After my B.A.D.D. post on researching disability in Ancient Greece, several people commented that they would very much like to read the finished article. After getting clearance from my teacher, and after doing the appropriate presentation, I can now post the essay itself, and the accompanying presentation slides. Enjoy!

Death or neglect, ridicule and pity? Analysis of disabled people in Ancient Greece.

Ancient Greece … neglected, persecuted, abused and even deliberately destroyed ‘inferior’ or different individuals” (Napier & Weishahn, 1974). Many people regard life for the disabled in Ancient Greece with something akin to pity and horror, believing too that disabled people in modern times are treated better than those who lived in Ancient Greece. In conducting research for this essay one concept was referred to repeatedly: the idea that the Ancient Greeks destroyed the disabled. “The Ancient Greeks disposed of its crippled children.” (American Foundation for the Blind, 1953). “In Ancient Greece, […] some parents […] used to throw their daughters from the mountains. Such was the torture [disabled] womenfolk had to suffer” (Mishra, 1997). But to pay credence to these simplistic viewpoints is to do both the ancient disabled and the Ancient Greeks a disservice.

Primary source material for the Ancient Greek period (between around 800 B.C. and 2nd century A.D) is, compared to the volume of material originally written, scarce. Primary source material referring to the disabled is even rarer; mostly because of the Ancient Grecian attitude towards the disabled, which, while complex, was primarily to regard them as a matter for shame. The Ancient Greek quest for beauty, for mimesis (quest for similarity), for kallos (beauty – specifically, something that was at the best it could be at that specific point in time) meant that the deformed, misshappen, less than perfect were regarded at best with pity, at worst with horror. Because of this, and the fact that publishing one’s writings was, of necessity a public act meant that disability was rarely touched upon, and there is far less information available than many historians would like. In addition, the study of the disabled in history (and, indeed, in archaeology), is a historiographically neglected one, a situation that has only been addressed in the last twenty years (Borsay, 2002).

Fully defining disability is a huge task and one that is completely outside the scope of this essay. However, for the purpose of this paper, it is intended to focus on physical disabilities rather than on mental disabilities. It is important to remember that terminology and definitions have changed over time. The Ancient Greeks often regarded conditions as “disabled” that we would not regard as such today. An example of this would be those people affected by intersex conditions. There are also, of course, many conditions that we would recognise as ‘disability’ today that the Ancient Greeks did not, or if they did, referred to the condition by another name, e.g. someone with a dislocated hip might have been described as being “lame”. Disability, then, is as much a cultural definition as a physical one.

To the Ancient Greeks, there were clear distinctions with regard to disability – between the kinds of disability regarded as a “weakness” of the human body (e.g. lameness, for some reason, blindness, deafness, etc.) and, with regard to congenitally acquired disabilities, terata, from the Greek word Teras, meaning monster (e.g. where there is an extra limb, an extra finger, or one totally missing) (Stiker, 1999). There were also very different feelings about the reason for a disability: if it was known that one was congenitally blind, there was often a great deal of pity felt for the person so afflicted, but if one had gone blind through excessive drinking, then the person was regarded with disgust (Nicomachean Ethics, 3:5). Likewise, those with disabilities acquired through war wounds or accidents (particularly where they were not at fault) were regarded differently from those who had congenital disabilities (Garland, 1995).

Although intact skeletons from the period are quite rare (and of course, not all disabilities can be determined from skeletal remains) paleopathology on surviving Grecian skeletons has shown incidents of clubfootedness, congenital spine malformations, congenital hip dislocation, and even an incidence of Spina Bifida. Estimates of congenital disabilities present in modern births currently sits at about 3%; it is believed that in Ancient Greece, the figure was at least the same, if not higher, due to malnutrition or disease, interbreeding (in remote locations), and the fact that society as a whole was generally more violent at that time. With regard to postnatal disabilities, ten percent of all known Greek skeletons have at least 1 fracture (and of those ten, eighty percent are men). This highlights the probability that the majority of fractures are due to either warfare or hard work. Where women or children had fractures it was probably due to malnutrition, e.g. not enough Calcium, or Vitamin D – Rickets was rife in the Ancient Greek period, especially amongst girls who would have been fed less than their male counterparts. (Garland, 1995).

