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From infanticide to Mount Olympus: Disability in ancient Greece

Mount Taygetus dominated the skyline of ancient Sparta and inspired fear to any newborn male Spartan. Soon after the birth, the father brought the infant before a group of elders, who closely examined the child. If he was strong and healthy, the judges allowed his father to raise him. If he was misshapen, though, they took him to Mount Taygetus and threw him into a pit. They believed it was better for a sickly child to perish immediately than to remain alive and be unable to offer his military services to the city.

This popular story (which is almost certainly a myth) was narrated by Plutarch (c. 46 CE-120 CE), a Greek essayist who is known primarily for his Parallel Lives, a masterful series of biographies of famous men. He lived at a time when infanticide was a fairly common practice throughout the Greek world. Potentially disabled or deformed children were often abandoned or killed since congenital physical deviations were considered a mark of divine disfavor. An Athenian father had ten days to decide whether he wanted to raise the infant. Plutarch argued that citizens suffering from an impairment or a serious illness should not participate in public affairs as politicians or soldiers.    

This grim picture of exclusion, physical violence, and neglect does not do justice to the reality faced by people with disabilities in ancient Greece. They were mocked by Aristophanes, but they also received maintenance assistance from the Athenian state. They married the goddess of beauty; composed the greatest epics; and died fighting the armies of King Xerxes alongside King Leonidas.

From infanticide to Mount Olympus:                       Disability in ancient Greece 1
It’s a hard life

An ancient Greek polis was inhabited by people with a wide range of visible physical disabilities. Eupolis, a 5th century BCE Athenian comic poet, described his spectators as blind, hunchbacked, red-headed etc. Aristotle claimed that “biped” is not truly a human property, because not every human possesses two feet. Some disabilities were congenital, while others were acquired through warfare, accident, or disease. Aristotle argued that many birth defects were the result of an improper “setting” during the gestation process, leaving people with too many or too few parts. The absence of an arm or a leg at a newborn child was considered the result of an abortion of the missing extremity.

Clubfoot, tuberculosis, epidemic diseases, or cerebral palsy could have lifelong consequences. The loss of limbs or arthritis could result in permanent disability, while infections could prevent bones from healing properly. Protein and vitamin deficiencies left many children suffering from rickets. On the other hand, disabilities that are fairly common today (paralysis as a result of spinal cord injuries), were absent in antiquity for the simple reason that people who suffered such catastrophic accidents or birth defects did not survive.

From infanticide to Mount Olympus:                       Disability in ancient Greece 2
On visibility

People with disabilities were ubiquitous in ancient Greece. Their participation in economic activities was viewed as commonplace. There were lame slaves, tailors who limped, people with withered arms who used saws and spades, lame peddlers, and injured metalworkers or miners. According to a popular myth, the fearless Amazons dislocated their sons’ joints at the hip and then employed them as coppersmiths and leatherworkers. As for the Spartans, most of them did not recognize physical disability as a reason for exemption from military duties. Among the 300 who stood with Leonidas at Thermopylae was Eurytus, who suffered from a severe inflammation of the eyes, and yet fought and died. Aristodemus, who suffered from the same condition, returned home and was ridiculed by his compatriots for surviving when everyone else perished.

From infanticide to Mount Olympus:                       Disability in ancient Greece 3

Much depended on mobility. There were no wheelchairs, so people used crutches, staffs, or canes. Others had to crawl about on their sound leg, supporting themselves with a hand on the ground. Donkeys, carts or litters could assist those who were unable to walk, provided they had the means to finance them. Prosthetic devices were individually crafted. Hegesistratus was the diviner of the Persian general Mardonius. When he was thrown into jail by the Spartans, he cut off his foot in order to escape and then fashioned a prosthetic foot out of wood. Eventually, doctors were able to employ corrective boots and shoes as an aid to people who had difficulty walking. The music master Damonidas lost his boots, so he prayed to the gods that these specially made items would find their way back to his crippled feet.   

