Yes, Caesar was a great man, but he was human. Just like you and me. It’s important to remember that every once in a while.

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Written by Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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