The death of Emperor Valentine I: an unsuccessful neurological emergency treatment in 375 AD


Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, Josef-Stelzmann-Str. 9/Gebäude 29, 50931 Köln, Germany
Tel. 221-4785266, Fax. 221-4786794


In the historiography of neurology, most interest has centred around the works of important and famous doctors and the subjects of their writings. Non-medical testimonies have received little attention up until now, particularly in the area of early neuroscience.

This situation makes it a particularly pleasant surprise for a medical historian in search of such material to come across a description of what was probably a neurological illness in a history book from antiquity. In his History of the Roman Empire, Ammianus Marcellinus, the last Roman historiographer of note, gives a fairly descriptive account of the fatal illness of the Emperor Flavius Valentine I (Rerum gestarum libri, XXX, 6, 1-6). Valentine was suddenly taken ill with apoplectic symptoms during a campaign in Hungary in 375 AD. He died within a few hours of the onset of the attack, despite the attempt of a doctor quickly brought to the scene, to treat him by blood-letting.

The account of Ammianus Marcellinus combines both literary features with a clear interpretation of medical symptoms according to humoral pathology, which is comparable to the medical writings on apoplexy in Greek and Roman literature (Hippocratic corpus, Celsus, Galen). Ammanianus' description was later to become a model for further non-medical references and commentaries dealing with this "famous case", for example in the 5th century chronicles by St. Hieronymus, Orosius, and Zosimos.

The presentation is an attempt to honour this important source in its medical-historical and cultural framework, thereby making a contribution to the subject of "neurology in the ancient world".


Plenary 3   (Johann Jakob Wepfer Lecture)
Wednesday, 15 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999