Special Episode – Disability in Ancient Greece

There are many groups that are often overlooked in both ancient and modern societies. One of those are people with disabilities, and we were fortunate to talk to expert Dr Debby Sneed about her work on impairment in antiquity. Dr Sneed has examined a range of sources about this topic, including human remains, temples and textual evidence.

Her focus has mostly been on physical impairments that leave a trace in human remains. Sneed’s focus is ancient Greece, but we couldn’t resist bringing Rome into the conversation every now and then! 

In order to make this episode as accessible as possible, a full transcript will be provided for this episode.

Special Episode – Disability in Ancient Greece with Dr Debby Sneed

What’s up for discussion?

In this conversation we delve into a number of questions, including:

  • How do you classify a disability in this line of research?
  • How many people in the ancient world would have had a disability?
  • What kinds of sources are available for studying disability in the ancient world?
  • What would life have been like for people with disabilities in the ancient world?

Topics that come up in the conversation:

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out some of the suggested readings. This is a huge topic, and we did not get the chance to discuss issues that leave less of a physical trace, such as blindness or muteness, nor did we touch on disabilities that might have arisen from disease or mental illness.

You can also follow Dr Sneed on Twitter @debscavator and track her research at Academic.edu.

Disability in Ancient Greece. This piece from the Clinic Painter shows a two men in a courtship pose. One of the men is a dwarf or little person.

This vase by the ‘Clinic Painter’ is one of Dr Debby Sneed’s favourites.
It may show two men in a courtship pose, but this is still debated by scholars. One of the men is a dwarf or little person.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, January 1992.



Dr Rad 

Hello, there! You are in for a treat and you’re going to be hearing a special episode from The Partial Historians. Today we’re going to be talking to Dr. Debby Sneed. Dr. Debby Sneed is a lecturer in Classics at California State University. She has a PhD in Archaeology from UCLA. And a MA in Classics from the University of Colorado, at Boulder, as well as a BA in English and History from the University of Wyoming. She has worked on archaeological projects in Greece, Italy, Ethiopia, and the American Southwest.

[00:00:46] And she’s currently working on a monograph about disability accommodations in ancient Greece. She’s got some publications that are also forthcoming. So keep your eyes peeled for that. But in the meantime, here is our episode with Dr. Debby Sneed.


Welcome to a special edition of The Partial Historians. I am one of your hosts, Dr. Rad. 

Dr G

And I’m Dr. G. And we are super excited today to be sitting down with Dr. Debby Sneed. And we’re going to be looking at disability in ancient Greece, and potentially also, as a side note, a little bit of ancient Rome coming from us.


Dr Rad

Absolutely. You know, we can’t resist that and I must admit, this is a topic that, I’m going to admit full disclosure. I apologize to both of you. I have never really thought that much about disability in the ancient world, which is actually doubly shameful because, on a personal note, I’m just going to throw it out there. I actually have a condition which means that I’m gradually losing my hearing. And I’ve actually lost quite a lot. I wear hearing aids now. And so, I suppose, I have a very mild disability, which, I’m really lucky, it doesn’t affect my life too much at this point in time. But it’s something that I suppose has been coming more and more into my life as I lose more hearing.

[00:02:08] So I’m really fascinated to get talking about disability in the ancient world and what that entails. 

Dr G

Yeah, so it’s fantastic to have you here, Debby, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here to talk about this. 

Dr Rad

So like dive straight in with, uh, with one of our first questions, which is exactly how do you define or classify a disability in your research?

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:02:30] This is a really difficult question for a lot of reasons. And one of them has to do with a lot of the attitudes that people bring to the topic of disability in the modern period. Um, but for me, in my research, I focus specifically on physical disabilities. My work is primarily interdisciplinary, which means I look at material and evidence from a lot of different fields and reconcile them in various ways.

[00:02:52] So I look at not just literary evidence and artistic evidence, but also physical remains. So I studied human remains as well. And so in [00:03:00] order to do this correctly, I tried to look at things that could potentially be archaeologically recovered, uh, in that is specifically physical disabilities. So I look at things like cleft palate, missing limbs, short stature, stuff like that.

Dr Rad

[00:03:16] Maybe just building on that. Can you tell us a little bit about this, the sites that you’ve looked at in your research when you’ve been looking at the human remains or do you, or do they – the human remains – come to you?

Dr Debby Sneed

Well, the human remains come to me. I am not a bio-archaeologist, so I rely on the work and the reports that are filed by people who are skeletal archaeologists, osteoarchaeologist, bio-archaeologists.

[00:03:38] And so I am beholden to who’s doing work where. And so I have used things like, uh, there’s a lot of great work done from cemeteries in Northern Greece, specifically Pydna, for example, Amphipolis, um, a lot of great work being done from cemeteries and deposits in Athens. But also in places like, Thebes.

[00:03:58] Um, and so it just sort [00:04:00] of depends on what’s available and who’s doing the analysis. And if they’re asking the kinds of questions that will help me in identifying who is potentially disabled and what we can say about it. 

Dr Rad

Absolutely. And so roughly how many people do you think would have been classified as disabled in the ancient world?

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:04:20] It’s kind of an impossible question for a lot of reasons. Uh, first of all, there’s not really a category of the disabled in ancient Greece. So now we have sort of legal definitions as included, as well as societal definitions of what is disability, who is disabled, but that just didn’t exist in the ancient world.

[00:04:38] So even if the ancient Greeks did keep, sort of records of things like this, they wouldn’t have used disability as a category for keeping track of the population. Second of all, disability is, it’s really fluid as a concept, right? So you can be disabled for a period of time and then become cured or well, or something like that.

[00:04:57] Um, you could also be non-disabled for most of [00:05:00] your life and then become disabled. You could be involved in a battle, for example, where you become injured and it leads to a permanent disability, old age leads to disability. So right now, the World Health Organization estimates that about 15% of the world’s population is disabled. 

In the United States [00:05:18] the estimates are somewhere between 20 to 25% of the population. Uh, it’s actually the largest minority group in the United States. So these are modern statistics and it’s not possible to sort of import those to the ancient world. The reasons that people are disabled, how people become disabled, and how we classify disability would have been quite different.

[00:05:37] But we can probably guess, based on a variety of evidence, that a great number of people in the ancient world either lived with a disability from birth or became disabled or interacted on a very close basis, either as a family member or a close community member with somebody who was disabled. 

Dr Rad

Yeah, it’s actually something that I suddenly realized how horrifying it [00:06:00] really was. [00:06:00] How many people must have had to live in discomfort or just with constant inconvenience in the ancient world. Because when you think about it, when I was looking at the research, I really liked this idea that, you could really only classify someone as having a disability, if the society they live in doesn’t really help them out anyway. [00:06:20] And it doesn’t meet their needs in some ways. So for example, I wouldn’t classify myself as having a disability per se, because I have access to hearing aids because I live in a society and I have a job where I can afford them. But in a different context, I might be, I might be classified that way because I wouldn’t have access to an aid, which allows me to do my work.

[00:06:39] And when you think about the lack of technology and all that kind of stuff available in the ancient world, it is really quite staggering, isn’t it? 

