It’s a sordid tale of ambition, incest, family violence and murder. The Julio-Claudian clan, from which arose the first five emperors of Rome, were involved in one scandal after another and — perhaps fortunately for posterity — managed to exterminate themselves within five generations.
It now appears this behavior may have been influenced by a genetic trait related to Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome.
Classically, Tourette’s is a common hereditary behavioral disorder characterized by motor and vocal tics and in some cases compulsive swearing.
The tics can be suppressed briefly and symptoms usually start before age 21. It is more common in the male sex and may affect up to one in 100 school boys.
Dr. David E. Comings in his Tourette Syndrome and Human Behavior also remarks that families of Tourette’s sufferers tend to have other unusual behaviors. These have included unusual sexual behavior, violence and abuse (especially within the family unit), obsessive compulsive tendencies, anxiety disorders, manic depression, and even schizophreniform symptoms.
This appears to be related to a general disinhibition of behavior caused by the so-called Gts gene, which is inherited in a semi-dominant, semi-recessive pattern. Those who carry two copies of the gene tend to have more classic and severe Tourette’s syndrome. Those who carry only one copy range from showing no symptoms at all, up to a moderate typical Tourette’s picture.
Interestingly, the Gts gene can also be associated with very positive traits such as increased musical ability, physical coordination, creativity and leadership traits. Dr. Comings feels the Gts gene is over-represented both in the great achievers of our society as well as those on the lower end of the spectrum.
There is good evidence the third Roman Emperor, Claudius, may have had typical Tourette’s syndrome. He manifested tics and stuttering as well as compulsive behavioral traits and unusual sexual behavior. His last marriage was an incestuous one to his own niece, Agrippina II, and he was a compulsive womanizer.
He proved, however, to be a capable administrator of the empire, with meticulous attention to detail and finances. Achievements ranged from the completion of the conquest of Britain to reform of the aqueducts, and he also found time to write several important histories.
Claudius’ father, Drusus, may have been an asymptomatic carrier of the Gts gene, although one may speculate that his reputation as a popular leader and great general may have been at least in part to the “energizing” effects of the gene.
Looking at the rest of Claudius’ family tree, we see over five generations numerous examples of behavior which may be explained by the Gts trait. This unusual behavior did not seem to occur on the Julian side of Augustus’ family, the side descended from his first marriage to Scribonia.
The first emperor’s problems seemed to have begun with the family of Livia (Claudius’ grandmother), a noted beauty in her youth whom Augustus married after divorcing his first wife. Their union was barren of children, though she had two sons from a previous marriage. Livia was a strong, forceful personality and no doubt was helpful to her husband’s political career.
Though nothing has been definitely proven, there are dark mutterings in ancient texts questioning why numerous potential heirs to Augustus’ empire all seemed to die mysteriously. This opened the way for Tiberius, Livia’s oldest natural son (and Claudius’ uncle) to take power after Augustus’ demise.
It is said Augustus was so fearful of poisoning near the end that he would only drink from a flowing stream and eat figs from right off the tree. Livia is alleged to have had poison injected into the figs on the tree, resulting in her spouse’s timely death.
Tiberius now took power. A good general and able administrator, he ran the empire well for many years, showing an obsessive concern for the finances of the state. Toward the end of his reign, however, he became more and more reclusive, retiring to the island of Capri, it was said, to indulge in his favorite sexual perversions, including a fondness for high-born adolescent girls.
During this time the Pretorian guard captain Sejanus attempted to seize power. He seduced Livilla, who was Tiberius’ niece and Claudius’ sister, and convinced her to poison her husband (who was also her first cousin). Tiberius was warned and a blood bath followed in which many were executed for suspicion of sympathizing with Sejanus’ cause.
After Tiberius’ death, his great-nephew (the nephew of Claudius) Caligula took power. It was said he had his great uncle smothered when the emperor made an inconvenient rally on his death bed. Caligula was rumored to have had incestuous liaisons with his three sisters, Agrippina II, Drusilla and Julia.
Although he seemed to rule well in his early months, Caligula subsequently showed periodic changes in behavior, some frankly psychotic. He came to believe he was a god and would hold monologues with Jupiter. He once declared war on the sea god Neptune and marched his troops into the ocean, bringing back chests of seashells and “spoils of war.”
On another occasion Caligula made his horse a consul of Rome. As well, he is thought to have murdered his pregnant sister and lover, Drusilla, in a psychotic fit. One could postulate a manic state as the cause of the emperor’s bizarre behaviors, although frankly psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations have been documented in association with the Gts gene.
Ironically, Caligula was assassinated by one of his own guards, Cassius Chaerea. The emperor delighted in giving filthy expletives as passwords to his guards (which would certainly be in keeping with Tourette’s). Cassius became so outraged he helped murder the young ruler.
Caligula’s father was Germanicus, the brother of Claudius. History records Germanicus as a virtuous, energetic and popular man, an able general and greatly mourned by the Roman populace after his death. It would seem in his case that carriage of the Gts gene may have amplified his natural abilities and virtues. However, this was not true of his children.
Germanicus’ daughter, Agrippina II, seduced her uncle Claudius and convinced him to adopt her son Nero. Claudius was subsequently poisoned with mushrooms, and after Nero was safely ensconced as emperor, his two cousins (Claudius’ ill-fated natural children) were to follow.
Though there were whispers that Nero and his mother were perhaps also incestuously involved, this did not prevent the young emperor from having Agrippina assassinated. As her murderers approached, she asked ironically to be stabbed in the uterus.
Nero from a young age exhibited a certain amount of musical and poetic talent and at least initially was an able ruler. To the end he remained popular with the general public, despite his vicious persecution of Christians and rumors that he was responsible for the burning of Rome.
Nero was fond of having wealthy Roman citizens brought up on charges and executed when he became a little short of cash. This allowed him to confiscate their estates and add to his own coffers. Perhaps this was the reason for the revolt in AD 68, which ultimately forced the emperor to commit suicide.
The subsequent ruling families of Rome were never again to prove as interesting. In fact, for 100 years after Nero, the emperors of Rome were mostly a virtuous and capable lot.
It would appear, then, the Gts gene had a less-than-salutary effect on Julio-Claudian rulers of Rome, with an exception or two. The gene may in fact underlie much of the psychopathology we see today.
Like a two-edged sword, however, Gts may also be the energizing factor behind much of human growth and development, disproportionately represented in the best and worst of human society.
“Claudius (M.A.N. Madrid) 01” – Public Domain Wikipedia
“Georges Gilles de la Tourette” – Public Domain Wikipedia
“Johnson:1769” – Public Domain Wikipedia
Feature Image of Coins – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Copyright © 1996 Maclean Hunter Publishing Limited. Reprinted with permission.
This article first appeared in The Medical Post in July, 1996 and a bit later in The Dalhousie Medical Journal.