Epilepsy and Empire
On March 15, 44 B.C., Julius Caesar walked unguarded
to the Roman Senate despite his soothsayer's oracular "Beware the
ides of March," his wife's murder-foretelling nightmare, and a warning
note pressed into his hand as he navigated the crowd. When he arrived
to meet with 900 senators, a mob of conspirators ambushed him. Before
horrified onlookers, they stabbed the dictator-turned-demigod 23 times
and killed him, carrying out the most infamous political assassination
in history. Case closed.
Or so historians and dramatists have assumed for more than two millennia.
But received wisdom couldn't explain all the data. "Why would this
man, who was not only a military but also a political geniusand
who had the best intelligence in the worldwalk directly into what
was 'a death foretold'?" asks associate clinical professor of psychiatry Harold
Bursztajn, M.D. '77. An internationally known forensic psychiatrist,
Bursztajn (pronounced Bur-STINE) participated in the British television
documentary Who Killed Julius Caesar? which
had already enlisted Colonel Luciano Garofano, commander of the Carabinieri's
forensic investigation center in Parma, to reopen the ancient case. Decades
of solving Mafia hits had taught Garofano to examine both victim and
killer. He flew from Rome to consult with Bursztajn about Caesar's state
"The usual pat answers have been that he [Caesar] was getting too
arrogant, too foolhardy," says Bursztajn. "But he had never
allowed himself previously to be blinded by his arrogance." A psychoanalyst
trained in physics and philosophy, Bursztajn is well prepared to ask
questions that haven't been asked before. To construct a more complex
profile of Caesar than the blind-and-arrogant hypothesis, Bursztajn applied
the same bio-psycho-social model that he uses for modern cases to the
evidence that Garofano collected from ancient sourcesa process
Bursztajn calls "forensic archaeology."
"The biological part is that he's falling to pieces, he's having
seizures," Bursztajn begins. When the Senate deified Caesar, for
example, rather than rise to receive this highest honor, he remained
seateda grave insult. However, Plutarch writes that Caesar dared
not stand for fear of having a convulsion, while another ancient historian,
Dio, writes that he sat to hide an attack of diarrhea. These conflicting
accounts led Bursztajn to the first precise formulation of the "Caesar
complex": temporal lobe epilepsy, a progressive disorder resulting
in a loss of mental and physical control (including bowel control) that
would be anathema to someone with Caesar's magisterial self-image.
The epileptic attacks, says Bursztajn, were "death's calling card
to Caesar" who, at 56, was already an old man by Roman standards.
They created an urgent need to act, Bursztajn says: "But what could
a man like Caesar, who'd gotten everything he wanted, who'd conquered
everything he wanted to conquer, have left to accomplish in his life?
Nothingexcept being able to achieve virtual immortality. He would
want to have a dynasty, and he would want to be well remembered and memorialized."
To achieve his goals, Bursztajn says, Caesar acted as the great general
he was, even in his last battlethe one against mortality. Bursztajn
asserts that whether Caesar initiated the conspiracy or simply bent it
to his own aims, he chose the time and place, pushing the conspirators
to act before they were ready by announcing his departure for Persia.
Rumors were already circulating that an illegitimate Egyptian son (by
Cleopatra) would succeed him, something unthinkable to Roman aristocrats.
Secretly, he changed his will, adopting as his son and successor his
grandnephew Octavian (who would arrive from Greece within a week of the
assassination), and granting Roman citizens money enough to live on for
three months after his death. "By dismissing his bodyguards and
walking into the Senate chamber where he had reason to believe he would
be assassinated, Caesar in effect chose the time and place of his death," Bursztajn
asserts. "If the conspirators are going to kill him, what would
be the worst place? Where they would lose their legitimacy"in
the traditionally weapon-free senatorial meeting place that the conspirators
violate by attacking him.
"As you add up all these elements, the conventional analysis becomes
more and more improbable," says Bursztajn, whose interpretation
persuaded Garofano that Caesar had a hand in his own assassination. In
one suicidal stroke, in other words, he achieves both a dynasty and his
own immortality. "Why have we decided to keep Caesar's image so
sacred that we haven't even raised this as a possibility?" Bursztajn
asks. "We like to think that people who are vain and arrogant get
their just desserts. But what if he got just what he wanted? He'd gotten
everything he wanted in life; maybe he was getting everything he wanted
~Harbour Fraser Hodder
September-October 2003: Volume 106, Number 1, Page
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