BMCR 2017.06.53

Disability in Antiquity. Rewriting Antiquity

, Disability in Antiquity. Rewriting Antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. 490. ISBN 9781138814851. $240.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

A considerable amount of scholarship focusing on impairment and disability in the ancient world has been published over the last few years. Treatments range from general surveys of the subject organised according to historical period, geographical region, or culture and society to detailed studies on specific physical or mental conditions.1 Consequently, one might reasonably query the necessity of commissioning yet another edited volume claiming to elucidate the subject further still. However, Routledge’s new Rewriting Antiquity series aims to offer scholars in Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology, and associated disciplines a platform from which “to examine major themes of the ancient world in a broad, holistic and inclusive fashion,” with each volume offering wide-ranging coverage so as to provide as full an appreciation of the topic as possible, not bound by either chronology or geography. To date, volumes focusing on sex and women have been published, while volumes on childhood and globalisation are planned.2 The unique selling point of this particular work thus lies in the breadth rather than the depth of its coverage (although individual contributions venture very deeply indeed into their topics; see, for example, Evelyne Samama’s chapter on the extensive Greek vocabulary of disability) and the fact that it can serve as a convenient and useful starting point for future in-depth research on a variety of topics. Indeed, the editor of this volume noted in the introduction to his last edited collection on this subject, published in 2013, that it was a desideratum for scholars to expand their horizons, and here he and his contributors have provided not just a means for them to do so but also something of an example to follow.3

It is not feasible to provide a detailed summary of each one of the volume’s thirty-two chapters here, but I shall attempt to offer some information on them before assessing the volume as the sum of its parts.

The first nominal part of the volume contains two chapters that each offer something of an introduction to the subject of impairment and disability in the ancient world. They cover the methodologies and scholarship devoted to the subject to date (Christian Laes), and the importance of considering context, particularly in relation to the role that environment and climate play in demography (April Pudsey). The second part, comprising six chapters, focuses on what it terms the “Ancient (Near) East,” with its explorations ranging from the Hittite civilisation to China. It offers a series of windows onto cultures and societies that to date have been rather overshadowed by Greece and Rome in discussions of disability in antiquity: the Hittites (Richard H. Beal), Mesopotamia and Israel (Edgar Kellenberger), Persia (Omar Coloru), Egypt (Rosalie David), India (M. Miles), and China (Olivia Milburn). The third part, comprising six chapters, covers the Greek world from Classical Athens through to the Second Sophistic by way of subjects, and examines vocabulary (Evelyne Samama), oratory (Martha Lynn Rose), drama (Robert Garland), law (Matthew Dillon), art (Alexandre Mitchell), and philosophy (Michiel Meeusen). The fourth part, comprising seven chapters, covers the Roman world in a similar manner to the Greek, examining satire (Sarah Bond and T. H. M. Gellar-Goad), law (Peter Toohey), art (Lisa Trentin), and philosophy (Bert Gaevaert), with the addition of archaeology (Emma-Jayne Graham), and two studies on different aspects of mental illness (Chiara Thumiger and Danielle Gourevitch). The fifth part, comprising nine chapters, approaches the late antique world. Here the chapters are oriented towards religion, with aspects of the treatment of disability in Christianity (Anna Rebecca Solevåg, Martin Claes and Anthony Dupont, Jenni Kuuliala, Carol Downer, and John W. Martens), Islam (Matthew Alan Gaumer, Hocine Benkheira), and Judaism (Julia Watts Belser and Lennart Lehmhaus), although the political entity of the Byzantine Empire is also considered (Stephanos Efthymiadis). The sixth part, comprising two chapters, highlights the survival of ancient attitudes towards disability long after the end of what could reasonably be considered antiquity, focusing specifically on canon law and the clergy in the medieval period (Irina Metzler) and views of ancient Greek physicality in Nazi Germany (Toon Van Houdt).

Each chapter cites its scholarship in-text, although in some cases explanatory notes are offered, and while each chapter has a bibliography, in some cases this is separated into primary and secondary sources. This is particularly helpful in the case of the chapters that venture into disciplines with which most classicists are unlikely to have more than a passing acquaintance, as full details of the texts, translations, editions, and commentaries are included to facilitate attempts to engage with this unfamiliar material. There are relatively few illustrations (as one might expect, most of these are positioned in the two chapters that deal specifically with material culture), but full details regarding source and provenance are included.

As an ancient historian currently working on impairment and disability in classical antiquity, I found the second part, with its focus on the civilisations adjacent in time and space to Greece and Rome, the most thought-provoking. While there appears to have been some degree of overlap in the conditions that these societies recognised as impairments (e.g. blindness, deafness, mobility limitations), there are considerable differences in the quantities of evidence available to examine them (they range from scarce to abundant), and even in the extent to which—or the nature of the ways in which,—the scholars of those disciplines have engaged with them to date. What emerges more clearly than ever is the importance, in fact the necessity, of contextualising as fully as possible any aspect of ancient impairment and disability one is proposing to examine.

