Perfect Words for Perfect Bodies?

Our mental image of the bodies of classical antiquity is shaped by the Renaissance vision of them as perfect. From buildings to sculptures, ancient Greek and, to a lesser degree, Roman artists strived to achieve a mathematical perfection of form. Their Renaissance disciples, as well as Neo-classicists later, took the surviving sculpture and paintings, depicting bodies that are primarily beautiful, as evidence of the Greco-Roman physical perfection and immortalised this image in their art. Winckelmann, an eighteenth-century scholar of art history, wrote that ‘the most beautiful body of ours would perhaps be… inferior to the most beautiful Greek one’ and that, moreover, ‘those diseases which are destructive of beauty, were… unknown to the Greeks.’ Even today, despite the recent discoveries in paleopathology and a body of literary evidence of a very different landscape of disability, we still persist in seeing the ancient world in its idealised form. Coetzee poignantly draws it out:

‘Hellas: half-naked men, their breasts gleaming with olive oil, sitting on the temple steps discoursing about the good and the true, while in the background lithe-limbed boys wrestle and a herd of goats contentedly grazes. Free minds in free bodies. More than an idealised picture: a dream, a delusion.’

Rome’s extreme militarism, too, offers the tempting idea that its citizens would have developed a near-perfect physique. It is true that these militaristic tendencies disposed the Romans to take grave exception to persons who did not fit into the uniform mould of the majority, and that they tended to interpret any irregularity of nature as a sign of impending catastrophe. But the perfect body of a Roman soldier is the stuff of post-Renaissance imagination and subsequent fascist fantasy. The idea of the Romans’ physical perfection, fed by the reception of the classics in art and literature and by the recently-developed ‘science’ of eugenics, was central to Mussolini’s ‘religion’ of Romanitá but most certainly far removed from reality.

In fact, ancient Greece and Rome were inhabited by a significant number of people with visible disabilities. An excavation of a fifth-century burial site in Greece, for instance, revealed that over 40 percent of the individuals buried there had some bone pathology, and the number of votive offerings, shaped to represent the ailing body parts, that are found in healing temples also shows that disease and disability were not unknown to the Greeks and Romans. In fact, in any given public gathering place, one would have seen a much greater variety of physical conditions than one would see in the developed world today,” as Martha Rose puts it. She further observes that this variety would have included not only the ‘lithe-limbed boys’ we see in sculpture but children affected with clubfoot, people with cerebral palsy, mutilated war veterans, and many other people with various forms of disability – many of which one would not see today. This is due not only to the different level of medical development in the ancient world, but also to a different social environment. Unlike in the modern era, even the most minor injury could result in a permanent disability in antiquity, and there was no equivalent to the NHS that would guarantee a visit from a doctor to an ill or injured person. And even if the doctor did come, one’s chances of recovery did not increase significantly since there was no uniform medical training. In these circumstances, the potential that one could become disabled was a simple fact of life, and, like elsewhere in the ancient world, there was certainly a significant number of people living with a disability throughout the Greco-Roman world.

Evidence of this can also be found in the ancient Greek and Latin languages. Although there is no exact equivalent of the term “disabled” as we define it today, both languages possess an extensive list of terms that describe conditions of being lame, blind, missing a limb, suffering from a disease, etc. It is important to analyse this terminology as it is always, and in any language, highly revealing of social attitude.


Many of these terms were quite general. The Greek word pêros (“maimed”) and its many variations denoted any body that deviated significantly in outward appearance from the standard, much like the Latin term deformis, which Lewis and Short define as “departing either physically or morally from the right shape, quality etc.” The huge breadth of both terms is apparent from the contexts in which they are found. The Greek pêros is used both by Homer to describe the (probably) paralysed Thamyris, whom the muses “maimed” for his attempt to rival them, and by Aristotle, whose Generation of Animals mentions the “deformity” of baldness (784a). The Latin term, too, has a variety of meanings. Cicero (Cael. 3.6, Inv. 1.24) frequently uses it as “ugly”, although with a note of moral judgement, but links it to disability in his treatise on Oratory, in which he states that ‘in deformity and bodily disfigurement there is good material for making jokes’ (239). The breadth of this word – and a likely Greek influence on its meaning – is apparent from Suetonius’ description of Domitian as having been “deformed by baldness” in his later years (Dom. 18). Another pair of terms sometimes used to describe people with physical variations has a broad meaning fluctuating between “ugly” and “disgraceful” (aischros in Ancient Greek and turpis in Latin) – sometimes making it barely translatable. While it is clear that Homer’s Thersites, with his limp, his bald head and disproportionate shoulders, is described as the ugliest man in Agamemnon’s army, what Plato (Laws 7.814) had in mind specifically when he discussed "a crude form of dance that imitates the movements of ugly people (aischionôn)" is anyone’s guess. The Latin turpis is somewhat different in use. Vergil uses it as an epithet of disease (turpisque podagras, turpis scabies) rather than a person, while Ovid tends to associate it with old age rather disfigurement. Horace, however, describes “a foul herd of men,” either shameful with or disfigured by disease – or both, testifying to the Romans’ common interpretation of disease as something inappropriate.

