Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom

A history resource article by  © 2015

Last summer when I reviewed "The Wolves of the North", I expressed my fear that death stalked one of my favorite literary characters (who was also a real historical figure), Marcus Claudius Ballista, and I was afraid to read Book 6 in Sidebottom's "Warrior of Rome" series because I would find it hard to say goodbye to Ballista after accompanying him on so many adventures in Persia and beyond.   However, a friend on Facebook assured me that, even though trusty old Calgicus died as a result of his wounds from the traitorous Greek in Ballista's familia in Book Five, Ballista would not die in book six, "The Amber Road".

So, I once more got to accompany Ballista on yet another action-filled adventure, this time to his homeland on the shores of the Suebian Sea now commonly known as the Baltic Sea.  Along the way I met such fierce warriors as the Brondings (thought to originate from the Swedish island of Brännö), the Dauciones (from Scandinavia), the Geats (from Götaland in modern Sweden), the Greuthungi (possibly the Ostrogoths in later years), the Rugii, the Harii (who, according to Tacitus, painted themselves and their shield black and preferred to attack at night bringing terror to their opponents), and a lone Vandal who joins Ballista's hearth troupe and regales the familia with impromptu epics exalting Ballista's exploits.

This time the Emperor Gallienus has commissioned Ballista to bring the northern tribes back into the Imperial fold after they have been coerced into the service of the western pretender, Postumus.

The Roman Emperor Gallienus
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus was a Roman commander of possibly Batavian origin (some of his coinage honors Hercules Duesoniensis, with the suffix said to refer to the Batavian town of Deuso).  Postumus rose through the ranks and may have been promoted to imperial legate of Lower Germany by the emperor Valerian.  When news of Valerian's capture by the Persians reach the army in Gaul, who were battling an invasion of Alemanni and Franks, the army revolts and proclaims Postumus emperor even though Valerian's son, heir and emperor of the west, Gallienus, is still very much alive.

Gold aureus depicting Postumus coined in 268 CE.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Note: This revolt in 260 CE resulted in the Roman Empire's loss of control over Brtiain, Spain, parts of Germania and a large part of Gaul and these lands would later become known as the Gallic Empire.    The exact date of the revolt was uncertain for some time until an inscription was discovered in Augsburg in 1992 stating that Postumus was proclaimed Emperor in September of 260 CE.  The Gallic Empire remained independent until 274 CE.

2nd century CE Map of the Roman Empire with some of the tribes of Germania
indicated.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
But Gallienus has his hands full putting down insurrections along the Danubian frontier and trying to re-exert control in the east.  (The loss of Valerian and the disposition of the succession of usurpers that followed are the foundation of the narrative in Lion of the Sun, Warrior of Rome 3.)

However, when Postumus and Marcus Simplicinius Genialis crush the Juthungi and Gallienus' 18-year-old son, Saloninus, demands the spoils for his father instead of their distribution to the troops (probably at the behest of his praetorian prefect Silvanus),  the troops are enraged.  So, Postumus ignores the junior caesar and distributes the spoils anyway.

Aware they have stirred up a hornet's nest, Saloninus and Silvanus flee to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne) with a small group of loyal supporters.  Postumus' Gauls then besiege Cologne and upon breaching the walls of the city capture and behead Silvanus and Saloninus. (In the novel, Sidebottom has Postumus regretfully thinking back on his order to have young Saloninus beheaded as he has heard rumors he is now considered a child killer.  There seems to be some disagreement among scholars on this point as some of the ancient sources appear to blame the Gauls for the murder and do not attribute it to a direct order from Postumus.)
An Antoninian of the ill-fated son of Gallienus, Saloninus
issued in 260 CE.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Needless to say, this immediately gets Gallienus' attention and he begins to gather forces to confront Postumus.  As only parts of Germania fell under the sway of Postumus, it would have been logical for Gallienus to send an embassy like the one led by Ballista to try to bolster imperial support in the northern provinces.  Remember, however, that the historical Ballista disappeared from the records after defeating the Persians, overthrowing Quietus and being acclaimed emperor himself in the east.  So Ballista's adventures detailed in this installment are fictional.

As Ballista's troupe make their way to the northern coast of the Euxine (Black) Sea, they are constantly threatened, first by Goths who have sworn a blood oath to revenge the death of one of their leaders killed by Ballista and his men through trickery while defending Miletus (in an earlier book).  The troupe fights its way to the ancient Greek colony of Olbia just in time for Ballista to command the defense of the city against the Goths.

A closeup of the Grand Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting
a battle between the Romans and the Goths.  Photographed at
the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
Olbia, like the crumbling Roman Empire in the third century CE, was a shadow of its former self.  It was initially founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists from Miletus who constructed a harbor for the export of cereals, fish and slaves to Greece and the import of Attic goods to Scythia.  It was even visited by Herodotus in the 5th century BCE and was important commercially for centuries until it was sacked by the Getae under Burebista in the 1st century CE.

I can't read about Olbia without thinking about the magnificent golden jewlery, dubbed the Olbia Treasure, I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  It was actually discovered by peasants in a female burial tomb at Parutino near Olbia in 1891.

The butterfly was viewed as a symbol of the soul so this necklace was considered
 an appropriate funerary gift to the deceased female buried in a 2nd century BCE
 tomb near Olbia.  Photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland
 by Mary Harrsch © 2015.
Anyway, Ballista successfully defends the citadel once again through courage and shrewd strategy. Sidebottom once more displays his extensive scholar's grasp of siege warfare and tactics originally showcased in his first book of the series "Fire In The East, Warrior of Rome Book 1".

