Robert Garland, The Eye of the Beholder. Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2010 (first edition 1995). Pp. xxix + 222, incl. 64 black-and- white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-85399-737- 2. US$36.30.
National University of Rosario–CONICET, Argentina
Garland’s book adopts a panoptic approach to the situation of the deformed and disabled in antiquity. The material is divided into ten chapters, bracketed by an introduction (pp. 1-9) and a conclusion (pp. 178-82), and followed by a glossary (pp. 183-85), notes (pp. 186-202), bibliography (pp. 203-16), index locorum (pp. 217-19), and, finally, a general index (pp. 220-22). Sixty-four illustrative plates complement the discussion of the visual evidence in the text, which ranges from pharaonic human remains, numerous vase paintings, and Hellenistic terracottas to contemporary images from the American yellow press.
In the preface to this second edition, Garland states that his book makes no claim to be able to identify broad differences in attitude towards the deformed and disabled over time, or indeed to detect any appreciable difference in social construction or in attitudinal response between the Greek and the Roman periods. On the contrary, his work is intended as an attempt to map out the contours of a vast and still largely neglected landscape (p. viii). This point is illustrated by the fact that there are still only a few articles on disability in classical antiquity, since disability studies have yet to receive recognition from the academy at large (p. ix).
Garland’s presentation of the difficulties of his enterprise is very lucid, given that he proposes to tell the story of those who are typically ignored in conventional historical accounts (p. xxii). The author sets himself a double aim: on the one hand, his objective is to analyse how, through public rituals, social institutions, myth, literature and art, the Greeks and the Romans utilised deformity for a variety of social ends; on the other hand, he intends to examine the plight of, and stigma surrounding, the disabled, with a view to determining the social and economic conditions governing their existence (p. xxiv). Garland declares that his is not a comprehensive treatment of the subject, and that he has concentrated upon those physical disorders which receive comment in the literary sources. Thus mental degeneracy is treated cursorily, largely because a thorough analysis would require an examination of the problematic concept of mind (p. xxiv).
In the introduction, Garland states two important points: firstly, in classical antiquity the social response to the handicapped was in part determined by religion, since beauty and wholeness were interpreted as a mark of divine favour, whereas ugliness and deformity were interpreted as a sign of the opposite (p. 2); secondly, it is impossible to forge an objective and impartial definition of deformity, since any judgement upon what constitutes a normal morphology is influenced by the salient physical characteristics and distinctive aesthetic viewpoint of the society seeking to establish the definition: 'It is the eye of the beholder . . . which determines the standard of presumed normality' (p. 5).
Chapter 1, 'Survival of the Weakest' (pp. 11-27), explores how for those unable to defend themselves (the poor, slaves, widows, spinsters, minors, and the chronically sick and disabled) life was fraught with lethal dangers. According to Garland, there is every reason to assume that the overwhelming majority of infants exhibiting gross abnormalities were exposed immediately, while others spontaneously succumbed to their ailment for lack of medical treatment (p. 13). To make matters worse, the ugly and deformed were used as scapegoats in times of crisis. There were also many types of post-natally acquired disabilities such as infectious disease, malnutrition, accidents in sport or work, and war.
Chapter 2, 'Half-Lives' (pp. 28-44), analyses the phenomenon of disdain for the disabled. In effect, given the ideological importance of physical beauty and wholeness in Graeco-Roman culture, it is not surprising that the deformed and disabled were to some extent stigmatised as second-class citizens and treated with less than full seriousness in political debates (p. 31). In addition, the deformed and disabled had few opportunities for earning their own living outside the world of entertainment, which probably provided the most lucrative form of employment for a talented minority (p. 32).
