Martha L. Rose, The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 154. ISBN 0-472-11339-9. US$42.50.
Classics, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
The author embarks on her work with the conviction that 'Disability is an aspect of social history, like gender and age, and that the phenomenon of disability intersects with and sheds light on economic, political, military, and religious aspects of any given society' (p. vii). Two major interrelated points are made throughout the book: 'First, our assumptions about the place of people with disabilities in the present day have coloured, often falsely, our interpretations about people with disabilities in the ancient world. Second, these skewed interpretations of the ancient world bolster modern discriminatory attitudes toward people with disability, giving the attitudes an apparent historical precedent' (pp. 1f.).
It is rarely that Greek sources make overt references to physical disability. One reason, according to the author, is that the Greeks did not perceive a category of physical disability in which people were a priori banned from carrying out certain roles, and compartmentalized into others. Despite the nebulous, scanty, scattered and often contradictory nature of the evidence, the author has made the best possible use of literary, papyrological, epigraphical and archaeological material that does survive. The non- literary sources, in particular, serve to extend the discourse to at least a millennium each both before and after the classical period of Greek civilization. The Christian Gospels, though written in Greek, are excluded as they reflect Hellenised Jewish, rather than Greek or Graeco-Roman traditions. Moreover, the subject has been thoroughly investigated by other scholars. Another decision to exclude has to do with subject matter. The book does not deal with dwarfism or epilepsy, both of which have been treated comprehensively recently.
While not subscribing to the extreme view that disability is entirely a cultural construction and that it does not exist intrinsically outside of any culture's definition, the author nevertheless believes 'that the concept of physical disability is shaped and defined by its economic, military, political, religious, social, and technological environment' (p. 3).
The book consists of five chapters each one devoted to an aspect of disability in ancient Greece. The author begins with a sketch of the Greek population in terms of its disabled element. The purpose of this sketch is to show that a wide range of human differences existed among the ancient Greeks, far more than are portrayed in images of Greek perfection which we have inherited from Renaissance and neoclassical painting. In fact, it is evident that there was a greater variety of disabled persons in ancient Greece than in more recent civilizations of the West. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine we do not see in the developed world of today many of the disabling physical conditions which affected ancient societies. However, it is worth remembering that the emoluments of modern science are not equally available throughout the world and, consequently, disabling conditions resulting from diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy, and rickets are still rampant in many countries.
Moreover, as the author observes, there were no institutions for the disabled and, with the possible exception of small grants to persons incapacitated through military service, the welfare of disabled persons was the concern of the family rather than the state. Our evidence reveals wide variation in how this concern was exercised.
The author goes on to discuss daily life for people with disabilities against the modern popular idea that in Greece all 'deformed' babies were killed at birth (Chapter 2). The only primary sources (Plato Rep. 471c-474b; Theaet. 160e-161a), Aristotle (Pol. 1328a-1330a), Plutarch (Lyc. 1), and Soranus (Gyn. 2.10) provide evidence that is both scanty and imprecise. Except for the last mentioned, they derive from a philosophical context, and do not reflect real life situations. In real life, the preservation or otherwise of deformed or disabled infants would have been determined by the attitude towards abnormal human beings which, in turn, is determined not merely by aesthetic considerations, but also by economic, religious, social, and political circumstances, each of which the author analyses in detail. In the political sphere, the author points out that different functions were expected from men and women. Men were thought to have realised their full potential in military service; women, in the bearing of children. Both were achieved irrespective of disability or deformity.
The third chapter examines the modern ideal of overcoming disability taking as its starting point the case of Demosthenes' stutter. How the famous orator overcame his physical impairment is a tale used over the years to exemplify the idea that disability is a personal hardship that can and should be overcome. However, in the ancient world, oddities of speech were thought of as identifying traits of character rather than pathological conditions. Although references to speech defects in classical literature are few and far between, the author attempts to demonstrate their presence observing the etiology of terms denoting speech. This is followed by a discussion of scientific and medical passages and an effort to understand ancient attitudes by analysing Greek terms for speech impairments. Finally, Demosthenes' legendary efforts to overcome his stutter are contrasted with Alcibiades' lisp which he uses to his advantage, as much as women in Rome were advised to use their speech defects to attract male attention (Ovid Ars 3.291ff.). The contrast provides the basis for a discussion of ancient attitudes towards speech impairments, including those of women. The disorders discussed include stuttering, anatomical defects, developmental problems, and impairments associated with old age. In the ancient world, these terms were, of course, not mutually exclusive. In this context, I expected to see at least a passing reference to the opening sentence of Demosthenes' speech 36 On Behalf of Phormio.
In Chapter 4, which deals with deafness, the author continues to highlight the differences between ancient and modern conceptions of disability by showing that deafness was perceived more as an impairment of reasoning and basic intelligence than a physical disability. The starting point for the study of the cultural environment in which deaf people lived in the ancient world is the account, in the first book of Herodotus (1.85), of how Croesus' deaf son gained his speech just in time to save his father from death. After surveying the etiology of deafness, the author examines the use of the term 'deaf' (kophos), and seeks to understand ancient attitudes towards deafness by analysing references in both medical and non-medical texts. In view of the link between deafness and the inability to speak, and the importance of communication for political existence, the author compares being born deaf to being born female, even though in other spheres a deaf person could act as well as any other.