Although Ballista was successful in the novel, sadly Olbia was eventually abandoned in the 4th century CE after it was burned at least twice in the Gothic wars.

Supplied with additional men, Ballista continues north up the Hypanis River where the embassy is eventually attacked by the Brondings, originating from the area of modern day Sweden.  In the novel, a mysterious warrior named Unferth has killed the Brondings king and taken over the tribe. Together with his son, Unferth, commanding huge longships, has pillaged many of the surrounding villages by the time Ballista reaches his father's lands.

When I was researching this review, I checked to see if Unferth was an historical figure and I discovered he was a Danish lord in the ancient German epic Beowulf.  Unferth taunts Beowulf, claiming he could not have possibly done some of the epic deeds he claims.  Beowulf replies that Unferth is known for nothing except killing his kin.  The Unferth in Sidebottom's novel is definitely doing that so I thought it was an appropriate character for the antagonist in the story.

Of course, there is actually more than one antagonist in this story as Ballista discovers his half brother Morcar is engaged in a number of intrigues to ensure he will become the "sinning" (leader of the Angles) upon his father's death.  Ballista's childhood sweetheart also has a secret of her own that will probably feature in a future installment of the series if Dr. Sidebottom chooses to continue the series (He's now pretty wrapped up in a new series "Throne of the Caesars" sort of a prequel to the "Warrior of Rome" series.)

Once again Sidebottom has delivered a gritty, action-packed tale founded in carefully researched history of the third century CE.  Best of all, from my perspective, Ballista, an admirable literary hero I have enjoyed reading about through six novels, lives to fight yet another day!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Roman remains of ancient Gaul: Nimes (Nemausus)

An ancient history resource article by  © 2015
The Tour Magne is the remains of
one of the Roman tours built
during the reign of Augustus.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In May, 2013, I had the opportunity to travel to southern France to explore and photograph Roman remains there. I originally wrote this article six months later and saved it to draft.  I only now noticed that I hadn't finished it.  So I thought I better wrap it up and get it posted. Thankfully, it wasn't a time-dependent piece.  As time permits I hope to write other articles about some of the sites I visited in Roman Gaul.

The first Roman site I visited in southern France was the city of Nimes known as Nemausus in Roman times, after a local sacred spring located there.

Nimes became part of the Roman Empire sometime before 28 BCE.  It was colonized by veterans of the Roman legions who had served Julius Caesar in his Nile campaigns. By the reign of Augustus in the 1st century CE Nimes had reached a population of 60,000.

Augustus ordered the construction of
a ring of ramparts six kilometres (3.7 miles) long, reinforced by fourteen towers.  Although two gates remain today, the Porta Augusta and the Porte de France, as well as the remains of one tower dubbed the Tour Magne, we, unfortunately, did not have time to inspect them. 

Our first stop was the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple originally constructed in 16 BCE. Originally the temple was designed after the temples of Apollo and Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus in Rome.  The structure was rebuilt by the famous Roman admiral, Marcus Agrippa (victor of Actium), in approximately 2 - 4 CE.  The temple was dedicated to his two ill-fated sons, Gaius and Lucius, who had been adopted by his best friend Augustus so they would rule Rome one day.  However, both died tragically young (poisoned by Augustus' vile wife Livia if we believe Robert Graves' interpretation of events in "I, Claudius!") 

The Maison Carree, an example of Vitruvian architecture built
in 16 BCE now houses an information center and theater
in Nimes, France.
Photo by . © 2013
The structure is an example of architecture popularized by the famous Roman architect, Vitruvius.  It is almost twice as long as it is wide with its entry fronted by six Corinthian columns topped with ornately carved acanthus leaves.

A pidgeon nestles into the protective acanthus
leaves sculpted on the capital of a Corinithian
column of the Maison Carrée
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
The deep portico or proanos consumes 1/3 of the building's length and features a ceiling accented by a relief of ornamental rosettes.  The ceiling was restored in the early 19th century.  The big bronze doors were replaced in 1824.

Like the Pantheon in Rome, the temple survived the widespread destruction of pagan centers of worship after Rome adopted Christianity because it was converted to a church.  In the years that followed it was subsequently converted to a meeting hall for the city's consuls, a canon's house and even a stable for government-owned horses during the French Revolution.  It now houses an information center and theater.

Inside we bought a three day pass for all of the surrounding historical sites for only 11 Euros. It included admission to a short 3-D movie about the history of Nimes that was very well done even though Cecelia, a medieval reenactor, made fun of the less than authentic fencing in one of the segments.

I thought the segment on gladiatorial fights was quite authentic with a properly attired Roman referee and a retiarius (net man with trident) and a Secutor battling it out with little blood spilled. Each time one of the gladiators was in danger of a mortal wound the referee would step in and separate the combatants. 

Finally one of the men went down and the referee looked to the crowd for a verdict and declared the victor without any further harm coming to his opponent. In historical times that type of encounter was far more common than the blood bath seen on the Starz' Spartacus: Blood and Sand series. The only thing that was not quite authentic was that the men were relatively svelt. In Roman times gladiators ate an almost vegetarian diet of barley gruel to put on a protective layer of fat and often appeared rather barrel-chested.

