Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Christian Laes, Disabilities and the Disabled in the Roman World: A Social and Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 238. ISBN 9781107162907. £75.00.

Reviewed by Candida Moss, University of Birmingham (

Version at BMCR home site


The past forty years has witnessed an explosion of interest in the critical study of disability. A variety of cultural and intellectual movements and thinkers are regularly credited for this sudden interest: Marxism in the United Kingdom; feminism in the United States; and post-structural philosophy in Continental Europe, but the impact of what has come to be called critical disability theory is felt in a whole range of disciplines from literature, to historical studies, to the medical humanities. The study of the ancient world, however, is a relative latecomer to this proverbial party. Rosemary Garland's distinguished 1995 work The Staff of Oedipus aside, there is no comprehensive study of disability for the imperial period. It is precisely this lacuna that Laes, already a well-respected voice in this area, seeks to fill. He describes this contribution as "the first synthesis" of the subject for the Roman world (p.21).

What might sound straightforward is, in truth, remarkably ambitious. As Laes lays out in the introduction to the book, disability affected everyone in the ancient world. Thus the task of achieving a synthesis of a near-universal phenomenon is remarkably challenging. The book opens with an overview both of the methodological complexities of categorizing and discussing disability in historical texts, and also the nature of the extant evidence (literary, papyrological, "material" [artistic], osteological, and statistical). Here Laes is rightly cautious about the risks of retrojecting modern assumptions and evidence into the past and refreshingly international in his use of modern definitions of ability.

His real talent here, and elsewhere in the book, is his ability to conjoin evidence from ancient jurists, linguists, bishops, and historians. He is master of the anecdote and this transforms this book into a riveting read not only for those unfamiliar with this field but also for those for whom methodological entrees are unnecessary.

Having set the stage for his synthesis of disability 200-500 CE, Laes moves into the meat of the matter with a sequence of chapters that are thematically arranged around a specific cluster of (dis)abilities. Each of these chapters opens, quite engagingly, with specific examples: the madness of Caligula, the paradigmatic blindness of Homer, the Son of the Lydian king Croesus, Demosthenes, and Philip II of Macedonia, and the thematic movement remains chronological.

Chapter one treats the critically important first days of a person's life. Drawing upon his work on children, Laes notes the risks the first few days presented to any human being and discusses the rampant phenomena of infanticide and infant exposure. Nevertheless, Laes points to the artistic evidence in order to argue that many of those with congenital defects did survive to adulthood. Perhaps one intriguing omission in this chapter (footnoted later in the book) should be noted: a passage of Seneca refers to a man who had deliberately blinded exposed infants in order to increase their potential earnings as future beggars (Controversiae 10.4). Able-bodied infants were (albeit rarely) disabled for economic gain.

Chapter two covers the methodologically thorny subject of "mental and intellectual disabilities," a combination that in modern disability theory is heavily criticized. Here Laes attempts to bridge the methodological problems of engaging these varying conditions with the "social-stress" model that both acknowledges the biological realities and emphasizes "the crucial influence of society on such phenomena" (p.45). Of particular value in this chapter is the inclusion of a plethora of legal material outlining the status of persons with disabilities under Roman law and Laes' willingness to search for intellectual disability in the ancient world.

Chapter three moves to the question of blindness and visual impairment, arguably the most discussed of ancient impairments. Visual impairment came, with old age, to all in the ancient world. Chapter four groups together those with auditory impairments and non-verbal persons, while Chapter five more specifically engages the subject of the stammer and speech defects. In these chapters, as elsewhere, Laes surveys the ancient evidence and spends time discussing ancient therapies for sensory impairments. The pace of these chapters is brisk and sustains interest, but it is also frustratingly quick and often reads as a summary of cases.

The final chapter draws upon a plethora of osteological evidence to engage the subject of "mobility impairments." Here Laes gathers instances of total immobility and limps together with mythological imagery to round out his brief survey. It is slightly disappointing, therefore, that amputation—a vivid metaphor in the ancient world and a practical reality according to Celsus—receives no treatment. The focus in both ancient Roman and Christian sources is squarely placed on paralysis and "limps." Jesus' famous injunction to cut off one's foot, hand, or eye and its reception in late antiquity, for example, does not warrant a mention.

The conclusion that runs the length of a full chapter, returns to questions of definition and draws together ancient and modern evidence in an inquisitive tone. Laes references Nussbaum, Rawls, and Kant and flits between ancient and modern worlds, posing questions about identity formation, happiness, and modern bias. Although the conclusion settles no questions and raises many, the majority of which will be familiar to those in the field of disability studies, they are reframed in thought-provoking ways.

There are places where the book could have benefitted from a more international theoretical framing. The bibliography is occasionally limited and focused on European scholarship. No US book lighting on disability and early Christianity, for example, would neglect to mention the pioneering work of Jeremy Schipper and Rebecca Raphael. Nor is there extensive engagement with those US- and UK-based scholars who have discussed the writings of the New Testament. At points these divergences are instructive: Laes brings a badly needed continental perspective to an English-speaking audience that has a tendency to Balkanize itself. At other points, the bibliographic focus limits Laes: one imagines that more than one American reader will grimace at his use of the loaded language of "handicap."

Overall, however, this is an important and unusually well-written contribution to the field. It is a true synthesis, in places going far beyond the mere summary of extant evidence (with theoretical preface) so fashionable these days. With this work Laes cements his position as a leading figure in the study of disability in the ancient world. This book is highly recommended for classicists, scholars of ancient religion, or those wrestling with interests of the body more generally.

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