Dr Debby Sneed

So, what you’re describing there is actually called the social model of disability. So people who are engaged in studies of disability in the past and present, people involved in disability activism, operate – at least tend to operate – according to different models of disability. [00:07:00] And the social model of disability is one that is very prevalent in disability studies, but it’s specifically organized against what’s called the medical model of disability. 

The medical model is something that situates the problem of disability in the body of the disabled person. It says you are the problem. [00:07:17] And in order to overcome your disability, you need to overcome your own body, right? And so this is where treatments and cures and rehabilitation specifically focus on correcting the person with the disability so that they can function in a quote unquote, “normal” society. Right. 

The social model of disability is kind of the opposite of that, right? [00:07:37] So what the social model of disability does is, sort of like what early feminist scholarship did with sex and gender where sex is considered sort of a biological fact and gender was something that was imposed on to sex, right? So the social model of disability does something like that with impairment and disability.

[00:07:56] Impairment being so the biological reality of a body [00:08:00], so missing limbs, loss of hearing, deafness, uh, vision impairments, things like that. And disability is something that’s imposed externally on the impaired body. So disability is then a problem of society and not a problem of the individual and correcting disability means disability accommodations.

[00:08:19] It means creating an environment that allows the impaired people to survive. Not just survive, but exist and thrive and participate in society. 

Dr G

If we’re thinking about ancient Greece and how these models might be playing out, because obviously even though ancient Greek people themselves might not be thinking in terms of these models, they might still be useful ways of looking and thinking about the evidence that’s left behind.

[00:08:45] How would you say that you see these kinds of models present in the evidence from the ancient world? 

Dr Debby Sneed

Well, some of these models are in my own research, keeping in mind that, for example, the social model of disability is not without its problems. So there’s [00:09:00] some really great work done by, for example, Tom Shakespeare, on the problems of the social model of disability, talking about how it kind of treats the impairment as if it’s irrelevant, right? [00:09:08] Um, but that’s actually not the reality for a lot of people with disabilities; that, while there are problems that are created by society, impairment in and of itself is not neutral, right? It is something that they live with. It is something that affects their experience of the world, their interactions with people.

[00:09:25] And so, um, there’s a lot of movement away from the social model, not just to amend the social model, but actually to take a completely different approach. One of the things that I really like about the social model of disability is its emphasis on contingency. And what that means is that, um, what is considered disabling, what impairments are considered disabling is going to change depending on the context.

[00:09:47] And so what I do in my research is I try to look at accommodations for disability, so ways that I can see that society changed to account for the fact of impairment, um, and [00:10:00] use that as a kind of metric for understanding how the ancient Greeks thought about people with disabilities. So, um, not just looking at the instances in myth or in tragedy, for example, where we might have comments about people who are disabled, but looking instead at the structures of society to see how they changed or didn’t change depending on the needs of the population.

[00:10:20] It’s specifically focused on, um, things that were intended or could have benefited people with disabilities. 

Dr Rad

It’s been really fascinating actually, to look at some of your work. I believe that you’ve done quite a lot of study on the use of, uh, ramps to try and help people access temples or sanctuaries and that sort of thing [00:10:39] in ancient Greece, if they had some sort of mobility impairment. 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, definitely. So this is an article that, that I wrote on ramps specifically, focused on ramps and healing sanctuaries in ancient Greece. So ramps are a kind of feature that we’re really familiar with, especially in a type of Greek architecture called Doric architecture, [00:11:00] which we primarily situated in the Peloponnese, even though it’s not completely confined to the Peloponnese.

[00:11:06] So we don’t really see a lot of ramps. I think a recent study of – a sort of catalogue of ramps in the ancient Greek world – found fewer than twenty, like total ramps on temple buildings, specifically in the Greek world. So that is not a lot of ramps or a lot more temples than twenty. And so when I was looking at the distribution, however, of those ramps, um, and looking at not just temple buildings, but also secondary and subsidiary buildings at sanctuaries, the healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus has eleven built ramps.

[00:11:37] So if I consider the fact –

Dr G

Oh wow

Dr Debby Sneed

– yeah. If you consider that most sanctuaries have no ramps or one ramp, the fact that this one sanctuary has eleven ramps needs to be explained in some way. And so I moved to then to think, okay, how could we explain this? 

So the traditional explanations for ramps are having to do with animals. [00:11:57] You know, that this would be an easier way, uh, [00:12:00] for animals to enter the buildings. Except that animals didn’t enter the buildings. And so that doesn’t really work as an explanation. Animals that were sacrificed were sacrificed outside of the temple. And you can’t really imagine bringing a bowl, for example, into a temple with all of this, the furniture, all of the dedications that were housed in there.

[00:12:19] Uh, other explanations, um, include, uh, sort of wheeling dedications in and out. So if you imagine people dedicate stone statues, for example, or marble statues, those are very heavy. So maybe you would want to use a ramp so that you could wheel it in and out. 

However, there are specific treasury buildings in ancient Greek sanctuaries. [00:12:38] We can think of the treasuries at Delphi, for example, or at Olympia. And the explicit function of these very small buildings was to house really expensive and heavy dedications. And these buildings never have ramps. And so if ramps facilitated the movement of these heavy dedications, we would expect them to be on buildings whose only job was to hold these dedications.

Dr G

[00:13:00] Yeah, the last thing you’d want to do is, like, wheel something in there and then make it really easy for somebody to wheel it back out again. 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, exactly. So possibly they had sort of temporary ramps for those purposes. I have no idea. And so when you look at the fact that most of the explanations that have been [00:13:17] put forth for ramps at sanctuaries just don’t work, right. And then also look at how many ramps there are at healing sanctuaries, which were specifically marketed to people with disabilities. It just sort of fits together into this really great picture of a sort of intentional purpose, an intentional building of these ramps to assist the pilgrims who came to the healing sanctuaries in search of healing.

Dr Rad

[00:13:40] So I’m really curious to ask, exactly what do you think – from your studies – life would have been like for people with the kind of disabilities that you study in the ancient world? because, I mean, I know that’s a massive question because there’s just a huge amount, as you mentioned before, of conditions and just, you know, [00:14:00] factors like age that could be what’s causing someone to have some sort of mobility impairment. But can you tell us anything about what you think life would’ve been like from what you’ve looked at?

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:14:10] Yeah, sure. I don’t think that it’s, it’s another kind of impossible question. Um, life in the ancient world for anybody disabled or not disabled was difficult, right? So we tend to think about ancient Greek life, we think about philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. We think about generals. Uh, we think about the names of people that we can think of. [00:14:31] And, uh, those were not the typical people who are living in ancient Greece. These are very privileged, very elite men. And so, for the most part, people are engaged in subsistence agriculture, right? They’re sort of living harvest to harvest. Life was just difficult in general. People worked all the time. They were constantly engaged in all sorts of things.

[00:14:51] Um, so this idea of a sort of easy life in the ancient world is based on a very small segment of the population. But even when you’re thinking about that, [00:15:00] we have evidence for people with disabilities in both classes of people. So among elite men, as well as among the more general population. 

