Book Review – Disabilities and the Disabled in the Roman World: A Social and Cultural History.

imagesChristian Laes, Disabilities and the Disabled in the Roman World: A Social and Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. PP. 1-191. ISBN: 9781316678480. £75.

Reviewed by – Tony Potter, July 2018.

Christian Laes is Professor of Latin and Ancient History at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). His current research focuses on the social and cultural history of the Roman World and Late Antiquity, with particular attention on the human life course, childhood, youth, family, sexuality, and disabilities. Laes has published extensively on the subject and this recent work is a welcome addition to the ever expanding field of disability studies in the ancient world. Being the first monograph published in English on the subject the author rightly situates the work at the forefront of research in the field. It contributes extensively to the body of knowledge by providing a ‘head to toe’ approach to people with disabilities in the Roman World which is supported by both a systematic and methodological assessment of a wide ranging selection of interdisciplinary sources of evidence.

The introductory chapter to Disabilities and the Disabled in the Roman World: A Social and Cultural History is lengthy, yet the necessary attention to detail that is ensured by a thorough review of the nature of the evidence, coupled with a methodological consideration of how to approach terminology such as disabilities in both modern and ancient contexts ensures the introduction remains engaging and relevant. Laes’ thesis is clear and uncomplicated, the stated purpose of this work is to offer new perspectives on various areas of Roman society. Primarily, the thesis is centred on considering the nature of life for Roman people with disabilities and the ways in which they were regarded by their contemporaries. Additionally Laes considers how people with disabilities were faced with the reality of their impairments as a result of their physical functioning. In six chapters, each covering a different area of disability and impairment, the author constructs a detailed and well supported argument in which the central thesis of the work is demonstrated in a systematic and accessible way.

In Chapter One: Conception, Birth and the ‘Crucial’ First Days, Laes details the fragility of life for infants in the early days after birth. Drawing on evidence that highlights mortality rates the chapter emphasises the harsh realities of those unfortunate enough to be born with a disability. As the chapter progresses, evidence of how midwives and physicians dealt with and sought to understand birth defects is examined leading to a section on societal frameworks such as biological birth then social birth. Chapter Two: Mental and Intellectual Disabilities Sane or Insane? Is a long section which moves away from the notions of physical disability into the realm of mental impairment and begins with an interesting case study that considers the mental instability of the emperor Caligula. What follows is a rather lengthy and complex consideration of the nature of how psychology is practiced in modern times which highlights some interesting caveats in respect of ancient mental impairments. Following a section dedicated to mental disabilities in the Roman legal system, of which the evidence is surprisingly extensive, we are treated to an interesting case study relating to The Jester Zercon, which Laes utilises as an exemplar of ancient intellectual impairment. Chapter two comes to a close with a consideration of the anecdotal evidence of mental disorders in the Roman World and uses examples such as Alexander the Great and the myth of Pygmalion to illustrate the point. In Chapter Three: Blindness, a ‘Fate Worse Than Death’? Laes opens with a further anecdotal example in that of Homer and the perception attributed to him by evidence that the author of works such as the Odyssey and Iliad was in fact blind. Citing the Life of Homer, falsely attributed to Herodotus, Laes utilises the story of a blind Homer as an important source of evidence for understanding the nature of blindness in the ancient world. The chapter progresses by considering ‘Material Conditions’ emphasising the prevalence and knowledge of visual impairments in Roman society, evident in ancient sources and the plethora of lexical references to blindness in both Greek and Latin. A detailed discussion follows in which evidence is used to emphasise the ancient knowledge that existed in respect of ailments of the eyes and the prevalence of specialist physicians or ophthalmikos. A section on what ancients thought the causes of blindness were is then followed by evidence of blind and visually impaired people in daily life and how blind people were perceived in society. A concluding piece on shifts in opinion in society owing to the spread of Christianity brings the chapter to a close.

Chapter Four: Deaf, Mute and Deaf-Mute A Silent Story begins with the tale of Croesus which draws upon evidence provided by Herodotus that identifies one of the king’s two sons as being kophos. Laes acknowledges that whilst the term does not translate directly to deaf-muteness the implications of the story are clear, as such as in previous chapters, this case study serves to illustrate the author’s argument. This chapter continues with an assessment of death-muteness in antiquity highlighting that only four cases are known to exist, that of Croesus, one in the Gospel of Mark and two cases provided by St Augustine. In a similar vein to the previous two chapters Laes provides an analysis of ancient deafness and hearing disorders based on trends in modern statistics and like in chapter three draws attention to the sources that demonstrate ancient knowledge of audiology or otology. The final sections of the chapter deal with the conventions of a Roman law in respect of deaf and deaf-muteness, the nature of daily life for people with such auditory impairments and further stories of such afflictions at the end of the chronological limits of this work. In Chapter Five: Speech Defects Stammering History, the case study for this section is the orator Demosthenes, a well known example of such an affliction. Once again the argument follows a similar route as previous chapters and after the initial case study an assessment of the varying causes of speech impairment are discussed and the lexica of classical languages once again provides many points of reference for the affliction. A further case study which focuses on the emperor Claudius as a prolific stutterer is followed by a discussion on the nature of ancient speech therapy which adds to the body of understanding that this work is continually amassing. The chapter closes with the unexpected but intriguing example of Moses in the Jewish and Christian traditions and the question of whether he suffered from a speech defect. In the sixth and final chapter: Mobility Impairments History of Pain and Toil we visit the evidence of mobility afflictions through the example of Phillip II of Macedonia. The chapter draws comparisons in evidence and data from both ancient and modern perspectives in the study of osteology and demography and the extensive ancient evidence that exists about the treatment of bone afflictions of both the acquired and congenital nature. A consideration of mobility issues versus the ability to carry out tasks is examined and emphasis is placed on those sedentary occupations in which lameness would be no barrier. The final section of the chapter looks at the role of Christianity and particularly the vivid accounts of how many mobility afflictions, even paralysis (paralytikos) was cured.

Disabilities and the Disabled in the Roman World: A Social and Cultural History is a thoroughly well researched and engaging book on a previously neglected area of Classical Studies that not only directly addresses the author’s thesis, but provides a platform to take the study further. As Laes points out in his conclusion, this monograph has limited itself to comparison with select Jewish and Christian texts but the potential to expand this further and consider Chinese, Indian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian or Hittite traditions is a tempting notion. In this reviewers’ opinion the greatest weakness of this work, somewhat ironically, is its precise methodological structure. Although such approaches should be praised given that the model of case study followed by analysis makes the work accessible and engaging to readers it also gives the impression that the book is more akin to a collection of essays on individual areas of disability each addressing the thesis independently. For example, should a student or researcher only wish to consider the nature of speech impairment in the Roman World, they could do so in a thoroughly systematic way simply by looking at chapter five. That being said, the clarity of argument presented in each case as a result of this methodology is seamless and the work achieves what it sets out to do so by a thorough and critical approach to the ancient evidence. This work is by no means the definitive contribution to disability studies in Roman society, but it is the first of its kind in the English language. It is a wholly accessible book for anyone who has an interest in Roman culture, but perhaps more pertinently it provides the perfect starting point for further research and would make excellent reading for any student or researcher interested in societal and cultural approaches to the understanding of the ancient body.


15th July 2018

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