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Was Telesinia Crispinilla Killed by a Broken Heart?

A medical mystery from the Roman town of Telese

She was the mother of a young man named Publius Lalius Gentianus Victor. They both lived in Telese and her son was 21 when he died. Telesinia Crispinilla survived her boy’s death only by 15 days. What could have killed her?

Here is what her husband thought. He offered his verdict on the 2000-year-old gravestone that he erected for his wife.

“To the memory of his wife, Telesinia Crispinilla, a most blameless woman, who, because of her longing for her son, Publius Lalius Gentianus Victor, a most dutiful man, loathed the prospect of life. Fifteen days after her son’s death she despaired of life. Publius Lalius Modestus, her husband, made this dedication. He lived with his wife without strife for 38 years and 4 months.” (CIL XI 2229)

What is going on here? Let’s try to unravel some of the details.

Publius Lalius Modestus’ wife has died. He’s been married happily to Telesinia Crispinilla for 38 years and 4 months. That is a very long time now or then. It is an especially long time if you think that many Roman men were dead before they turned 30. Telesinia and Lalius Modestus must have been a very healthy duo.

Telesinia Crispinilla takes her family name (Telesinia) from her hometown, Telese. This means that she was originally a public slave – her parents must have been public slaves. Telesinia Crispinilla became free at some point in her life, certainly by the time her son was born. The family name of the dead son, Lalius, shows that she was legally married to the sympathetic Publius Lalius Modestus.

Telesinia was probably 14 or 15 when she married, so her death occurs in her 5th decade. Her husband was perhaps ten years older. Another tombstone (CIL IX 2228) pins down the exact age of the young man. The unhappy parents stated that their son was just 21 years 11 months and 18 days old when he died.

What killed Telesinia Crispinilla? There’s no indication of suicide. Her husband thought that her longing and grief after the death of her son was such that she despaired of life and rapidly pined away. She perished just over two weeks after the youthful Publius Lalius Gentianus Victor. And why not? You can die of a broken heart, though we might prefer to call it a takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

Let’s step back for just a moment. The year – or the period – we’re talking about is maybe the second century of our era. The inscription we’ve been dealing with is nearly 2000 years old. It comes from a hamlet that is not very well known, now or then, called Telese. Named, since 1991, Telese Terme, the town is located in southern Italy at about a 50-kilometer drive from Naples. Nowadays it’s best known for its baths. You can see where the modern Telese is on this map.

You won’t find the gravestone there any more. It has been lost, but not before it was transcribed onto paper.

So what did kill Telesinia Crispinilla? Is her husband’s diagnosis the product of a sentimental imagination or is there something real? Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is another name for “broken heart syndrome”. This usually non-fatal heart condition was given its first description in Japan in 1990. According to the Harvard Medical Publications “more than 90% of reported cases are in women ages 58 to 75. Research suggests that up to 5% of women evaluated for a heart attack actually have this disorder.” Death is uncommon with takotsubo cardiomyopathy. But it does occur. The condition happens by the sudden weakening of the “left ventricle, the heart's main pumping chamber, usually as the result of severe emotional or physical stress, such as … the loss of a loved one.” This condition is named after a Japanese octopus trap, a takotsubo, whose shape resembles the damaged left ventricle.

Elizabeth Mostofsky and her collaborators have a little more to say about this sort of illness in a 2012 study published in Circulation (“Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction After the Death of a Significant Person in One’s Life”.) There they suggest that after a very close friend’s death “heart attack risks increased to 21 times higher than normal within the first day, and were almost six times higher than normal within the first week.” The team also argued “the increased risk of heart attack within the first week after the loss of a significant person ranges from one per 320 people with a high heart attack risk to one per 1,394 people with a low heart attack risk.”

Modern diagnoses don’t really answer the mystery concerning what killed Telesinia Crispinilla. Her husband said that she died of a grief. What that does tell us is how some ancient Romans understood emotions could work. Where's the proof? It's this. You can’t make claims on a public document, such as a tombstone, if readers won't believe it. Lalius thought his wife was a blameless woman. Her action spoke for itself. She was a blameless woman for the strength of her love for their child. I suspect that we feel just the same admiration for Telesinia Crispinilla. She may have died 2000 years ago, but her emotional preferences, and those of her audience, have not really changed. We still can die of a broken heart.

But if you insist on a medical diagnosis and a take-home message, it could be this. Telesinia Crispinilla probably died 2000 years ago of takotsubo cardiomyopathy despite the robust good health to which her age attests. That’s a stab at a diagnosis. The take-home is that if you have someone close who has just lost someone very dear to them then: “Friends and family of bereaved people should provide close support to help prevent such incidents, especially near the beginning of the grieving process. Similarly, medical professionals should be aware that the bereaved are at much higher risk for heart attacks than usual" (Elizabeth Mostofsky).

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