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Imagining Disability: Julius caesar in Rome and Fallout: New Vegas


Marble statue of Julius Caesar.
Marble statue of Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar likely had a neurological disability. In Rome this is shown to be epilepsy; Caesar has an epileptic fit in front of his great nephew Octavian, and Posca who is Caesar’s favoured slave in the show and is later freed in Caesar’s will (Season 2, Episode 1). Posca states that “No one will follow a man whom Apollo has cursed with the morbus” (Season 1: Episode 4, 43-44mins); it is one simple line, yet it speaks so much for the social norms of tolerating ableism. This will also impact modern audiences, as it should be obvious that disabilities are not to be mocked; however, ableism is incredibly common and overlooked, making it even more important to discuss.


In the video game Fallout: New Vegas, the player-character can diagnose Caesar as having a brain tumour as part of the quest “Et tumor, Brute?” and then make the choice of curing or killing Caesar. In FONV, discovering Caesar’s disability is optional. Depending on the routes the player takes throughout the game, it is possible to never meet Caesar, nor to find out that Caesar is suffering.


That said, once the character has gained enough favour with Caesar and the Legion, both through quests and the in-game faction fame mechanic, a player with a high enough medicine check can tell Caesar the cause of his sudden onset headaches.


The player-character can ultimately diagnose Caesar with “a brain lesion, most likely a tumour” (FONV) with a medicine skill check in game; this means that there is a possible disconnection between player and character knowledge. The player may not know what absence seizures are or what could be wrong with Caesar, while a character with a high enough medicine skill can know.


Interestingly, when the player-character enters The Fort where Caesar resides, a Legion soldier comments that it is odd for Caesar to do business with one so weak (FONV). Despite the appearance of hating weakness - in this case, a disability - the Legion is run by someone who is disabled, with a medical condition that is negatively impacting his ability to lead. Appearances are more important than reality.


This is consistent with FONV as a whole - there are multiple branching paths in the game meaning some players will never see huge parts of it - but it also mirrors the Roman sources and related scholarship. It is easy to find extensive evidence of Caesar’s military campaigns, yet finding out about his declining health is challenging.


Suetonius describes Caesar as being “sound of health, except that towards the end he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmare as well. He was twice attacked by the falling sickness during his campaigns” (Lives of the Caesars, Book 1 XLV) and there has been much debate over the cause of these fainting fits.


While Suetonius was not contemporary with Caesar - he was writing a century after Caesar’s assassination - he was one of the earliest who wrote about it (Hughes, 2004, 4.3). Translation issues and a variety of sources can muddy the waters further, with Appian stating that Caesar in his later years was “suffering as he did from epileptic fits and sudden spasms” (Civil Wars, Book 2.110). In turn, this creates an interesting dynamic: it is to be noted that none of Caesar’s contemporaries wrote about his sickness (Hughes, 2004, 4.2) when a disability would likely have been prime evidence for his critics that Caesar was unfit to rule.


There cannot be an accurate depiction of Caesar: every source has a bias, and not every aspect of Caesar has been preserved through history. Even within scholarship, the Caesar of one scholar can vary hugely from the Caesar of another (Rawson, 1994, p.438-9), and those can even vary based on what the original sources claim to be true (Appian, Civil Wars, Book 2.70).


Every person is a complicated mix of conflicting ideals and personality traits. For someone as powerful as Caesar, with critics at every turn, these traits can be distorted through evidence bias, survival of evidence, and the passage of time. We can never know what Caesar was like behind closed doors. Both the charm and horror of history is the ability to reinterpret historical events to reflect contemporary ideas (Futrell, 2008, p.101). We are at the mercy of interpretation of surviving evidence. Additionally, each form of art has a story to tell, an image of Rome to sell (Milnor, 2008, p.46), including the original Roman sources; this can also encompass removing or exaggerating aspects of historical accuracy for the sake of artistic tone (Milnor, 2008, p.45-6).


The story of Rome is one of everyday people making a significant difference to history, against the backdrop of both a lavish city and equally the “backdrop of the everyday” (Haynes, 2008, p. 50), created in a studio that would “fetishize size, cost, and relative status” (Milnor, 2008, p.44) in a way not too dissimilar from the Romans they were trying to picture.



Further removed from Rome, the story of FONV is one of personal revenge becoming world changing, with Caesar and the Legion merely a small part of that story; it is possible to complete the game having only a brief encounter with one Legion soldier.


The depiction of Caesar in FONV is metafictional, with the character being aware he is not portraying the Caesar of history, but merely taking on characteristics and adapting them to a post-apocalyptic America. Caesar’s Legion is recognisably Roman, with uniforms that look as Roman as they could within the context of the in-game setting. This Caesar draws on some surviving evidence of the historic Caesar, so the roots of the character reflect history.




Bibliography

Appian; McGing, B. (trans.) (2020) Roman History: Civil Wars. Loeb Classical Library 5, 243, and 544. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.


Appian; McGing, B. (trans.) (2020) Roman History: Civil Wars. Loeb Classical Library 5, 243, and 544. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.


Fallout: New Vegas (2010) Created by Obsidian and Bethesda. Purchased at https://store.steampowered.com/app/22380/Fallout_New_Vegas/ on 25 Jun. 2015


Futrell, A. (2008) “’Not Some Cheap Murder’: Caesar’s Assassination” in Cyrino, M. (2008) Rome Season One, History Makes Television. Blackwell Publishing: UK. Ebook, Google Play


Haynes, H. (2008) “Rome’s Opening Titles: Triumph, Spectacle, and Desire” in Cyrino, M. (2008) Rome Season One, History Makes Television. Blackwell Publishing: UK. Ebook, Google Play


Hughes, J.R. (2004) “Dictator Perpetuus: Julius Caesar - Did he have seizures? If so, what was the etiology?” in Epilepsy & Behaviour, Vol. 5, Issue 5. October 2004, pp.756-764. University of Illinois at Chicago: USA. Available via https://www-sciencedirect-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S152550500400160X


Milnor, K. (2008) “What I Learned as an Historical Consultant for Rome” in Cyrino, M. (2008) Rome Season One, History Makes Television. Blackwell Publishing: UK. Ebook, Google Play

Plutarch; Perrin, B. (1919) Lives, Volume VII: Alexander and Caesar. Loeb Classical Library 99. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.


Rome (2005-2007) Created by HBO and BBC. DVD. Writers and directors vary each episode.


Suetonius; Rolfe, J.C. (trans.) (1914) Lives of the Caesars, Volume I: Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Caligula. Loeb Classical Library 31. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.


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