And it’s impossible to say what life was like. [00:15:09] It really depended on somebody’s status on their gender, on their wealth, et cetera. But we have evidence for disabled slaves. We have evidence for disabled generals. We have evidence for disabled Kings, disabled women, women who sort of gave birth to Kings, right? Who were themselves, the women were themselves disabled.

[00:15:28] So you can’t really pinpoint a specific thing because there’s something that Martha Rose has talked a lot. She’s a big, big person in the study of disability in ancient Greece. One of the things that she’s really emphasized is what she calls the community model of disability. Where it didn’t really depend on the sort of functional limitations of your body, but instead on your functional ability within the community. [00:15:49] And so everything was negotiated on a sort of individual basis. What could you do? What couldn’t you do? Could that be accommodated? Who are you? Are you expected to be contributing in one way and you [00:16:00] can’t et cetera? It just depends on so many different factors that, um, it’s really not possible to say what life would have been like in the generic sense for somebody with a disability.

Dr G

[00:16:10] And that’s really interesting as well, if we’re thinking about just how many ramps are associated with that sanctuary to Asclepius as well, because it seems like that feeds into a bigger idea about, well, how do we go about looking after the people in our community who potentially are suffering from disabilities? [00:16:30] How do we negotiate that and how do we come together as a community to try and solve that problem? 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, this is one of the, there was a lot of interesting feedback that I got about that article. And a lot of it was just incredulity at the idea that the ancient Greeks would have given conscious thought to people with disabilities.

[00:16:48] But I find that to be a very surprising reaction. Ancient Greeks had a God of healing. It’s not objectively true that every society will have a God of healing. So the Greeks [00:17:00] had a God, Asclepius, who was dedicated to healing other gods focused on healing as well, okay. So it’s not, it’s not a given that they’ll have a God of healing.

[00:17:07] It’s then not a given that they will build elaborate sanctuaries to that God. Okay, so this is another step of sort of cultural or societal choice that they’re making. And once you make the choice that you want to have a sanctuary, that people who are ill, people who are disabled, people who are injured, that they can come here to seek healing. [00:17:28] Once you’ve made that decision, it’s not a big leap to assume that the ancient Greeks would have considered what would make that effective to that purpose. 

So in much the same way that the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, which hosted these huge athletic games every four years – and sort of original Olympics – had athletic facilities, right? [00:17:45] So it had gyms. It had places for people to stay who came for the games. It had all sorts of athletic facilities because they hosted the athletic games. Sanctuaries where they did ritual dining, where dining was a really important function of your ritual practice [00:18:00], they had dining rooms. Sanctuaries where water played an important element, were built near water sources, right?

[00:18:07] It’s not, it’s not sort of radical to think that if they built a sanctuary specifically intended to serve people with disabilities, that they would consider what would actually be effective for that purpose. It’s more of a practical decision, um, than an ideological one. 

So we tend to think about disability accommodations, ideologically, that we are this progressive society, that we care about people who are vulnerable, et cetera. [00:18:32] So we gray up to the privilege of accommodation, but for the Greeks, I think it was really just a practical choice. 

Dr Rad

Yeah. I think looking at the literature and thinking about, as we said before, how, how much people must have either experienced disability themselves in varying ways, or have had close contact with someone who had a disability. [00:18:54] It seems that they – people with disabilities – must have been fairly [00:19:00] integrated into society. It’s not like they were necessarily, you know, shunned or anything like that. And, as you say, I mean, you look at Philip the Second of Macedon, you look at the emperor Claudius, there were people of high status as well who had, um, various impairments. [00:19:13] Although we can’t always be sure with Claudius exactly what the, you know, what was going on there. But yeah, there’s definitely a level of integration and practicality to the fact that these people, they are still working and they are getting married and they still have families. Some of them need families in order to have someone to help look after them and to help them maneuver the world.

Dr G

[00:19:34] And this seems to run counter to, like, one of the big sort of assumptions that people make about ancient Greece, which is that they just abandoned children on the side of the road. And this is something that gets repeated a lot. And, and the assumption being that children who were born, who didn’t fit the criteria of normalcy in ancient Greece would have been left to die. [00:19:56] And this would have reduced the percentage of people potentially with disability [00:20:00] in society at large. 

I’m wondering if you could speak to that a little bit. 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, I definitely can. I have an article coming out on this topic this year, actually in the journal Hesperia. Yeah. So it’s interesting because if you open any textbook, if you Google the topic, you’ll see very confidently stated that the ancient Greeks killed infants who were born with, [00:20:20] uh, noticeable physical deformities or disabilities. And this is based on, like almost no evidence, which is really interesting. It’s, it’s a myth, right? 

So I present this in my article that I think that this is just a false, a false thing. And not only do the evidence that people put forth, does it not work to support this argument, but we also have a lot of evidence that argues against this, right? [00:20:43] That demonstrates people giving extraordinary care to infants who had more needs than other infants. So infants already require a great deal of care, right? So this is already, they need a lot of attention. They already need more care than an adult does, for example. 

And [00:21:00] so. Um, you know, this is one of the things to keep in mind, right, this idea of sort of an intersectional approach to disability, that how old someone is really affects how they’re regarded in terms of disability, right? So we don’t expect adults to require a lot of care. And so somebody who does require a lot of care, deviates more from what’s expected or what’s typical, than an infant who already requires a lot of care and a disabled infant who might require a little bit more care.

[00:21:27] The gap between those things is much smaller than it would necessarily be for an adult, for example. Um, and so the evidence that people have for this practice of infanticide is, uh, primarily Plutarch, and Plutarch is a Roman author. And he says that the Spartan King Lycurgus instituted a law where parents brought their infants to a council of elders who evaluated the children and decided which ones should be raised and which ones should be killed.

[00:21:56] And it specifically mentioned that infants who are disabled are deformed as [00:22:00] specifically the word should be put out or exposed. Um, there’s no other evidence for this practice. So we have a bunch of other sources closer to the time of Lycurgus, if he was even real. People like Xenaphon, who were talking about the Spartans, were discussing Spartan law who were specifically talking about Lycurgus and no one else mentions this law.

[00:22:20] So Plutarch is the only one. It’s very weak evidence, especially because Plutarch’s starts his, his sort of biography of Lycurgus by saying, uh, something like concerning Lycurgus the law-giver there is, it’s not possible to say something that is undisputed, right? And so, um, it’s pretty shaky evidence to use.

[00:22:41] And then we also have a couple of prescriptions by Plato and Aristotle, the fourth century BCE philosophers, where they say that, um, they have these sort of utopian texts and they outline what their ideal society would look like. And both of them specifically mentioned disabled infants and about how they should either be sort of hidden away [00:23:00] or exposed.

[00:23:01] But these are utopian texts, right? Utopia is not real life. And so it just doesn’t really work to use that. So, there’s a modern philosopher named Peter Singer, who is probably one of the most famous philosophers and who is hated among the disability community, because he is similarly eugenicist in his thoughts, right.

[00:23:20] This idea that, um, we should just like, sort of erase disability if we could. Um, it would be like taking Peter Singer and using him as evidence for modern sort of American society, right. And saying like, “Oh look, this very famous philosopher thinks that this should happen. Therefore it was happening,” right. [00:23:38] When we know in reality, it’s not happening. 

