- Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies ed. by Christian Laes, C. F. Goodey, and M. Lynn Rose
This new volume, the product of the A Capite ad Calcem conference held at the University of Antwerp in 2011, focuses on sources from Roman antiquity that have remained largely untapped by disability studies scholars and historians of medicine (somewhat surprising given the more robust scholarship in these areas that has been done in Greek antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and on biblical materials). The editors set out with somewhat low aspirations: to take the initial step of collecting Roman references to a range of physical and mental impairments. In this respect, the volume is a successful survey of the disorders, diseases, and disabilities that affected ancient peoples.
The volume, however, goes beyond mere collection. Perhaps most significant is how the essays trouble the methods regularly used—or misused—by historians. For instance, the authors of the volume warn readers of the dangers of retrospective diagnoses, an approach that superimposes modern medical classifications onto a society that likely grouped its bodies in a wildly different manner and an approach that fails to consider how rhetorical or representational aspects of a source can obfuscate our access to real physical impairments or disorders (e.g., Bert Gevaert and Christian Laes, in “What’s in a Monster? Pliny the Elder, Teratology and Bodily Disability,” note that the blemmyae of Ethiopia, who are described with “their mouth and eyes in their chest, might refer to the foetal malformation known as anencephaly” or they may simply refer to “facial features tattooed on their chests”; p. 224).
In order to illuminate how Romans themselves conceived of and classified disparate bodies and in what contexts disparate bodies were meaningful, most of the authors in this volume carefully delineate and disentangle the terms used in ancient sources and pay attention to the social arenas—beyond medicine—in which discussions of disparate bodies surfaced. At times, this produces startling results, moving some bodies out of the medical realm and other bodies we might not consider “disabled” squarely within the medical realm. For instance, in “Mental States, Bodily Dispositions and Table Manners: A Guide to Reading ‘Intellectual’ Disability from Homer to Late Antiquity,” C. F. Goodey and M. Lynn Rose demonstrate that intellectual disabilities in antiquity were not—as they are today—associated with “permanence and identity” (p. 23). Goodey and Rose argue that these individuals belong to a wide swath of folks who acted “foolishly,” in turn capturing a more nuanced understanding of intellectual “impairment” in Roman [End Page 570] society than the use of contemporary medical categories would. Lutz Alexander Graumann’s “Monstrous Births and Retrospective Diagnosis: The Case of Hermaphrodites in Antiquity” demonstrates that those with uncertain or equivocal sex differentiation “had no medical connotation, simply because medicine could not provide treatment options” (p. 181). Historians, Graumann argues, ought not medicalize “hermaphrodites” but rather we ought to situate them with respect to their religious and mythological contexts and related to their apotropaic functions. In “Silent History? Speech Impairment in Roman Antiquity,” Christian Laes notes that all of the Roman references to speech impediments are linked to public speaking and rhetoric. He thus insists that we be mindful that “speech, language, and reason were closely intertwined” and analyze how speech was read as a physiognomic indicator of character (p. 168), in addition to considering medical diagnoses and treatments. Finally, in “Two Historical Case Histories of Acute Alcoholism in the Roman Empire,” Danielle Gourevitch reveals that while medical writers considered acute alcohol poisoning to fall under their purview, they were unconcerned with habitual drinking, which, for the elite, was rather a social disability given that it violated aristocratic norms of temperance.
Several authors are deeply attentive to how social class contributed to Roman conceptions, classifications, and experiences of disability, proving that medical diagnoses alone fail to apprehend how disparate bodies were deemed more or less “disabled” in...