BMCR 2014.04.20

Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies A Capite ad Calcem. Mnemosyne, supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity

, , , Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies A Capite ad Calcem. Mnemosyne, supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity. Leiden; Boston: Boston: Brill, 2013. xiii, 318. ISBN 9789004248311. $178.00.


The study of disability in history is, as the editors acknowledge, by no means a new area of enquiry. However, it has begun to experience a revival in recent years guided by new methodologies, ever-expanding medical developments, and a greater awareness of the complications and pitfalls that surround the subject. Laes, Goodey and Rose demonstrate a constant awareness of these obstacles and by bringing together a series of carefully considered studies they have created an excellent resource for further investigations into the various subjects addressed in the collection. The present volume has its origins in a conference at the University of Antwerp on the 5 th -6 th September 2011, and consists of a dozen contributions on a wide variety of subjects connected to disability in the ancient world, including two chapters not originally presented at the conference. The overall structure of the collection aims to address issues of disability and disparity from head to toe. This is generally more successful in the first half of the volume, although the later chapters are of an equally high standard.

Chapter one: ‘Approaching disabilities a capite ad calcem : hidden themes in Roman antiquity’ (C. Laes, C.F. Goodey and M. Lynn Rose) offers a cautious introduction to the subject, charting the development of disability studies as a subject over time, and the problems that have arisen as a result of previous endeavours. In particular, the authors seek to outline the scope of the subject and the problems of terminology, drawing distinctions between the ideas of ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’. The difficulties posed by this extensive subject are numerous, and this is made painfully apparent by the number of caveats and pitfalls outlined in the authors’ discussion of previous studies and approaches.

Chapter two: ‘Mental states, bodily dispositions and table manners: a guide to reading ‘intellectual’ disability from Homer to late antiquity’ (C.F. Goodey and M. Lynn Rose) continues to outline the problems that previous studies have faced, stressing that attitudes were not static across the Greek and Roman worlds. The chapter proceeds to offer a series of brief surveys of Greek and Roman attitudes over time, including discussions of Homer, Plato and Aristotle, Martial and Juvenal, Pliny and Suetonius, and the Greek medical writers of the mid-late Empire. The authors consider social attitudes and behaviour as much as physical appearances and by raising these issues early on they help to pave the way for subsequent chapters.

Chapter three: ‘Psychiatric disability and the Galenic medical matrix’ (P.A. Clark and M. Lynn Rose) seeks to examine the social impact of mental illness in the ancient world. The evidence of Galen in this area provides Clark and Rose with ample opportunity to consider a wide range of potential illnesses and their supposed causes, as well as asking how different mental illnesses were distinguished from one another. Particular attention is paid to the conditions of phrenitis, mania, memory loss/dementia, melancholy, epilepsy and senility. With regard to identifying and categorising mental illnesses, Clark and Rose also stress that shared socio-cultural ideas contribute significantly towards the definitions of ‘unacceptable’ behaviour.

Chapter four: ‘Two historical case histories of acute alcoholism in the Roman Empire’ (D. Gourevitch with G. Demigneux) considers a case of heavy drinking from Galen along with an inscription from Chalkis, commemorating a man who apparently died from excessive drinking at the age of twenty-two. Gourevitch is especially interested in the opinions of ancient doctors on the subject of alcohol consumption, but also stresses the need for modern studies of alcoholism in the ancient world to consider medical approaches alongside the sociological and philosophical traditions.

Chapter five: ‘Exploring visual impairment in ancient Rome’ (L. Trentin) considers a wide range of causes for visual impairment in Roman society, in cases resulting from ‘disease, injury…or old age’ (91). As well as cataloguing the varied terminology for blindness the chapter also considers the curiously wide range of Roman cognomina which refer to blindness or eye conditions. While Trentin acknowledges the severe difficulties that blindness might impose (especially on those from outside the wealthy elite), the chapter argues convincingly that the difficulties have at times been overstated in the past, and that help from one’s family and to some degree the wider community might offer some level of support to those afflicted with impaired vision.

Chapter six: ‘A nexus of disability in ancient Greek miracle stories: a comparison of accounts of blindness from the Asklepieion in Epidauros and the shrine of Thecla in Seleucia’ (C.B. Horn) explores the process of healing within a religious setting. The question of what constituted ‘healing’ is addressed, and Horn makes an important point by demonstrating how healing might include helping the sufferer to reach ‘full acceptance of permanent disability’ (120). Under such circumstances, full and successful reintegration into society becomes as much a goal as the physical process of healing itself.