Dr G

And indeed there’s a lot of systems in place in order to facilitate the support of people, uh, who have a disability or an impairment of some kind. And so the idea that somehow to erase that out of existence, um, it’s almost offensive at that point.

Dr Rad

And I think also looking at the [00:24:00] evidence, um, from the Roman world as well as the Greek world. And I think you kind of mentioned this as well, uh, in some of your other responses, uh, some of the disabilities that people suffered from were things that they didn’t necessarily have at birth. So obviously, as you say, life was really tough in the ancient world. And so people developed forms of disability because they didn’t have enough nutrition as children, or because they were forced to perform heavy labour from a very young age.

[00:24:29] People also get injured. People get hurt in battle. People age and, therefore, just develop disabilities. I mean, there, there are certain things that you couldn’t erase, even if you wanted to at birth. You know, lots of these children were probably born healthy and then became disabled or impaired later on.

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:24:48] Yeah, definitely. And we have plenty of evidence even for disabled infants. So there are medical texts, there’s one Hippocratic treatise, uh, data to the late fifth or fourth century BCE, it’s called On Joints. [00:25:00] And that author talks about a few things. He talks, for example, about infants who were born with clubfoot and, uh, this is a very common. [00:25:07] Very common. It’s not an uncommon disability or impairment, sort of congenital impairment in the modern period. Um, and he has lengthy treatments that he outlines for how to, and he says, you know, it’s not a problem, right. And he outlines the treatment for clubfoot, how you can sort of correct it. And regardless he says, there are special shoes that people with this can use that provide additional support to that foot.

[00:25:30] He talks about infants who were born with what he calls a weasel arms. Um, so I don’t know if you’ve seen a weasel, they’d have very short arms relative to their body size. And so this is infants who are born with something like a shrunken arm. It could be any number of conditions, right. And he says, it’s no problem.

[00:25:46] He said, he lists the tools that these people can use when they grow older. Um, he says they perform equally well sometimes. Almost as well with their sort of affected arm as they do with their unaffected arm. He [00:26:00] explicitly says, this is no problem whatsoever for people who are born with this congenital deformity.

[00:26:06] Um, we have things like these feeding models from the ancient Greek world. There are these really cute little cups that are sort of small. They’re kind of globular with a handle on one side and then a really narrow spout coming out of it. And there’s a lot of, um, a lot of speculation about what these cups are used for.

[00:26:23] And, in my article, I discuss what I think is convincingly that these cups were used to assist infants who were born with things like cleft palate, other oral facial deformities, um, or were just who were just so sick, um, or weak that they couldn’t suckle, right, at the breast. And so these are active accommodations for infants who required additional care. 

Breastfeeding was the norm. [00:26:49] And so I think that these cups provided additional levels of support for infants who needed it, right. 

Dr Rad

Yeah. Well, I think it’s, I think it is just so fascinating that [00:27:00] once you start looking, you just, you just find all these pieces of evidence that I had no idea until I started thinking about it, just how much there actually was.

[00:27:10] And, um, I was looking at some evidence for Rome about some four skeletons that were found near the Via Collatina. And the fact that these, uh, you know, three out of the four people in this particular burial site had had the care of a burial, and like not a flash one, and you know, it wasn’t amazing, but some of these people had extraordinary issues to deal with, you know, some spine curvatures. 

And one of the skeletons [00:27:36] was a woman who only had one tooth. And she must have had someone helping her or looking after her in some way. And then someone who saw to her burial. Um, and so it’s just, it’s just so fascinating that when you start looking for the evidence, these various pieces come out of the woodwork.

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:27:52] Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon, uh, even in the modern period. So I think it’s very difficult to find, for example, a novel, any [00:28:00] novel, just pick up something and read it and not find disability in there, right? So a lot of people, if you challenge them, they say, you know, well, disability just doesn’t show up in things.

[00:28:10] If you challenge them to think about their favourite movie or their favourite book, right, it starts to become apparent that there’s disability everywhere. And the same is true in the ancient world. I don’t think that I have come across a single genre of literature where disability does not feature – sometimes quite prominently – in the ancient world.

[00:28:27] There’s even a type of poetry that is disabled in the sense that, um, it’s called choliambic verse, and that’s a “limping” verse. So the word “choliambic” comes from the word χωλός in Greek, which means “lame” or “limping”. So where that’s often applied to Hephaestus, for example. And so it has to do with the type of meter.

[00:28:47] And it was actually referred to in the ancient world as this kind of “limping meter” because of the way that it was so heavy across the page, right. And so you see it everywhere and it’s in the archaeological evidence, it’s in the literary evidence, it’s in the iconographical evidence. It’s everywhere.

[00:29:01] And so, the next question becomes, well, if the evidence is everywhere, why hasn’t other – why haven’t other people – talked about this, right? And I think that that has to do with, just sort of the, the modern makeup of the field. So who are scholars? What is acceptable to study in the ancient world? 

This is why, sort of, as a part of sort of an adjunct of my work [00:29:23], um,  I tried to get more people with disabilities involved in the study of classics, in the study of archaeology. And part of that is doing things like this podcast, right? Trying to tell people: this is a thing. You’re allowed to study it. You’re allowed to ask questions about it. You’re allowed to look for evidence for it.

[00:29:40] Um, this is a perfectly acceptable field of study because, you’re right, the evidence is everywhere. 

Dr G

Yeah, and I think from the reading that I’ve been doing around this subject, in the lead up to this conversation, um, it seems that, like, part of what has been a real boon to this kind of study is the ability for us to use [00:30:00] searchable databases and being able to do keyword searches and [00:30:05] trying to draw out, um, the way in which ancient languages talk about disability and impairment, and then trying to filter that through the systems that we now have for being able to look at evidence. Because one of the things that tends to happen to students when you’re going through the standard model for being taught classics and ancient history is you’re given a text and you have to read it quite closely.

[00:30:29] But actually what we’re looking for is really broad – and maybe really quite slim – mentions of things about everyday life, which, for a lot of people, they’re not reading the right texts or they’re coming into contact with myth and higher literature, but they’re not coming into contact with things that might give them a sense of the every day.

[00:30:48] And, I think that element of the way that we study history is actually changing the nature of the sorts of things that we can get out of it as well. 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, definitely. But even [00:31:00] that has limitations, right? So when you form a database, I think specifically, for example, if the Beasley Archive – the pottery database that you can find online and sort of search the corpus of Greek vase painting – one of the things that’s really difficult is the search terms that are available are the ones that the creators of the database decided were relevant.

[00:31:19] So, for example, you can’t search for crutches. “Crutch” is not an acceptable search term. And so you have to think of synonyms that other people might have used in order to categorize these objects. And so it makes it really difficult sometimes to use those databases because they’re created by people and it depends on what they thought was relevant in their creation of that database.

