Disability in Greece: The Real Picture in Antiquity

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE OTHER SIDE OF HISTORY: DAILY LIFE IN ANCIENT WORLD

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The real study of disability as a discipline started in the 1980s. Till then, there was complete neglect of the disabled and deformed. This actually mirrored what happened in antiquity. Disability in Greece was something that was totally neglected. But this is an important story to be told.

Dionysus Bacchus Wine statue
Ancient Greek sculpture would have us believe that all Greeks had perfect bodies, but that was far from the truth. (Image: Gilmanshin/Shutterstock)

The Perfection of Bodies in Ancient Sculpture

Looking at Greek art, and particularly at Greek sculpture, we are tempted to believe that it was a world of anatomical perfection. Something better than the elusive concept that we sometimes call Greek Spirit is expressed by the images of a perfectly formed naked male or of a perfectly formed draped female. But were the Greeks actually like that?

Maybe some of them looked like that but the majority of them didn’t. It would be stupid if we assume that it was normal in Greek society to be anatomically perfect. So let’s look beyond this anatomical perfection presented by Greek art and have a look at disability in Greece, which was prevalent in the society as a result of both, the disease and injury.

Statue of Roman emperor Augustus.
Augustus was sickly, with a limp, quite unlike the impressive muscular statues of him. (Image: Vatican Museums / Public domain)

Although here we are talking about disability in Greece, it was equally apparent in Roman society. Just like the Greeks, Roman sculpture also gives a false idea of reality even though they had an impressive tradition of portrait sculpture, an art that was almost unknown to the Greeks.

For example, the Prima Porta statue of emperor Augustus shows him as an impressively muscular poster boy emperor. But as described by biographer Suetonius, the real Augustus was quite different. He had a little limp on his left side and had birthmarks all over his chest and belly. He was a little sickly and no one expected him to live as long as he did.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

As per the estimates of the International Disability Foundation, nearly 10% of the world’s people are disabled. The ancient world did not keep these statistics. So nothing is available in ancient texts that would show the percentage of disabled people out of the total population or specify the categories of disabled people like lame, blind, or deaf. Even then we have reasons to assume that the number of people with permanent disability in Greece was as high as it is among us.

Learn more about being sick or disabled Greek.

Disability in Greece and Its Treatment

To begin with, no remedy was available for many diseases which, if not treated properly, could result in permanent disability. Then the ancient world was so full of hazards that it was very difficult for anyone not to have a serious injury or disfigurement during their lifetime. Further, there was little or no healthcare, and whatever was available was not be sufficient to treat such problems. A minor trauma like a fractured arm or leg could lead to permanent disability.

Once a disability is acquired, there were much higher chances of acquiring another one, because the ability to respond to the situations that threaten life or limb is considerably reduced. And finally, those who suffered a fracture later in life during that era had a much higher chance of becoming permanently disabled than their counterparts of the modern era because if denied proper medical care, the ability of the body to recover declines sharply with age.

At Pentanello, near Metapontum in southern Italy, an analysis of 233 ancient skeletons showed that 56% of them had bone pathologies, because of fractures, metabolic disorders, and systemic infections. More than half of the population in Metapontum had at least one such disability that was so severe as to leave a permanent mark on their skeleton. This fact is quite sobering considering the possibility or rather probability of other types of permanent disability in Greece like blindness or deafness, for which there are no records. We should also take into account those people who might have died due to permanently disabling ailments or accidents, and if they had been living today could have survived owing to the medical care available today.  

Learn more about being an old Greek.

The Secrecy About Disability

The Greeks rarely mention disease or injuries in the biographies of famous people. They were not thought to be important or interesting. The only evidence available in the whole of the classical literature comes from a man who calls himself physically impaired. It comes in the form of a speech given by an unnamed disabled man to an Athenian court while defending his right to public support. For disability in Greece, Athens provided a small pension to those citizens who could not fend for themselves. However, due to the restraint of the speaker, we don’t get much insight into his condition.

Statue of Hephaestus, the Greek God of metalworking and sculpture.
Hephaestus was a Greek God who is said to have been disabled. (Image:Guillaume Coustou the Younger / Public domain )

It looks like no ancient author has ever tried to live in the inner world of a disabled individual in his imagination. There may be one little exception though. Hephaestus the metalworking God, who is impaired, says in the Iliad: “No one is responsible for the fact that I am disabled except my parents, and I wish they had never given birth to me.” It is a moving and scary cry which, in all probability, has no parallel in all the classical literature. 

Since there are no first-hand accounts, we are at a great disadvantage as far as the study of the disability in antiquity is concerned. And the fact that disability in Greece was described in extremely vague words also contributes to this.

The closest adjective to the word ‘disabled’ is adunatos. Its literal meaning is incapable or incapacitated. It is also used for someone or something not able to perform a specific task. All we can conclude that disabled or deformed people formed a very high percentage of the population in ancient times and not much medical assistance was available to them.

Common Questions about Disability in Greece

Q: How did Greeks treat their disabled children?

Disability in Greece in ancient times was seen through a practical viewpoint. So exposing children with physical handicaps was considered to be a form of mercy-killing.

Q: What did Spartans do with disabled babies?

Children with disabilities in Sparta had their feet tied together and were left to die in the woods. Their feet were tied so that no passerby would adopt them. Abandoning deformed or impaired infants was a legal requirement in military Sparta.

Q: How was mental illness cured by Romans?

Some of the methods used by Ancient Romans to get rid of extra humor were bloodletting, emetics, and purging. They also made use of various drugs, herbs, proper diet, and hot and cold baths believing that they would stabilize humoral balance and restore health.

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