This Roman relief  found along the Via Appia near the tomb of Cecilia Metella
illustrates the well fed contours of arena combatants in the 1st century BCE
Photogaphed at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum, Rome, Italy by  © 2009
After the movie ended we climbed down the rather steep stairs and walked several blocks to the Roman amphitheater. The amphitheater was constructed in approximately 70 CE.  It measures 133 meters long and 101 meters wide and in ancient times could seat 24,000 people.  The stone for its construction was quarried at Roquemaillère and Baruthel located near Nîmes.

s er
A Roman amphitheater now serves
as a venue for bullfights
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
Although several tiers of the structure are now missing, what remains is in very good condition. It is significantly smaller than the Colloseum in Rome, though. 

Once fortified by the Visigoths, the Nimes amphitheater was a target of destruction
by Charles Martel in 737 CE so only the lower tiers of the structure remain.
Photographed in Nimes, France by  © 2013
With the upper tiers of the structure missing I could not see any remnants of the supports for the sun shades that were usually extended to shade the spectators on a hot day. I also did not see any numbers carved in to the stone above the various entry doors that matched tokens given to attendees to tell them which door to use so ingress and egress could be accomplished in a relatively short time.  The official website for the site pointed out the fore-body parts of two bulls with their legs folded on either side on one of the arches.  I wish I would have noticed that. 

It also said there was a relief of a she-wolf giving milk to two children, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, on one of the pilasters opposite the Palais du Justice. Unlike the Roman version, the Nîmes she-wolf is looking towards the children. If you visit the amphitheater, don't overlook them like I did.

The archaeology museum in Nimes,one of the largest in France, is presently housed in the 17th century Jesuits College at 13 Boulevard Amiral Courbet, 30000. Iron age and Gallo-Roman artifacts comprise most of the collection with a host of everyday objects, including sigillated ceramics, bronze tableware, lamps, toilet and dress accessories. There is also an exhibit of Greek ceramics that have been recovered from the area.

In 2018, the collection will be moved to the new Museum of Romanity that is being built facing the Roman amphitheater.
An artist's rendering of the new Museum of Romanity slated for completion in 2018.  Image courtesy of  Nimes Tourism.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: Sword of Rome by Douglas Jackson

A history resource article by  © 2015

When we left Gaius Valerius Verrens at the end of Book 4 of the "Hero of Rome" series of novels by Douglas Jackson, Valerius was attempting to elude the Roman Emperor Nero's assassins in Antioch and escape to the safety of Vespasian's headquarters in Africa. He has been charged with the care of the daughter of his former commander and mentor Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo who was ordered by Nero to commit suicide  and he and his faithful freedman and former gladiator, Serpentius, are determined to keep the lady (and future empress) safe.

I thought the next book, "Sword of Rome", would take place in Africa where Valerius would serve as a cavalry commander under Vitellius, but instead we discover it is 68 CE, the Year of the Four Emperors, and Valerius is leading a small contingent of cavalry escorting Marcus Salvius Otho to Rome where Otho's fellow conspirators are preparing to end Nero's tyranny and install the aged patrician traditionalist, Galba as the new ruler of the Roman Empire.

Roman emperor Marcus Salvius Otho
Photographed at The Louvre by Mary Harrsch
© 2008
Galba was childless and Otho has been assured by one of Galba's favorites, Titus Vinius, that Otho would be adopted by the old general if Otho would secretly marry Vinius' daughter.

The problem with "too many caesars" though, as Octavian once put it, is that troops loyal to different imperial claimants often run into each other in the surrounding provinces.  Such is the case when Valerius' troopers encounter a squad of Batavians still loyal to Nero and in the ensuing struggle Valerius kills the brother of a high-ranking Batavian commander.  The resulting blood feud shadows Valerius' missions throughout the rest of the novel.

When Valerius finally arrives in Rome, he is asked to secretly meet with Nero's vile Praetorian Prefect, Tigelliunus, who has accepted a bribe from the rebels to betray his longtime benefactor. Valerius finally has the opportunity to exact vengeance on the now cowering and terrified emperor, Nero, who ordered Valerius' father figure Corbulo's suicide.

Jackson then introduces a group of Roman sailors who Nero has promised the opportunity to become a new legion.  Valerius meets these men and, although they are not properly trained in the use of arms, Valerius is impressed by their courage and loyalty and assures them that he will try to get the new emperor to recognize Nero's pledge.

Servius Sulpicius Galba.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
But the pompous Galba will have nothing to do with them and orders his troops to slaughter many of the men when they confront Galba during his triumphal procession into the city.  Among other mistakes Galba makes is his tight-fisted refusal to pay a promised donative to the Praetorian Guard. Then Galba names a feckless patrician youth as his heir instead of Otho and Otho incites the Praetorian Guard to put an end to Galba's blunders.

Valerius is torn by his soldier's sense of duty and honor between Galba and Otho since, by now, he has already pledged the military sacramentum to Galba.  So, Valerius is caught right in the middle of this maelstrom of violence and he and Serpentius barely escape with their lives.  As history tells us, Galba was not so fortunate, however.

Otho finds among Galba's papers reports that the gluttonous Vitellius, now governing Germania Superior, has been declared emperor by the Renus legions.  So, in exchange for Valerius' life he asks Valerius and Serpentius to travel to Vitellius' headquarters as Otho's envoy to try to avert civil war.

The so-called pseudo-Vitellius at The Louvre,
a 16th century copy of an ancient bust thought to
be the gluttonous Roman emperor Vitellius.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The rest of the novel is focused on Valerius' journey to and from Germania Superior ending with the climactic battle of Bedriacum that leaves Valerius an "Enemy of Rome", the title of book five.