Chapter 3, 'The Roman Emperor and his Monstrous World' (pp. 45-58), has interesting things to say about the emperor’s relationship to the monstrous (dwarves, sex pets, and fools), whose abnormal physical condition was analogous to the emperor’s social position. In actual fact, the evidence examined in this chapter suggests that well-to-do Romans exhibited extreme insensitivity towards the congenitally deformed and disabled, since they alone were able to indulge their cravings for the monstrous to the full. However, the beguiling consideration that emperors and monsters have some points in common is spoilt by a certain moral slant, when Garland states that '[t]he imperial predilection for monstrosity surely reflects the jadedness of the imperial palette and the emperor’s ever-lengthening quest in a shrinking world for something new and exotic to relieve his aching boredom' (p. 50).
Chapter 4, 'The Deformed and the Divine' (pp. 59-72), considers the extent to which the Greeks and Romans exploited the occurrence of deformity for religious ends. Additionally, this chapter investigates the relationship of the Olympian gods towards Hephaistos. One important point raised by this chapter is the fact that whereas the Greeks tended to treat monstrous births as mere aberrations in the natural order, the Romans interpreted them as eminently suggestive of divine displeasure.
Chapter 5, 'Deriding the Disabled' (pp. 73-86), discusses laughter not only as a way of exorcising the fear and embarrassment vis-à-vis the deformed, but also as a 'marginalizing' device, in view of the fact that laughter in antiquity knew no moral boundaries. It also points out that the tendency to render ugly or deformed persons ridiculous was more prominent among the Romans.
Chapter 6, 'The Physiognomic Consciousness' (pp. 87-104), considers the widespread human tendency to ascribe character traits and attributes to individuals on the basis of their appearance. This principle of equating evil with deformity is hardly challenged by any of the writers Garland examines, whatever reservations they may occasionally have had about its universal applicability (p. 104).
Chapter 7, 'Images of the Deformed' (pp. 105-22), ponders on classical art’s reluctance to render the body other than in an idealised form. Garland focuses upon images that reproduce clinically attested deformities rather than those that were inspired by the mythological imagination. What is conspicuously lacking throughout the entire series is any trace of sympathy for the condition of the deformed on the artist’s part; on the contrary, what we find in the majority of the cases are the iron laws of physiognomy applied with uncompromising rigidity (p. 121).
Chapter 8, 'Medical Diagnosis and Treatment' (pp. 123-40), examines the reasons why ancient medical writers showed little interest in diagnosing or prescribing treatment for the deformed and disabled. According to Garland, this general indifference of the medical profession towards the severely handicapped was probably based on a prudent recognition of its limitations.
Chapter 9, 'Towards a Teratology' (pp. 141-58), presents the first steps done in the direction of studying the aetiology of congenital malformations, especially Aristotle’s contribution to the field of teratology, with his overarching approach to zoological taxonomy which places male human beings at the summit.
Chapter 10, 'Racial Deformity' (pp. 159- 77), studies Homer, Herodotos, Ktesias of Knidos, the paradographers and St Agustine’s texts, in order to show that in antiquity reports of monstrous races served to reinforce the concept of racial superiority that was so essential to classical culture. One interesting observation presented here is that the racially deformed tend to inhabit regions situated at the outermost limits of geographical knowledge, well beyond the margins of the civilised world. Another suggestive consideration is the fact that ancient writers rarely explain why the monstrous races are so different from the physiological norm, the implicit assumption being that racial deformities are the product of a genetic mutation originally provoked by environment, diet, and social practice but later were thought to be hereditary.
On balance, although I believe that this book is has become a seminal work for this vastly understudied subject, I would like to point out two minor flaws in the argumentation. Firstly, Garland’s presentation of disability as a transhistorical category linking people together across spatial and temporal boundaries seems to suggest that there is nothing new under the sun. As a result, the book runs the risk of becoming little more than a rich catalogue of references and examples of the same phenomenon, unchanged by the passing of time. In this sense, Garland declares: 'I make no apology for peppering it with analogies from later periods, since the quality of the response towards the monstrous has in some ways remained remarkably uniform throughout history' (p. xxv). Secondly, as the emphasis throughout much of the book (with the exception of Chapter 3) is on the Greeks -- since the author seems to be less at home with the Romans -- the final result appears to be quite imbalanced.