Deafness of Caesar and the Ides of March

Robert Traynor
December 18, 2012

“Come over to my right side, because this ear is deaf, and tell me what you really think of Cassius,” said Caesar to Mark Antony……..was this just a manufactured line in Shakespeare’s play or was Caesar really deaf in his left ear?  This is the question for this week’s Hearing International. 

William Shakespearewidely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist, wrote The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, also known simply as Julius Caesar,  in or around 1599.  The play dramatizes the 44 BC conspiracy against the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his assassination, and the defeat of the conspirators at the Battle of Philippi. It is one of several plays that Shakespeare wrote, based on true events from Roman history, such as Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra.  Although Julius Caesar is the title character, Caesar is not the most visible character in its action; he appears in only three scenes, and (spoiler alert!) is killed at the beginning of the third act (on the Ides of March). Marcus Brutus speaks more than four times as many lines, and the central psychological drama is his struggle among the conflicting demands of honor, patriotism, and friendship.

Julius Caesar, a brilliant Roman general and formidable politician, had seizures in the last two years of his life, possibly caused by a brain tumor. Caesar was known to have fallen convulsing into the River Tiber. It is rather common knowledge that Caesar suffered from Epilepsy or, as it was known at the time,  “the falling sickness”, because the kind of seizures that made a person lose consciousness and fall down were the only kind then recognized as epilepsy. (Complex partial seizures were not recognized until the middle of the nineteenth century.)

The assumption that Caesar suffered from epilepsy is backed by several sources dating back to Roman times. For instance, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (approx. 70-140 AD), the biographer of the first Roman emperor, reports that Caesar twice had epileptic seizures while he was working.  Appianus, a Roman historian from the second century AD, also mentions Caesar’s epilepsy and sudden convulsions in his description of the republican era.  Plutarch also states that Caesar had an epileptic seizure in the midst of  the Battle of Thapsus.

Today, epilepsy is a general term used for a group of disorders that cause disturbances in electrical signaling in the brain.  An epileptic seizure occurs when these electrical pulses come much more rapidly–sometimes as often as 500 per second for a short time–due to an electrical abnormality in the brain. This brief electrical surge can happen in just a small area of the brain, or it can affect the whole brain. Depending on the part of the brain affected, the surge of electrical energy can cause changes in a person’s sensations or state of consciousness and/or uncontrolled movements of parts of the body or of the whole body.  Depending on where the seizure focus is in the brain, this aura can include emotional sensations, abdominal distress, visual hallucinations, and so on. Auditory auras, although less common, have been described in the literature, and may be a possible explanation for fluctuating hearing loss.  Generally, hearing impairment is not a result of epilepsy, so it’s unlikely that epilepsy caused Caesar’s a hearing impairment.

No classical sources mention  hearing impairment in connection with Julius Caesar, so the logical conclusion is that Shakespeare made it up. Thus his lines, “Come over to my right side, because this ear is deaf, and tell me what you really think of Cassius.” can be chalked up to dramatic license. Shakespeare may have been making metaphorical use of a passage in Plutarch that does not refer to deafness at all, but rather to a gesture made by Alexander of Macedon. By covering his ear, Alexander indicated that he had turned his attention from an accusation in order to hear the defense. Evidence suggests this was simply a line in the play that is subject to interpretation, but no reality as as a physical fact about Julius Ceasar.

 

 

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