The life of Julius Caesar was recorded in great and lengthy detail. Caesar wrote an autobiography, describing his military journey through his war in Gaul, as well as the Civil War against Pompey, spanning across the Mediterranean Sea from Spain to Egypt. Despite his fairly accurate (but definitely propagandized) portrayal of himself in his autobiography, Caesar rarely mentioned his health.
Though Caesar was reluctant to write about the state of his physical condition, many of the numerous people who witnessed the dictator took note of odd symptoms of ill health that Julius Caesar would sometimes let slip. This information found its way to Roman authors, poets and historians who preserved the details for posterity. Men such Cicero (c. 106-43 BCE), Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), Suetonius (c. 70-130+) and Appian (c. 2nd century) wrote that Caesar faced medical symptoms such as convulsions, headaches or migraines, feinting spells and minor seizures. Plutarch openly diagnosed Caesar with epilepsy in his writings.
Now, new theories are being formed and tested. Doctors Francesco Galassi and Hutan Ashrafian have hypothesized that Caesar’s small seizures, convulsions and head pains were not symptoms of epilepsy, but of mini strokes. Nevertheless, as with many other obscure pieces of history over 2,000 years old, we can only continue to assume and theorize about the truth.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn in the 19th century, and reprinted in 2014.
- Lucan’s Civil War, translated by Matthew Fox (Penguin Classics, 2012).
- Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.