Once again Jackson has fleshed out the meticulously researched events of history with vibrant characters and breathtaking battle sequences.  Although I was aware of the key players in the "Year of the Four Emperors", I had not studied it in depth even though I have an, as yet unread, text on the subject, "The Year of the Four Emperors" by Kenneth Wellesley.  Jackson's narrative, however, has seared the events of that momentous year into my memory as no textbook could.

Once again, I am anxiously looking forward to the next novel in the series "Enemy of Rome" although it has not yet been released on audio which is my favorite format.  I keep checking my offerings and hope it will show up there soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Did the Julio-Claudians suffer from congenital heart defects?

A history resource article by  © 2015

Nude statue of Julius Caesar. Photographed
at The Musée du Louvre in Paris, France
by Mary Harrsch  © 2008
A recently published article, "Has the diagnosis of a stroke been overlooked in the symptoms of Julius Caesar", by Francesco M. Galassi and Hutan Ashrafian of Imperial College London, has generated quite a bit of interest both in the media and among historians.  As Julius Caesar has always been one of my research interests, I contacted Dr. Ashrafian and requested a copy of the full article, after reading a synopsis in the mainstream media.

In the article, I learned that the medical community has, in the past, relied on only two episodes of Caesar falling, one at Cordoba and another at Thapsus, along with ancient sources refering to Caesar as having the "falling sickness", as the basis for acceptance of the diagnosis of epilepsy.  Drs. Galassi and Ashrafian point out that an analysis of the symptoms indicates that cerebrovascular insults and stroke should be considered, especially in view of other behavioral symptoms reported by the ancient sources.

"Caesar also suffered from other symptoms including depression and personality changes (exampled by emotional lability when listening to a moving oration by Cicero), which may also be consistent with cerebrovascular disease." - Francesco M. Galassi,  Hutan Ashrafian, Has the diagnosis of a stroke been overlooked in the symptoms of Julius Caesar?, Neurological Sciences, March 2015

The researchers go on to point out that Caesar's father and great grandfather had both died suddenly without apparent cause.

"This has been explained by some in terms of SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy); however, these events can be more readily associated with the cardiovascular complications of stroke episode or a lethal myocardial infarction. Even if Caesar participated in an active lifestyle and may have benefited from an environmental background of a Mediterranean diet, there is the added possibility of genetic predisposition towards cardiovascular disease." Francesco M. Galassi,  Hutan Ashrafian, Has the diagnosis of a stroke been overlooked in the symptoms of Julius Caesar?, Neurological Sciences, March 2015

I think the researchers make very important points but I thought it would be even more illuminating to examine a more extensive case history.  Since we don't have a lot of information about Caesar's symptoms in the ancient sources, I decided to examine the much more detailed information we have, thanks to Nicolaus of Damascus and Suetonius, about the health of Augustus, since he, too, was said to have the "falling sickness" and was a blood relative of Caesar.

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus (High Priest).
Photographed at the Palazzo Massimo venue
of the 
National Museum of Rome, Rome, Italy
by Mary Harrsch 
© 2009

Caesar had only two siblings, sisters, both named Julia.  Sadly, little is known about either Julia so we have no definitive health information about them.  Julia the Younger married Marcus Atius Balbus and had either three or two daughters (depending on which source you read).  Her second daughter named Atia married Gaius Octavius and bore him a son, Octavian (later called the emperor Augustus) and a daughter named Octavia the Younger.

We know from the ancient sources that Octavian, like Caesar, was thought to have the "falling sickness".  We also know that his sister, Octavia, was said to have "fainting episodes".

Although most women, including Octavia, were practically ignored by ancient historians, Aelius Donatus, in his Life of Virgil, recalls at least one of Octavia's "fainting episodes.

"...Virgil recited three whole books [of his Aeneid] for Augustus: the second, fourth, and sixth--this last out of his well-known affection for Octavia, who (being present at the recitation) is said to have fainted at the lines about her son, "… You shall be Marcellus" [Aen. 6.884]. Revived only with difficulty, she sent Virgil ten-thousand sesterces for each of the verses."

Marcellus was Octavia's son who had recently died suddenly at a very young age.  Although Octavia may have had a simple fainting episode due to her intense grief, the fact that she was "revived only with difficulty" points to a more serious underlying health issue.

So, we appear to have two siblings that both suffer periods of unconsciousness.

Augustus had only a single daughter, Julia.  Julia was first married  to her first cousin, Marcellus (Octavia's son by her first husband, Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor). Marcellus died two years later and the union produced no children - probably very fortunate since the couple had parents on both sides with possible seizure issues).

Then Julia was married to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and bore five children. One of them, Vipsania Agrippina would become the mother of the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) when she married Germanicus, Octavia's grandson. (those afflicted family lines cross again!)

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Photographed at
The Musée du Louvre in Paris, France by
Mary Harrsch © 2008
Octavia, Augustus' apparently afflicted sister, had two children with her second husband, Marc Antony - Antonia the Elder who became grandmother to the Emperor Nero, and Antonia the Younger who was mother to the Emperor Claudius, grandmother to the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) and the great-grandmother to the Emperor Nero.  The ancient sources refer to all of these Julio-Claudian emperors as having the "falling sickness".

Research has shown that heart defects like atrial septal defect, a hole between the two upper chambers of the heart, can be inherited by successive generations within a family group.  It has also been shown that such defects can be transmitted through multifactorial inheritance (just like epilepsy), not just simply through the Mendelian Law of Dominance, the expression of a dominant or combination of recessive genes.