Some better-defined terms include the Greek word kolobos, which, as Aristotle plainly states,“can only refer to an object or a body that is missing something, such as a vessel missing a handle or a person missing an irreplaceable extremity.” (Met. 5.27.3-4 1024a). Although we have no precise definition for the term’s closest Latin equivalent, mutilus, it is used to refer to soldiers who have cut off a toe to avoid military service and of horned animals missing a horn. Similarly, the meaning of ‘lameness’ (chlobos in Greek and clauditas in Latin) is restricted mainly to an abnormal gait. However, even the better-defined, neutral terms always carry a cultural load.


Although it is highly improbable that any author ever ventured to purposefully create an inoffensive vocabulary to describe the disabled, even the existing neutral terms were subject to what we now call the “euphemism treadmill”, a process in which the overuse of a correct, polite term for a specific disability results in its turning into a dysphemism – i.e., a swear-word. The Latin word mutus is a good example of this as its use parallels that of its English translation, “dumb”. Originally onomatopoeic, imitating the ‘mu’ sound of animals incapable of speech, it gradually came to denote someone who is either incapable of speech, either physically or mentally, and the latter became a term of offence. Similarly, claudus, mentioned above, acquired an offensive meaning, vaguely similar to that of “defective” or “untrustworthy” (Livy 37.24, Ovid Pont. 3.1.86),  – much like its English equivalent, “lame”, has come to mean “pathetic” in the younger generation’s vocabulary, to the point of rarely being used to refer to a specific gait.


The pair of terms that has been seen by some as revealing the Greeks' and Romans' sharply negative attitude to the disabled is the Greek teras and the Latin monstrum. Both terms are used in extant texts to describe physical (usually developmental) anomalies in both people and animals – but also referring to frightful mythological creatures. Homer describes the head of Gorgon Medusa as “the teras of Aegis-bearing Zeus” (Il. 5.741), clearly referring to her terrifying appearance and powers. But Aristotle, no doubt aware of the Homeric use, chose teras as the most appropriate term for the discussion of congenital deformity in his Generation of Animals. However, it is important to note that Aristotle, at least through context, was aware of the earlier, etymological meaning of the term. Teras originates from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “sorcery”, and at first used to denote a natural marvel, or a divine sign – much like monstrum, which is etymologically related to monere (“to warn”) and used to describe a divine sign or warning. Both teras and monstrum were also frequently used not only of mythological creatures and people with physical disabilities, but of various phenomena that violate the perceived 'natural order'. Livy, for instance, when he refers to both ‘a lamb with a pig’s head’ and ‘a sixteen-year old of indeterminate sex’ as monstri, sees both as departures from nature that signify a forthcoming disaster (31.12.6-8). There was indeed a time when the Romans' attitude towards congenitally disabled infants was very negative – but only a brief one and, as discussed in the article about human portents on this website, authors contemporary with Livy used to rebuke this kind of attitude, saying that the disabled are people "whose nature is the same as everyone else’s and who are not monsters.Whether Aristotle in his work intended to use the term as offensive, or just attempted to indicate the difference between the phenomena he describes and the 'norm' is impossible to determine. It is clear, however, that no neutral term for people with disabilities existed in Ancient Greek or Latin. 

It is thus evident from their languages that the Greeks and Romans perceived disability in a very different way than we do today. Neither of the languages possessed a term precisely meaning 'disabled': one was either able to do some things, or nothing at all. The number and variety of terms denoting various forms of disability, on the other hand, suggests that it was, contrary to post-Renaissance imaginings, a relatively common phenomenon in the Greco-Roman world. And although no evidence survives of anyone at the time attempting to construct a set of neutral terms denoting disabilities, it is partly because of the state of medical science. The modern vocabulary of disability is fairly neutral since it describes one's condition through its cause. Achondroplasia, for instance, indicates the cause, a lack of cartilage growth, rather than the appearance of the person affected by it. A Greek or Roman writer, on the other hand, had no means to determine the cause and could only describe the effect. It is perfectly reasonable that the modern eye, used to proper diagnosis, sees such terms as offensive, but there were few alternatives in the ancient world. 

Alexandra Zhirnova


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© 2019 by Alexandra Zhirnova