The “Freak” As Ableist Construct in the Classical World

April 26, 2012 in General

As I have a forthcoming piece on the intersex surgery debate, here’s a useful historical perspective. In ancient Rome, people with disabilities and variant physiologies were viewed as ‘freaks,’ and treated as objects for display and curiousity at their anomalous appearance.

Canadian historian Lisa Trentin catalogues a series of such exploitative, stigmatising portrayals of those with physicial disabilities and variant bodies, such as those with spinal musculo-skeletal curvature (‘hunchbacks’). Still, this visual stigmatisation didn’t always translate into discrimination and social exclusion, as some of those with physiological anomalies and physical disabilities found employment as imperial spies, informants and lovers of the elite- although as a consequence, they were viewed as ‘constitutionally corrupt’ due to their association with less popular emperors such as Tiberius or Commodus. However, at the same time, Roman commoners were leaving disabled infants out in the wilderness as a form of infanticide through abandonment and exposure.

Indeed, this stigmatisation and spectacular display didn’t end with the fall of Rome. As Trentin notes, this continued to occur within circuses which featured ‘hermaphrodites’ (intersex individuals) and ‘Siamese’ (conjoined) twins until the middle of last century. In today’s world, LGBT communities have taken up the cause of medical non-intervention in the context of intersex infants and some disability rights campaigners are similarly engaged when it comes to non-lethal forms of conjoinment that do not endanger the lives of one or both twins.


Lisa Trentin: “Deformity in the Roman Imperial Court” Greece and Rome: 58.2. (2012).

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