"When the defect is determined by a single gene difference, the risk to the unborn can be predicted from the Mendelian laws and does not change with successive children, but in a multifactorial system, the risk to the unborn increases with the number of relatives affected." - James J. Nora, M.D., Dan G. McNamara, M.D., and F. Clarke Fraser, M.D., Ph.D., Hereditary Factors in Atrial Septal Defect, Circulation Vol. XXXV, March 1967.

The study referenced above focused on atrial septal defects because it is the most common congenital heart defect encountered in adults.  Untreated atrial septal defect in adults is characterized by shortness of breath with minimal exercise (because of lower than normal oxygen levels in the lungs), congestive heart failure, and/or cerebrovascular accident (stroke).

Atrial septal defect.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Stroke results in an individual with ASD when a blood clot forms in a vein, dislodges and enters the arterial system rather than traveling to the lungs as it would in an individual with a normal dividing wall (interatrial septum) between the two upper chambers of the heart. This can cause any phenomenon that is attributed to acute loss of blood to a portion of the body, including cerebrovascular accident (stroke), infarction of the spleen or intestines, or even a distal extremity (i.e., finger or toe).  This is known as a paradoxical embolus because the clot material paradoxically enters the arterial system instead of going to the lungs.

So, with a heart defect and associated cerebrovascular accidents in mind, let's see what Octavian's health history reveals.

Like Caesar, Octavian lost his father from unexplained sudden death at a relatively young age.  His father, like Caesar's father, also appeared to be physically robust just prior to sudden death.

Portrait head thought to be Gaius Octavius.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
"Macedonia fell to his [Gaius Octavius'] lot at the end of his praetorship; on his way to the province, executing a special commission from the senate, he wiped out a band of runaway slaves, refugees from the armies of Spartacus and Catiline, who held possession of the country about Thurii.  In governing his province he showed equal justice and courage; for besides routing the Bessi and the other Thracians in a great battle, his treatment of our allies was such, that Marcus Cicero, in letters which are still in existence, urges and admonishes his brother Quintus, who at the time was serving as proconsular governor4 of Asia with no great credit to himself, to imitate his neighbour Octavius in winning the favour of our allies."

While returning from Macedonia, before he could declare himself a candidate for the consulship, he died suddenly..." - Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 3:1

We already know that Octavian's grandmother's father (Julius Caesar's father) suffered sudden unexplained death as did her great great grandfather.  We have no health history for his mother or his grandmother but we do know from modern research that heart defects are expressed more often in females than males so there is a strong possibility that his mother and/or his grandmother inherited some form of defect from their fathers.

 The degree of debilitation in Octavian's case, if caused by an inherited cardiac-related condition, was compounded by his own father's probable predisposition to a heart disorder as well as an inherited condition from Caesar's father through Caesar's sister to Octavian's mother, Atia.

Then, when we examine the symptoms recorded by Augustus' biographers, particularly Nicolaus of Damascus and Suetonius, we find numerous suggestions of a cardiac-related condition resulting in pathology from apparent cerebrovascular accidents.

At the age of 14, Octavian donned the toga virilis and was immediately elected to the college of priests because of the death of Lucius Domitius.  But contemporary biographer Nicolaus of Damascus reports that Octavian's mother, Atia, watched over him closely and took care of him as if he was still a child.

Preparations for a Roman ritual sacrifice depicted on Trajan's Column in Rome.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch.  © 2009.
"He entered the Forum, aged about fourteen, to put off the toga praetextata and assume the toga virilis, this being a token of his becoming registered as a man. Then while all the citizens looked upon him, because of his comeliness and very evidently noble descent, he sacrificed to the gods and was registered in the sacred college in place of Lucius Domitius, who had died. The people indeed had very eagerly elected him to this position. Accordingly, he performed the sacrifice, adorned with the toga virilis and at the same time the honors of a very high priestly office."

"Nevertheless, though he was registered as of age according to law, his mother would not let him leave the house other than as he did before, when he was a child, and she made him keep to the same mode of life and sleep in the same apartment as before. For he was of age only by law, and in other respects was taken care of as a child." - Nicolas of Damascus, Life of Augustus, 4.

This could be an example of a smothering parent but we see that Octavian also seemed to avoid climbing steep stairs:

"He went to the temples on the regular days, but after dark on account of his youthful charm, seeing that he attracted many women by his comeliness and high lineage; though often tempted by them he seems never to have been enticed. Not only did the watchful care of his mother, who guarded him and forbade his wandering, protect him, but he too was prudent now that he was advancing in age. During the Latin festival when the consuls had to ascend the Alban Mount to perform the customary sacrifices, the priests meanwhile succeeding to the jurisdiction of the consuls, Octavius sat on the Tribunal in the center of the forum." -  Nicolaus of Damascus, Life of Augustus, 4.

When Caesar returned from Egypt and Syria and was planning his African campaign in Libya, Octavian wanted to go with him.

Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna, Italian, circa 1485-1494
"Caesar had by this time completed the wars in Europe, had conquered Pompey in Macedonia, had taken Egypt, had returned from Syria and the Euxine Sea, and was intending to advance in to Libya in order to put down what was left of war over there; and Octavius wanted to take the field with him in order that he might gain experience in the practice of war. But when he found that his mother Atia was opposed he said nothing by way of argument but remained at home. It was plain that Caesar, out of solicitude for them, did not wish him to take the field yet, lest he might bring on illness to a weak body through changing his mode of life and thus permanently injure his health. For this cause he took no part in the expedition. " - Nicolaus of Damascus, Life of Augustus, 6.