Dr Rad

[00:31:43] I actually think that’s quite interesting. Just thinking about the, as you said, the vase painting and the artistic representations, because when I was doing a bit of reading about Greece and Rome, it seems that that might be one of the areas of difference with these two societies. In that, whilst the Romans do certainly have, [00:32:00] obviously, you know, you can look at the bodies from Pompeii and Herculaneum and you know, there are skeletons, and you can also look at textual references to various types of impairments. [00:32:09] Uh, when it comes to artistic representation, the Romans tend to be quite realistic with someone’s face, but then have quite idealized bodies. Whereas, I believe, if you look at the Greek record, there are, I think it’s a bit more common to have artistic representations of disabilities due to the kind that you study with like the lower limbs and that kind of thing.

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:32:31] Um, I think it depends. So, um, there’s some really great studies on this. So Lisa Trentin, for example, has a book on hunchbacks and Hellenistic and Roman art. It’s really interesting. There is Véronique Dasen, who has a book on dwarves in Egypt and Greece, but she talks a little bit about what would be sort of more Hellenistic depictions of dwarves.

[00:32:51] And I guess you’re right.. But the Greeks have their own idealizations. So if you look at Greek statues, we have a very, idealized version. And a [00:33:00] lot of vase painting, um, is similarly idealized, but I think you’re right that the vase painting as a specific medium offers opportunities for visualization, that we just don’t see in Rome. [00:33:11] Um, so we do see a lot of depictions of things like that. 

One of my favourites is, uh, this little vase by what’s called the Clinic Painter. So I actually had a reproduction of this vase made when I finished my PhD – 

Dr Rad

Oh amazing!

Dr Debby Sneed

– Uh, yeah, it was in the ancient Corinth, there was an artist in who does sort of reproductions. [00:33:29] And so I commissioned him to make one. It shows what’s traditionally interpreted as a doctor’s clinic, which is why this artist is called the Clinic Painter, and it has a bunch of men on it. Some of them are being, uh, sort of, you know, given treatments by a doctor who’s seated. But then there’s also this really weird scene of a man, an adult man, he’s bearded, he’s standing, he’s clothed, he’s leaning on his staff and he’s in a sort of romantic pose with another figure [00:33:54] who’s a dwarf, a little person. He was also an adult man, and it’s in a sort of [00:34:00] courtship pose. But we have some issues. I don’t know how to interpret this vase at all. I just like looking at it because it just is so interesting the way that this gets depicted as a sort of courtship scene in this otherwise doctor’s office, right. [00:34:13] It’s just sort of a really weird scene.

Dr Rad 

That does sound very interesting and confusing. 

Dr G

It sounds like it’s got a lot of potential for interpretation. This might drive your research until you can find a way into what is the interpretation of the scene. 

Dr Rad

And well it actually, has actually raised one of my, one of my other questions that came up when I was looking at some research.

[00:34:33] So I know that in some of the Roman depictions that we do have of people with disabilities, it seems as though – although we can obviously never be sure with artistic representation – it seems as though some of the artwork we do have, which shows people with the kinds of impairments that might be intended to shock or even make people laugh.

[00:34:55] And certainly one of the most famous texts about someone with very well-known [00:35:00] disabilities is, of course, Seneca’s work about the emperor. Claudius. And how he’s made fun of when he tries to join the rest of the gods after his death. Can you speak at all to the way that people might be treated cruelly or might be made the butt of jokes [00:35:15] if they have some sort of impairment in the ancient world? 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, definitely. And you will definitely see more of that in Rome. So the way that disability in Greece versus Rome is treated is very different. And I don’t think, um, I personally don’t think that it’s useful to discuss them together except comparatively. In Rome you see a lot of what I would call fetishization of disability.

[00:35:36] So it is treated, uh, with shock with awe, uh, I mean that sexually as well. So it was sort of sexual fetishization as well. Um, we have stories about, uh, Uh, what is it called? Like a monster market, right? Where slaves with physical disabilities would bring a higher price. Right, so we have all of this in Rome in a way that I just find, [00:36:00] so, um, I don’t know how to word it. So different than what we see in Greece. 

So in Greece, people get made fun of for things all the time, right. But disability doesn’t seem to be a category. So an individual might be made fun of, for aspects of his physical appearance. We can think of all this sympotic poetry where people are, uh, making fun of each other for being ugly or, you know, having sort of non-ideal bodies, et cetera.

[00:36:24] But in Rome, it’s just a completely different beast, where it’s just something that ends up being the focus. And then other things are sort of put on top of that, right. So the sort of physical disability is used in a way to explain other aspects of somebody’s personality or character, which is what I think you have going on in things like Seneca. That the disability is used almost metaphorically to refer to other aspects. This is why Claudius so difficult is because it’s hard to separate what is the real – whatever is actually real – um, with the sort of metaphoric uses of disability in Roman literature.

Dr Rad

[00:36:59] Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. There is an element, uh, that seems to be coming through, um, philosophical works like from the Stoics where you wouldn’t necessarily make fun of someone just because they have an impairment. But if that impairment is the result of “bad choices” and a “disreputable lifestyle”, then it’s open season.

[00:37:20] And Claudius, of course, with his wives and freedmen and his love of drink and food and all that kind of stuff. It’s his lifestyle, which they seem to be having a problem with. And so he’s kind of fair game. 

Dr G

But it’s certainly the case that in ancient Rome, they sort of see an intimate connection between the physicality of the person and the character of the person.

Dr Rad

[00:37:40] Definitely. 

Dr G

And that, and it sounds to me, Debby, that what you’re saying is that this union is less the case when we’re looking at ancient Greek evidence. 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, of course it’s not absent entirely, but it is very different the way that disability is treated. We see a lot of different ways. So, you know, it’s not irrelevant that one of the twelve Olympian [00:38:00] gods, Hephaestus, is disabled in ancient Greece, so that when he gets to Rome, when he’s Vulcan, his disability is almost entirely erased.

[00:38:07] You know, I think Greece has just a very different situation. They’re treating things differently. Their culture is different, right. This is that sort of contingency of disability. And this is, this is why – so a lot of people will think about disability in the past, and they just sort of lump everything in the pre-modern period together. [00:38:22] That life was hard, therefore, it must’ve been harder for people with disabilities. There’s this kind of – we think that people with disabilities don’t have any inherent value. And that they’re only given value in a modern society, where we’re rich enough to afford, and we’ve got these high moral values that will grant, you know, rights to people with disabilities.

[00:38:42] So we just assume that if you were to rewind the clock, that that wouldn’t be the case in the past, but in fact, it’s not necessarily, not the case. It’s not necessarily the case. It’s just a different situation and deserves its own treatment. And so some of our earliest studies of disability in the ancient period in the ancient [00:39:00] Mediterranean sort of looked at sort of the Greco-Roman understanding of disability.

[00:39:04] But I think that if you were to distinguish them, I think it would be an excellent case study for how exactly the Greeks Romans are different. It would be a great way of explaining the differences in the cultures so that people stopped just eliding them into the same thing. 

Dr Rad

That’s true. I mean, I actually hadn’t, again, I’d never really stopped to think about this before, but the Roman naming system where they got, you know, the, the three barrel name, at least, sometimes more.

[00:39:28] I never stopped to think about the fact, even though we often talk about the meaning of some of those names, um, how many of them actually refer to some sort of physical defect. Apparently 44% of Roman cognominia refer to physical defects of some kind, which is just amazing. And it’s built right into, you know, their naming system.

