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Ancient Greeks and the perception of handicap

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Discover our podcast on History of Science and on health made by Florian and Yannick.

Disability is inherent in the human species: wars, accidents of life, genetic diseases or even evolutionary pathologies are just as many disabling causes which are probably as old as humanity. It should be noted that the study of the history of disability has notably developed over the past 50 years. It mainly focused on the contemporary era, especially following the two world wars, which saw a record number of seriously disabled combatants, but also among the civilian population. In the English language, the study of the history of disability is officially called “disibality studies”, which directly refers to the reduction or physical impairment, which the English language understands from Ancient Greek as “impairment” and to incapacity, which is understood as “disability”. According to De Pauw and Gavron, specialists in sports and disability, “attitudes towards people with disabilities have varied according to the era, the nature of the disability (mental or physical) and the cultural values ​​of the societies in which people with disabilities lived”.

As far as ancient Greece is concerned, since it will be our subject today, Hippocrates was the first to approach the subject of disability in a scientific way. Hippocrates indeed distinguished himself from his contemporaries by rejecting the beliefs of the time, which attributed to various disabilities a form of divine warning or punishment. For example, with regard to mental handicap, mania, he specified, and I quote: “It does not seem to me to have anything more divine or more sacred than the others […]. They covered their insufficiency with the mantle of divinity […]. The brain is at the origin of this condition like all the other very big diseases”. We will therefore begin this episode by defining disability as it was understood during ancient Greece, before studying its perception, often cruel, but not only.


  1. Defining the disabled during ancient Greece

Let’s start by clarifying that perception, by definition, varies and evolves over time. We, for example, have been able to note a strong evolution in the perception of disability in recent centuries, even in recent decades. The same is true for periods of history such as ancient Greece or Rome. The perception of disability has not been frozen. It has evolved over time, and thus, what is true for a certain period of ancient Greece may not necessarily be true centuries later. And that brings us to a big question… How did the Greeks define disability? Obviously, our conception, like our perception of disability, is very different from that of the Greeks of the time. Christian Laes, a true reference in the history of disability in antiquity, tells us that at that time, it was possible to classify disabilities into six categories:

  1. Physical disabilities / mobility impairment
  1. Sensory impairment (visual, auditory)
  2. Speech disorders
  3. Learning disabilities or intellectual disability
  4. Mental illness
  5. Multiple disabilities (often a combination of the five categories already mentioned)

According to Evelyne Samama, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Reims:

“For the Greeks, a disability as we understand it, for example the deprivation of a sensory organ (blindness, deafness, mutism) or the mutilation of a limb, is only an impairment, possibly chronic. They also do not distinguish between congenital ailments and consequences of accidents, civil or military or illnesses. ”

At the time, therefore, the focus was more on the weakness that results from the disability than on the condition itself. This directly refers to a notion that we will often find throughout this podcast: one needs to be useful to society. Regardless of the condition, it is its consequences that define the social status of the person with a disability, or therefore impairment, in Ancient Greece.


  1. The vision of body and mind among the ancient Greeks


2-1. The body

To fully understand the mentalities in ancient Greece, it should be noted that rarely in the history of mankind has the cult of the body and the spirit been so emphasized. For the Greeks, the man with a developed body and intellect was an ideal to be valued. Take for example the mythology which is full of symbols of beauty associated with physical harmony. Among the Greek gods, how can we not mention Apollo and Aphrodite, symbols of male and female beauty. Ares, the God of war, was associated with the cold, virile beauty and the perfect body of the combatant.

The ideal view of the body among the Greeks is also practical. In a society that can be considered warlike, the muscular, flexible and agile body is above all an advantage for the city in times of war. Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates who transcribed some of his “dialogues” in Memorabilia, reports the advice of his master to a young man named Epigenis, who did not really take care of his body. Socrates therefore explained to him that he would run the risk of being killed in action or of being captured during the retreat. To neglect one’s body is therefore, in part, to be useless to oneself and to the city. Everyone knows that a sculpted body is the result of long-term work. The Greeks also understood this well and very quickly associated physical activity with education, which made it possible to produce educated young men, but also future soldiers, already well trained. The therapeutic benefits of physical activity were also well understood. In an article entitled Perceptions and Attitudes Concerning People with Disabilities in Ancient Greece: Physical Exercise as a Means of Prevention and Treatment of Health Problems, Vasilios Kaimakamis and several other researchers tell us that “many famous and distinguished doctors recommended in ancient Greece a variety of gymnastic exercises to treat several musculoskeletal diseases ”.

