For centuries, many believed the bugs spontaneously generated from human skin; were caused by strange diets, habits, heat or moisture; or were sent by divinities to punish bad behavior. Plato, Socrates, King Herod and the Roman dictator Sulla were all accused of having lice, and an ancient Greek proverb stated that a beard signified lice, not brains.
The early Christians spread rumors that lice had killed many a Roman emperor, capitalizing on a by-then widespread belief that the bugs were sent by God to smite the corrupt.
A response (posted with permission) from TS:
Your excerpt from the LA Times on Lice misstates that Sulla "was accused of
having lice." Plutarch's description of his final illness (Life of Sulla,
36ff) states that he suffered from "ulcerated bowels", and that his lifestyle
aggravated this condition so that, "This disease corrupted his whole flesh
also, and converted it into worms." In that same passage, Plutarch goes on to
note that, "in very ancient times, Acastus the son of Pelias was thus eaten
of worms and died, and in later times, Alcman the lyric poet, Pherecydes the
theologian, Callisthenes of Olynthus, who was kept closely imprisoned, as
also Mucius the jurist."
Plutarch (Life of Alexander 55.9) mentions Callisthenes' death by parasite
infection as one of several stories of his end. Arrian (4.14.3) attributes
the tale of his death "by disease" to Aristobulus.
In the "Dryden" translation of both Plutarch's Life of Sulla, and of
Alexander, the term is translated as "lice". However, the Loeb editions of
Plutarch translate it as "worms", and I, personally, favor rendering it as
In any event, Sulla was definitely not "accused" of harboring lice. Instead,
his death is said to have been hastened by a parasitic infection that early
English translators misattributed to lice.