Disability & Impairment in Antiquity

greekbanner.pngThe study of disabilities and the disabled in the ancient world has undergone a revolution recently. What used to be a neglected subject in the study of antiquity is now a rapidly emerging discipline for classicists and ancient historians alike. As I’m writing this I’m looking forward to the challenges of next year and I’m conscious that I will be entering into the realm of ‘The Ancient Body’ and because there’s a dissertation on the horizon I wanted to write a bit relating to Disability Studies as a way of organising my thoughts on a subject that I think is unique and fascinating. In this post I want to focus specifically on ancient ideas, perceptions and interpretations of mental illnesses.


The increasing awareness of mental health in western society today is going a long way to de-stigmatise what is a very common affliction experienced by many. That, coupled with my own troubles, anxieties and experiences of mental health issues in the past has driven me to this point, in fact it’s through my studies and this blog that I’m able to keep myself occupied in the face of the ever-increasing stresses of life that undoubtedly affect us all in one way or another. Many studies, both past and present that deal with physical and mental disabilities in antiquity seem at pains to emphasise the uniqueness and originality of their findings and whilst I do not seek to challenge these assertions I was surprised to find that the body of evidence that exists in respect of disability is much larger and diverse that I had originally been led to believe. As such I was further puzzled as to why, given the evidence, such matters had not been significantly explored already. The shortanswer to this question is that to a certain extent they have, however in the past, matters of physical or mental abnormalities were often ‘medicalised’ by both doctors and medical historians who sought to understand disability in the ancient world within the context of modern medicine, a methodology that has since been challenged (Laes, Goodey & Rose, 2013). A new methodology in Disability Studies and one that fits nicely with the theme of this post is that disability as an idea, is an entirely social construct, where impairment is characterised by physical or mental states and therefore the focus of my thoughts.

A Moment of Madness: Manifestations of Mental Impairment in Athenian Tragedy.

ajaxSince completing the first year of my MA, I’ve developed a much more critical approach to the understanding of primary evidence than I did at undergraduate level and because of this, themes and ideas are now easier to identify if I look closely enough. Of course, primary evidence can be interpreted in so many different ways but take for example representations of mental instability, what can be identified? Well let’s talk a little about greek mythology and Athenian tragedy. Having recently considered these themes I think it’s a good time to reflect on one particular example and revisit Sophocles’ Ajax. So, in Sophocles’ play we learn that sheer anger at losing Achilles’ arms to Odysseus drives Ajax into a bloodthirsty rage, but rather that striking out at the generals who made this decision he vents his anger on harmless farm animals (Sophocles, Ajax, 25-49). What more, this apparent lapse of sanity (mental impairment) is instigated by Athena who………

‘threw a cloud of delusion over his eyes’

(Sophocles, Ajax, 51-2).

What I find interesting is that if we take Athena out of the picture, Ajax’s actions become more athena-statue-01indicative of a heightened moment of delusional madness and uncontrollable violence perhaps one of an individual in a state of mental breakdown and impairment. Sophocles’ Athena on the other hand provides a platform to explain Ajax’s unbalanced acts in ways that could be easily understood by ancient audiences (who incidentally were well aware of the fickle nature of their deities) as opposed to a much more troubling and blatant example of human psychological breakdown as a result of damming shameOf course I could be reading too much into this, looking for themes where none exist, yet I find the example of Ajax a fascinating one that could provide one insight into the representation of mental illness in antiquity and therefore ask the following question of my readers…..

What other examples of possible mental impairment or instability can be identified in Greek and Roman tragedy?

I’d be really interested to get some feedback!



Laes, C, Goodey, C.F & Lynn Rose, M. (2013) ‘Approaching Disabilities A Capite ad Calcem: Hidden Themes in Roman Antiquity’, in Laes, C, Goodey, C.F & Lynn Rose, M.(eds) Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies A Capite ad Calcem, The Netherlands, Koninklijke Brill, Leiden, p.4

Sophocles, Electra & Other Playstrans. Raeburn, D. (2008) London, Penguin.

5 thoughts on “Disability & Impairment in Antiquity

  1. Hi Tony, nice topic for an article. Your case study on Ajax and Athena made me think of E.R. Dodds’ take on Achilles’ feud with Agamemnon from Iliad Book 1. He points out (‘Greeks and the Irrational’ p.14) that when Achilles is about to get angry Athena flies down from Olympus to restrain him. Interesting how similarly in Sophocles’ play Athena is also responsible when Ajax goes mad. The gods seem to be metaphors of the various parts of the psyche or something.

    As for physical illness, Helen King claims (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/ancient-health) there was no word for “disability” and the closest I could find is “adunatos” (unable; inefficient; feeble; weak; frail; invalid, cripple; poor; needy; impossible). A good example (role model?) of disability is Hephaestus who was either crippled from his backbreaking metal work or his fall from Olympus. The fact that even a god could be portrayed as managing with an affliction may have had a positive effect on people suffering similar ailments.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Leigh, Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I think Disability Studies is a very interesting area of research at the moment. When I was looking into this I did note that the term ‘disability’ is really a social label given to people and found that ‘impairment’ was more appropriate, as such this is very much in line with Helen King’s findings. I like your example of Achillies’ Feud with Agamemnon and since writing the post I can think of quite a few more examples. This is an area that I’ve been mulling over for a while and am considering using it for the dissertation next year. Although, that’s a long way away and my inclination is likely to change!



    1. Good point, which should make us pause for thought, at what stage does one become considered “disabled”? There are many variations in physical types and we seem to have an ideal notion (or limited range of bodily forms) considered “normal”, but such standards may not apply to other societies. Even the cliche of “perfect” Greek bodies is an illusion from sculptures, which do not represent real people’s bodies (and their excessive “perfection” isn’t that healthy either). I checked my notes from the course cited above (well worth doing) for the World Health Organisation’s definition of health which reads “the ability to adapt and self manage”, which implies that perfect health doesn’t exist, so everyone has to get on as well as their circumstances allow. Some will obviously have more challenging ones than others but the biggest hurdle they may encounter could be social attitudes and the stigma of disability rather than any real inability to cope and get on in life. It is in this way that it could be considered a social construct as you suggested.

      Liked by 1 person

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