By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
It cannot be assumed that a disabled Greek person was treated by society in the same way as we do now. Here, it is not a straightforward reality but an elastic social category. It is quite evident that the life of an impaired person in ancient Greece was miserable. But the question is how did those who managed to survive live their lives?
Condition of the Elderly and Disabled
It seems that there was no special sympathy for any disabled Greek person from their society. But say if one was blind, they would be told they were gifted with clairvoyance, just like the blind seer Tiresias, or were gifted with a poetic song as with Homer. Although not much has been heard about the physical condition of elderly Greeks, the majority would have been suffering blindness and deafness that was not relieved by earpieces and corrective lenses.
If one was partially blind, he would be just groping through the world. It is a sobering thought that Aristotle and Plato, two of the greatest intellectuals produced by the world and who lived a long life, may have spent their last days in darkened silence.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Then there were slaves who became incapacitated but not much is heard about their fate, but we must spare a thought about them also. It is pretty clear that they would have been totally dependent on the kindness of their masters and mistresses. A disabled Greek slave would have been an economic burden on the household, because the resources were very limited at that time. There may have been some masters who would deny even the basic support to them justifying their action by saying it was kinder to let such slaves die.
There is another category that has been heard very little about, war veterans. Although there was a small pension for Athenians if they could prove they were disabled but there is no evidence to suggest that those incapacitated en masse were taken care of by the state. It is likely that disabled Greek war veterans were honored in different ways, like for example giving them special seats in the theater of Dionysus, but there is nothing to suggest that they were treated as a special group.
Learn more about being a sick or disabled Greek.
The Disabled Greek Child
Lastly, we come to those who were born disabled. Because of malnutrition and disease, there is no doubt that the number of newly born Greek children who were disabled was substantially higher than what is seen in the West today. The number of these who survived to adulthood was much lower than today because the Greeks believed that it was not worth it to bring up a child who could not lead an independent life.
A Roman law code from around the middle of the 5th century B.C. called the ‘Law of the Twelve Tables’ has the remark: “kill the deformed child quickly”. There is every likelihood that a similar stipulation was also there for the disabled Greek child. A law known as ‘Preventing the Rearing of Deformed Children’ was recommended by Aristotle to be passed.
We also know that Spartan children were inspected by the elders on birth and if found impaired, they would be abandoned in the jungle. They would certainly have been eaten by the animals and birds. Hesiod, the epic poet who lived around the beginning of the 7th century B.C., records the belief that if a child was born with a deformity, it indicated anger or ill will of the divine.
There is every likelihood that if a child was born deformed and managed to survive somehow, it would be treated as a second-grade citizen. He or she would not be permitted to even enter the temple, let alone serve as a priest or priestess. Only physically perfect people could serve the gods.
There is also proof to suggest that a physically disabled Greek would become a scapegoat – called the pharmakos – in times of crisis. It means they were exiled from the city and cursed ritually. The reason for this was that Greek society thought that you felt resentment towards God or nature and were thought to be harmful to society.
Learn more about being Greek.
How Did The Disabled Survive?
So how could disabled Greek people survive? There were three alternatives. They could perform tasks that didn’t need them to be whole-bodied: a lame person could be a blacksmith or jeweler or painter or potter; a blind person could become a poet or a musician or a seer. Or they could take advantage of their deformity by appearing idiot.
The Roman satirist Lucian says that the lame, dwarves and the obese women appeared as entertainers at drinking parties and enough evidence is available to back this up. The flip side was that they had to face plenty of abuse but that was something they had to face in any case. So there was no harm if it paid them enough to earn a decent living.
And the last option was to beg or ask for gratification from relatives. Like in Egypt, it was normal to have extended families in Greece too. Unlike today, communities were much more closely knit. This had some clear advantages for a disabled Greek. But it is still a fact that the disabled and deformed were quite vulnerable, and even if they were protected by their families and found some work, there would always be some people who would loathe them. It was not just because of their physical appearance but also the fear that they were the proofs of divine disfavor living among them.
The very human story of the disabled Greek people is aggravated by neglect and prejudice and deserves to be told prominently in every social history. And even religion did nothing to alleviate their plight. On the contrary, it just made it worse.
Common Questions About Disabled Greek
A common practice in ancient Greece was exposing newly-born children with severe disabilities. Disability in ancient Greece was seen as a sign of inferiority and a curse.
According to the historian Plutarch, children born with deformities in Sparta were thrown into a chasm at the foot of Mount Taygetus which has now been dismissed by most historians as a myth. A disabled Spartan baby was in all probability abandoned at a nearby hillside.
The disabled did things that an able-bodied person did not have to do. They took up the professions of a jeweler, blacksmith, or painter. They also became entertainers and earned money by entertaining people at the cost of their deformities.