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Disabilities in Ancient Rome

Disabilities in Ancient Rome

Introduction

By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2067974

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80023891

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37860674

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9944092

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.

Plebeians

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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.

Slaves

By Pascal Radigue – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4966082

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.

Bibliography

  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, https://mn.gov/mnddc/parallels/one/3.html
  4. TRENTIN, LISA. “Deformity in the Roman Imperial Court.” Greece and Rome, vol. 58, no. 2, 2011, pp. 195–208., doi:10.1017/S0017383511000143.