Disability in History: The Ancient World

“Our attitudes to imperfection and disability descend directly from the concept of the body beautiful of Greek and Roman culture. Those cultures, and the stereotypes and prejudices they developed towards disabled people, were and remain very powerful.”
– Katharine Quarmby

The attitudes that Quarmby is referring to include the idea of disability as punishment for sin, as a result of curses, as scapegoats and as monsters.  People were sacrificed for the good of the community, were cast aside and/or were rounded up into so called freak shows.  Essentially, they were dehumanised.  These perspectives and attitudes are still prevalent today.

In ancient Greece, when a tragedy had occurred it was thought to be because the gods were displeased with the mortals.  To appease them, a scapegoat was chosen and offered to the gods and these were, on the whole, so called ‘useless’ people, outcasts and beggars.  All labels that suggest a higher than average proportion of disabled people.  The scapegoat would be banished from the city, or killed, as a way of purging the area of whatever pestilence had befallen it.  By removing the scapegoat from the area, you were in effect removing the pollution.

In a similar way, babies born with deformities were also expelled from the community.  To ensure that no disabled babies slipped through the cracks, they were inspected at birth.  If they didn’t meet the standards of the day, they were dropped in a well.  Diodurus went a step further instructing that anyone who acquired a disability should kill themselves.  Underlying this cruel treatment was the Greek idea that only the fit should survive.  These ideas would be seen again in the early twentieth century with the obsession around eugenics.

“Disability was, as it is too often today, seen as shameful.”
– Quarmby

In ancient Greece, we also see the link between disability and evil, something which would be amplified by the middle ages with the advent of witch hunts.  The only real exception to the attitudes to disability were when they were the result of battle.

Similar attitudes prevailed in ancient Rome where again we find that children born with a disability were to be killed, although it would now be by drowning.  The Romans saw disabled people as freaks and a spectacle, attitudes that clearly informed the Victorian fascination with freak shows.  Romans enjoyed watching disabled people fight and if they escaped death at birth, they were in demand as entertainment.  They ‘kept’ disabled people, especially ‘fools’ as pets and Roman emperors had dwarfs in confidential positions in court, something that began in Egypt and which could later be seen in English courts.

“We spit on epileptics in a fit, that is, we throw back contagion.  In a similar way we ward of witchcraft and bad lucky which follows meeting a person lame in the right leg.”
– Pliny

“Neither the Greeks or the Romans had a word equivalent to ‘disabled’ but the term that they often use is ‘teras’ (for the Greeks) and ‘monstrum’ (for the Romans). These are the same words they use to describe mythological monsters.”
New Statesman

Of course, not all disabilities are considered equal and that was the case back then as well.  Certain illnesses or conditions that we might consider to be a disability today may have been less of an issue then.  Remember that a lot of the population were hungry, overworked slaves and that inevitably health issues that we take a pill for and move on, wouldn’t have been treated.  The lack of a word for disability means we don’t know for sure what would have been considered enough for you to be killed at birth.

Additionally, the family you were born into made a huge difference.  If your parents were rich, then you had better options.

Over in Egypt, the main concern was around genetic contamination but that didn’t mean they were cruel to disabled people.  Indeed, one Egyptian texts says:

Do not laugh at a blind man
Nor tease a dwarf
Nor cause hardship for the lame.
Don’t tease a man who is in the hand of the God
Nor be angry with him for his failings.

We see this more inclusive attitude reflected in roles that were available for disabled people, whether as musicians, servants etc.  Disability was also considered socially acceptable in Mesopotamia.  Unfortunately, we have inherited more from Greeks and Romans than we have from Egypt and Mesopotamia.

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