Ancient historians, in order to understand a culture, often need to look at its mythology – in the case of Ancient Greece, this is especially necessary as the Ancient Greeks themselves regarded their mythology as the centre of their history. Disabled people, like all of Greek society, were reflected upon in mythology. Hephaestus, the disabled god, ejected from heaven by Zeus because of his disability, betrayed by Aphrodite because he wasn’t able to satisfy her, would seem to offer a cautionary tale to parents considering keeping a disabled child. However, his story offers optimism too: Zeus takes him back, he works hard and becomes indispensible to the other gods, he gets revenge on his mother – although he starts out as quite a weak being, by the end of his tale, he’s much more powerful, despite, or some would say because of, his disability. Oedipus, too, seems to offer a cautionary tale to the Ancient Greeks: he’s one of several mythological figures to be “exposed”, possibly because of problems with his feet, he suffers because of the crime of his father – which reflects Greek attitudes that disabled children were often born to a community or parents as a punishment by the gods for some crime. He later becomes blind – again, punishment for his crimes, killing his father, but his disability also leads him to find humility, and in the long run, to divinity (Stiker, 1999). These two stories, along with others, such as Polyphemous, the Cyclops of the Odyssey, the Moliones (Garland, 1995), possibly Siamese twins who win a chariot race, described in the Illiad – they all describe disabled people who, while they suffer because of their disability, all become powerful in some way, and don’t allow themselves to be constrained by their disability, which would have been a powerful lesson for the Ancient Greek people.

Secondary sources written by traditional ancient historians, frequently mention, particularly with regard to Sparta, that babies born with a disability were either exposed or thrown from a clifftop (the apothetae). More recent examination of this supposition, however, has revealed that exposure was not as prevalent or automatic as was once thought. The primary sources for the practice of exposure (and in Sparta, the Apothetae) are just five; in the case of Sparta, just one, written by Plutarch, a non-Spartan. It is clear from reading those five sources that exposure was generally known to happen and was partially accepted by the community, but also that it wasn’t the automatic, commonplace occurrence that the traditional ancient historians would have us believe. It also seems to be the case that when exposure/the apothetae was implemented, it was in the case of terata rather than in the case of weakness, and other factors influenced the decision as well: financial implications would have been considered, the demographics of the rest of the family (a first born male child, born to a wealthy family would have been far less likely to be exposed than a seventh born girl born to a poor family) as well as the political situation prevalent at the time. The parents would have been aware that any child they chose to keep would have been a burden to the rest of the family, and they had to be sure that that burden wasn’t beyond the family’s means to cope with (Edwards, 1997).

Another practice sometimes mentioned in secondary sources with regard to the disabled is Pharmakos, or scapegoating. In times of great crisis, when a community was threatened, an institutionalised practice was to select someone who would be the recipient of punishment, to appease the gods and lift the crisis so threatening the community (Garland, 1995). Although the practice is described in the legend of Perseus, where Andromeda is chained to the rock for the consumption of the sea serpent Cetus, in reality, the person chosen would be the weakest, the lowest of the community: often someone poor, ugly, or seen as being deformed – disabled – in some way. There has been speculation that scapegoating involved actual sacrifice, death – Johannes Tzetzes, writing in the 12th century AD described a victim who had food placed in his hands and was beaten on the penis before being immolated – but later investigation has shown that this was unlikely. Tzetzes based his work on the 6th Century BC poet Hipponax, and the actual immolation is not described there: instead, the unfortunate Pharmakos is driven to the city walls and exiled. This practice is referred to in other sources as well, such as Lysias (6.53), and Philostratos, who describes an unofficial pharmakos, and what we would call mob violence in a random, deadly assault on a disabled man in a city suffering from plague in the Vita Apollonii (VA 4.10) (Garland, 1995).