Medicaid in antiquity

The state in ancient Athens had provisions in place for people who were poor and physically impaired. A law commanded that those who were poor, incapacitated, and unable to work were to be given food at the public expense. Responsibility for inspecting eligible applicants rested with the Council. This was not a purely altruistic policy, though, since its main purpose was to prevent the destitute from becoming clients of wealthy politicians.

Physical care was the responsibility of the family. Handicapped people depended on their relatives, friends, or slaves for assistance. Life could be hard for those who were alone, or abroad when disability struck them. More often than not, it was women who were entrusted with the role of taking care of the disabled, since the home was their particular sphere of action. Aristotle believed that women were actually deformed males, but physical disabilities did not preclude them from fulfilling their most important task: childbearing. Plato claimed that a deformed spouse may make life unbearable, but such marriages clearly did take place. The historian Herodotus admired the Babylonian system for marrying off all the females. All the marriageable women were gathered in one place and were auctioned off to the men, beginning with the fairest and concluding with the “misshapen ones”. To entice the groom, these “deformed” women received dowries from the revenue raised from the sale of the beautiful women.   

See no evil, hear no evil

Statistically speaking, it is very probable that only a handful of people suffered from hereditary deafness in an ancient Greek city. Athens, being the largest one, probably had a population of only 240 or so congenitally deaf people; smaller cities may only have had four or five. There is no proof as to the existence or absence of a sign language, but there are some references to the use of gestures for communication purposes.

A far worse condition was muteness. Ancient Greeks equated the inability to speak with an inability to reason, so mute people were considered stupid. Muteness is the pinnacle of divine punishment for terrible acts. Hesiod, in his Theogony, tells us that treacherous gods were punished by being forced to lie for one year without a voice. Speechlessness was also an appropriate curse aimed at your political opponents…or those who were simply annoying! Many curse tablets request that someone be afflicted with muteness.

Blindness was perhaps the most common disability in ancient Greece, with Galen mentioning 124 pathological conditions of the eye. Cataract and glaucoma were probably as prevalent back then as they are today. Nutritional deficiencies were also to blame. Priests at the sanctuaries of healing gods would invite patients to partake of animal sacrifices and thus (unknowingly but beneficially) ingest Vitamin A. Other doctors prescribed the daily consumption of beef liver as a cure for night blindness. Many people lost their sight as a result of accidents; masons, miners, and smiths often suffered grievous eye injuries.

As with muteness, the loss of eyesight could be considered a divine punishment; the Muses blinded the musician Thamyris when he dared to rival their musical skills. But for whatever the gods took, they gave something back. Tiresias lost his sight either for revealing the secrets of the gods to the mortals or for chancing upon a naked Athena. In any case, he was compensated with an exceptional sense of hearing that enabled him to understand the language of birds.

Blindness was no obstacle to a successful career. Homer was blind. Eratosthenes, a mathematician, and geographer who calculated the circumference of the Earth and became the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria, had dulling vision. Even Polyphemus, the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus, continued to work as a shepherd by running his hands over the back of his sheep. Blindness was not even an obstacle at war. In warfare, hand-to-hand combat was obviously out of the question, but blind Athenians were able to row a trireme.

From infanticide to Mount Olympus:                       Disability in ancient Greece 4
Homer, imagined likeness (© footageisland)
Ascending to Olympus

The world of disability in ancient Greece incorporated a wide range of experiences. There was no a priori exclusion from social, military, and economic life; each case was dealt with according to its particular circumstances. Some people with physical impairments were ridiculed; others were considered the “teachers of Greece”. Men and women with disabilities were integrated into their communities and contributed to the best of their abilities. Perhaps there is no finer expression of ancient Greek attitudes towards disabilities than the inclusion of the lame god Hephaestus to their pantheon.

From infanticide to Mount Olympus:                       Disability in ancient Greece 5

Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, artisans, and fire, was “shriveled of foot”. His life mirrors many of the daily experiences of mortals with disabilities. He was actively engaged in artisanal endeavors and had no trouble securing Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, as a consort. Plutarch accounts for the god’s association with fire by claiming that fire makes no progress without wood, and neither do lame people without a cane. Despite his physical deformity, Hephaestus took his place among the other gods in the feast-hall on Mount Olympus. He just had to ride a donkey to get there.