[00:39:49] It just blew my mind when I saw exactly how high that was. 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah. It’s really just such an interesting part of the Roman conception of disability, how it’s just sort of there [00:40:00] and ever present and can be used in this way. It’s one of the reasons that I actually really struggle to talk about disability in Rome is because I feel like [00:40:09], uh, it just requires such an intimate knowledge of Roman society. One that I just don’t have coming from the Greek, like studying the Greek world. That even though I know a lot about disability and how to study disability, um, just looking at statistics like that, looking at the stories that we have, looking at figures like Claudius, it just makes it so difficult to understand, unless you can situate it appropriately in the context of Roman history.

[00:40:34] I don’t think that the same person can do both, if that makes sense. 

Dr Rad

No, I completely hear you in terms of the level of expertise that must be required. So let’s bring it back to ancient Greece as we move towards the end. Just before we finish up, I’d love to hear about some of the particular bodies or cases that you have looked at in your career.

[00:40:53] Can you tell us about some of the most interesting cases that you’ve come across? 

Dr Debby Sneed

Definitely. The one that I love. You know, I [00:41:00] don’t have answers for a lot of these figures that I’d bring up. I’m still struggling with exactly how to situate them. But one of my favourites is the speaker. We don’t have his name, but he’s a speaker and a law court speech by the orator Lysius. Lysius is a very well-known logographer, I guess, from the fourth century BCE, he wrote speeches for people.

[00:41:20] He was a metic, so he was a sort of a resident of Athens, but not a citizen. And, so he wrote speeches for other people. And in one of them, it is for a man who has been accused of welfare fraud, essentially. So Athens had a pension system for people with disabilities. And what’s interesting about this pension system is that it wasn’t just for people with disabilities.

[00:41:44] It was for people who were so disabled that they couldn’t work, which does a couple of things. First of all, it presumes that there are people with disabilities who could work, right? Who could. Perform and, you know, perform within the sort of labour market bringing enough money. 

[00:42:00] And so we have this guy who has been accused of receiving it fraudulently. And so this speech is his defense and what’s interesting is that he’s disabled. He talks about how he walks with two crutches. And so the argument isn’t that he’s not disabled, it’s that he’s lying about his financial need. And so, you just get this really great characterization of somebody, sort of in his own words, quote unquote, it was written by Lysias, right.

[00:42:26] So it’s kind of hard to say whose words we have here. And there are a lot of open questions about this speech. But you get this great characterization of somebody who is disabled and we get a great understanding of what disability might have meant. He talks about how, you know, yes, he owns a shop.

[00:42:43] So he doesn’t tell us what kind of business this shop is, which is one of the big questions, right? It seems a little shady that he’s not telling us what his business is. But he says, you know, but it’s not enough money to bring anyone in. He says, I don’t have a slave to help me with my work. I don’t have children who can care for me in my old age.

[00:42:59] And I’m just getting older. So my disabilities are compounding. And he talks about all of this. He talks about how, you know, he has to borrow other people’s horses to get around. So when his distances are too great for his crutches to take him there, you know, he has to take a sort of equine transport in order to do it.

[00:43:16] Um, so it’s just this really great speech. And I think that it is Lysias 24, if anyone wants to read it. It’s such a great way to start thinking about this topic of disability in ancient Greece, because this is probably the closest that we get hearing the words of somebody who identifies as disabled.

Dr G

[00:43:34] Mmm, I think this is a fascinating piece of evidence actually. And the fact that we can glean from this, that there is, uh, a system set up of support, uh, for people who fall within a particular category of disability as well, I think is fascinating. And speaks to something really particular about the structure of ancient Greek society that, perhaps a lot of people coming to the ancient world [00:44:00] and haven’t considered at all.

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, and I mean, this is specifically Athens, right. We can’t say what anyone else would have thought about this exactly. And we have it in other evidence. So we know that at least this man was eligible for it. Uh, he has some sort of mobility impairment.

[00:44:14] We have another speech, um, by, I forget who right now, but we have another speech where somebody is blind. And receives the payments, right? So he’s an older man who is blind and the payment is also listed in The Athenian Constitution that sort of pseudo-Aristotelian text, uh, sometimes referred to as the AthPol, it’s a abbreviation, a reference to this pension.

[00:44:38] So it’s pretty secure, right, that this is a real thing, uh, that at least in the fourth century, there was this pension system. Not charity exactly. I mean, there’s some really great work by Matthew Dillon on this, I think, where he talks about how, you know, it’s not specifically, uh, it’s not charity, right. It’s an attempt to avoid patronage in Athens, [00:45:00] right. To prevent people with disabilities who couldn’t work from relying on the financial support of an individual and therefore developing a sort of allegiance to that individual instead feeling allied to the state. 

Dr Rad

Absolutely. So we’re getting towards the end of our time. [00:45:15] But before we finish up, I thought I would like to give you a chance to talk a little bit about some of the difficulties of this area of study. Obviously, I’m sure you face the usual problems, so, you know, not having enough source material, you know, you obviously love to have more always from the ancient world. But I imagine that looking at this particular area, there’s also issues with, um, you know, sensitive language and that sort of thing as well.

[00:45:40] So would you care to speak to some of the difficulties that you’ve encountered in this particular area? 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, definitely. So, uh, in terms of source material, I actually think that there’s a lot. Especially relative to some of the other, uh, topics that you can study in the ancient world. I think that there’s a lot of evidence for disability. I, in fact, I find it almost too much to grapple with, and I hope that [00:46:00], sort of, future directions of this study, um, I sort of try to grapple with all of it together and try to reconcile the different pictures that we get from different kinds of evidence. Um, but what I would like is, what I prefer is, if people who are specialized in these different areas, in ancient warfare, in ancient children and childhood, et cetera, actually looked at disability in a theoretically engaged way, so that we have specialists [00:46:24] on these different topics, actually looking at the topic in a sensitive way. 

The use of language is a difficult one. Um, you know, even if you just look at my dissertation, two recent articles to the way I discuss now, right. My terminology has changed. And part of that is, as I learned more, but part of it is also just that language is constantly developing.

[00:46:45] So “able-bodied” was a term that I think was preferred, you know, even a few years ago, but now the term for somebody who is not disabled, the preferred term is “non-disabled”, right. And so, you know, you do want to be sensitive? Uh, you’ll find plenty of evidence in the [00:47:00] scholarship of people not being sensitive to terminology.

[00:47:03] So it can actually be very difficult to read some of the work on disability in the ancient Greek world. Um, because you could read a lot of, sort of ableist bias into the way that people discuss it. Um, but one of the most difficult things that I find about this subject has nothing to do with the ancient world, but actually all to do with the modern world.

[00:47:20] I get a lot of pushback on this topic. A lot of skepticism. And what’s interesting about it is that the skepticism that I receive is not based in evidence, it’s based on people’s impressions. They just don’t believe that people with disabilities in ancient Greece could have been treated with anything except disgust or disdain or pity.

