Disabilities in Ancient Rome

Disabilities in Ancient Rome


By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

There’s a popular saying throughout today’s disability community: Everyone will be disabled at least once in their lifetime. So it is no surprise that the concept of disability was developed even in the ancient times, in massive empires such as Rome. The treatment of disabled people in Ancient Rome depended heavily on which social class one belonged in. For the upper classes, the emperor and Patricians, the portrayal of one’s disability also depended on one’s reputation. For the lower classes, the Plebeians and slaves, it was overwhelmingly negative, especially for those with physical / visible disabilities.

In both Roman literature and medicine, the categories that existed were very different from the modern-day classifications of disabilities. Since there was very minimal scientific research on disabilities as a whole, the categories were also minimal and varied based on region. However, throughout the sources, there were reoccurring conditions that they deemed as disabilities throughout, including:

  • Seizures, which were often called “fits;”
  • Kyphosis, usually referred to as being “hunchback,” even today;
  • Dwarfism
  • Gigantism
  • Insanity
  • Hermaphrodite
    • This was often scientifically used to describe intersex people, however, there is evidence to suggest some Romans considered bisexuals and transgender individuals as hermaphrodites.
    • Eunuchs were often referred to as disabled because of the widespread regard of them as hermaphrodites.
  • Being “dumb” or “weak”
    • This was mostly used, as it still is today, as a way to describe people with individual disabilities. Whether it be physically “weak” with a chronic pain condition, or intellectually “dumb” as someone with an intellectual disability. These terms usually meant the same thing, however their use changes with social class.
  • Any other visible disability was referred to as a deformity or defect

Disability in Roman Law and Culture

By Cesare Maccari – [1], Public Domain,

In The Laws of the Twelve Tables, one of the first Roman legal documents to be written down and mass produced, there are two inserts regarding disability:

A notably deformed child shall be killed immediately.

The Laws of the Twelve Tables, Table IV, Clause I

If a person is insane authority over him and his personal property shall belong to his male agnates and in default of these to his male clansmen.

The Laws of the Twelve Tables, Table V, Clause VI

Both require Roman residents to either murder disabled people as soon as they see them or remove any sense of personal property and thus, social status from them when they are struggling the most.

In Roman philosophy, Aristotle believed that women were more likely to be/come disabled than men were because men represented the ultimate evolved human being, and women were a massive step behind them. He was also a major advocate for the law that requires parents to murder their disabled children.

Patricians and the Emperor

By Unknown author – from Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012, Public Domain,

The Patricians were the upper-class citizens of Roman society. This included the Emperor.

Physical disabilities in adults were never really an issue amongst Patricians. If a senator or an aristocrat in general had a physical disability, they would simply have their slaves carry them around / physically aide them with everything. Although, as seen above, infants that are born visibly disabled are required to be murdered or abandoned by their families. However, intellectual disabilities were seen as detrimental to one’s reputation as a contributing member of the ruling class. A ruler who had an intellectual disability was seen as someone who was not able to act as a responsible ruler and member of the ruling class.

A common source of Patrician entertainment came from disabled people, who were most likely enslaved. When the Emperor would host a party, there would usually be enslaved disabled people with visible physical disabilities, most likely a birth defect, walking around for the guests to gawk at. Another common practice amongst the ruling class was the gifting of disabled slaves. If a wealthy individual were to make a very expensive purchase, say an expensive piece of art or sculpture, the merchant may gift the Patrician a disabled slave as a sort of ‘proof of expensiveness’ for the Patrician to brag about. It was said that Augustus was known to collect the bones people with dwarfism and gigantism and place them on display in his estates.

After becoming blind due to old age, Appius Claudius Crassus was able to continue leading his luxurious lifestyle as a prominent consul and senator in the Roman Republic.

By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Patrician interaction with disabled people of other classes consisted of, for the most part, the wealthy ruling class buying and housing disabled slaves as a means for constant entertainment. There was no human decency or respect towards the disabled individuals coming from the Patricians. Most disabled people were seen solely as props and tools for entertainment, nothing more and sometimes much less.


By The original uploader was Binter at German Wikipedia. – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons. Transfer was stated to be made by User:JJ55., CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Plebeians were any free citizen of Rome that was not a member of the working class. They ranged from merchants to freedmen to farmers and soldiers.

In the daily life, intellectual disabilities as well as some physical disabilities were not too big of a problem for plebeians. The condition only becomes a disability when it interferes with one’s physical ability to perform a task. Conditions such as blindness and being mute and deaf were viewed as extremely negative conditions as they were most likely to severely interfere one’s economic life. However, intellectual disabilities, such as being “dumb” or a hermaphrodite, were not necessarily seen as life-ending conditions.

