How History and Psychiatry Are Alike





Mr. Costa, a psychiatirst, is the author of The Lost Gold of Rome: The Hunt for Alaric's Treasure (Sutton, 2007).

Looking at various vocations and the similarities between them can be enlightening. Here, I will bring to your attention historians and psychiatrists. Historians study complex facts and narratives that not infrequently conflict. They toil to produce accounts that explain the substance, causation and mechanisms of historical events. A noble aim of these scholarly efforts is the desire to help others better understand current events and thus provide a stronger foundation for reacting to them. Recently, historians have begun to examine the motivations behind history-making actions and decisions, and it is here that history and psychiatry meet in something called psycho-historical research, the formal application of the models and methods of psychiatry in historical studies.

As a psychiatrist and a writer of history, I know first hand how the role of psychiatrist and that of historian can work together to provide new insights into past events. The role of historian as educator is comparable to the psychiatrist showing the patient how to improve his or her psychosocial and occupational adjustment through self-knowledge.

Indeed, psychiatrists would not be able to work without being skilled at understanding and recording history. To assess a patient, the psychiatrist needs to know the history of the patient’s present illness; past psychiatric history; medical history; family history, including history of mental illness in biological relatives and intergenerational transmission of dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behavior; personal history (childhood, adolescence, adulthood), as well as social and occupational history. Psychiatrists pay special attention to the history of relationships, psychological defenses and the patient’s success in achieving developmental goals specific to each stage of the life cycle.

Moreover, through history taking and direct observation, psychiatrists try to identify longstanding patterns of feeling and behavior that may be important. In evaluating each patient, psychiatrists are actually exploring an entire and unique world of thoughts, feelings and actions, just as historians do when they look for recognizable patterns of group thinking, feeling and behavior to understand a society or a culture.

Psychiatrists and historians alike pay attention to the reliability of their sources and validity of the information they receive. Historians are acutely aware that omissions in the historical record can reveal as much as they conceal. Like historians, psychiatrists are very much interested not only in what is being said, but also in what is not being said.

Given these close similarities, I discovered that many approaches I routinely use as a psychiatrist helped me investigate the historical mystery surrounding the death and burial of Alaric, a Gothic chieftain who sacked Rome in AD 410. This subject eventually became my book, The Lost Gold of Rome. I was looking for the fabulous treasure said to be buried with Alaric, and I needed a place to start looking.

As I began my investigation, I decided to study the sack of Rome in its original Gothic and Roman contexts, exactly as I would examine the chief symptoms of the psychiatric patient in light of his or her personal history. Here the role of the patient was played by the hybrid Gothic-Roman society emerging from the decay of the Roman Empire at the end of antiquity. It was this ‘patient’s’ history that I sought to record.

I examined the 'childhood,' ‘adolescence’ and ‘adulthood’ of the Gothic tribes, both before and after Alaric’s sacking, paying particular attention to their funeral practices and treasure hunting. I concluded that the Goths were motivated to sack and loot the cities of Italy because the Romans had seized the Goths’ treasures at Pollentia in 402.

But to understand what the Goths found when they sacked Rome, I needed to study the history of the city itself to know what treasures lay within its walls. I knew that the city played host to the Temple treasures of Jerusalem, among many other riches. I needed to know, though, what treasures the Goths took with them.

To do this, I searched the records for the centuries following Alaric’s raid, since any objects still in the city after 410 could have not been in the hands of the Goths or in Alaric’s grave. Through my investigation, I was able to confirm that there were still riches in Rome after Alaric left, some of which were clearly identified, specifically the furnishings of the Temple of Jupiter and the gold cross of Constantine the Great. These Alaric could not have taken.

The medieval Book of Pontiffs provided evidence that the Goths seized particular sacred objects from the churches of Rome, such as the fastigium from St John in Lateran, which must be listed among the items that might have ended up next to Alaric’s body.

The uncertainty surrounding Alaric’s burial have led many historians to wonder whether he was indeed interred with Rome’s looted treasures. To look for a more solid answer, I paid special attention to the funeral practices of the Goths before and after the death of Alaric in order to place his funeral in cultural context and derive a more solid idea of what must have gone on.

Examining the funeral practices of the Goths over the centuries was not unlike identifying longstanding patterns of feeling and behavior in a patient. There is strong evidence for Gothic burials with precious grave goods during the centuries before Alaric’s raid on Rome. Most interestingly, the Variae of Cassiodorus provided excellent proof that even one century after Alaric’s burial the Goths still placed precious metals in the graves of their departed. This made it easier to conclude that Alaric received a princely burial with treasures. Alas, though, I didn’t actually find the treasure. But there’s still hope!

After investigating one of history’s mysteries, I’ve learned that historians and psychiatrists use a number of similar methods. Psychiatrists, though, have the advantage of dealing with living individuals whose relations and records can corroborate aspects of their histories. This is not always the case in psycho-historical research, especially in the study of events involving individuals and groups no longer alive and offering limited possibilities of corroboration.

To overcome this challenge, psycho-historians study recent historical events which would allow for the use of psychiatric methods such as structured interviews, questionnaires, and inventories, as well as corroboration, to a degree similar to that achievable today in psychiatric examination and research. In a scientifically even more promising approach, psycho-historians would engage in prospective studies designed to test their hypotheses. Researchers in psychiatry have been aware for a long time that prospective studies are superior to the retrospective ones.

However, I was seeking out a treasure lost 1,600 years ago, and I didn’t have structured interviews or living informants to rely on. To tease out the story of Alaric, I had to do old-fashioned legwork, reading sources, looking up facts, and correlating discoveries. In the end, though, the reasoning skills I developed as a psychiatrist allowed me to get into the heads of the long-vanished Goths to understand their motives and to come as close as I could to the elusive treasure they took with them after sacking Rome.

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