The last chapter, which deals with blindness, challenges the notion that blindness was always considered glorious or dismal, or both, and that we can even speak of ancient and modern blindness as being equally subjected to negative social practices and attitudes. 'Some blind people were venerated, some were castigated; most went about their business, albeit with more difficulty and physical vulnerability than a sighted person, and are lost from the record' (p. 80). While it is true that the legends of Oedipus, Teiresias, and Homer dominate ancient discussions of blindness, it would not be accurate to group Homer with the other two as being the subject of myth, epic, and tragedy, as the author seems to suggest in the opening paragraph.
As with other disabilities treated in previous chapters, the author begins with an analysis of Greek terms for blindness followed by the causes of this disability and ends with a discussion of the social life of blind persons in the ancient world. The discussion of blindness is far more comprehensive and fruitful than the discussions of other disabilities due to the relatively greater abundance of primary source material.
The conclusion challenges the translation of the term adunatos as 'disabled' with all its modern associations. The author examines the notions of ability and disability in the twenty-fourth oration of Lysias. According to the author, the difference between ancient and modern attitudes towards disability is highlighted by the use of the Greek term adunatos ('unable'). The oration concerns the withdrawal of a pension, and adunatos does not signify disability, but the inability to support oneself. Physical impairment by itself did not induce pity or admiration, nor were people with disabilities categorised as a separate minority, even though such impairments must have been quite common. People with disabilities were not invariably poor or helpless. The criteria of physical ability and disability did not rest on one's ability to function as an individual, but on one's functionability as a member of a community.
The author points out that there was no single set of attitudes towards the disabled, since disability as a ground for classification did not exist among the ancient Greeks. There was no dichotomy between ability and disability, but a range of conditions to which the human body could be subject. Disabled persons were not banned a priori from certain roles. Nor did physical disability of itself arouse pity or condescension, but could give rise to the opposite reactions as well. People with disabilities played a variety of military, social, and economic roles. Even the most severely disabled persons were integrated into communities that accommodated a wide variety of abilities. In terms of disability, the Greeks were not particularly cruel or noble, primitive or advanced.
All this has been convincingly demonstrated throughout the book. I cannot, however, accept the author's concluding statement that the Greeks did not waste manpower. There must have been at all times people who passed their time sitting around or loitering about, gossiping, or just idling, wasting not only their time, but that of others as well. While the exclusion of evidence from the New Testament may be justified, still one cannot altogether ignore such advice as was given by St. Paul to the Thessalonians (2Thess. 3:10b-13).
The subject matter of this book appeals to a readership which is far wider than that of the students of the classics and ancient history. There is a wealth of information on ancient medicine. The discussions of speech and hearing impairments include reflections on the position of women, both with and without disabilities. Discussions of old age are incorporated into most chapters.
The author is highly conscious of this wider appeal, and has done her best to make the book accessible to those outside the field of Classics. Not only are Greek words presented in transliteration, but well- known literary personalities and geographical locations are introduced with explanations. Thus, in the first chapter, Theophrastus is introduced as 'a fourth and third century BC botanist' (p. 12); and Herodotus as 'the fifth century historian and chronicler of the Persian Wars' (p. 12); while Pseudo-Aristotle is 'an anonymous student of Aristotle whose work was traditionally ascribed to Aristotle' (p. 14). In chapter 2, Chalcedon is explained as 'a Greek colony on the Bosporus' (p. 42), and in chapter 4 Smyrna is introduced as 'a Greek city on the West coast of Asia Minor' (p. 69). The analysis of Greek terms, placed very early in each chapter, will be of interest to Classicists and non-Classicists alike.
This book is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the study of ancient Greece, in that it makes the reader apprehend Greek history from the point of view of a disabled/non-disabled perspective. The author has successfully demonstrated that 'able-bodiedness has unreflectively been assumed to define the essential nature of the human body; that this assumption falsely colours our interpretation of the past' (p. 2); and that this falsely coloured interpretation 'perpetuates the unreflective modern assumption that the non-disabled body is the standard against which the disabled body should be evaluated' (p. 3).
The book has benefited from the authors familiarity and use of a wide variety of sources, both ancient and modern. The discussion of the exposure of unwanted children in the second chapter and that of blindness in the fifth stand out in this respect. The frequent references to modern writings, while serving as a warning against reading latter-day concepts into the study of the ancient world, nevertheless serve to highlight the relevance of the past in understanding the present. With such a vast array of material at one's disposal, it is not always possible to avoid repetition. Thus, Helen Keller and Stevie Wonder appear more than once as examples of people with disabilities who have justified their survival by making significant contributions to society.
Throughout the book, the author's statements are backed by plentiful notes. However, as these consist mainly of source citations, I would have liked to see them at the bottom of the page rather than at the back. The bibliography is divided into primary and secondary material. I would have preferred the primary material to have been further classified into literary and non-literary for ease of reference.
Having read through the book several times, I am still unable to figure out why the author decided to call it The Staff of Oedipus.[] Teiresias is well known to have been given a staff with which he was able to get about without any assistance. Oedipus no doubt carried one both before and after he became blind. He carried it in his right hand and used it to kill the old man who turned out to be his father. Within Sophocles' play Oedipus' staff is transformed from an instrument of power to a symbol of dependence. But one does not normally or exclusively associate it with his disability.
[] The cover, however, reproduces the picture of Oedipus with his staff, which also appears on p. 89. The book is well published and bound in a durable form.