Plebeians were still required by law to murder and abandon their visibly disabled children at birth. There was also a popular belief amongst Roman Plebeians that any child born disabled broke the lineage and removed the immediate family from becoming heirs, even if the family did murder them.

As Plebeians were those who were freedmen to merchants, there was not much time not resources for as many ‘luxuries’ that the Patricians indulged in when it came to entertainment. Merchant Plebeians were, however, the backbone of the disabled slave trade, better known as “The Monster Market,” which was how Patricians bought and sold disabled slaves.


By Pascal Radigue – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Enslaved disabled people made up most of the representation of disabled people in Ancient Roman literature. Most disabled slaves were owned by the Patricians, and were used solely as a source of entertainment via humiliation, this was a common occurrence.

The Monster Market

The disabled slave trade, also know as ‘The Monster Market,’ was one of the most luxurious slave trade networks in Ancient Rome. At one point, disabled slaves were so sought after by imperial court members that slave owners would purposely disable their nondisabled slaves. They would do this by binding their feet together as to change the way they walk, or they would lock children in cages as they grow in order to stunt their growth.

The most sought after disabled slaves were either dwarves or those with physical birth defects. These slaves would go for top dollar at the Monster Market.

It is important to note that the Patricians’ obsession with visibly disabled individuals and the subsequent develop of the Monster Market has continued to exist, in some way, in western European culture throughout history. From freak shows in the 1800s to Season 4 of American Horror Story to the concept of “inspiration porn” on social media, the exploitation of disabled individuals by nondisabled people for both profit and entertainment is not something that came and went with the fall of the slave trade, it just adopted a new marketing strategy.


  1. Laes, Christian, et al. Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies, a Capite Ad Calcem. Brill, 2013.
  2. The Laws of the Twelve Tables. Centuriate Assembly, 451AD.
  3. The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. “Parallels in Time a History of Developmental Disabilities.” Parallels In Time | A History of Developmental Disabilities | Part One,
  4. TRENTIN, LISA. “Deformity in the Roman Imperial Court.” Greece and Rome, vol. 58, no. 2, 2011, pp. 195–208., doi:10.1017/S0017383511000143.

Pocahontas High School

The highway marker that I am choosing for my Historical Marker Research Package is Pocahantas High School. I chose this historical marker because when it was mentioned in class, I was immediately intrigued and wanted to learn more about it. By focusing on a segregated black high school that was built right after World War Two and in the middle of the Great Depression, I am able to focus a lot on the stories that were not necessarily written down. I could also ask the question, why did the Virginia government decide to add this specific high school to the historical markers list? Why did they think it was a piece of functioning history that deserved a highway marker? I would like to examine why Pocahontas High School remains to be a relevant piece of history today. 

Using Trouillot’s methods from Silencing the Past, I am looking to try and find stories of Pocahontas High School that may not have been important then nor relevant to the narrative initially painted by those who recorded the school’s history. I would also like to find out if the date, 1937, is set because of particular biases, if any, regarding the school’s construction. Also, I would like to figure out why the government decided to change the dedication of the building from a training school to a high school. What was the significance of providing a high school in lieu of a training school at the time? Who benefited the most from the high school and who benefitted the most from the training school? Are those who benefitted from either the same group of people? These questions will enable me to explore the unwritten, forgotten, and silenced histories behind the construction and establishment of Pocahontas High School. 

Along with asking questions about the date the high school was built, I would like to explore the reasoning behind why the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works provided funding for the school to be built. I would also like to find out why the Virginia Board of Education provided funds via their Literary Fund as well as the intentions behind why the Southern Education Foundation focused specifically on Pocahontas High School. In order to answer these questions, I will look into the demographics of the surrounding towns in order to identify just how many African American students would be zoned into this school. Also, is this the first public school for black students in the area? Or is it simply the most significant? All of these questions go back to the initial question: What are the stories that were not told about this school, and where can we find them?


Tidy Data and Me

The first principle of tidy data is to structure your raw data in a way that can facilitate efficient analysis of that data. That way, your analysis can move along faster and you do not have to spend a large amount of time just examining your data, you can actually work with it and input it into your overall work. Tidy data is supposed to be easily readable for other scholars to read as well. This leads to the second principle of tidy data, which is that tidy data is supposed to create a standardized way of mapping the meaning of a dataset through it’s structure. This requires you to take a step back and critically think about which data points would fit best with each category and organize the dataset in a way that best conveys the information as thoroughly as possible. The final principle of tidy data is actually the structure itself. In a tidy dataset, there should be only one observation per row, one variable per column, and only one item per cell. This structure ensures that those who download or access the dataset will be able to open and read it across multiple software currently available.

