How did Titus die? Do we have any historical sources that are less fanciful than the Babylonian Talmud, quoted below? Are there any other records of his symptoms prior to death?

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 56b), an insect flew into Titus's nose and picked at his brain for seven years. He noticed that the sound of a blacksmith hammering caused the ensuing pain to abate, so he paid for blacksmiths to hammer near him; however, the effect wore off and the insect resumed its gnawing. When he died, they opened his skull and found the insect had grown to the size of a bird. The Talmud gives this as the cause of his death and interprets it as divine retribution for his wicked actions.

From: Titus (Wikipedia)

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is impossible to answer historically. Oct 3, 2013 at 4:23
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    Although the story is sometimes interpreted like Titus having a brain tumour, this contradicts other sources closer to the actual events, and the rest of the story is obviously fictional, like claims that the bird found in the brain had a beak of brass and claws of iron. It's also claimed that his nephew raised Titus from the dead. All in all this clearly shows that this passage is not documenting an historical event. Oct 3, 2013 at 5:47
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    I vote to reopen, having done a bit of editing. I think it's actually a good question - we have a literary account and are wondering if it is the echo of some real event, however distorted. If the rest of the story is fictional, this does not mean the story is not based on actual events. If it can be shown that it is not, it'd be nice to have a proper answer with references that spells out why. Oct 3, 2013 at 6:58
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    I voted to reopen, as per FelixGoldberg's post edit comment. This a now good and interesting question.
    – user2590
    Oct 4, 2013 at 7:28
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    @Oldcat The Talmud often uses the quantity 7 as a very, very vague approximation in aggadic contexts (the same is true for some other key numbers, e.g. 70 or 300). "7 years" could mean 11 years. Alternatively, it took seven years before he realized that there was a palliative treatment.
    – Fred
    Jul 12, 2016 at 20:03

2 Answers 2



The most widely accepted view among scholars is that Titus died a natural death. He had a fever which may have been caused by malaria (note that its relationship to mosquitos was unknown at the time) or (taking longer term symptoms into consideration) possibly a brain tumor. The possibility that his brother Domitian may have hastened his end cannot be ruled out.


Suetonius stated he died of a fever. Cassius Dio says that ‘some writers’ say that Titus died a natural death but also mentions that

The common report is that he was put out of the way by his brother, for Domitian had previously plotted against him; .......The tradition is that, while he was still breathing and possibly had a chance of recovery Domitian, in order to hasten his end, placed him in a chest packed with a quantity of snow, pretending that the disease required, perhaps, that a chill be administered. At any rate, he rode off to Rome while Titus was still alive, entered the camp, and received the title and authority of emperor,

In other words, this tradition has it that Titus was helped on his way by his younger brother Domitian. Illustrated History of the Roman Empire mentions another story with Domitian as the villain:

Some rumours claim the emperor's death was not at all natural, but that he was killed by his younger brother Domitian with poisoned fish.

That the relationship between Titus and Domitian was far from one of brotherly love cannot be disputed, but there is the age-old problem of biased sources, in this case very much to the detriment of Domitian. Brian Jones, in The Emperor Domitian (1993), says of Domitian:

even though (so he claimed) he was left a share in imperial power according to the terms of his father’s will, he still received nothing, since the will had been tampered with — and Titus was known as an expert forger. That Domitian was dissatisfied with his lot is not unlikely, but the extent of his reaction is hard to assess, given the bias of our sources

Jones also refers to Domitian’s alleged plots against Titus but, nonetheless, he stops short of concluding that Domitian killed Titus, instead noting that

whatever the relationship between them, Domitian seems to have displayed minimum concern for Titus during his illness in September 81. As the emperor lay dying on the 13th, Domitian made for the praetorians’ camp, promised them a donative and was hailed as emperor

Christopher Scarre, in Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (2012), agrees with Jones. On the subject of the stories about Domitian being implicated in Titus’ death, he says:

All this, however, is part of the later attempt to blacken Domitian's reputation in every way possible, and there is no good reason to suspect that Domitian acted improperly.

That Titus’ fever might have stemmed from malaria is mentioned by Scarre and also by Rachel Rechthand in The Gnat that Killed Titus.

Based on the text of the Talmud, S. J. Bastomsky noted that the word used for ‘gnat’ in the Talmud, yattush, could also be translated as ‘mosquito’, which might suggest that Titus died of malignant malaria.

However, although malaria was widely recognized in ancient Greece and Rome, Robert Sallares in Malaria and Rome (2002) says that

In Europe the theory that mosquito bites caused malaria was first proposed in print by Giovanni Maria Lancisi....published in 1717

so S. J. Bastomsky's use of the Talmud is on shaky ground without any evidence of an early knowledge of the connection between malaria and mosquitoes. Miasma theory was the commonly accepted reason for malaria in ancient times. This does not mean that Titus didn't die of malaria, just that Bastomsky seems to have misused evidence (unless he can prove that the Talmud writers knew of the connection between malaria and mosquitoes).

Another theory is that Titus died of brain cancer. Rechthand says that:

Roman accounts of the events leading up to the death of Titus fit in with the theory that Titus died of a brain tumour. Suetonius and Dio...speak of what could be described as depression

Referring to Cassius Dio, Rechthand says that after the late summer of 80 C.E., Titus achieved ‘nothing further of importance’. She concludes:

So it seems that right before his death, Titus suffered from a period of depression, in which he accomplished little, and then died....There are very few modern cases of individuals suffering from brain tumours who managed to carry on with their lives at a routine level.

Although it is highly unlikely that we will ever know the true cause of Titus’ death, it would seem that, on balance, it was most likely a natural one. We should beware of taking ancient sources too literally. The Jewish Encyclopedia states that almost all the accounts of Titus in rabbinical literature are ‘purely legendary’. At the same time, Roman sources are heavily biased against Domitian, though we cannot totally discount the possibility that Titus’ younger brother helped him into his grave a little quicker than might otherwise have been the case.

Other sources:

The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World

Domitian's Rise to Power by Kathleen D Toohey

A History Of The Roman World From 30 BC To AD 138 by E. T. Salmon

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    Was the connection between malaria and mosquitos known to the ancients?
    – sds
    Oct 20, 2017 at 19:29
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    @ sds. Good question. There is no evidence that the ancients knew of this connection. I have edited my answer to take account of this. Thanks for bringing this pont to my attention :). Oct 21, 2017 at 1:42
  • @sds: The association of malaria with fetid waters was known to the ancients, and is the origin of the Latin word "malaria" from: "mal" - bad; and "aria" - air. The writer Columella is alleged to have made a connection to the swamp-dwelling insects for malaria; but "Columella's work "appears to have been but little read", cited only by Pliny the Elder, Servius, Cassiodorus, and Isidorus, and having fallen 'into almost complete neglect' after Palladius published an abridgement of it." Feb 9, 2021 at 13:01

He could have had an advanced vestibular schwanoma which can both cause tinnitus and press against the hypothalmus resulting in an elevated body temperature.

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    OK, this is speculation, but maybe in this case that's allowed. But even so some references to this would be nice. Feb 15, 2014 at 5:00
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    I'm not saying he did, all I'm saying is dying of a fever and having a brain tumor are not contradictory. Feb 16, 2014 at 4:01
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    Even so, some references to support this speculation is IMO required. Feb 16, 2014 at 7:21

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