[00:47:41] And so it’s really difficult to convince people even based directly in the evidence that that is not the case. So when people bring up Sparta, for example, and about how, you know, Spartans had no place in their society for somebody who is disabled. And I say, well, we have this fourth century BCE [00:48:00] King Agesilaus, the Second, who is disabled.

[00:48:03] And they just excuse that example. I’m like, okay, well, I mean, there’s a Spartan who was disabled, so, okay. And so the more that you bring up examples, they all get explained away as opposed to, uh, just sort of reconciling them and accepting that this is a feature and then questioning from there, what that means.

[00:48:23] So a good example is the ramps. You know, there are eleven at this healing sanctuary, whether it’s a regional phenomenon is irrelevant. You still have to explain why there are eleven ramps at this one sanctuary when other ones have no ramps or just one ramp. 

So you have to explain these things, but I find it really difficult to [00:48:44], sort of, get over people’s initial inclination to reject the idea. 

Dr Rad 

Yeah, no, look, I must admit doing reading for this, I’m very grateful to have had you on the show. Not just because you’ve been wonderful to talk to, but it encouraged me to do reading that I wouldn’t have [00:49:00] otherwise done. And a lot of the time I was looking at material that I’ve encountered before, like looking at the remains from Pompeii and Herculaneum, thinking about people like Claudius, thinking about, you know, philosophers like Seneca, looking at people like, you know, Philip of Macedon, and even the Twelve Tables.

[00:49:17] We’ve actually just done an episode on the Twelve Tables, where we had mentioned the fact that they built into that law code in Rome, the fact that if people couldn’t physically get to the court, there had to be provision for them to be carried there. And I’d never stopped to think about it. And I’ve never really stopped to think about just how much evidence there really was in this world for people who had a variety of conditions [00:49:41], which would have made life different for them in some way. 

So I am so grateful to have had you on the show to discuss this topic. 

Dr G

And I think it’s very revealing as well in terms of – just to jump in with a little piece of evidence that I quite like that I’ve encountered through this. Because one of the areas that I’m very interested in is the [00:50:00] rise of Augustus.

[00:50:00] And he institutes this law of the three children and we get a whole commentary from Ulpian on this, about what constitutes “the three children”. And it seems that at law, the decision is made that – even if the child is considered “monstrous”, and so we’re not sure to what extent that means in terms of disability, but it seems like there’s some sort of birth deformity at play [00:50:25] – that the mother is not to be held responsible for this and the child still counts towards the three in the eyes of the law. And that’s just a little aspect of a much bigger part of history that is part of my studies that I am now thinking about because of these kinds of discussions that are happening.

[00:50:44] So I think the work that you’re doing, Debby, is really important and significant for the way we approach evidence in the ancient world, across the board. 

Dr Rad

And of course, Dr. G,  is a Vestal fanatic. And of course, to be a Vestal at this time –

Dr G

Oh yes!

Dr Rad

as well, you [00:51:00] also have to have –

Dr G

You have to have no speech impediment to be a Vestal Virgin.

[00:51:04] That is one of the core tenants. Um, young women would not get chosen for the role if they had a speech impediment. 

Dr Debby Sneed

Yeah, definitely, right. So religious ritual is all about repeating things in the exact appropriate way. Uh, so this is something that, um, it’s not really surprising, I guess, about the Vestal Virgins and the Ulpian thing is really interesting.

[00:51:22] One of the things that is great, and that makes it difficult to study this, especially – I’m a non-disabled person, uh, which is a really important thing to bring up and I should have brought it up sooner, um, because I’m studying this as a non-disabled person. 

Um, and I would like it if I was not the one, right [00:51:41], who was sort of doing this work. You know, I hope that we can get more people with disabilities involved in research, doing this research, asking these questions because, um, you know, we’ve known about the ramps. So back to the ramps. We’ve known about these forever, right? 

However long we could have known that there were ramps. We’ve known [00:52:00] that there were ramps at some of these sanctuaries. But I think that non-disabled people, so, which includes many archaeologists, right, we sort of take for granted aspects of mobility. We don’t ask how people get into buildings because we never consciously think about it. We just walk into them.

[00:52:16] Whatever’s there we use. If there are stairs, we use stairs. If there is a ramp, we use a ramp. If the stairs are really tall, we just use them, right. So we just don’t really think about it. And I think that if we had had more people with disabilities involved in some of these studies, I think that the question would have been asked a lot sooner.

[00:52:34] And, um, just because, you know, it’s just something that people with mobility impairments are consciously aware of. And so even if disability is not the answer, it’s worth asking the question and it’s just something that we don’t get, right. When you have only one type of person asking questions.

And this is one of – there’s this really great interpretation of Oedipus.

[00:52:56] So Oedpius, the King of Thebes. So, you know, very [00:53:00] famously killed his father and married his mother. And he also solves the riddle of the Sphinx. And the riddle of the Sphinx is, you know, “what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday and three legs in the evening?” And it’s of course humans.

[00:53:15] So, you know, crawling as an infant, walking on two legs and then when you’re an adult, and then using three legs, so two legs, plus a crutch or a cane, in old age. And there’s one really interesting suggestion by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, who are both disability studies scholars, that Oedipus is able to answer this question because he has a mobility impairment, because when his parents sort of exposed him at birth in order to avoid his fulfillment of this prophecy, that they actually intentionally mutilated him.

[00:53:46] So they had his heels, sort of, clipped or something like that. And that, because he has this mobility impairment, when he reaches the riddle of the Sphinx, this riddle that nobody before had ever been able to answer, right. That he was uniquely [00:54:00] situated to answer that question because he was uniquely positioned to think about mobility constantly.

[00:54:06] And so, I think that this is a really important thing, is, based on, not just my non-disabled status, but based on all other aspects of my identity, I individually have limited in the kinds of things that I can come up with. The questions that I can ask the interpretations that I can come up with. 

And so, one of the challenges that I have is that there just aren’t people asking these questions. And so, uh, we just need a lot more people asking them and thinking about them and offering solutions, not just disabled people, right. So they don’t have, it’s not like these are their ancestors or something like that, but they just have this other perspective that just hasn’t really been sort of appreciated in an academic context.

Dr Rad

[00:54:35] No, I think you’re absolutely right. As I say, my experience is extremely limited. And as I say, I consider myself to be an extremely fortunate human being, but certainly the way that I interact with the world and things that I’m aware of, that other people aren’t aware of, because I’ve become extremely hard of hearing.

It’s really changed particularly over the last ten years. Yet, you know, just things like going out to restaurants and also I’m a teacher. [00:55:00] The kinds of rooms that I can teach in effectively. I become much more aware of sound qualities and various things like that than other people are just because I struggled so much more to understand people, even with hearing aids.

[00:55:13] Um, and it does, it does allow me to say a little bit of what you’re talking about, in that, unless you’ve got that lived experience, you sometimes won’t think of certain angles of investigations. 

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:55:25] And this is true of other things as well. I don’t know if this is true, but I read something about, sort of this, uh, neolithic or paleolithic find that somebody found a bone and it had notches on it.

[00:55:38] So something like twenty-eight notches on it. And there were all of these interpretations about what these notches meant: why twenty-eight, you know, et cetera, et cetera. And it was a bunch of men asking the question. And that none of them had considered, of course, menstrual cycles, right, and whether that could be a relevant interpretation, because why would they think of menstruation being twenty-eight days?

