The emperor was the most important individual in ancient Rome, and his actions were constantly observed and scrutinized. Any individual in the company of the emperor would be noticed, particularly during gladiatorial shows, wherein the emperor occupied the best seat in the house. Therefore, the unusual little boy in the following passage was visually accessible through his physical proximity to the most important man in the Empire.
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Domitian 4: “Throughout every gladiatorial show Domitian would chat, sometimes in very serious tones, with a little boy who had a grotesquely small head and always stood at his knee dressed in red.” (Translation Robert Graves, 1965)
Note: The original Latin reads “puerulus coccinatus paruo portentosoque capite”, or a small and unnatural/monstrous head. According to Lewis & Short, the adjective ‘portentum’ can be translated as “full of monsters, monstrous, portentous, unnatural, hideous, revolting, etc” but it is significant to mention that it is also used “of wonderful things” and therefore cannot be understood as being expressly negative.
We learn from Pliny VII.16 that other members of the Imperial family were seen with unusual physical specimens (“In the reign of the same emperor, there was a man also, remarkable for his extremely diminutive stature, being only two feet and a palm in height; his name was Conopas, and he was a great pet with Julia, the grand-daughter of Augustus”.) However, this example of Domitian and his puerulus is notable because of the ostentious public display of this child at the side of the emperor.
The “grotesquely small head” can be interpreted as microencephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder which results in unusually small skull and brain, and accompanying physical and mental impairments
Individuals suffering from microencephaly were often dubbed ‘pinheads’ in the early modern circus sideshows, and put on display as ‘missing links’. One example is an individual named Schlitzie, shown here, who was made famous in Tod Browning’s 1932 film, Freaks.