Disability in Ancient Rome

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Question: True or False: The percentage of people with disabilities in Ancient Rome was greater than it is now.

Answer: True. At least, we’re pretty sure.

According to Victoria Brignell’s article “Ancient World” in the New Statesman, a number of factors probably led to a larger adult population with disabilities in Ancient Rome than in the world today. Though our medical techniques today enable us to save babies with disabilities that would otherwise die in infancy, “malnutrition, disease, inbreeding, physical exhaustion, accidents, dangerous sports, warfare and child birth” were all far more common in ancient times. These factors produced a population with a large number of adult with disabilities.

Ancient Rome's Coliseum

Ancient Rome’s Coliseum

So how was this significant – though often overlooked – chunk of the Roman population treated in the ancient empire.

Brignell points to the language used by the Romans as a key indicator of their attitudes towards disability. There was no specific Latin word for “disabled.” Instead, they used the word “monstrum” – the same word they used to refer to mythical monsters. Likewise, the Latin word “mutus” was used to describe both someone who couldn’t speak and someone who was stupid (Brignell). This type of vocabulary surely segregated and classified people with disabilities as inferior to the able-bodied.

There is other evidence that the Romans deemed people with disabilities as sub-human. At least in the early years of the Roman Republic, it was standard practice to abandon a child born with a disability due to both the supposed financial and divine burdens a child with disability brought (Brignell). Romans believed disability was negative “karma” of sorts – a supernatural sign of bad fortune to come. This was seen as good enough reason to rid a child with disability from a family.

The extra money and effort needed to support the child were only further incentive to abandon him or her. Even the founder of Rome, Romulus, was seen as a proponent of this abandonment. Dionysios of Halikarnassos writes, “Romulus demanded that all the city’s residents should raise all their male children and the first born of the girls and not kill any child under three unless the child was disabled” (Brignell).

This declaration by Romulus – whether it is accurate or not – touches on the way disability was portrayed in Roman law. There is some evidence of similar laws in The Twelve Tables, the fundamental Roman law code created in 450 B.C.E. According to an article by Bonnie Gracer in Disability Studies Quarterly, The Twelve Tables originally prescribed that the father of a family “kill quickly… a dreadfully deformed child.” At this point in history, it appears that the choice to abandon or euthanize a child with a disability was not only popular but also recommended.

Despite the early severity of The Twelve Tables, there is some evidence that this custom loosened as the Roman Empire aged. Around 200 C.E., the Roman jurist Ulpian declared that parents should take on responsibility for their child even if he or she had a deformity. And according to Gracer, “by the third century C.E., abandoning a child was considered a murder.”

Of course, in today’s world, not abandoning a child seems like little to ask. But in the context of the ancient world, this law was somewhat progressive. For example, in ancient Sparta, children with disabilities were lawfully owned by the government, who would see that the children were euthanized in infancy. Compared to this, the late Roman laws appear at least slightly more in line with a modern understanding of disability.


“Ancient World,” written by Victoria Brignell, published on The New Statesman website.


“What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah,” written by Bonnie L. Gracer, published on Disability Studies Quarterly website.