Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Christian Laes, Beperkt? Gehandicapten in het Romeinse Rijk. Leuven: Davidfonds Uitgeverij, 2014. Pp. 297. ISBN 9789059085244. €29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Beert Verstraete, Acadia University (

Version at BMCR home site

The author of this Dutch-language study, the title of which may be translated as, "Restricted? The Handicapped in the Roman Empire," teaches at the University of Antwerp and, publishing in both Dutch and English, has become well known for his scholarship on the family and daily life in the Roman Empire (the Bibliography on pp. 256-7 includes all his English-language publications). Laes has already published articles anticipating the subject of this work but, as he says in his "Woord Vooraf" ("Foreword"), he came to the realization that a comprehensive study was still lacking. In this review, all quotations will be provided in translation, with the occasional additional citation of a key Dutch word or phrase indicated in brackets. The author does not hesitate to make use at times of English-language words or terms; when thus cited, these will be indicated by cursive font.

It might be useful at this point to provide a brief sketch of the Table of Contents; note that the chapters are not numbered. After the Foreword comes the "Introduction," which discusses "The problem of terminology," "Geographical and chronological demarcation," "Sources," and finally raises the question, "A new discipline?" What one might call the first chapter is entitled, "Conception, Birth, and the 'Crucial' First Days." The remaining chapters are: "Mental and Psychological Handicaps: Being Crazy or Healthy?"; "Blindness: 'Worse than Death?'"; "Deaf, Mute, and Deaf-Mute: A Silent Tale" ("Een Stil Verhaal"); "Speech Defects: A Stammering Story" ("Een Stamelende Geschiedenis"); "Mobility Handicaps: A Story of Pain and Toil." The "Final Conclusions" are followed by end-notes, a bibliography, an index of key-words ("trefwoorden"), an index locorum, and an index of persons.

"Introduction." Right at the start, under the heading of "The problem of definition," Laes foregrounds the topicality of his subject by posing the question as to what today is considered a handicap (the same word is used in Dutch). For helpful clarification, the author cites the detailed definition offered by the World Health Organization which, importantly, underscores that any definition and understanding of disability needs to be set in its socio-cultural context. In his comments on this definition, the author makes a crucial distinction between an "impairment" that can be objectively described and a "handicap" that "depends on the culture and society where they [the impaired] live" (17). It is useless to search in our Greek and Roman sources "for a term which comes close to the modern concept of handicap." (17) Here we only find "vague terms" in a vocabulary replete with words such as "weak", "helpless," "misshapen / deformed," "ill," and "unhealthy." (17) In a juridical context, such as making a ruling as to whether the birth of a deformed child could be counted as normal, the concept of monster and monstrosity might be used—the author cites a text of Ulpian to this effect—but here, too, precise definitions are not to be found. Modern medical science can help us to form a precise diagnosis of a handicapping affliction suffered by a prominent person in Antiquity such as the emperor Claudius' stuttering and his other physical peculiarities (in his case, Little's Disease), but in the concluding paragraph Laes enjoins the appropriate caution.

The section,"Geographical and chronological demarcations," indicates the study will focus on the Roman Empire from approximately 200 BCE to 500 CE. In the West, this takes us into the post-Roman era. Christian sources will be touched upon briefly for the possibility of detecting changed and changing attitudes and practices, and for this reason the author's survey will even venture into the next few centuries in the West, to authors such as Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede. In this connection, the author notes that "the number of sources for disability history increases exponentially in Late Antiquity." (26) There will also be a look at Jewish sources. "Sources" provides a bird's-eye view of the wide range of sources — literary and non-literary, iconography, and osteology — to be consulted, always with a view of extracting reasonably reliable information (not always an easy task). Finally, in "A new discipline?" the author underlines the relative newness of the subject of his study as a distinct discipline (or, perhaps, subdiscipline), which goes back only a few decades, although intermittent scholarly publications can be traced as far back as the nineteenth century.

"Conception, Birth, and the 'Crucial' First Days." This short chapter discusses a grim state of affairs well-known to students of Greco-Roman Antiquity, the "massive mortality rate" (35) of infants and young children, with the first days after birth being especially "precarious." (35) The author makes the important distinction between "biological" and "social birth" (43) and the crucial interval of time between these two in all communities and religious traditions. It is widely assumed that children born with physical or mental defects were usually killed, but compelling evidence suggests that this was not an "automatic" (48) choice on the part of the parents.

"Mental and Psychological ("geestelijke") (50) Handicaps." Not surprisingly this is the longest chapter, for anyone who engages with this subject, also in a historical and historical context, will feel find himself or herself plunged into a morass of complexities and ambiguities that are as much moral as intellectual and conceptual. Laes especially underscores the fact that "f]or the domain of cognitive ("intellectuele") and mental disorders ("stoornissen") the problem seems even more acute than for other handicaps." (91) The author navigates his way skillfully through all the problematics and provides a thoughtful overview of how mental and psychological disorders were understood and handled in the Greco- Roman world of the Roman Empire.