When Caesar returned from Africa, he asked Octavian to accompany him to many social functions including temple sacrifices, theater performances and banquets as if Octavian was his own son.  But again, Octavian was striken with serious illness:

 "Caesar wished Octavius to have the experience of directing the exhibition of theatrical productions (for there were two theaters, the one Roman, over which he himself had charge, and the other Greek). This he turned over to the care of Octavius. The latter, wishing to exhibit interest and benevolence in the matter, even on the hottest and longest days, never left his post before the end of the play; with the result that he fell ill, for he was young and unaccustomed to toil. Being very ill, every one felt considerable apprehension regarding him, lest a constitution such as his might suffer some mishap, and Caesar most of all. Accordingly, every day he either called himself and encouraged him or else sent friends to do so, and he kept physicians in continuous attendance. On one occasion word was brought to him while he was dining that Octavius was in a state of collapse and dangerously ill. He sprang up and ran barefooted to the place where the patient was, and in great anxiety and with great emotion questioned the physicians, and he sat down by the bedside himself. When Octavius' full recovery was brought about, he showed much joy." - Nicolaus of Damascus, Life of Augustus, 9.

When Caesar planned to go to Spain to engage the sons of his former rival Pompey, he tells Octavian, who is still weak, to join him when he is well enough.

"While Octavius was convalescent, still weak physically though entirely out of danger, Caesar had to take the field on an expedition in which he had previously the intention of taking the boy. This however he could not now do on account of his attack of sickness. Accordingly, he left him behind in the care of a number of persons who were to take particular charge of his mode of life; and giving orders that if Octavius should grow strong enough, he was to follow him, he went off to the war. The eldest son of Pompeius Magnus [Gnaeus Pompeius] had got together a great force in a short time, contrary to the expectations of everyone, with the intention of avenging his father's death, and, if possible, of retrieving his father's defeat. Octavius, left behind in Rome, in the first place gave his attention to gaining as much physical strength as possible, and soon he was sufficiently robust." -  Nicolaus of Damascus, Life of Augustus, 10.

However, when Octavian returns to Rome, his health still seems to be problematic and he seems to avoid physical exertion.

"Octavius lived soberly and in moderation; his friends know of something else about him that was remarkable. For an entire year at the very age at which youths, particularly those with wealth, are most wanton, he abstained from sexual gratification out of regard for both his voice and his strength." -  Nicolaus of Damascus, Life of Augustus, 15.

Assassination of Julius Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan (1836-1908).
When Caesar is assassinated, Octavian takes up the challenge to avenge his adopted father and assume his rightful place as heir to both Caesar's fortunes and ambitions.  But his health is still fragile.

At the battle of Mutina when Octavian's forces beseiged Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators in the assassination of Caesar, Marc Antony claims " he took to flight and was not seen again until the next day, when he returned without his cloak and his horse."  Although this incident could have been a loss of nerve, his following actions do not support a lack of courage.

A Roman aquilifer carrying an eagle standard.
Image courtesy of Jorl Avlis © 2014

"but in that which followed all agree that he played the part not only a leader, but of a soldier as well, and that, in the thick of the fight, when the eagle-bearer of his legion was sorely wounded, he shouldered the eagle and carried it for some time. " - Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 10:1

Although Suetonius also claims Augustus did not lack the gift of speaking offhand without preparation, he points out that after the battle of Mutina the young Octavian never again addressed the people or soldiers without reading from a written manuscript.

"Even his conversations with individuals and the more important of those with his own wife Livia, he always wrote out and read from a note-book, for fear of saying too much or too little if he spoke offhand."  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 84:1

Illness struck him down again at the battle of Philippi:

"Then, forming a league with Antony and Lepidus, he finished the war of Philippi also in two battles, although weakened by illness, being driven from his camp in the first battle and barely making his escape by fleeing to Antony's division." -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 13:1

Plutarch gives a more thorough description, indicating Octavian was so ill he had to be carried on a litter:

"And Octavius, as he himself tells us in his Commentaries, in consequence of a vision which visited one of his friends, Marcus Artorius, and ordered that Octavius should rise up from his bed and depart from the camp, barely succeeded in having himself carried forth, and was thought to have been slain.  For his litter, when empty, was pierced by the javelins and spears of his enemies."  Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Brutus, 41:7

During the subsequent Sicilian War with Pompey's son, Sextus, Suetonius records that Octavian appears to have suffered a catatonic episode:

"...he defeated Pompey between Mylae and Naulochus, though just before the battle he was suddenly held fast by so deep a sleep that his friends had to awaken him to give the signal.  And it was this, I think, that gave Antony opportunity for the taunt: 'He could not even look with steady eyes at the fleet when it was ready for battle, but lay in a stupor on his back, looking up at the sky, and did not rise or appear before the soldiers until the enemy's ships had been put to flight by Marcus Agrippa.' -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 16:1

Although this episode is first described as Octavian being in an unusually deep sleep, the symptoms in Antony's taunt are more illuminating, clearly describing the unresponsive Octavian on his back with his eyes open.  Catatonia has been observed in individuals suffering from focal neurologic lesions, including strokes.  There was no mention of any convulsive activity.  Furthermore, ministrokes can resolve without intervention.  If Octavian's condition was caused by a sudden vascular ischemic event that was not accompanied by edema or hemorrhage, it could resolve itself within minutes and he could become once more, apparently fully functional.

But, these repeated occurrences of neurological events would not be without behavioral consequences.  As time passes and Octavian assumes the ultimate position of power over the Roman Empire, Octavian, now called Augustus, appears fickle in his administration of justice - sometimes extremely lenient while at other times totally without compassion and stubbornly inflexible.  He also became subject to sudden outbursts of immoderate speech and outright brutality.