[00:56:00] And so it’s just demonstrates like the importance of being like, well, here’s a suggestion, right? From somebody who has a lived experience of something it’s not going to mean, it’s not that a man could never have come up with that. It’s just, it’s not going to be at the forefront of their mind.

[00:56:18] And it’s going to take a lot more work for them to consciously think about something. Whereas for a woman, you might more naturally think of this interpretation. 

Dr G

On that note, I’m wondering if there are any scholars that you’re aware of who are working in this field, who are bringing their disability to their study of the ancient world, [00:56:39] we might also consider and consult. And when we’re thinking about this topic in the future. 

Dr Debby Sneed

[00:56:44] I don’t personally, so. There are some, right. A lot of graduate students. For example, I have a [00:56:50] colleague Mason Schrader, who’s currently a graduate student at Texas Tech, who is disabled and he’s working in classical archaeology.

[00:56:56] Um, and I have an article co-authored with him that will be coming out hopefully next year about disability and archaeology and how to make our field schools more accessible. And there’s this really great group called Crip Antiquity. You can look them up on Twitter, but also they have a website, and it is a collective of people with disabilities and also allies of people with disabilities working in classical antiquity.

[00:57:20] And so if you’re specifically looking for somebody, that’s what I would recommend that you start is with the group Crip Antiquity. To look at the work that they’re doing, the advocacy that they’re doing, and suggestions that they have specifically for this. But, you know, there are some great books. Um, I just, I don’t know, for example, so you’re looking for a book length study on this Martha L Roses, The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in ancient Greece is where I would start.

[00:57:44] You know, I have my dissertation, but if you’re looking for an actual book, The Staff of Oedipus is where I would start. I think it’s a very sensitive, it’s a theoretically engaged study of the subject. She looks at a very limited range of disabilities. She looks at, uh, stuttering, deafness [00:58:00], muteness, and blindness, I think is what she limits her study to, you know. But I think it’s a really fantastic place to start. [00:58:08] Her bibliography is really solid. Um, but then there are a lot of article length treatments of this subject as well. Of course my article on ramps, my article soon coming out this year on disability and infanticide. And hopefully, uh, whenever I finish my book, I will recommend that one. 

Dr Rad

Oh, we’ll have to have you back on once you have finished your book. [00:58:27] Because I mean, as I say, you’ve just opened my mind to all these things, which I’ve seen before. I mean, Everything from Tutankhamun to the stories of Jesus healing, people in the Bible. I’m just like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’ve never thought about this before!” So you’ve definitely opened up our mind to, to looking at the sources in a completely different way.

[00:58:42] Um, if people do want to access your work, what’s the best way to follow you and what you’re, what you’re up to? 

Dr Debby Sneed

Probably on Twitter. Yeah, so I have a Twitter. I, you know, I don’t know if I’ll have it forever, but right now that’s a great place to find me. I’m @debscavator D E B S C A V A T O R. 

A great way to follow me is on Twitter. [00:59:02] I post about the work that I’m doing, but anyone who’s looking to study this topic in addition to Crip Antiquity, there’s also Christian Laes. I think that’s how you say his last name. He actually maintains a bibliography on disability history in the ancient world, which is limited, uh, which has sort of 3000 BCE to 700 CE and the ancient world confined mostly to the Mediterranean, but broadly [00:59:27] defined within the ancient Mediterranean. So looking at disability in the Bible, disability and Judaic and Islamic, early Islamic context, right; in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And I think at present, it is seventy-one pages long of articles and books, uh, just, and you can find that online, if you just Google the website is Disability History and the Ancient World.

[00:59:52] Um, and you’ll find this entire bibliography that he updates on a regular basis is constantly taking suggestions for it. Um, so anybody looking to study this, this is a great place to start. Even if the bibliography is kind of difficultly organized. 

Dr G

Oh, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for coming and chatting with us. [01:00:12] We really appreciate it. 

Dr Debby Sneed

[01:00:14] No this has been really great. You know, I’m always happy to talk about this work. So thank you for having me and giving me the opportunity to sort of spread the idea of disability and lead ancient world questions that people can be asking and hopefully to encourage people to consider these in their own studies, to return to familiar things that they’ve read from the ancient world or vases that they’ve seen or [01:00:31] Sites that they’ve visited and consider what they might have overlooked.

Dr Rad

[01:00:54] Thank you for listening to this special episode of The Partial Historians. And of course, if you’re one of our patrons and you’ve got to listen to it a little bit before everyone else. If you’re keen to also get early access to all of our bonus content, then please subscribe and become a Patreon. We really value your support. It helps keep the show going.

Philip II of Macedon. His right eye was surgically removed after an injury.

Philip II of Macedon had his right eye surgically removed after sustaining an injury.
This artwork imagines what he may have looked like after the injury.
Image courtesy of panaiotis.deviantart.com

Our Sources

Below are materials recommended by Dr Sneed during the episode or sources that we consulted in preparation for the interview.

  • Dasen, V. Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Dillon, M. ‘Legal (and Customary?) Approaches to the Disabled in Ancient Greece.’ In Disability in Antiquity, ed. Christian Laes, 167-181. New York: Routledge, 2017.  
  • Fischer, J. ‘Behinderung und Gesellschaft im klassischen Athen. Bemerkungen zur 24. Rede des Lysias.’ In ed. Rupert Breitwieser, Behinderungen und Beeintraechtigungen/Disability and Impairment in Antiquity. British Archaeological Reports, 2012.
  • Gaveart, B. ‘Perfect Roman bodies.’ In Disability in Antiquity, ed. Christian Laes, 213-221. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • Laes, C. Disabilities and the disabled in the Roman world: a social and cultural history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • Mitchell, D. T.; Snyder, S. L. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000
  • Pudsey, A. ‘Disability and infirmitas in the ancient world.’ In Disability in Antiquity, ed. Christian Laes, 22-34. New York: Routledge, 2017.   
  • Rose, M. L. The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003  
  • Sneed, D. ‘The architecture of access: ramps at ancient Greek healing sanctuaries.’ Antiquity 94, 376 (2020), 1015-1029.
  • Trentin, L. The hunchback in Hellenistic and Roman art. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015
  • Trentin, L. ‘The ‘other’ Romans.’ In Disability in Antiquity, ed. Christian Laes, 233-247. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • If you are interested in exploring this topic in greater depth, you may want to consult this bibliography on disability in antiquity that is primarily curated by Christian Laes
  • You may also like to check out the work of CripAntiquity @cripantiquity
  • If you enjoyed listening to Dr Debby Sneed, you can follow her on Twitter @debscavator and Academic.edu

Sound Credits

Original music: Bettina Joy De Guzman

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!


  1. Oguz Albayrak
    April 25, 2021

    hey, I want to report a little typo in the text. ‘hearing aids’ is written in the text as ‘hearing AIDS’ : )
    thanks for the text version, very useful

    • The Partial Historians
      May 15, 2021

      Thanks for this feedback, we’ll edit to correct this 🙂

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