Physical activity therefore helps to prepare future combatants, and also to prevent or treat diseases. In this ancient world, sports competition is also a leading and popular activity, which in certain cases makes it possible to overcome a physical handicap. Let us quote for example the Egyptian Mys, who compensated his atrophy of the arm by the practice of sport and eventually became a renowned wrestler, or even Pyron of Helida who, to fight his dystrophy contracted during childhood, devoted himself to physical activity and more particularly in the pentathlon, and managed to win the competition at the famous Olympic Games. For Hippocrates, the physical exertion of maintaining good health and physical fitness was about physical education, while the use of exercise for therapeutic purposes was about medicine.


2-2. The mind

In Timaeus, Plato refered to what he saw as the type of man to be valued. Beyond physical beauty, he also believed that the soul should be at least as beautiful. If there is an imbalance between the beauty of the body and the beauty of the soul, according to Plato “the living in its entirety is not beautiful”. Again, here we can denote some reference to the search for a perfect balance, which is also widely reflected in The Theory of Humors. For Plato, therefore, the beauty of the soul is not necessarily associated only with intelligence, but also with moral values. We can therefore deduce that a person of exceptional soul beauty cannot be valued if he is a carrier of a physical handicap, because the balance is not present.

Mania, mental illness, was viewed differently by different authors. Plato, in Phaedrus, for example attributes a divine origin to it. As we saw in the introduction, for Hippocrates it was a disease that originated in the brain. For the one who is considered “the father of medicine”, mental illness does not have its origin from birth or is not explained by psychological or social reasons, but rather by what concerns the body, namely the Humors. As Marianne Massin tells us in her article dating from 2015 and entitled Creative mania, ambivalences and torsions,

“It is the preponderance of black bile that causes the melancholy humor (melas/black cholê/bile), which is also characterized by instability. When heated, the black bile tends to expand and push out of the self, which facilitates a propensity to imitate, imaginative power, and all kinds of ecstasy or crazy behavior, manikos.”

For Hippocrates and his school of Cos, mania is a medical condition and therefore finds its origin in an excess of black bile. What is also interesting about the perception of disability and mental illness at the time is that the interpretations also refer to what I told you about during the episode on the Plague of Athens, namely the sometimes-blurred border between medicine and philosophy. For Democritus, a 5th century BC philosopher, “medicine cures diseases of the body and philosophy rids the soul of passions”.


  1. “Malformed” newborns: eugenics before its time


3-1. A crual treatment…

The view of body and mind among the Greeks therefore leads us to understand that difference, like disability, was often a problem. And this, at any time of human life. Jacques-Henri Stiker, in Disabled bodies and societies, published in 2005, told us that in ancient Greece:

“A misshapen newborn is a warning sign from the gods addressed to a social group at fault and at risk of deviance. The signifier that is the malformed newborn must be returned to its senders to show that the message is received. The ensuing practice is what the Greeks called the exposure of these children. By decision of city officials, children with abnormalities were taken out of the social space where they died. Not directly killed but left to the goodwill of the gods. Those who survived, at least in the social imagination, became over-significant. This is the case with Oedipus, for example. The “misshapen birth” is evil, but at the same time, it beckons towards the impossible acceptance of otherness. ”

This “exposure” could in fact vary according to the cities. It therefore represented a practice of abandoning a newborn baby, most of the time in an isolated place, thus condemning him/her to a dire fate. Thus, the population, in most cases, did not kill the child because this implied an interpretation of the will of the gods, which was not possible for the common man or woman. Even if Jacques-Henri Stiker tells us that direct infanticide was far from being systematic, many ancient texts mention this practice in a generalized manner, especially in Sparta. Plutarch, in The Life of Lycurgus, in fact told us that in this state-city, the practice of infanticide of “malformed” children was the norm:

“The child was not brought up to the wishes of the father, but he was taken and transported by the latter to a place called Lesche, where the tribal chiefs officially examined the child, and if it was well built and robust , they ordered the father to raise it, and assigned him to one of the nine thousand plots of land; but if it was badly born and misshapen, they would send it to the Apothetias, a chasm-shaped place at the foot of Mount Taygetus, convinced that the lives of those whom nature had not equipped well from the start for health and force was of no benefit either to themselves or to the state.”

