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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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2.2 Disabled bodies

What about male and female bodies which fell short of the ideal for their sex? There is no word in ancient Greek or Latin that can be translated directly as ‘disability’. Yet people were born with, or developed, physical impairments that would have affected their ability to perform some of the normal tasks of life; for example, seeing or being mobile. In Week 1 you considered definitions of ‘health’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , and you may like to go back to these briefly now, to consider how they could affect attitudes towards disability.

Statue of Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl Of Pompeii, holding a long staff and with her hand to her ear.
Figure 8 Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl Of Pompeii, Randolph Rogers, 1858

For the ancient world, it’s often assumed that people born with disabilities were not accepted by society, but were left to die at birth. The evidence for this practice, known as ‘exposure’, largely comes from literary sources and should not always be taken at face value. For example, the first century CE writer Plutarch explains that Sparta had a ritual by which newborn babies were judged by the elders and those thought unfit to be allowed to live were left at the foot of Mount Taygetos. However, no other source tells us this about Spartan practices, and no infant remains have been found at this site. Archaeological evidence elsewhere includes the remains of a large number of babies found in a sewer under a bathhouse in Ashkelon, from the late Roman period. While infanticide was the first suggestion here, this could have been an act of war rather than normal practice, with another possibility being that this was the site of a brothel, and any baby born to the prostitutes working there was killed.

There is plenty of evidence for the survival of babies with disabilities. Exposure was most commonly practised on illegitimate children or those whose parents could not afford another mouth to feed. Some babies left to die would have been picked up by those wanting a child. It’s likely that, in the ancient world, it was more common than today to see people with physical differences. Some conditions would not have been obvious in the week or so after birth when exposure was practised. Now, bodily differences are often corrected surgically at an early age. The Roman first century CE marriage laws, which gave rewards to those who had three or more children, may even have encouraged parents to rear those with disabilities.

Although they didn’t have a word for disability, Greek and Roman writers did comment on difference. For example, Aristotle helps you think about people’s attitudes to disability. He approaches the topic medically and biologically, and also in relation to moral character. Aristotle uses a clear set of terms to imply a ‘disturbed’ process of some sort, and the word he uses for ‘incapacity’ (pêrôsis) is related to the idea of a sort of ‘incomplete process’. In On the Soul he uses this term for an imperfect organism which has somehow fallen short of nature’s intended creation – what is ‘necessary’ has been ‘left out’. Physical incapacity, also described as a pêrôsis, affects the ethical behaviour of the individual. In fact, Aristotle is more interested in psychic, rather than physical, incapacity. This is probably because he is more interested in thinking and decision making than in physical capacity.

If people followed Aristotle’s reasoning, they would have considered someone ‘incomplete’, rather than disabled. Pliny the Elder praised the Roman general Marcus Sergius for overcoming incompleteness, using the Latin word debilis which covers both ‘weak’ and ‘disabled’:

Sergius in his second campaign lost his right hand; in two campaigns he was wounded twenty-three times, with the result that he was crippled in both hands and both feet, only his spirit being intact; yet although debilis, he served in numerous subsequent campaigns … . He fought four times with only his left hand, having two horses he was riding stabbed under him. He had a right hand of iron made for him and going into action with it tied to his arm, raised the siege of Cremona, saved Piacenza, captured twelve enemy camps in Gaul: all of which exploits are testified by his speech delivered during his praetorship when his colleagues wanted to debar him from the sacrifices as debilis.

(Pliny, Natural History, 7.104–5)

Despite Sergius’ achievements, some people thought that his disability should exclude him from religious activity.

While fewer people than today survived to extreme old age, the prospects for such a person would depend very much on their wealth. Pliny the Younger describes Domitius Tullus in his old age as follows:

Crippled and deformed in every limb, he could only enjoy his vast wealth by contemplating it, and could not even turn in bed without assistance. He also had to have his teeth cleaned and brushed for him—a squalid and pitiful detail.

(Letters, 8.18)

Activity 2

Before going further, take a moment to consider how you would define ‘disability’. Would you expect the definition to be the same in the ancient world as it is today?

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