"While he was triumvir, Augustus incurred general detestation by many of his acts. For example, when he was addressing the soldiers and a throng of civilians had been admitted to the assembly, noticing that Pinarius, a Roman knight, was taking notes, he ordered that he be stabbed on the spot, thinking him an eavesdropper and a spy. Because Tedius Afer, consul elect, railed at some act of his in spiteful terms, he uttered such terrible threats that Afer committed suicide.  Again, when Quintus Gallius, a praetor, held some folded tablets under his robe as he was paying his respects, Augustus, suspecting that he had a sword concealed there, did not dare to make a search on the spot for fear it should turn out to be something else; but a little later he had Gallius hustled from the tribunal by some centurions and soldiers, tortured him as if he were a slave, and though he made no confession, ordered his execution, first tearing out the man's eyes with his own hand." -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 27:3

Loss of impulse control and the ability to interpret other people's behaviors have been documented in modern studies of individuals who have suffered frontal lobe brain injury.

Octavian, who initially opposed the proscriptions of his opponents (the seizing of their property that was often accompanied by their deaths) favored by his fellow triumvirs, Antony and Lepidus, enforced proscriptions with greater severity than either of his colleagues.

"For while they could oftentimes be moved by personal influence and entreaties, he alone was most insistent that no one should be spared, even adding to the list his guardian Gaius Toranius, who had also been the colleague of his father Octavius in the aedileship." -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 27:1

Inflexibility in decision making has also been observed in studies of individuals who have suffered lesions in their frontal lobes.

Later, Augustus also appears to have demonstrated a heightened xenophobic response.  He fiercely opposed the grant of citizenship to any foreign resident or former slave:

Roman slave medallion.  Photographed at
the National Museum of Rome in the
remains of the Terme di Diocleziano
(Baths of Diocletian), Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch.  © 2005
"Considering it also of great importance to keep the people pure and unsullied by any taint of foreign or servile blood, he was most wary of conferring Roman citizenship and set a limit to manumission. When Tiberius requested citizenship for a Grecian dependent of his, Augustus wrote in reply that he would not grant it unless the man appeared in person and convinced him that he had reasonable grounds for the request; and when Livia asked it for a Gaul from a tributary province, he refused, offering instead freedom from tribute, and declaring that he would more willingly suffer a loss to his privy purse than the prostitution of the honour of Roman citizenship.  Not content with making it difficult for slaves to acquire freedom, and still more so for them to attain full rights, by making careful provision as to the number, condition, and status of those who were manumitted, he added the proviso that no one who had ever been put in irons or tortured should acquire citizenship by any grade of freedom." - -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 40:3

When Rome suffered a grain shortage, Augustus ejected foreigners and slaves.

Once indeed in a time of great scarcity when it was difficult to find a remedy, he expelled from the city the slaves that were for sale, as well as the schools of gladiators, all foreigners with the exception of physicians and teachers, and a part of the household slaves; -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 42:3

Augustus also allowed superstition to rule much of his life.  Augustus would delay journeys, decisions or public addresses if it began to rain or he accidentally put the left shoe on first in the morning upon rising instead of the right, considering it a bad omen.

Increased paranoia has also been recorded in studies of brain injury.

Where as a young man, Octavian was sexually circumspect, as the years passed he became sexually wanton, so much so even Antony, no stranger to a promiscuous lifestyle, questioned the dramatic change in Octavian's behavior.
Portrait head thought to be Marc Antony from Egypt.
Photographed at the Brooklyn Museum in
Brooklyn, New York by Mary Harrsch  © 2014

"That he was given to adultery not even his friends deny, although it is true that they excuse it as committed not from passion but from policy, the more readily to get track of his adversaries' designs through the women of their households. Mark Antony charged him, besides his hasty marriage with Livia, with taking the wife of an ex-consul from her husband's dining-room before his very eyes into a bed-chamber, and bringing her back to the table with her hair in disorder and her ears glowing; that Scribonia was divorced because she expressed her resentment too freely at the excessive influence of a rival; that his friends acted as his panders, and stripped and inspected matrons and well-grown girls, as if Toranius the slave-dealer were putting them up for sale.  Antony also writes to Augustus himself in the following familiar terms, when he had not yet wholly broken with him privately or publicly: 'What has made such a change in you? Because I lie with the queen? She is my wife. Am I just beginning this, or was it nine years ago? What then of you — do you lie only with Drusilla? Good luck to you if when you read this letter you have not been with Tertulla or Terentilla or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia, or all of them. Does it matter where or with whom you take your pleasure?'" -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 69:1

"Hypersexuality is a rare but well recognised sequela of brain injury . It has been defined as the subjective experience of loss of control over sexuality; and consists of increased need or intense pressure for sexual gratification." - PO Eghwrudjakpor,  AA Essien, Hypersexual Behavior Following Craniocerebral Trauma An Experience with Five Cases

In addition to behavioral aberrations, Augustus also developed physical impairments specific to one side of his body or the other.

"He was not very strong in his left hip, thigh, and leg, and even limped slightly at times; but he strengthened them by treatment with sand and reeds. He sometimes found the forefinger of his right hand so weak, when it was numb and shrunken with the cold, that he could hardly use it for writing even with the aid of a finger-stall of horn."  -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 80:1

Problems with weakness on his left side definitely point to a cerebrovascular event.  Even the disability of his right forefinger could be attributed to a paradoxical embolus.

Augustus continued to be ravaged by illness throughout his life even though, amazingly, he micromanaged Rome's burgeoning empire and presided over a period of great prosperity that has become known as the Pax Romana.