3-2. … to qualify

What is implied in this text is that Sparta only kept children born without apparent physical abnormalities. It is in fact possible to see that as a form of eugenics before its time. As a reminder, eugenics is defined as a “theory seeking to operate a selection on human communities from the laws of genetics”. Of course, at the time, nothing was known about genetics, but the prioritization of the “survival of the fittest” upon which eugenics was based, takes on its full meaning here. However, to be completely fair with the Spartans, it also appears necessary to specify that, in recent years, the writings of Plutarch have been called into question by certain historians and archaeologists. The latter reproach him for not being contemporary with the events and a certain anti-Spartan feeling. Archaeological research has also shed light on what most likely happened at Mount Taygetus. Admittedly, skeletons were found there, which proves that people were thrown into the abyss, but none of the remains could be attributed to newborns. The conclusion is that these remains would be those of the enemies, traitors or criminals of Sparta. If you want to know more about this research, it’s called: Ancient Sparta – Keadas Cave Research Program. However, the vision of what is then called “the monster” gives us a precise idea of ​​the perception by able-bodied people of what can be qualified as serious birth defects.

3-3. No room in the ideal city

Coming back to eugenics and the perception of the “deformed” newborn, let us add that Plato also recommended that “the maximum number of superior adults should mate with others of equal value while the number of inferior adults, for example, those who are too old or too weak, should be kept to a minimum ”. He then specified his thoughts in The Republic where he explains that for parents whose children are “born deficient, they will dispose of them properly in secret so that no one knows what has become of them”. Many great ancient authors have left us their vision of their “ideal city”, a sort of utopia. Aristotle, on this subject, also imagined such place in his commentary. In imagining his famous ideal city, he clarified that: “As regards exposing or raising children born, that there is a law according to which no deformed child must be brought up.” The tutor of Alexander the Great, however, brought a nuance to underline: the question of the relation, more or less close, to normality. Thus, in his treatise On the Generation of Animals, Aristotle told us: “Those who deviate slightly from nature usually live, but those who deviate further from it do not live”.




  1. The pharmakos: a scapegoat to ease the divine anger

Another striking example of the way in which the disabled person was perceived: the Pharmakos. The pharmakos was in fact, according to the beliefs of the time, a human embodiment of evil. He was, in times of crisis or at very specific times of the year, considered undesirable and therefore expelled from the city, often in a cruel manner. What’s interesting about this term is that it’s probably associated with the word pharmakon, which can refer to a medicine, drug, or poison. As Todd M. Compton of the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University tells us, the status of the pharmakos has likely changed over time. First regarded as sacred, then later, probably a healer, he ended up being the ideal culprit, who could allow the atonement of the city. It should also be noted that the pharmakos was not always a person with a disability. Indeed, it is often mentioned in mythology and in other texts with more obvious historicity. For example, for the geographer and historian Strabo, he could be “one of those who were guilty”, therefore probably a criminal. For Plutarch, he could be a slave, or for the playwright Aeschylus, an excessively ugly man or “the most disagreeable and mistreated by nature, mutilated and lame”.

The pharmakos was escorted by the population outside the city walls. Along the way, he was often beaten, stoned and tortured as he was seen the embodiment of all the evils of the city. Once outside the walls, there were cruel killings. The pharmakos was therefore sometimes burned, stoned to death or thrown from the top of a cliff. However, many authors believe that while the pharmakos did endure this cruel treatment in some cases, killing was still extremely rare and therefore not the norm. Let us quote for example the work of the Dutchman Jan Bremmer or the late Jean-Pierre Vernant on this subject.




  1. War invalids: a different treatment


5-1. What role for the invalid?

Evelyne Samama, in Good for service: the war invalids in ancient greece, asks us the following question: “in armies where the strength of soldiers is one of the major assets of victory, what place do the cripples or invalids occupy?” In cities where the troops were often limited, the wars long and the number of war wounded important, the invalids indeed had in many cases, a role to play. They were the ones one came looking for, voluntary or not, when there was an emergency and the need to mobilize all possible forces.

The term most commonly used for invalids at the time was adunatas, which literally translate to “without strength”. Most of the time, and it should be noted, there is no need for people considered unfit to serve because battles are infrequent. According to Evelyne Samama, for the disabled or crippled individual, there are two opposing attitudes regarding participation in military combat: exclusion, which remains the principle, and participation, which is the exception. This exception only occurs when, and I continue to quote Evelyne Samama, “the very survival of the city or the army was at stake.” It should nevertheless be noted that the military leaders used the forces at their disposal in the best possible way. When needed, therefore, invalids were not sent in the midst of fighting, for their membership in the hoplitic phalanx was almost impossible. No, they were often assigned a defensive role, such as defending the ramparts or participating in the logistics of war.

