«The Lousy Disease» (Sulla's Death in the Biographical Tradition)

Rabinovich Е. G.

The possibility of death because of phthiriasis was already doubted in the 19th century, and was definitely rejected by the 20th century medicine. However, the attempts to diagnose Sulla, the best-known victim of phthiriasis, failed. The author reconsiders all ancient evidence concerning Sulla's and other persons' lousiness, beginning with Aristotle's account of the death of Alcman and Pherecydes (Hist. anim. V 557a3), which is the only one chronologically earlier than Sulla's death. The earliest and the most detailed of the rest is Plutarch's account of Sulla's death with a list of other persons who had died of the same disease. The author goes on to analyse Sulla's death; no doubt, the latter suffered from phthiriasis, but no doubt again, he died not of phthiriasis, but of an internal disease. The question is why he could not get rid of lice, and this question is answered by modern medicine: pediculosis is not treated radically before the main disease is cured. This means that Sulla just did not live long enough to have his phthiriasis cured. (Perhaps such precedents gave Aristotle ground for saying, a propos of Alcman and Pherecydes, that «certain diseases» made lice appear in great number.) Sulla's lousiness was, however, an obstacle for the propaganda of his divine mission, for this repelling disease was associated with viciousness. In this respect it is important that by that time Sulla had for some years possessed in his library Aristotle's works, which he had got during the capture of Athens and which before that had been kept out of sight for two centuries and even at that time were hidden locked (Tyrannion the Grammarian did not get access to them until the year 71). The only person who could read them was Sulla's freedman grammarian Epicadus who finished his patron's notes after his death, and so he was the only one to know about Pherecydes and Alcman who were not criminals, but had died of lousiness. Consequently, Epicadus could give Sulla's death another context by presenting it alongside with the deaths of outstanding and honorable men, if he only added the list of such men to Sulla's notes in the way he added the solemn description of Sulla's funeral, preserved by Plutarch. This first list fell into Plutarch's hands, and all the persons listed there had died before Sulla. Later on the list was enlarged, but it still ended with Sulla's name, the fact which would have been impossible if the phthiriasis had been real. Epicadus failed to acquit Sulla in the opinion of the posterity (the malevolent would still say that it was his viciousness that accounted for his lousiness). Yet he succeeded, with Plutarch's unintentional help, in convincing many a generation that lice could sometimes eat a man alive, but curiously, if only the man was great enough.