“The visibly disabled body intrudes on our routine visual landscape and compels our attention, often obscuring the personhood of its bearer. Sometimes our startled eyes can stay with such a sight, and sometimes they flee in strained distress. The appearance of disability in the public sphere makes, then, for a stareable sight. “
Pliny, Natural History, VII.16: “Our Annals do not inform us what was the height of Nævius Pollio; but we learn from them that he nearly lost his life from the rush of the people to see him, and that he was looked upon as a prodigy.” Translation John Bostock, 1855
Naevius Pollio was a Roman citizen, and Columella (3.8.2) tells us that Cicero claimed he was a foot taller than the tallest man (According to Lacus Curtius the source of the story is a lost work of Cicero, De Admirandis.
The literary sources do not mention any negative feelings toward the man, no anger or hatred, only a “rush of people”. Can this near-fatal onslaught of people who want to see this individual be considered a ‘positive’ reaction? A hint may be found in the original Latin (naevii pollionis amplitudinem annales non tradunt, sed quia populi concursu paene sit interemptus, vice prodigii habitum), wherein the term ‘prodigium’ can be translated in either a good or a bad sense: as a prophetic sign, token, omen, portent, prodigy. Regardless, it is evident that the overwhelming response to the unusual height of Naevius Pollio was one of eagerness for proximity – people wanted to see this prodigy for themselves, they wanted to be near him so that they might believe what their eyes were telling them was extraordinary and even unbelievable.