The best method for organizing your research would be the third principle of tidy data, which is that you should only have one observation for each row, only one variable for every column, and only one item per cell of data. The data may not look pretty to the eyes, however, it is very appealing to the computer and software. It is nice to have pretty-looking data for a publication or just for personal use, however, if the intended use of the dataset is for critical analysis or anything that is not only just for your own eyes, the data should be as tidy as can be. 

In my scholarly practice, I plan to organize my data in a way that is tidy, so that if need be, I would have the ability to share my dataset and transfer it to other computer software for analysis. This standardized version of my data creates access to those who may not otherwise have any if my data were messy, be it the wrong software or the inability to comprehend my observations. I would like to create datasets that are as accessible as possible so that my research is not only reserved for those who understand the raw data but anyone and everyone who would like to analyze my findings and observations.


What Google Says About Me

When I Google myself, the first things that pop up are my personal social medias, all of which are private, and a Pinterest account I forgot the password to in middle school. There are also a lot of old projects that I did in middle and high school, as well as social medias of distant family members and people with the same last name as me. On the last few pages of the result, there is only one accurate search result of me, and it is a newspaper article of all the seventh graders who made honor roll that year. These results do not really reflect who I am very much, as there is really no modern representation of who I am on the Google Search page. Most of the top results are private, personal social medias that I do not post much on or business ventures of those who share the same last name as me. Most, if not all, accurate search results are almost exclusively from my time as a preteen in middle school. If someone that I just met were to Google me, it would not be a good way for them to perceive me. Potential employers may get the wrong idea of my personality and values and may look past me. Also, potential friends may think that I am immature and don’t have any passions because you can only find results from almost a decade ago. They would think that I was still interested in the things that I liked when I was 12 (thanks Pinterest) or they would take me as an Environmental Impact Assessment Specialist named Brian.

This website will help me control what the results will show up when people first Google me. I will be able to share with people my online identity in a way that does not reflect the ideas and attitudes of twelve-year-old me (again, thanks Pinterest). The Google Search page will, hopefully, soon have this website as one of the first results, so that those who Google me do not only have an archive of my academic and culinary adventures as a tween. Also with this website, I will be able to learn how to create and modify my online presence, whether it continue to be with this website or another online platform. I will develop the skills required to maintain a professional presence on the internet. And maybe, one day, that forgotten Pinterest password won’t come back to haunt me every time someone looks me up on Google.


That’s a primary source? Yes, of course!

The best way to represent primary sources is by creating a tidy dataset with the document(s). That way, when analyzing the primary source, the raw data has been organized in a way that is both easier for computer softwares to understand and convert as well as having the individual input of each variable standardized in a way that allows for more practical analysis. When working with hand written, highly subjective primary sources, creating a tidy dataset out of the measurable information from that source will help to filter out some, but not all bias that exists within the document. 

The advantages of considering primary sources as data are that it enables the audience to develop a deeper and more personal understanding of the event in question. It also allows for a less biased analysis of the data, instead of multiple eras of bias, there is only one: when the data is from. Also, transcribing primary sources into a dataset creates a wider scope of accessibility for the potential audience of that data. By typing old-timey handwritten documents, it is now possible that those who may have trouble reading cursive will be able to comprehend the writing on the original source. While primary sources may not paint a complete picture of what the subject is, working with primary sources can provide an inside look at the unrefined reactions and opinions of the author. Also, referincing primary sources may uncover quantifiable raw data that may have been removed by the filters of every new analysis. Therefore, while primary sources may not always delineate the entire event, they are great references to have that cover thorough, specific aspects of an event or events. 

Wickham’s principles of tidy data are that each row has only one observation, every column has only one variable, and that each cell has only one value. This provides for an analysis of the data in a way that is both efficient and effective. In the tidy dataset that I had recently created, it was difficult to document the data in a way that met all of these requirements. While creating the dataset, I had to constantly reevaluate the variables and observations in a way that prioritized the efficiency and effectiveness that is appropriate in order to create the standardized version of a tidy dataset. However, looking at the dataset when it was finished, I was able to locate a specific value in a much faster time than when it was written on the original document. This made for much quicker analysis, as I was able to focus solely on analyzing similar values of observations rather than spending a lot of time trying to simply locate each individual piece of data.