Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.47

Robert Garland, The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World. Second edition (first published 1995). Bristol Classical Paperbacks.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2010.  Pp. xxix, 222.  ISBN 9781853997372.  $33.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kristi Upson-Saia, Occidental College (

Fifteen years ago, when the first edition of Robert Garland’s The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World was published, Disability Studies was a fledging field. At the time, scholarship on disability existed at the margins of our sister fields (Literature, Cultural Studies, Politics, etc.) and Historians and Classicists were just beginning to take notice. Garland’s book was one of the first works to address the subject in the ancient world (joining Henri-Jacques Stiker’s Corps infirmes et sociétés), thus his principal task was to survey the wide range of views about and discussions of disability and deformity from the Archaic to the Imperial periods. For this reason, his book is encyclopedic in nature. Those wanting an introductory volume will find Garland’s book still the best available source on the market. It serves as an excellent reference for those wishing to pursue further study in any number of subtopics related to disability and deformity.

Garland’s expansive scope opened scholars’ eyes to the many areas of ancient society touched by issues and representations of disability. Since 1995, new studies concentrate focused attention in each of these areas: on particular disabilities (e.g., blindness, mental illness), the intersection of particular topics with disability (e.g., disability and old age, disability and medicine, evaluations of deformities according to physiognomy or aesthetics), as well as the image and function of the disabled in individual sources. Moreover, paralleling the developments in Disability Theory, many are now recognizing the role disabilities play in mediating social relations and constructing identity. Garland’s second edition includes a helpful overview of the past fifteen years of research on disability in the ancient world, as well as a comprehensive bibliography of this scholarship. Other than adding a new preface and supplementary bibliography, the rest of the book remains unchanged.

In the introduction, Garland attends to first things first, discussing Greek and Latin terminology and taxonomies for classifying bodies. He concludes that Greeks and Romans did not possess an overarching category of disability; rather they conceptualized and treated discrete deformities in a variety of ways. While this might lead us to believe that the study of disability in antiquity is difficult, if not impossible, Garland reminds readers of one of the framing perspectives of disability studies: that deformities and disabilities are determined by one’s context, namely by the people who consider one to be “unnatural” or even “monstrous” and by the conditions and priorities of a given society that constitutes desire/derision for certain types of ability and disability. Thus, he takes the lack of a coherent terminology and of universal categories to be merely a call for scholars to attend to the particulars of our individual sources in order to understand how notions of disability operate therein.

In Chapter One, Garland discusses the prevalence of congenital deformities and reactions to them. He then describes the range of postnatally acquired deformities and disabilities that resulted from hazardous occupations (including military service), unsanitary conditions (especially in overcrowded urban areas), malnutrition, disease and illness, and aging. Consulting literary sources, as well as medical anthropology, Garland concludes that bodily deformities and disabilities in antiquity were so common as to be the norm.

Next, Garland discusses social exclusion and derision of certain disabled and deformed persons. He concludes Chapter One describing the use of the deformed as “scapegoats” (pharmakos) in times of crisis. In Chapters Two and Three, he analyzes instances in which a deformed or disabled person was an object of ridicule or a source of entertainment (both in real life or in theater and the arts). In Chapter Five, he analyses the “varied social functions served by this brand of humour” (75): namely, to develop social bonds among insiders who momentarily forget their own differences when they divert their focus to the more extreme (and sometimes allegedly threatening) difference of an outsider; to allay spectators’ fears, anxieties, and embarrassment; and to justify acts of oppression and subjugation.

At the same time, the deformed also could be the object of desire and demand. Garland offers evidence of deformed prostitutes who were able to command higher prices and of the bustling “monster” market that traded slaves with uncommon deformities to aristocratic families who showed them off at dinner parties. In these cases, it seems that the rarity of extreme deformities generated demand and desire. Garland argues that Emperors seemed to possess a special penchant for “monstrous” companions, perhaps, he hypothesizes, because they shared a similar difference and separation from common folk.

In Chapter Four, Garland turns to the relationship between the gods and the deformed. In this chapter, Garland discusses the prevalent understandings of deformity as a punishment from the gods (whether for their parents’ or their own transgressions) or as a portent of an impending disaster. He describes how ancients explained the presence of deformities among the gods (he devotes special consideration to Hephaistos). He details the expiatory rites that followed the births of congenitally deformed babies. Finally, he notes the exclusion of the deformed—both persons and animals—from religious rites and offices.

