Living With Disabilities in The Byzantine Empire

What is a disability? These are most often defined as physical, emotional, or psychological limitations that could prevent an individual living a normal life. These conditions make it much more difficult to integrate with other members of society, some of whom might not even accept that the disability exists.

Have you ever thought about what it might be like to live with a disability in a big city like New York, Los Angeles, or Houston? Those of us who don’t have one can hardly imagine the obstacles that these people have to endure. Long lines, the doubt, and social stigma are only a few. Now imagine what it must be like to live with a disability in an ancient society like Carthage or Rome. How did treatment toward those with disabilities change throughout time? How about when the Western Roman Empire fell and the Byzantine Empire slowly took its place?

Believe it or not, but it might have been easier to live with a disability in those ancient times than it was today — mentally at least. That’s because many historians noted in their texts that nearly every citizen had some sort of limitation that technically constituted a disability. Physical and psychological impairments were common, but the means to repair them were not. This was not an era of high medicine. 

What might surprise you even more is that Roman and Byzantine law was quite accommodating toward those who suffered from disability.

It did, however, depend on your lot in life. For example, being hobbled as a plebeian meant you were in for a rough time, but being hobbled as a patrician was more a burden for your slaves — since they were the ones forced to drag you from place to place even if you were healthy. Plebeians who could not move or lift might also have more trouble finding work, which could mean additional trouble for those who had families.

There were exceptions as well. Those who suffered from extreme deformity were more likely to find work in more demeaning situations, such as theater or in arenas, where they might be tasked with entertaining the mob before the main events. Think about it: Even today, we use little people in TV and movies more often in non-serious roles. This is especially true when we use them to portray what life was once like in the Middle Ages.

Those who were born or suffered these deformities were often bullied, and it was socially acceptable to be on the giving end. 

There were other exceptions. The earlier in history you start looking, the worse the laws become. For example, it was perfectly legal to have children who were born with hideous deformities put to death (by stoning, because how else would you kill a child?). These laws changed over time. Rome was known for its civilization — and not without reason. In the third century AD, a new law mandated that parents must take care of any children born with a disability.