BMCR 1997.09.04

The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Greco-Roman World

, 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 $39.95.

This is an interesting, wide-ranging study of disabled and deformed people in the Ancient World. As the title implies, it looks primarily at how society—”the Beholder”—viewed the disabled, their legal, social and economic status, more than how the disabled viewed themselves. We have almost no evidence for the latter, and a wide range of sources, legal, medical, literary, visual arts, for the former. This study joins many varied and interesting specific instances, from archaic poetry to the Roman imperial “fetish” for dwarves, hunchbacks, etc., at their banquets. It offers many grotesque images on pottery and vase painting. The sixty-four plates vividly illustrate Greek and Roman fascination with deformed as well as idealized humanity.

Garland’s Preface admits he built his “investigation around a variety of discursive modes (literary, artistic, medical, etc.),” and that “this approach may have created some awkward disjunctions in places,” due to the “unwieldy body of evidence” (ix). He also acknowledges he is covering a millennium, Homer to St. Augustine, two very different lands and languages: Greece and Rome, and several cultures within each: Archaic, Classical Athenian, Hellenistic, Imperial; regal, Republican, Imperial; Christian. But attitudes persist over centuries, in different genres and geographic areas, he shows; this gives more validity to evidence that might seem only “anecdote in the end” (xi). He also uses some cross-cultural evidence.

A choppy feel is the main drawback I found, but the topics and specific instances covered are intriguing, and offer new insights into Greek or Roman attitudes toward the disabled. There are ten diverse chapters, Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion: 1. Survival of the Weakest, 2. Half-Lives, 3. The Roman Emperor in his Monstrous World, 4. The Deformed and the Divine, 5. Deriding the Disabled, 6. The Physiognomic Consciousness, 7. Images of the Deformed, 8. Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 9. Towards a Teratology, 10. Racial Deformity.

Each chapter has sub-sections able to stand alone. In Chapter 1 “Survival of the Weakest: Prevalence of Congenital Deformity” (12-13) offers paleopathological examples of clubfoot, spina bifida, congenital hip dislocation, and concludes that congenital disorders we know today may have been more prevalent in the ancient world; “To Kill or Not to Kill: The Greek World” (13-16); “To Kill or Not to Kill: The Roman World” (16-18); “Postnatally Acquired Disabilities” (18-22); “Disabled War Veterans” (22-23); “The Ugly and Deformed as Scapegoats” (23-26); and “Conclusions” (26-27).

Bits of important evidence from diverse fields are tied together. Children were fed less than adults, even to the point of malnourishment: Soranos Gynecology 2.20 speaks of rickets twisting the thighs; girls still less than boys—except in Sparta: Xenophon Constitution of Sparta 1.3, Aristotle HA 9.608b.15, which justifies the “normal” preference. Trajan’s child-support law for poor parents also specified less grain for girls, and osteological and dental evidence indicates girls were more subject to malnutrition.

Garland finds “hints” (15) that despite the practice of exposure, some Athenian families raised deformed infants: Plato and Aristotle both condemn the practice. In Rome Quintus Pedius, grandson and namesake of Julius Caesar’s ally, was born mute but taught to draw and paint at Messala Corvinus’ and Augustus’ insistence (17). A section on “Scapegoats,”pharmakoi, tells why they were probably deformed individuals; it ends with the stoning of a blind beggar in Ephesus that the “pagan saint” Apollonius of Tyana provoked (Philostratos VA 4.10).

The two chapters that interested me most were Chapter 7 on visual “Images of the Deformed” (below) and Chapter 3, “The Roman Emperor in his Monstrous World,” which shows the incredible lengths the Imperial court and wealthy private houses went, and “exorbitant prices” they paid, to obtain “human ‘freaks'” for their amusement. Garland makes no moral judgement, but lets the bare facts speak for themselves: “ennui on a massive scale, combined with a perverse and inexhaustible appetite for the bizarre.” The chapter notes “the proliferation of data on the plight of the deformed” in the Empire, and the emperors’ close ties to the deformed. Emperors were “essentially outside the social organism over which they presided, able to indulge their monstrous cravings to the full”; they “particularly favoured the company of the deformed” (45). Some became imperial confidants, or at least “court jesters” allowed to reproach the emperor without punishment. Garland traces this “fad” back through Ptolemaic courts to Pharaonic Egypt (49).

