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He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.
Eye issues may have been factor for historic military leader
“What a loser I am,” I exclaimed as I put down the book that I was reading. “Why do you say that?” asked a friend who was sitting nearby. “I am reading about Julius Caesar,” I explained. “When he died, at the age I am now, he had proven himself one of history’s greatest generals, published a book about his exploits in Gaul that thousands of years later is still widely read and considered one of the best written texts on the subject of generalship and leadership and ruled most of the known world. Compared to him, I have done nothing with my life.”
Like me, Caesar himself wasn’t satisfied with his accomplishments. The Roman historian, Suetonius Tranquillus, tells us in The Lives of the 12 Caesars that Caesar, at about the age of 40, entered a temple and came upon a statue of Alexander the Great, who died at the age of 32.
Caesar “heaved a sigh, and as if out of patience with his own incapacity in having as yet done nothing noteworthy at a time of life when Alexander the Great had already brought the world to his feet, he straightway asked for his discharge, to grasp the first opportunity for greater enterprises at Rome.”
Even as renowned as Alexander and Caesar are for their military prowess, many historians consider Hannibal Barca an even greater general. He is quoted a describing himself as the greatest general of his time.
At the age of 9, Hannibal’s general-father made him swear an oath never to be a friend of Rome (something I never made my son do). By the age of 26, Hannibal became a general and conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula. He then launched the Second Punic War by shocking the Romans and taking his army (elephants included) over the Alps and obliterating larger opposing armies. For over a decade, he roamed Italy with his army and singlehandedly terrorized the great military power that was Rome.Losing an eye
Proving to me just how tough this man was is the story of Hannibal losing an eye. To surprise the Romans once again, Hannibal marched his army through a massive swamp. The march took several days through the swamp, which posed many health risks for the soldiers. According to historians, the foul water led to an eye infection, but Hannibal continued marching on with his soldiers and simply suffered until he lost all vision in the eye.
The eye was supposedly removed and buried, and the general wore an eye patch thereafter. While Hannibal used to typically ride a horse so he could fight alongside his soldiers, earning their respect and admiration, he is thought to have taken to riding an elephant into battle so that he could get the best view of the battlefield with his one eye and therefore direct his army.
When I think about how much suffering is experienced today by patients with infectious keratitis and endophthalmitis, even with modern antimicrobial therapy and pain control, I find myself amazed at the inner strength that Hannibal exhibited. It is also sad to realize that, despite the advances in technology over the millennia since the armies of Macedonia, Carthage and Rome slugged it out, eye injuries remain a common problem for soldiers.
During Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield, 13% of all military injuries were eye injuries, and the percentage is projected to increase in the future as improvements in body armor protect against injuries to other organs but not the eye. The need for protective visors that can anticipate and protect the eyes from blasts, projectiles and laser injuries is clear.
Peter J. McDonnell, MD
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Dr. McDonnell is the director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times