Did The Byzantine Government Help Disabled Workers?

You probably already know that the Roman Empire was eventually divided into East and West — and that the Western Roman Empire fell into chaos and disintegrated much earlier. But at its height, the emperors of the Roman Empire provided the plebeian “mob” with grain to keep them fed. The government of any body of people bases its existence on protecting those people, which is why systems like helping the poor worked so well. But how did these ancient societies help out those who couldn’t work at all?

You might be shocked to hear they did anything at all! But providing these disabled workers with help is how most scholars begin discussing the history of workers compensation.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine acknowledges the modern failures of workers compensation and likens our own inability to make it work to those civilizations that came long before us failing to accomplish exactly the same thing. 

The NLM said: “The history of compensation for bodily injury begins shortly after the advent of written history itself. The Nippur Tablet No. 3191 from ancient Sumeria in the fertile crescent outlines the law of Ur-Nammu, king of the city-state of Ur.”

The Code of Hammurabi set out compensation for injuries and impairments circa 1750 B.C. — in addition to perpetrating many of those injuries on those accused of many crimes. The NLM continued: “Ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese law provided sets of compensation schedules, with precise payments for the loss of a body part. For example, under ancient Arab law, loss of a joint of the thumb was worth one-half the value of a finger.”

Perhaps more comically, a similar law compensated a severed penis proportional to how long the member was.

The point is this: most ancient civilizations were socially advanced enough to offer “benefits” or “entitlements” to those who needed them to survive. These benefits are still controversial today, but they are as old as time itself. The laws surround compensation were much more documented by the Middle Ages (ironically a time when we usually consider nothing to have happened, it was filled with young scribes who copied down many texts on the basis of religion).

Most of the these ancient societies — Byzantine Empire included — would not give a worker any form of compensation if his own negligence was the reason the injury was sustained. This clause of “contributory” negligence was something that has persisted even to this very day.

It should be noted that impairments were not defined in ancient societies, and that they differ from what we traditionally consider a disability. The former means loss of function, while the latter means loss of ability to perform a function — more or less. That made it just as difficult for an Ancient Byzantine citizen to acquire workers compensation as it would be for a worker in the United States today.

Curious how the Byzantine and Roman Empires differ? Check out this video for a few examples.