"It chanced that at the time of the games which he had vowed to give in the circus, he was taken ill and headed the sacred procession lying in a litter;"   -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 43:5

"He was sometimes absent for several hours, and now and then for whole days, making his excuses and appointing presiding officers to take his place. " -  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 45:1

"In the course of his life he suffered from several severe and dangerous illnesses, especially after the subjugation of Cantabria [about age 44], when he was in such a desperate plight from abscesses of the liver, that he was forced to submit to an unprecedented and hazardous course of treatment. Since hot fomentations gave him no relief, he was led by the advice of his physician Antonius Musa to try cold ones." Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 81:1

Could the "abscesses of the liver" actually be an infarction of the spleen or intestines from a paradoxical embolism?

The severity of the illness Augustus suffered after the Cantabrian war is hinted at indirectly when Suetonius points out that Augustus wrote thirteen books of his autobiography describing the events of his life up to the Cantabrian war but no farther.  Did he simply get tired of writing or couldn't he remember key experiences or the order in which the experiences occurred after that event?

"...studies suggest that patients with lateral PFC [prefrontal cortex] damage, especially to the DLPFC [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex], are unable to organize learned information to facilitate their recall. It has been proposed that most of these deficits result from a failure of the PFC to inhibit unwanted information or to select among competing memories. As a result, recently activated memories can interfere with the ability to retrieve more distant memories (Shimamura et al., 1995 and Warrington and Weiskrantz, 1974)." - Sara M. Szczepanski, Robert T. Knight, Insights into Human Behavior from Lesions to the Prefrontal Cortex

"He experienced also some disorders which recurred every year at definite times; for he was commonly ailing just before his birthday [23 September]; and at the beginning of spring he was troubled with an enlargement of the diaphragm, and when the wind was in the south, with catarrh [excess mucus] Hence his constitution was so weakened that he could not readily endure either cold or heat." Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, 81:2

Of course everyone's life is littered with illness to some degree.  But, I think Augustus clearly represents an individual with a recurring pattern of overall physical weakness indicative of a vascular deficit combined with symptoms of cerebrovascular accident.

In Summary:

We began our evaluation of Augustus' health with the consideration of a pedigree including multiple ancestors on his mother's side and his father who suffered sudden unexplained death.  We find a childhood plagued with prolonged illness that made him so physically weak that his activities had to be curtailed.  We have evidence he avoided stairs and sexual activity in early adulthood when his hormones would have been at their peak.

We read reports of unexplained disappearances and what appears to be a serious loss of short term memory, continued severe weakness that required him to be carried on a litter and even an episode of catatonia.

Then we learn about changes in his behavior that included loss of impulse control, loss of the ability to interpret other people's behavior accurately, changes in sexual behavior, heightened paranoia as expressed in increased xenophobia and superstition and inconsistent decision making.

We also know from the historical record that other descendants of Augustus' mother appeared to have suffered serious physical and/or neurological issues, including the emperors Gaius (Caligula), Nero and Claudius as well as Claudius' son, Britannicus.

In a 1958 study, A. Esser describes the routes a condition subject to multifactorial inheritance could take in the Julio-Claudians.  It was quoted in an article published in October 2004 by Epilepsy & Behavior.  Although he was discussing epilepsy, the same routes could be followed by congenital heart defects like atrial septal defect.

"Esser had provided interesting blood connections between the three members of the Julio-Claudian family with seizures: (1) Julius Caesar, (2) Caligula, and (3) Britannicus. Julius' sister Julia is the ancestor of both Caligula and Britannicus. There were three major blood streams to Caligula. The first is through Julius' sister, Julia, to Atia, Octavianus (Augustus), to (another) Julia, Agrippina Major, and finally to Caligula. The second is also through Octavianus but then to Drusus I and Germanicus to Caligula. The third is also through sister Julia and Atia, but then to Octavia minor, to Antonia Minor, to Germanicus, and finally to Caligula. The latter Antonia Minor also provides one of the paths to Britannicus through Claudius, his father. The second path to Britannicus is also through Octavia Minor, through Antonia Major to Domita Lepida, to Messalina, and finally to Britannicus. These complex paths would argue for a recessive mode of inheritance. In the latter paths both Octavianus and his sister Octavia Minor are grandchildren of Julius Caesar's sister. Octavianus had a problem with “deep sleep” and his sister, Octavia Minor, with “fainting attacks,” but nothing more is known about these symptoms to qualify them as definite epileptic phenomena. The “fainting attacks” of Octavia minor, however, are suspicious for possible seizure phenomena." - John R. Hughes, Dictator Perpetuus: Julius Caesar - Did he have seizures? If so, what was the etiology?, Epilepsy & Behavior, Vol 5, Issue 5, October 2004.

Although seizures may have occured, especially in view of increased brain damage with each stroke episode, I believe the ancient sources provide enough symptoms consistent with cardiac dysfunction and related cerebral accidents to support Drs. Galassi and Ashrafian in their proposal that cardiac dysfunction and stroke eventually produced the physical and psychological changes expressed in Julius Caesar (and Augustus).


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Cawthorne, T. (1958). Julius Cæsar and the Falling Sickness. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 51(1), 27-30.

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American Journal of Neuroradiology (Focal Neurologic Deficit)

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Suetonius, G. (n.d.). The Life of Nero. The Lives of the Caesars.

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Donatus, A. (n.d.). Life of Virgil.

Plutarch, L. (n.d.). Brutus. Parallel Lives.

Roman Archaeology Timeline