Who Killed Julius Caesar?
Psychoforensic Analysis of Decisionmaking Under Stress
The American Psychoanalyst, November 2003
Harold J. Bursztajn
Psychoanalysis has had a long tradition of informing psychohistorical
inquiry. Forensic neuropsychiatry has experienced a rebirth and resuregence
of interest in the courtroom.
Two somewhat pioneering applications of psychoanalysis—psychoanalytically
informed decision analysis and psychoanalystically informed neuropsychiatry—can
deepen understanding of such phenomena as leadership, political decisionmaking,
and courtroom processes. Given the chasm between private and public settings,
this may seem paradoxical.
Psychoanalytically informed decision analysis modifies the assumption
of traditional decision analysis—that under conditions of uncertainty,
humans choose based on rational self-interest—with the psychoanalytic
perspective that "rational" and "irrational" in a
given context may not be obvious, commonsensical, or universal. I use
the term "psychoanalytically informed neuropsychiatry" to refer
to similar applications of psychoanalysis to reconsider "closed" questions
reopened by advances in modern neurobiology.
I was born in Poland just after World War II. As a child strolling with
my father in Lodz I saw strangers rush up to thank him once again for
saving their lives as a leader of the Shoah resistance. Thus early on
I was inspired by the wonder of leadership and decisionmaking in times
of uncertainty, conflict, and crisis.
As an undergraduate of Princeton, I was introduced to the work of Freud
by historian Carl Scherske and to the emerging discipline of neurobiology
by several pioneers in that field. After graduating in 1972, I entered
Harvard Medical School. There I was introduced to the work of Amos Tversky
and Danny Kahneman on the heuristics of judgment and decisionmaking under
conditions of uncertainty. (Kahneman, a psychologist, last year received
the Nobel Prize in economics).
Psychoanalysis and the cognitive psychology of social judgment and decisionmaking prima
facie are complementary approaches. Each recognizes that human
beings regularly make choices that might no be rational from a decision-analytic
standpoint. People who make unwise or unproductive decisions are
not necessarily stupid, uninformed, or neurotic. Rather, they are
applying strategies shaped by the evolution of the mind, culture,
personal history, and circumstance.
It seemed natural to integrate both psychoanalysis and the study of decisionmaking
heuristics into my clinical and consulting practice, as well as into
my teaching and research. I also wanted to make these methods accessible
to a wider public. To that end, I have worked with talented documentary
producers and directors on historical investigations, serving in a variety
of roles ranging from confidential advisor to on-screen, psychodynamically
informed decision analyst.
As a working psychoanalyst, I exercise curiosity in the most private
of settings about an analysand's received truths and accepted "absolute" wisdom,
to help free the analys and to ask previously unthinkable or unspeakable
questions. As a forensic psychiatrist, I work in interdisciplinary settings
exploring the validity of potential translations between the clinical
world of meaning and the legal world of objectivity, to understand the
choices people make under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, ambiguity,
Although much of my work has been as a confidential off-screen advisor,
the following example of some on-screen work illustrates how a psychoanalytically
trained forensic psychiatrist can further public education by working
with the media.
NEW PERSPECTIVE ON OLD DECISIONS
After I had served as an on-screen forensic psychiatric analyst for Anthony
Geffen's London-based Atlantic Productions on a program for the Discovery
Channel, "The Assassination of King Tut," Ruth Sessions of
the same production company approached me with an intriguing request:
Could I participate in their investigation to help a TV audience understand
how and why Julius Caesar was killed? Our findings would be telecast
in the documentary (also for Discovery)"Who Killed Julius Caesar?" The
team included internationally distinguished forensic investigator Luciano
Garofano of Italy's carabinieri and several highly talented classical
What made this project particularly satisfying was that everyone was
open to my developing and exploring with them questions that had been
overlooked by many historians. For example, did Julius Caesar, a genius
and perhaps history's greatest military tactician, a general who never
lost a battle, really walk blindly into a trap? He had access to high
levels of intelligence. He had a warning note clutched in his hand at
the time of his death. Why did he dismiss his bodyguard shortly before
his murder? How could such a wellinformed man come to be killed in front
of hundreds of witnesses at a senate gathering?
Garofano also welcomed the opportunity to explore questions regarding
Caesar's physical and mental condition.Why was his behavior so strange
in the weeks leading up to his death? Could Caesar's epilepsy, well documented
in ancient texts, have affected his behavior and led to his death?
We contemplated an instance of Caesar's strange behavior when he failed
to rise to greet the senate—a deep insult to that body— a
few weeks before his death. One early historical analysis gave the excuse
of diarrhea; another, epilepsy. Considering other details in available
descriptions of his behavior, the question as to whether Caesar's choices
were influenced by temporal lobe epilepsy seemed well wor th exploring.
Symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy, which become more common as the seizures
progress and become more generalized, include increased dissociation
and incontinence of bladder and bowel. Might Caesar, driven by narcissistic
concern with his own image and dignity, who had risen to become the most
powerful man in his world (and who could easily be said to have suffered
from grandiosity), have found it deeply humiliating, frightening, and
frustrating to lose control of both his sense of continuity in space
and time and his body in public? It is reasonable to infer that for Caesar,
it was far more painful to be seen as pitiable and incontinent than haughty
and rude. It is not a stretch to imagine that the life choice he faced
was especially stark: old age and increasing fits, temporal lobe–influenced
loss of autobiographical memory that he so valued, and even public diarrhea,
versus a dramatic exit.
I next raised the question whether Caesar's dramatic exit was not simply
a narcissist's suicide, but also a consciously chosen strategic act designed
to ensure his succession. Cornell University professor Barry Strauss,
of our classical historians team, explained that Caesar effectively gave
the conspirators a deadline when he announced he was about to leave for
war in Persia. Garofano noted that Caesar changed his will to name his
successor, his nephew Octavius, six months before his death. Just before
his death, Caesar left every citizen enough money to live on for three
months, guaranteeing a groundswell of mourning and adulation and the
historical immortality of a famous death that he so craved in writing
about his life.
ET TU, JULIUS?
While we worked to educate the public, we also were able to pose a previously
overlooked question in Julius Caesar scholarship. In the words of the
London Sunday Times Magazine cover article on the investigation, "Et
Tu, Julius?" (March 9, 2003):
Bursztajn's [working hypothesis] is startling. [What if] the
godfather who directs and controls the events of March 15, 44 BC, is
not hot-headed Cassius or scheming Brutus[?] They are, as they always
have been, far out of their depth, minnows in a political ocean patrolled
by sharks. No: the man pulling the strings, the orchestrator of his own
death, [could be] none other than Julius Caesar himself. The outcome
is exactly as he had planned it. In every particular, he gets what he
wants. The naive and foolish conspirators, on the other hand, go away
empty-handed, beaten by superior tradecraft and the poverty of their
own imagination. In defending the republic they ensured its demise. In
fighting dictatorship they have guaranteed its victory. By killing Caesar
they have made him immortal.
In this exploration I used psychoanalytically informed decision analysis
and forensic neuropsychiatry as ways to open other paths of inquiry,
rather than to come to a definitive conclusion. Such analyses are not
to be confused with a formulated forensic psychiatric opinion, as is
offered in the courtroom, or a psychoanalytic interpretation, as is constructed
with a patient in the consulting room. But by drawing from each, one
is able to question received wisdom, creating a context of discovery
in which new hypotheses can be explored while continuing to acknowledge
the ubiquity of both intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict.