BMCR 1996.09.23

1996.9.23, Garland, The Eye of the Beholder

, The eye of the beholder : deformity and disability in the Graeco-Roman world. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. xviii, 222 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780801431449

It is by now a commonplace among classicists to acknowledge that the study of the ancient world has been transformed in the past 20 years by the application of new methodologies and theoretical constructs first developed by scholars in the social sciences. Nowhere have these new approaches produced greater and more stunning results than when applied to the field of ancient history, a branch of the discipline that until very recently had been dominated by the accounts of the great deeds of famous men. Since Sarah Pomeroy’s groundbreaking work on women in antiquity, the voices of the marginalized have begun to be heard much more distinctly, as historians attempt to tease out of disparate sources a more complete picture of the social history of the Greek and Roman worlds.

Robert Garland’s The Eye of the Beholder is in one way representative of those new approaches to the study of classical history, for it provides a glimpse into one relatively neglected corner of ancient life: the world of the disabled. A wide-ranging compendium of the ancient sources that deal with the various manifestations of physical and mental disability, Eye of the Beholder explores the Greek and Roman historians, poets, tragedians, philosophers, medical writers, and orators, as well as archaeological remains and artistic representations in the search for evidence.

Beginning with a consideration of the historical prevalence of acquired and congenital disability and societal responses (including the practice of exposure of infants among the various Greek states and Rome), G. offers a survey of Greek and Roman views and interpretations of the social and economic “meaning” of disability. He rightly underscores the generally callous attitudes of the ancients toward those who were disabled, which manifested itself in behavior that most often narrowly ranged from social abandonment and cruelty to indifference and insensitivity. Roman imperial fascination with physical deformity, for example, may strike us as indicative of deep psychological disturbance; but from Homer onward, disability seems to have been a source of much sophomoric humor: witness the treatment of Hephaistos at the hands of the Olympians, or the assumption of cognomina among the Romans such as Naso, Caecus and Flaccus.

G. goes on to examine portrayals of physical disability in Greek and Roman historiography, philosophy and art. Beginning with a discussion of ancient interpretations of the “science” of physiognomy (the belief that there is a connection between physical appearance and character or behavior), and at the same time acknowledging the difficulty of interpretation, he notes the absence in the archaic and early classical periods of any interest in portraying the human form in any other way than idealized. Only monstrous mythic figures such as Cyclopes and gorgons are portrayed, and it is impossible to draw any conclusions about attitudes toward disability from such artistic representations. It is only at the end of the fifth century B.C.E. and in the Hellenistic period that we begin to see widespread iconographic representations of human deformity in terracottas, vase paintings and sculpture. G. presents a complete catalog of the various physical disabilities portrayed in Hellenistic and Roman art, from blindness to dwarfism to the debilitating effects of malnutrition.

There follows a discussion of the variety of theories, both medical and religious, offered in the literature about the aetiology of congenital disability. Greek medical texts present scarce evidence of any interest in diagnosis or treatment, perhaps because there was little that could be done or perhaps because it was regarded as an expression of divine will that could not, in any event, be altered. Although he notes that the connection between the birth of a disabled infant and divine displeasure seems to be a constant in most of our sources, G. is careful to distinguish between Greek and Roman interpretations of “monstrous” births, with the latter more likely to view them as ominous.

G. concludes with a survey of the tales of “monstrous” races as described by the historians and ethnographers, characterized by a variety of physical anomalies, ranging from Blemmyai, who being headless, have faces on their chests, to the Kynokephaloi, a dog-headed race that communicates by barking. G. offers that one may see these accounts as either a perverse form of physical anthropology or as an illustration of Greek belief in their inherent superiority.

G. has done a remarkable job of bringing together a great deal of potentially illuminating material; at the same time, however, that he breaks new ground with his subject matter, he is curiously reluctant to discuss the question of disability within the broader context of contemporary social and psychological models. Certainly the construction of appropriate analytical models that are applicable to antiquity is not an easy task, since too often we know only what our texts choose to tell us, and not what we want to know. Furthermore, the scattered and often contradictory nature of the sources makes it difficult to formulate an inclusive theoretical overview of the issues of disability in antiquity. Rather than even attempt it, however, G. resolutely refuses to rise to the challenge: “Any attempt to proffer a sociology of the disabled in Graeco-Roman culture quickly becomes trite to the point of banality.” (44)

Although G. makes frequent allusion to contemporary social attitudes toward people with disabilities and cites in his bibliography a number of recent studies on disability in the U.S. and Europe, there is no acknowledgement of the recent work done in the field of disability studies in constructing models for understanding disability within a particular culture, or of theorists such as Erving Goffman, whose Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity has formulated many of the questions one must ask in an analysis of disability within a social context.

The result of this refusal is mixed. G. has been assiduous in his review of the ancient literature, and has unearthed a number of difficult-to-locate references; but there is little attempt made to distinguish between various genres such as tragedy and biography, between the portrayal of disability in myth and in the historians. Every source seems to be taken at face value, from accounts of teratogenesis as a form of omina in Tacitus to Plutarch’s description of a monster market where “persons who have no calves, or who are weasel-armed or who have three eyes or are ostrich-headed” are for sale. ( Moralia 520C) Furthermore, in his discussion of the medical literature, G. fails to consider the Hippocratic texts within the broader context of rhetorical conventions or philosophical argument. What also is missing is any differentiation between types and kinds of disabilities. Every disability is worthy of equal consideration, from congenital blindness to loss of a limb in battle, from deafness to ugliness and obesity. Finally, perhaps as a result of casting as wide a net as possible, there is a curious flattening of historical context (Homeric vs. classical Greek; classical vs. Hellenistic; Greek vs. Roman). With only scant discussion of what it all might connote, the cumulative effect begins to feel like a perusal of an ancient Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

We must be grateful for both the attention directed at the responses toward disability raised in the texts and in iconography and the variety of material that G has managed to uncover in this survey. At the same time, this reader wishes that he had not been so unwilling to explore the meanings of it all.