Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

In antiquity far fewer congenitally deformed persons would have survived infancy than do so today, because Greeks and Romans would have had little compunction about withholding the necessities of life from those they deemed incapable of leading an independent life. (See infanticide.) In Sparta the abandonment of deformed infants was a legal requirement. Likewise Aristotle recommended that there should be a law ‘to prevent the rearing of deformed children’. A law attributed to Romulus permitted the exposure of a monstrous infant on condition that five witnesses approved the decision. The Romans regarded the birth of a deformed child or animal as portentous in the extreme: monstrum (‘portent’) is etymologically related to monērě (‘to warn’). Prodigies were recorded year by year in the pontifical records. Acc. to Livy, ‘the most abhorred portents of all’ were hermaphrodites.

Few individuals are known to have been congenitally deformed. One is Agesilaus II, both diminutive and congenitally lame. It is unclear whether Claudius was actually deformed or merely disabled. The deformed could expect to be stigmatized, like the hunchbacked Thersites. The absence of physical blemish was a requirement for holding Greek or Roman priesthoods (see priests). Plutarch says that the demand for freak slaves was so great in Rome that there even existed a ‘monster market’, and there are many references in the late republican and early imperial period to their popularity as household pets. Hunchbacks, cripples, dwarfs and obese women were popular entertainers at drinking‐parties, as numerous artistic representations indicate.

Book 4 of Aristotle's Generation of Animals provides an illuminating discussion of the classification and aetiology of congenital deformity. His most significant contribution to the subject was his insistence that deformities were an integral and necessary part of nature. See childbirth.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.