In Chapter Six, Garland discusses physiognomic arguments, which assumed that “vice and depravity leave visible traces upon the human body…[just as] they leave indelible marks upon the soul” (88). While Garland shows that some understood the disabled to possess a special kind of vice, others believed that certain disabled persons possessed special abilities. Just as the gods could inflict deformity and disability as a way to punish, they also could endow special skills or powers to the disabled to show their favor or to counter the act of a god with whom they were feuding. (See also Chapter Seven in which Garland discusses the apotropaic function of deformed persons and figurines.) Thus, while typecasting certainly held sway, individual onlookers could invest different sorts of characterological significance to those with physical deformities depending on their interpretive stance.

Garland turns his attention to artistic representations of deformity in Chapter Seven. He notes a propensity of artists to correct bodily flaws (those known to viewers and readers from literary sources) until the Hellenistic era when an artistic interest in the deformed flourished. It is difficult to tell, Garland warns, if and when artistic representations matched reality or stemmed from the imagination of a draughtsman desiring to shock, to insult, or to show off his skill as a master tradesman in “grotesques.”

In Chapter Eight, Garland analyzes the attention—or notable lack thereof—given to treatment of deformities and disabilities in Graeco-Roman medical literature (due to the limited scope of the fledgling medical profession, which refused to treat chronic or irreversible ailments). There were a few disabilities, however, that physicians treated, including clubfeet, epilepsy, non-congenital gibbosity (hunchback), hypospadias, disabilities resulting from “hysteria,” and physical flaws (mostly wounds) that could be “corrected” with minor surgery. (In medical literature, mental illness makes only brief appearances as it does also in Garland’s book overall.) Greeks and Romans seemed reluctant to inspect and dissect the remains of deformed and misshapen countrymen, though, as Garland shows, they did at times scrutinize the bodies of defeated enemies and of animals. Medical theories about the origins of deformities and disabilities (teratology), therefore, were wide-ranging and fantastical, as Garland shows in Chapter Nine.

In the final chapter, Garland attends to ancient reports of particular ethnic groups’ physical peculiarities, which were regularly cast as adaptations best suited to their culture and lifestyle (e.g., the Amazonians removal of women’s right breast to enhance their use of the bow). Although several catalogs of paradoxography detail strange persons, places, and animals that travelers encountered at the edges of the earth, Garland, with other critics and sometimes even the compilers themselves, questions whether informants are merely masters of exaggeration or invention. Also included in this chapter is a discussion of gendered deformities, namely, that women represent deformed—or more precisely, underformed—men. Garland concludes the chapter by analyzing broader theories of either evolutionary decline or progress (most intriguing is Empedokles’ vision of a past era in which bodies were not yet wholly formed, resulting in “many foreheads without necks…arms wandering naked, separated from shoulders and eyes wander[ing] alone, needing brows” [175]). Garland construes such bodily othering to be part of the process by which Greeks and Romans imagined and posited their own superiority.

A difficulty of the book that has not been corrected with this edition lies in discerning who really are the subjects of this study. While Garland argues that disability and deformity are in the “eye of the beholder,” he doesn’t clarify his own scholarly lens or distinguish the moments when his gaze falls upon the majority of Greeks and Romans who possess some deformity or disability from the moments when he looks at the far more rare “monsters” (prodigia, teras) of the ancient world. It is hard to hold together his conclusions that disability “afflicted virtually everyone sooner rather than later” (26) and that “the majority of the deformed and disabled existed on the margins of Greek and Roman society” (43), while surely there were certain individuals—perhaps the most extremely deformed—who were singled-out and stigmatized as second-class citizens. Given Garland’s argument earlier in the book about the magnitude of persons who were born with or incurred some type of deformity or disability in their life time, however, we must imagine that persons with mild or common disabilities constituted the “normate” subjectivity (while the beautifully and perfectly formed constituted the “ideal”). Moreover, while those with common disabilities would have been aware of their peculiar disorder, it is unlikely (as Garland contends) that most would have considered their—not unusual—bodily characteristics to constitute the central frame of their identity or the central frame through which they were accorded honor or shame.

Despite these minor quibbles, Garland’s book still stands as a hallmark study on disability and deformity in the ancient world. It is a must read for all scholars of antiquity.

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