As stated at the outset, the volume’s strength is the breadth of material that has been selected for inclusion. It also incorporates a variety of approaches as dictated by the evidence available (or not available), with some chapters offering broad surveys, others offering more focused studies (e.g. the works of the authors Plutarch, Galen, Caelius Aurelianus, and Augustine). Simultaneously, it manages to avoid, for the most part, returning to well-worn sources (whether literary, documentary, or archaeological) or simply repeating or summarising discussions that have been had elsewhere, or even repeating material from chapter to chapter. Yet there are not any obvious oversights or deliberate exclusions. Thus the volume serves as a fitting starting point for a new era in disability history focussing on the ancient Mediterranean.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Disability History and the Ancient World: Past, Present and Future – Christian Laes.
Disability and Infirmitas in the Ancient World: Demographic and Biological facts in the longue durée – April Pudsey.
Disabilities from Head to Foot in Hittite Civilisation – Richard Beal.
Mesopotamia and Israel – Edgar Kellenberger.
Ancient Persia and Silent Disability – Omar Coloru.
Egyptian Medicine and Disabilities: from Pharaonic to Graeco-Roman Egypt – Rosalie David.
India: Demystifying Disability in Antiquity – M. Miles.
Disability in Ancient China – Olivia Milburn.
The Greek Vocabulary of Disabilities – Evelyne Samama.
Ability and Disability in Classical Athenian Oratory – Martha Lynn Rose.
Disabilities in Comedy and Tragedy – Robert Garland.
Legal (and Customary?) Approaches to the Disabled in Ancient Greece – Matthew Dillon.
The Hellenistic Turn in Bodily Representations: Venting Anxiety in Terracotta Figurines – Alexandre Mitchell.
Plutarch’s “Philosophy” of Disability: Human after All – Michiel Meeusen.
Roman Perfect Bodies: The Stoic View – Bert Gevaert.
Foul and Fair Bodies, Minds, and Poetry in Roman Satire – Sarah Bond and T.H.M. Gellar-Goad.
The “Other” Romans: Deformed Bodies in the Visual Arts of Rome – Lisa Trentin.
Mobility Impairment in the Sanctuaries of Early Roman Italy – Emma-Jayne Graham.
Mental Disability? Galen on Mental Health – Chiara Thumiger.
Madness and Mad Patients According to Caelius Aurelianus – Danielle Gourevitch.
Disability in the Roman Digest – Peter Toohey.
Hysterical Women? Gender and Disability in Early Christian Narrative – Anna Rebecca Solevåg.
Augustine’s Sermons and Disability – Martin Claes and Anthony Dupont.
Infirmitas in Monastic Rules – Jenni Kuuliala.
The Coptic and Ethiopic Traditions – Carol Downer.
The Disability Within: Sexual Desire as Disability in Syriac Christianity – John W. Martens.
The Disabled in the Byzantine Empire – Stephanos Efthymiadis.
What Difference did Islam Make? Disease and Disability in Early Medieval North Africa – Matthew Alan Gaumer.
Impotent Husbands, Eunuchs and Flawed Women in Early Islamic Law – Hocine Benkheira.
Disability in Rabbinic Judaism – Julia Watts Belser and Lennart Lehmhaus.
Then and now: Canon law on Disabilities – Irina Metzler.
The Imperfect Body in Nazi Germany: Ancient Concepts, Modern Technologies – Toon Van Houdt.


1. For Graeco-Roman antiquity: R. Garland (1995) The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), reissued as R. Garland (2010) The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Bristol Classical Press); M. L. Rose (2003) The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), reissued as M. L. Rose (2013) The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press); R. Breitwieser (2012) Behinderungen und Beeinträchtigungen / Disability and Impairment in Antiquity (Oxford: Archaeopress); C. Laes, C.F. Goodey, and M. L. Rose (edd.) (2013) Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies a capite ad calcem (Leiden: Brill); C. Laes (2014) Beperkt? Gehandicapten in het Romeinse rijk (Leuven: Davidsfonds); C. Krötzl, K. Mustakallio and J. Kuuliala (2015) Infirmity in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Social and Cultural Approaches to Health, Weakness and Care (London: Routledge). For Judaism, Christianity and the Bible: J. Z. Abrams (1998) Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli (Washington DC: Galludet University Press); H. Avalos, S. Melcher and J. Schipper (edd.) (2007) This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies (Atlanta GA: Society of Biblical Literature); S. Fishbane (ed.) (2008) Deviancy in Early Rabbinic Literature: A Collection of Socio-Anthropological Essays (Leiden: Brill); S. Olyan (2008) Disability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). For studies on specific conditions, see for example V. Dasen (1993) Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece; W. V. Harris (ed.) (2013) Mental Disorders in the Classical World (Leiden: Brill); L. Trentin (2015) The Hunchback in Hellenistic and Roman Art (London: Bloomsbury).

2. For the recent BMCR review of Sex in Antiquity, see BMCR 2016.07.17. For the recent BMCR review of Women in Antiquity, see BMCR 2017.05.44.

3. C. Laes, C. F. Goodey, and M. L. Rose (2013) ‘Approaching Disabilites a capite ad calcem ’, in C. Laes, C. F. Goodey, and M. L. Rose (edd.) (2013) Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies a capite ad calcem (Leiden: Brill), pp. 1-16, p. 10.