5-2. The principle

Even if the support with a support stick, the ancestor of our crutch, was recommended by the doctors of antiquity to relearn to walk, it is difficult to imagine “cripples” in the middle of the battle, standing thanks to the support of a stick. This is undoubtedly where the prosthesis came in in ancient times. Like the crutch, the prosthesis would predate the Greeks. There is very little historically verifiable evidence for prosthetics. A prosthesis made of wood and bronze was found in a tomb in Capua, and dates from the years 300 BC. Other evidence for the presence of prostheses can also be found on ceramics. In his article entitled Classical Prostheses, Lawrence J. Bliquer tells us that the replacement of a missing limb with a prosthesis is a Greek advancement. The large number of crippled soldiers and the low cost of making an archaic wooden prosthesis may also lead us to believe that the prosthesis was an option for all social classes. Plutarch, in On Brotherly Love, made particular reference to this type of medical device, by evoking the soothsayer of Arcadia, who had “out of necessity adapt a wooden foot, deprived of its own foot”.

For people who were already visually impaired, it was difficult, taking into account what has just been described, to imagine a participation in the battles. For soldiers whose wounds reached the eyes, demobilization was the rule. Take, for example, the case of a man found during archaeological excavations in Assos, present-day Turkey. In Diseases at the Dawn of Western Civilization, Mirko Grmek tells us that the remains of the man dated to the 6th century BC presented:

“Traces of two wounds made undoubtedly by a sharp weapon. On the frontal, a well-healed 30-millimeter break line runs obliquely from the middle of the forehead to the middle of the upper border of the left orbit. A second scar, parallel to the first and very short, cuts the lower edge of the same eye socket. […] This man, probably a warrior, certainly lost an eye and perhaps suffered, from the effect of the shock, from brain damage, but he did not succumb to the blows of which we have just described the brands. He died at an advanced age as evidenced by, among other signs, a very strong wear of the teeth. ”

This man was therefore, following his injury, probably demobilized, and was able to end his days away from the fighting.

Deafness was also a cause of demobilization, with exceptions of course. This seems obvious as deaf people faced an immense danger during the fighting: they could not, in fact, hear the arrival of enemy soldiers, nor the orders of their leaders. They were thus considered dangerous for the maintenance of the unity of the phalanx. For soldiers who were deaf as a result of severe shocks, it was recommended to “apply compresses, through fresh sponges, or ointments and a diet of honey mixed with water, sugar and wine.”

5-3. The social impact and the Athenian exception

At a time when wars were frequent and battles were very crippling for soldiers, it is important to distinguish war invalids from other people considered to be invalids. As Hervé Collard tells us, in the foreword to the excellent book Handicaps and Societies in History: the cripple, the blind and the paralytic from Antiquity to Modern Times, I quote: “Civil invalidity resulting from congenital ailments, progressive pathologies or accidents, in particular from work accidents which seemed frequent […] holds a significant place, even if it seems, at least in Antiquity, inferior in dignity to invalidity of war, sanction of virtus.”

The “veterans” therefore often enjoyed a form of prestige, linked to their participation in the collective military effort, proof of their bravery. Xenophon, in Agesilas, also told us about the Spartan king, who became lame as a result of wounds in combat, that he “wears on his body signs of his ardor in combat”. But this prestige does not apply to everyone. It is ultimately reserved for commanders and people whose social status was already well established. For most disabled soldiers, social status crumbles and economic woes begin. They become the responsibility of their family.

Only Athens, during the second part of the 4th century BC, was an exception. At that time, a law was put in place to allow invalids to receive a pension. War invalids and… civilian invalids. Evelyne Samama tells us that: “the disabled person receives […] daily assistance corresponding to one third of the average salary”. According to Herbert Grassl, this assimilation between civilians and soldiers would be a consequence of the events which took place in the second part of the 5th century BC, and which we mentioned in another episode: the Peloponnesian war and the Plague of Athens, which severely affected both soldiers and civilians.




  1. Recent years: towards a more benevolent vision of handicaps

As you can see, the perception of disability in the Greek world was often cruel. As we have just seen, there are nuances to be underlined, in particular for war invalids. As Evelyne Samama sums it up: “Experience, will or social status prove, in this case, to be much more discriminating than any disability. Thus, a military leader may find himself almost valued by disabling injuries”. For Greeks, disability is not necessarily the worst of the worsts. The “disabled” are often excluded, rejected when they represent the monstrous figure, but other causes of social exclusion stand out at the time such as neglecting one’s physique and soul. In Ethics to Nicomaques, Aristotle, specified that: “Even if none of us blames the one who is born with a handicap, we nevertheless blame those whose ugliness results from the negligence and the lack of exercise”. It should be noted, however, that not to blame does not mean to integrate.

