Epilepsy and Empire

Caveat Caesar

Harvard Magazine

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 genius—and who had the best intelligence in the world—walk 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 of mind.

"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 sources—a 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 seated—a 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? Nothing—except 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 battle—the 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 in death."

~Harbour Fraser Hodder

September-October 2003: Volume 106, Number 1, Page 19
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