chapter  2
22 Pages

Infirmitas or Not? Short-statured Persons in Ancient Greece

ByVéronique Dasen

The study of short-statured persons in Antiquity can serve as a warning to our tendency to project a modern notion of disability1 onto past societies. When I initiated my research on dwarfism in 1983,2 my main goal was to provide a case study comparing the perception of physical developmental defects in two ancient Mediterranean cultures, Egypt and Greece. Dwarfism was particularly interesting as it was almost absent from literature but well documented in iconography. I collected a fairly large number of visual representations which contrasted greatly with the paucity of pictures illustrating other physical disorders. The case study turned out to be an exception among people with disabilities in Antiquity and did not allow for general conclusions on the status of disabled persons in the past. Today, the notion of ‘disability’ covers a large variety of physical limitations, more or less severe, spectacular or unnoticeable, eased or not by special devices and experienced by people who did not form a consistent group in the past. Physical disability as a category did not exist in Antiquity. Having a pathological short stature meant that a person was considered to be ‘different’ within a community, just like people with other physical disorders, but their appearance was not regarded as a defect or an illness. Dwarfs can be physically fit and mentally sound. They were not considered to

* I thank Alexandre Mitchell from Expressum LTD ( for revising my English text.