Julius Caesar is one of the most famous military rulers of all time. He lived between 100 and 44 BC and is well known for his major military achievements, his transformation of the Roman Empire and his assassination.
For many years, people have believed that Julius Caesar might have had epilepsy. Indeed, the English playwright Shakespeare describes the emperor having an epileptic seizure in his play Julius Caesar (Shakespeare wrote the play over 1,600 years after Caesar’s death).
But did Julius Caesar have epilepsy in reality? Here's what we know about Julius Caesar’s epilepsy or the other possible conditions he might have had.
Other historical figures: Did Harriet Tubman have epilepsy?
Did Julius Caesar have epilepsy?
Caesar himself never wrote about his own health, and so historians have relied on the observations of four writers who lived at the same time as the emperor, or in in the years after his death.
- One writer, Suetonius, describes Julius Caesar's epilepsy as “sudden fainting fits” and “nightmares”
- Meanwhile, the chronicler Appian talked about the emperor having “convulsions”
- Another writer, Plutarch, was most specific, describing Caesar as having “epileptic fits”
- Finally, the historian Thapsus explained that Caesar had to withdraw from a battle “after his usual sickness laid hold of him”.
Besides these descriptions from Roman writers and historians, there are a number of other factors linking Julius Caesar and epilepsy.
Caesar's father and great grandfather both died suddenly and unexpectedly, despite being relatively young and in otherwise good health. This may suggest they died from SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy).
There are also reports which indicate that Caesar’s son Caesarion had seizures as a child. What is more, a number of the emperor’s descendants also appeared to have seizure-like symptoms. This might suggest that epilepsy was inherited in his family.
Doubts about Julius Caesar’s epilepsy
While the above evidence seems to suggest that Julius Caesar did indeed have a seizure disorder, many historians are not convinced.
One issue is the fact that Julius Caesar’s seizures seemed to have started later in his life. Epilepsy symptoms most often begin in childhood (although you can of course develop epilepsy anytime in life).
Researchers who have analyzed the descriptions of Caesar’s apparent seizures argue that it is more likely that he was having mini strokes as he got older.
Another problem with the Julius Caesar epilepsy hypothesis is that while Roman writers described him as having epilepsy, they had a very different understanding of the condition to modern medical ideas.
In the ancient world, epilepsy was described as the ‘sacred disease’, and it was associated with divine possession. Some historians have argued that Caesar may have encouraged people to believe he did have epilepsy because it might have made him seem more God-like. Indeed, he may well have believed this himself.
The Julius Caesar and epilepsy question
We will probably never really know whether or not Julius Caesar had epilepsy. Without access to modern scientific tools (like EEGs and MRIs) to diagnose him, or detailed descriptions of his possible seizures, no historian can be sure.
All the same, it is interesting to speculate about Julius Caesar and epilepsy. What about you - do you think he might have had a seizure disorder?