Chapter seven: ‘Silent history? Speech impairment in Roman antiquity’ (C. Laes) stresses the emphasis placed on public speaking in the Greco-Roman world, and the effect this had on attitudes towards those afflicted with speech difficulties. Laes argues that cases of speech impairment in the ancient world would have similar causes to those of the modern world, citing neurological and anatomical factors as well as injuries, trauma and disorders typically associated with old age. The legal ramifications of such disorders, as well as medical opinions and terminology are considered, with the Emperor Claudius offering a seemingly inevitable case-study. Laes, however, is critical of previous attempts to retrospectively diagnose this emperor, focusing on the literary aims of those descriptions of Claudius’ various medical conditions. The chapter closes with a useful appendix which lists sixteen prominent figures from the ancient world that were said to have suffered speech impairment.

Chapter eight: ‘Monstrous births and retrospective diagnosis: the case of hermaphrodites in antiquity’ (L.A. Graumann) demonstrates the ongoing problems of terminology with regards to hermaphrodites, and uses the example of Favorinus of Arelate to highlight the problems of modern attempts at offering diagnoses based on the descriptions of primary sources. In particular, Graumann is reluctant to use terms such as hermaphrodite when this can, in fact, cover such a wide range of medical conditions, which are catalogued and explained in detail. Brief discussions of the status of hermaphrodites in Roman law, as well as their use and location in Hellenistic and Roman sculpture, are also included. The chapter includes a useful table of literary sources that refer to monstrous births and for each case quotes the ancient source directly.

Chapter nine: ‘What’s in a monster? Pliny the Elder, teratology and bodily disability’ (B. Gevaert and C. Laes) focuses specifically on Pliny’s discussion and categorisation of ‘monsters’, considering the extent to which his chosen examples equate to conditions that might be recognised as physical handicaps, and what Pliny’s language can reveal about wider social attitudes. It is notable that ‘monsters’ could be physically, but also morally ugly. The chapter also raises the possibility that some people could become monsters as a result of physical mutilation. The chapter considers monstra from a religious and philosophical standpoint, but also addresses the status of such beings in Roman law.

Chapter ten: ‘A king walking with pain? On the textual and iconographical images of Philip II and other wounded kings’ (É. Samama) offers an excellent case-study, focusing on Philip of Macedon to highlight the gradual change in attitudes towards those men (and especially military leaders) in the Greek world who suffered disfigurement as a result of injuries sustained in battle. The chapter begins by exploring the symbolism of wounding in Homer, and the increase in cases of war-wounds that would have accompanied the Peloponnesian war. Before Philip, it is argued, generals were typically expected to exercise caution and not risk themselves unnecessarily. The numerous injuries suffered by Philip are notable in that they were not thought to impede his ability to rule or to command, although Samama also views it as notable that Philip’s wounds were not a source of pride for the king. The change in attitudes only becomes visible during the reign of Alexander, who is praised by various commentators for sharing in the hardships of his troops.

Chapter eleven: ‘Disparate lives or disparate deaths? Post-mortem treatment of the body and the articulation of difference’ (E.-J. Graham) takes a new direction, considering the archaeological evidence of human remains, many of which show signs of physical hardship, and considers to what extent the afflicted were integrated with the rest of Roman society in life and after death. Graham raises a highly pertinent point by observing that for many citizens ‘disparity was actually the norm’ (258). Calling upon a handful of archaeological examples Graham suggests the possibility that those who had suffered certain forms of deformity were buried in a specific location (but conceding that the act of burial, itself, was a sign of social integration). The chapter raises key questions about how we should interpret the placement of bodies after death, although at times the limitations of the evidence force Graham to stretch her interpretations in order to sustain her overall hypothesis.

Chapter twelve: ‘Disparate bodies in ancient artefacts: the function of caricature and pathological grotesques among Roman terracotta figurines’ (A.G. Mitchell) also focuses on physical evidence, exploring a number of case studies of grotesques and caricatures from Asia Minor which once again raise the issue of humour in difference, with comedic exaggeration playing a central role. As is noted, however, many representations of grotesque figures are not mere caricatures, but rather realistic portrayals cataloguing the effects of real diseases. Mitchell attempts to explain these phenomena, and goes on to highlight the use of grotesques, and especially hunchbacks, as a means of warding off the evil eye.

This collection will undoubtedly prove invaluable for future studies of the subject, and each separate contribution will achieve the goal of stimulating further thought and discussion. The book is marred somewhat by a number of typographical errors, and the quality of images in the final chapter is at times frustrating, although these points do not detract from the overall strengths of the study. Various themes run throughout to bring the disparate chapters together and demonstrate the importance of the approach set out by Laes, Goodey and Rose. The carefully considered introductory chapters provide a methodological framework that will help to bring the study of historical disability into the twenty-first century.