Thursday, October 11, 2012

Death in ancient times

George Dunea

British Medical Journal, Vol.294 (1987)

Roman grave relief, c. 80 AD
Roman grave relief, c. 80 AD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Introduction: “Many a physician has slain a king!” the emperor Hadrian shouted aloud as he lay on his deathbed. But Augustus when he was near death gathered his friends to ask if, in the manner of actors, he deserved applause for having played well his assigned role in the human comedy; and Vespasian, weak to the point of fainting during his last illness, refused to lie down, insisting that an emperor must die standing. Attila, the Scourge of God, terrified his bride by suffocating on his wedding night after vomiting an immense torrent of blood. Alaric, the Visigoth king who sacked Rome in AD 426, forever foiled the curiosity of posterity by ordering a river to be diverted to hide his bones at the bottom. The emperor Claudius was probably killed by his wife Agrippina with a dish of poisoned mushrooms.

It was the revival on television of I Claudius that stimulated me to turn to some old notes that I had made on the final illnesses of those few rulers in antiquity who escaped the violence of their times and were neither slain in battle nor murdered or executed. Yet the details given by the ancient historians are scanty and difficult to interpret. This is particularly so for the Greeks, even for the well described plague of Athens, which has recently been attributed to new candidates such as Rift Valley fever or influenza with toxic shock from staphylococcal superinfection. Some kings were just assumed to have died of old age. Such was the case of Agesilaus, who had reached the age of 83 when he died on a military campaign in Egypt and whose body was shipped back to Sparta enclosed in wax. His former rival, Agesipolis, must have had some infectious disease, forXenophon describes him burning with fever and longing for the shady arbours and cool limpid waters of the shrine of Dionysus, where he died after seven days. Nicias, leader of the ill fated Athenian expedition to Sicily, seemingly had a kidney stone6; and Alexander the Great died at Babylon from malaria, amoebiasis, pneumonia, or poisoning.