Assuming a disabled child survived exposure and wasn’t neglected (as many parents probably neglected their children – as can be seen in Herodotus’s tale of Crosesus’s deaf son) then what possible careers awaited him or her in adult life? Obviously, much depended on the disability. Some were able to make their disability work for them: the popularity of dwarves, hunchbacks and obese women shown in vase paintings and statuettes indicates the possible entertainment career options open to people with these disabilities, and the development of mime in the late Hellenistic period continued this avenue for those regarded as “misshapen”. Blind people were often associated with poetry or singing – so much so, that it was a popular belief that one had to be blind to be a poet, despite only two being on record as being blind (Xenokritos of Lokira and Tyrtaios, who, blind in one eye and lame, was sent to Sparta – the home of the Apothetae – and accepted there) although popular belief also had it that Homer was blind (Garland, 1995).

The prelingually deafened would almost certainly have remained speechless and have been seen as the village idiot, because of the association between speech, education and intellect – the idea that the intellectual, educated man could argue his position and those without speech could not. Those with other conditions that robbed them of the faculty of speech would also have suffered a similar fate. Plato does, however, make a reference in Cratylus to deaf people using sign language, which may indicate that some prelingually deaf people escaped this fate (Garland, 1995).

The lame probably fared somewhat better: careers such as scribery, various crafts like pottery making, vase painting, leather working and metal working, like Hephaestus, could all be done from a seated position (Garland, 1995). Even the military wasn’t closed to the lame: Agesilaus II, a king of the notoriously anti-disabled Spartans, was crippled, but survived the Agoge training school and was regarded by most ancient writers as an excellent military leader (Plutarch, Greek Lives: Agesilaus). It is clear then, that disabled people were integrated into the Ancient Greek societies on various levels, instead of being the outright rejects often described.

In addition, religious opportunities were not, despite the general feeling that disability was seen as a sign of the god’s anger, closed to disabled people. For example, children with what we would today refer to as intersex conditions, but then were referred to as hermaphroditus, were regarded with very mixed feelings. According to Stiker, when an infant was born with the appearance of both sexes, it was regarded as a terata, and which the community took as a sign of the anger of the gods. On the other hand, the prevalence of the Hermaphrodite cult in Ancient Greece (pp 62, Stiker, 1999) meant that such children may have been able to join the priesthood in those temples.

In addition, Athens, and probably other poleis, made financial provisions for the disabled who could not work (and who had economic need of support). While some undoubtedly depended on charity or begging, others still were able to apply annually to the Boule for a pension of between one and three obols a day. This is shown clearly where Lysias describes defending a disabled tradesman who was accused by another of falisfying his disability (1.33 Lysias, 24, in Dillon & Garland, 2010). The law offering relief to the disabled (for whatever reason) was almost certainly put in place by Pisistratus, when he decided that people disabled in war were to be maintained at the public expense – as described by Plutarch. However, Plutarch goes on to say that Heraclides credits the law to Solon, because of the case of a man called Thersippus, who was maimed and Pisistratus simply reinstituted the old law (Greek Lives: Solon).

It is clear then, that the attitude demonstrated in the opening paragraph is a simplistic one: not only did the Ancient Greeks not, as a matter of routine, expose disabled or unwanted children, they also did not routinely kill or neglect disabled people. Quite the contrary, some disabled people were able to find niches in society, and the mythology taught the Ancient Greeks, in a very subtle way, that the disabled should be allowed to do that, rather than the attitude so often credited to them, that they should kill anyone who was different from the beautiful ideal. Even the Spartans, depicted as being obsessed with male perfection (as most recently shown in the film 300) are shown to have been kinder than modern depictions of them: they certainly did not routinely kill “unacceptable” male children as Plutarch describes, as can be seen from the simple fact that Agesilaus II, a cripple, becomes king – and one of their most important poets, Tyrtaios, a lame, half blind man – is also accepted by them.

Yes, some disabled people undoubtedly were killed, neglected, ridiculed, persecuted, abused or pitied – just as many disabled people are in modern day societies – but many others were brought up by loving parents, found a place in society, and lived peaceful lives… just as many disabled people do in societies today.


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