The chapter starts with a vivid look, extending over four pages, at the supposed "madness" ("waanzin") (50) of the emperor Caligula as vividly detailed in our ancient biographical and historiographical sources. A modern psychological perspective will see a powerful trigger of Caligula's delusional episodes and sadistic cruelty in his severely traumatized childhood. Anticipations of three modern approaches, both diagnostic and therapeutic, to mental, cognitive, and behavioral disorders may be discerned in our sources: 1) the biological-physiological approach, which is prominent in medical literature, as can be seen in the discussion of Celsus, Aretaeus, and Galen; 2) the largely psychological approach, which does not rely on aetiologies of the aforementioned kind and operates within a framework of strong impulses and emotion-bound factors—this, too, has parallels in the Greco-Roman world especially in ethicists such as Seneca and other Stoics; and finally 3), the psycho-social and "social stress " (58) approach, which best characterizes Laes's own. The author calls attention to the sensible, even humane approach of Roman jurisprudence with its provision of the cura furiosi. There is good discussion of cognitive impairments, especially mental retardation, which, in its less severe forms, as the author rightly notes, hardly renders a person dysfunctional in a pre-modern society. The figure of the moros or fatuus in historical or anectodal sources, the author emphasizes, is invariably colored by ethnic or class-bound prejudices. The author is obviously sympathetic to St Augustine's distinctively humane Christian-creationist perspective on cognitive impairment and mental illness, and then allots a few pages to the phenomenon of demonic possession as described in the Christian gospels—here, I would add, we encounter a supernaturalist belief-system is virtually absent from non-Christian sources dealing with everyday life. Finally, Laes is not receptive to the extreme social-constructionist view which holds that "to declare a person mad is simply an expression of a society's exercise of power" (91) and expresses the cautiously optimistic view that "for mental handicaps, too, it is most certainly possible to build intercultural bridges." (91)

The next four chapters, which deal with physical handicaps, can be dealt with more summarily. "Blindness." It is the handicap of blindness that appears most prominently in our written sources of both the non-Christian and the Christian communities. Blindness figures more commonly than deafness or muteness (or these two combined) in Greek and Latin idiom, and what we would call the discipline of ophthalmology was highly developed in the Greco-Roman world. Once more, the author points to the practical and humane bent of Roman law in dealing with this handicap, and how the blind or severely visually impaired were not ipso facto excluded from productive work and meaningful participation in society. Such inclusion applies also to deaf, mute, and deaf-mute persons covered in the section, "Deaf, Mute, and Deaf-Mute." The section, "Speech Defects," which starts with the well-known story of how Demosthenes learned how to overcome his stutter, highlights a handicap that receives little attention in our sources—we are also reminded of the Old Testament story of Moses' speech difficulties. In a society, whether Greek- or Latin-speaking, where the spoken word was of paramount importance, this handicap posed a serious obstacle for anyone who aimed at a public career, but there are stories of those who "through courage and determination" achieved "ameriolation" (162) of their condition.

The final chapter dealing with physical handicaps, "Mobility Handicaps," deserves a separate paragraph, for here the scientific examination, over the past few decades, of human skeletal remains (osteology), from Classical Antiquity, for instance from Urbino in Roman Italy during the imperial period, has significantly rounded out our picture, for which we otherwise would be totally dependent on written sources, which, of course, are also used by Laes. Three of the four remains examined point to "physical restrictions" accompanied "daily" by "severe pain" (170) suffered by those afflicted, and in this they are almost certainly typical of much of the population, "[a]nd this [condition] meant no hindrance to the performance of (heavy) physical labour." (170) Far more than the medical treatises and other written sources it is the osteological record that makes the most graphic impact on us regarding the daily lot of the laboring classes.

The chapter containing the "Final Conclusions" is rather lengthy, 22 pages, but its principal conclusions, already to a large extent anticipated in the previous chapters, may be conveniently summarized. First of all, Laes is obviously supportive of a comparative methodology of research, drawing heavily and to good effect on facts and figures from the contemporary world such as provided by the World Health Organization as well as on the insights of modern scholars such as the ethicist Martha Nussbaum, while at the same time recommending future studies in disability history" comparing the Greco-Roman world with other ancient societies and cultures. Secondly, we are presented with a picture of both social exclusion and social integration for the handicapped, the nature and extent of these conditions greatly dependent on the afflicted person's social class. Thirdly, a person's handicap, whether physical or mental, also played a major role in the formation of his or her identity, above all social identity, which was firmly shaped by what was largely a shame-culture. Fourthly and finally, with its soteriological perspective on suffering, Christianity brought about a major change in mentality, and so it is not surprising that "[i]n the miracle-stories of the saints, which steadfastly followed the wonders performed by Jesus, the information about the handicapped increased exponentially." (202-3).

To conclude: To a fascinating and important facet of the social history of the Greco-Roman world Laes has brought a formidable erudition, clarity, and insight. It is worth mentioning that his English-language book on children in Roman Empire (listed in the bibliography referred to in the first paragraph) was preceded by a Dutch version.1 In my BMCR review (2006.08.28) of the latter, I judged that its excellence called for a speedy translation, and this is, once more, my recommendation and sincere hope.


1.   Christian Laes, Kinderen in het Romeinse Rijk: Zes Eeuwen Dagelijks Leven ("Children among the Romans: Six Centuries of Daily Life"). Leuven: Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2006.

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