Future emperors despised as “outcasts” at court were most favorable to other human rejects when they took the throne: Tiberius had a dwarf court jester (Suet. Tib. 61); Claudius an intimate, Julius Paelignus, “despised alike for his stupid mind and contemptible body,” (Tac. Ann. 12.49.1), but appointed to govern Cappadocia. Nero had human “monstrosities” like the hunchback informer Vatinius; Domitian his blind informer Catullus Messalinus (Tac. Ann. 15.34.2) and a dwarf attendant “boy dressed in scarlet with an abnormally small head” (Suet. Dom. 4.2); Commodos made a priest of Rustic Hercules, the slave Onos, “Donkey,” named for his “penis larger than most animals[‘],” Lampridius Commod. 10.9.

Aristocrats followed suit. Seneca condemns all this; yet his wife kept Harpaste, a female clown of misshapen appearance who later went blind. Pliny 34.11 tells a bizarre yet true tale: an auctioneer sold an elaborate Corinthian chandelier with an ugly humpback slave Clessipus thrown in. The wealthy Gegania bought both, and paraded Clessipus naked for her guests. His naked hump aroused her so that she “admitted him first into her bed and then into her will”; Clessipus inherited her fortune and worshipped the chandelier til he died, when a great tomb was erected over him on the Via Appia, where CIL 1(2).1004 is the funeral inscription of Clessipus Geganius. Nothing in Petronius’Satyricon, Juvenal or Martial tops this (Garland 52-54).

The whole ancient world shared this taste. Garland 54-57 mentions “freak shows” or “natural wonders” exhibited in stadia and temples: skins of “hairy women,” probably chimpanzees or gorillas, at Carthage. Pliny’s Natural History 7 is a “Guinness Book of Records” (56) of tallest, shortest, thinnest, multiple births (quintuplets), and most sexual partners in twenty-four hours: twenty-five, by Claudius’ wife Messalina.

Chapter 7 discusses sixty-four Plates, “Images of the Deformed”: a few Egyptian mummies and modern tabloid newspapers, but primarily Greco-Roman statuary and vase painting of hunchbacks, dwarves, grotesquely fat women, emaciated men, and, mythically, Hermaphroditos, Crippled Hephaestus, the Siamese Moliones twins ( Iliad 23; Plate 2), the Cyclops Polyphemus, and blind Homer. This chapter illustrates how different the ancient world was from any modern idealized view of it. These large-penised dwarves and so on were apotropaic charms (109), but also, Garland rightly says, amusement pieces for drinking parties, convivia, symposia.

The Greeks only wanted to see the highest ideal bodily beauty or the most grotesque mockery thereof—and then only for “the bottom of the social heap,” as it was “unacceptable to represent citizens as disabled” (121). But the Romans favored “warts and all” realism on the face, though not the body, which was always idealized (111). A clubfoot or naked fat woman dancing mocks the Graces and Nymphs; dwarf boxers mimic ideal ephebes and athletes (Plate 13). I would add to Garland’s list many more dwarf athletes in ancient sculpture and vase-painting: see any standard modern text on Greek athletics.

That brings my only criticism of Garland: he has many diverse examples, some cross-cultural from Africa or Native Americans, but they are scattered and random, not thorough and comprehensive. In Roman cognomina from deformity he misses Plautus, “big or flat foot,” and Cicero, “Big Chickpea” or “Big Head” (78-79). He mentions the Iroquois False Face Masks with Greco-Roman distorted masks for theatre (195, note to 107). But the Iroquois parallel of Hiawatha with Hephaestus, the cripple that unifies and harmonizes his society (75-79), he omits. His work feels incomplete.

But he gathered informative, important illustrations from the entire span of the ancient world. One medical example, given contemporary desire for “herbal remedies,” is the evidence that such herbs may have increased fetal deformities: 144, 199, citing Manchester’s Archaeology of Disease (1983), and Zivanovic’s Ancient Disease (1982, trans. Edwards). I commend Garland’s study, and scholarship; his modern sources are all well worth consulting.