Like the pensions put in place for the disabled in Athens, however, it would appear that other policies were aimed at improving the integration of the disabled into society. One example is the adaptation of certain infrastructures to facilitate access for people with reduced mobility to certain buildings of public life. Thus, on July 20, 2020, Science magazine, in an article entitled Ramps for people with disabilities date back to Ancient Greece, reported that the Greeks did indeed build ramps similar to those we know today. They were made of stone and provided access to sacred sites for people with mobility difficulties. These ramps would therefore be, according to Andrew Curry, author of the article, “the oldest evidence of architecture designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities.”

Debby Sneed, an archaeologist at California State University, visited many sites in Ancient Greece to come to these conclusions. In a shrine near Athens, namely the main shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus, a wide stone ramp gave access to the temple, and two others led to the shrine. In adjacent buildings, narrow ramps were also present. The first wheelchairs wouldn’t be invented until much later, but these ramps, according to Debby Sneed, likely made it easier to move visitors who couldn’t walk or climb stairs.

However, this hypothesis, which seems highly plausible considering that Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine, must be qualified, according to Katja Sporn. For the latter, Head of the Athens Department at the German Archaeological Institute, the fact that the ramps are mostly found in the Peloponnese region is more of an “architectural trend”. According to her, the ramps should also be considered as multi-purpose amenities: “It helps everyone, including people with disabilities. But to do them only for the latter, I do not find that convincing”. It is therefore difficult to know who is really right. Jane Droycott, Historian at the University of Glasgow, leans more in favor of the hypothesis of Debby Sneed, because the cult linked to Asclepius, son of Apollo and therefore God of medicine, was addressed in particular to the disabled: “Since these sites are mainly aimed at people with disabilities, wasn’t it logical that they were accommodating?” Either way, one thing is certain: In both cases, these ramps were useful for people with very limited mobility.

The ancient Greek world, to a greater or lesser degree, rejected disability and more generally the body considered ugly because neglected. However, as Evelyne Samama points out, people considered to be deficient or disabled “remain integrated into the community and to the extent of their strengths, participate in all aspects of the community. War, so present in the Greek world, is therefore no exception”. One of the challenges of disability studies today is therefore to try to understand the representation of disability at the time, and to study its social and cultural repercussions. It is difficult to confirm with certainty the extent of certain practices such as the exposure of newborns or the pharmakos. One thing is certain, the perception of those who were sometimes considered unnecessary in society, was sometimes cruel.

But in an era of history that saw the birth of the one who is considered the “father of medicine”, advances in the understanding and perception of disability are also noteworthy. Hippocrates was indeed the first to approach disability in a scientific way, rejecting the religious beliefs of the time, and to deduce that certain physical or mental disorders are caused by certain diseases and not by divine punishments or warnings. Thus, Hippocrates himself came up with the idea of ​​using physical activity as a means of preventing and treating several physical or mental illnesses. The pensions for invalids set up in Athens in the second half of the 4th century BC, and the infrastructure put in place to facilitate access to certain temples are other examples which attest to a certain form of solidarity towards disabled people in a society that is often seen by many as cruel to them. In addition, one should also doubt the writings of certain ancient authors such as those of Plutarch mentioning the generalized infanticide of malformed newborns in Sparta, which are today called into question by scientific studies such as the research program of the Keadas cave. This does not detract from the cruelty of certain practices, whether they were widespread and occasional or not, but it still appears important to qualify the final picture, even if it is a little bit.

If the History of Disability interests you, and you wish to explore other periods such as Roman antiquity, the first centuries of Islam, the central Middle Ages or even the modern era, I can only advise the reading of the excellent Handicaps and Societies in History: the cripple, the blind and the paralytic from Antiquity to modern times, which is a fascinating collection of research articles. As Jacques-Henri Stiker underlines in the preface to this book: “Thanks be given to the authors who encourage history, the intersection of human sciences, the coming and going from the past to our present, because it is a question of thinking about the handicap but also of contributing to overcome it by the intelligibility which one gives it.”

Thank you all for listening to this episode of “La Science, Quelle(s) Histoire(s)! This episode, like all the others on our channel, was written without bias or prejudice. We make every effort to provide you with clear and precise texts, based on reliable sources. Please, do not hesitate to send us your questions, evaluations and little stars on the various podcast platforms, as well as on our website or our Facebook page Live Lab Fondation Ipsen. Thank you all for your support and I will see you very soon.


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