Disability in Ancient Greek Law and Society

Taken together, the institution of public examinations for state benefits, the case itself, and our surviving defense speech necessarily raise questions about the conceptualization of “disability” and attitudes towards the disabled both in Athenian society and the ancient Greek world as a whole. Like many forms of identity, notions of disability and who is disabled are socially constructed and historically contingent (Rose 2003; a number of essays in Breitweiser 2012; Laes, Goody, and Rose 2013). Recent studies of disability in the ancient Greek world have challenged long-standing assumptions that ancient people living with physical and mental disabilities were universally marginalized objects of pity and scorn (e.g., Rose 2003; Sneed 2020; Sneed 2021). Individuals living with physical and/or mental impairments were visible, integrated, and often prosperous, members of Greek society. Children born with physical disabilities were often lovingly reared to adulthood, not routinely exposed at birth (Sneed 2021). Ancient healing sanctuaries, public spaces often frequented by individuals with physical impairments, were designed and constructed with accessibility in mind (Sneed 2020). The acceptance and integration of disabled individuals into society is also reflected in the vocabulary of disability. While quite numerous, Ancient Greek terms for disability lack systematic medicalized specificity like that found in modern societies. This general vagueness has been interpreted as further evidence for the “interwoven position” of disabled individuals in Greek society (Samama 2016: 121). Based on this evidence, the disability scholar Martha Rose has recently made the argument that ancient Greeks did not conceive of a category of individuals as “disabled” in a way that could be seen as analogous to our modern categorizations, which operate under a static dichotomy between “able-bodied” and “disabled” (Rose 2003, Rose 2016). Rather, Greeks viewed individuals as having the potential to move in and out of various physical and mental states that could be variously categorized as able-bodied or disabled during the course of their life.

While scholars like Martha Rose have challenged the existence in the ancient Greek mind of a conceptual category of “the disabled” akin to our modern definitions (Rose 2003: 95-100), Lysias 24 provides evidence, supported by other sources, that Athenians did have some conception of “disabled” men as a protected class of citizens (Dillon 1995; Penrose 2015; Dillon 2016). Twice during the speech (Chs. 4 and 13), Lysias has the defendant refer to the challenger’s accusation that he is not one “of the disabled” (τῶν ἀδυνάτων). It is quite likely here that the defendant is paraphrasing or quoting the (now lost) speech of the challenger, and the use of the substantive adjective suggests that the adjective is being used to refer to a recognized category or class of citizens.

Who exactly, then, were these οἱ ἀδυνάτοι and what determined their classification? How does this category of “disabled” (if we accept its existence at all) align with and differ from our modern categorization and classifications? The defendant in Lysias 24 reports that his challenger claims that he is not one “of the disabled” because he earns an income from a workshop and rides a horse. Taken together, these two accusations suggest that to be classed as an οἱ ἀδυνάτοι, and thus qualify for the state benefit, a (male) citizen must live with a physical impairment that prevents him from earning an income. The Athenian Constitution (Ath. Pol.), a work written by Aristotle or one of his students that outlines the history of the Athenian political system and describes important institutions, supports this reconstruction. The practice of public examinations (dokimasia), mentioned above, is one of the political institutions surveyed by the author of the Athenian Constitution. This discussion covers the public examination of citizens for who received state support (Ath. Pol. 49.4 and discussion at Rhodes 1981: 570-71):

The Council examines the disabled (τοὺς ἀδυνάτους); for there is a law which stipulates that men who possess less than three minai [of property] and are physically impaired (τὸ σῶμα πεπηρωμένους), with the result that they are unable to do any work, undergo an examination before the Council and that the Council provide them two obols a day, at public expense, for their support.

Like Lysias several decades earlier, the author of the Athenian Constitution uses ἀδύνατος when describing a class of citizens whose physical disability prevents them from earning an income and thus leaves them in poverty. Rose (2003: 96) misreads the Greek of Aristotle (Dean-Jones 2005: 532) when she argues that the law broadly defined οἱ ἀδυνάτοι as any citizen male who was unable to support himself regardless of physical disability.

Based on this evidence, it is quite plausible to conclude that Athenian society did have a conception of “the disabled” as a protected class of citizens. At the same time, it is also apparent that this categorization or classification of “disability” is different from our modern conceptions in important ways. For in Athenian law (and Athens appears to be the only Greek city to legislate around issues of physical disability), a physical disability alone would not make a citizen eligible for state support or, seemingly, classify them as οἱ ἀδυνάτοι. If this was not the case, then all our defendant would have to do to defeat his challenger and receive the state benefit would be to display his physical impairment to the Council. And indeed, our defendant does make mention of the visible indicators of his physical disability, most notably his use of two canes (24.12 and 24.14), while also recognizing that his appearance alone does not wholly suffice. Disability, then, is not always plainly visible in ancient society (Rose 2016). In other words, disability in Athenian law is not a wholly medicalized condition, determined or demarcated by the absence of physical (or mental) function; rather disability is defined by a physical impairment that has drastically limited one’s social function.

Suggested Citation

Taylor Coughlin, Lysias: For the Disabled Man (Oration 24). Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2022 ISBN: 978-1-947822-22-1