Ancient cruelty of classic proportions

The Eye of the Beholder
September 1, 1995

Robert Garland, professor of classics at Colgate University in the United States, has an abnormally keen eye for a compelling subject. The Greek ways of death and life, the teeming Athenian port of Piraeus, the introduction of new gods and the issue of religion generally in ancient Greece - have all received original, intelligent, scholarly but accessible treatments at his deft hands. Garland, in other words, is the very reverse of mentally (or physically) disabled or deformed. All the greater credit to him therefore for undertaking the present uncomfortable and discomfiting study of the soft underbelly of classicism, the dark side of its very public and literal apotheosis of wholeness and beauty in perfect human shape.

Graeco-Roman deformity and disability came in a disconcerting variety of forms, whether corporeal, mental, or - as they were regularly and automatically interpreted in superstitiously godfearing cultures that lacked the intellectual insight and experimental information available to William Harvey and his scientific epigones - spiritual. Comparison of the Greeks' attitudes with those of the Romans redounds to the credit of the former on the whole, but only just (Garland does not sufficiently discriminate between the attitudes of say the Athenians and those of the Spartans). In both ancient cultures alike we find all too predictable cocktails of fascination, amusement, embarrassment, suspicion, or outright terror and loathing, laced with religious indoctrination or the pseudo-science of physiognomics, giving rise to a dispiriting spectrum of negative behaviours ranging from the derision accorded the lame (probably the largest group of ancient disabled) and the preternaturally short, through the physical violence inflicted upon the mentally defective, to the extreme measures including death meted out to intersexuals.

Conspicuously, what we do not find in Graeco-Roman antiquity is any strong spark of sympathy for their unsought and unavoidable plight, let alone the rich empathy called for today by Garland. This is probably principally because, as he cogently suggests, the everyday humiliation and dehumanisation of the marginalised or excluded deformed and disabled served as an important, possibly even a necessary stimulus to the social cohesion of the able-bodied and sound-minded citizen in-group. The fact that these ancient societies were slave societies was a further aggravating factor: the exploitation by Roman emperors of slave dwarfs, mutes, cretins, eunuchs and hunchbacks would seem to have plumbed the very abyss of inhumane degradation. Not much more edifying though is the ancients' ready equation of femaleness with deformity - the quintessentially patriarchal Aristotle being not the least offender and offensive in this regard. As for their ethnocentrism (Garland's use of "racial" may perhaps mislead), it was Homer, perhaps because compensated for his alleged physical blindness by godsent poetic insight, who set the dominant tone with his portrayal of Polyphemos in the Odyssey, although Garland himself is inclined to credit the deeper reading that sees the monophthalmic Cyclops as also holding up a mirror to the Greeks' own cultural (not of course natural) deficiencies.

Mention of "the poet", as the Greeks knew him, reminds us finally that the Greeks and Romans have recently been caught in the crossfire of our continuing canon or culture wars. Yet their undoubted political incorrectness, sexism and ethnocentrism can rarely if ever before have been spotlighted quite as glaringly as they are in Garland's disarming and eye-opening study. An ancient reader of The Eye of the Beholder would no doubt be tempted to echo the words of the Roman critic who found paradoxographical tales disgustingly inappropriate, since they were both aesthetically displeasing and morally unimproving. We today however can, indeed surely must, adopt the enlarged and more enlightened view of the deformed and disabled advocated so persuasively by Garland in this engagingly personal and personally engaged book. For once, it is not merely trite to say that it should be read by everyone with a concern for where we come from morally, intellectually, politically and culturally.

Paul Cartledge is a fellow of Clare College and reader in Greek history, University of Cambridge.

The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World

Author - Robert Garland
ISBN - 0 7156 2651 5
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £35.00
Pages - 222

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