“Seeing disability reminds us of what Bryan S. Turner (2006) calls “ontological contingency,” the truth of our body’s vulnerability to the randomness of fate.” (Garland, 19)
Here is one of the few passages we have with a negative reaction to humans put on display for the public as spectacle:
Lucian, Literary Prometheus IV: “Ptolemy, son of Lagus, imported two novelties into Egypt; one was a pure black Bactrian camel, the other a piebald man, half absolutely black and half unusually white, the two colours evenly distributed; he invited the Egyptians to the theatre, and concluded a varied show with these two, expecting to bring down the house. The audience, however, was terrified by the camel and almost stampeded; still, it was decked all over with gold, had purple housings and a richly jewelled bridle, the spoil of Darius’ or Cambyses’ treasury, if not of Cyrus’ own. As for the man, a few laughed at him, but most shrank as from a monster. Ptolemy realized that the show was a failure, and the Egyptians proof against mere novelty, preferring harmony and beauty.” Translation F.G. Fowler, 1905
It is interesting to note that Lucian, a Roman from Samosata, was writing in 120 CE about an event that (presumably) took place in the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (367-283 BCE), at least 300 years in the past. Why? What message was his intended audience (the Romans) to take from such a story? Perhaps to contrast the reactions of the Egyptians with those of his fellow Romans? The failure of Ptolemy’s spectacle is highlighted in the final words of the sentence: “The Egyptians…preferring harmony and beauty.” The ancient Greek is even more revealing: εὔρυθμον καὶ τὸ εὔμορφον κρίνουσι, or “they choose well-proportioned and well-formed [individuals or things implied]”. I believe that the effectiveness of Lucian’s statement lies in the contrast between his contemporaries, the Roman people, and the “other”, the Egyptians; by highlighting the reaction of the Egyptians, we can understand that it is an unusual reaction, one that is not the common reaction for a Roman, but a reaction that a foreigner, a non-Roman, would experience. Therefore, it is telling for our understanding of the Roman acceptance of the unusual human body as spectacle: not only did they expect and accept it – perhaps they preferred (chose’, or ‘κρίνουσι’) to see the opposite – the unusually-proportioned and deformed.
Remember the Monster-Market?
Plutarch De Curiositate 10/Moralia 520c: “Therefore just as at Rome there are some who take no account of paintings or statues or even, by Heaven, of the beauty of the boys and women for sale, but haunt the monster-market, examining those who have no calves, or are weasel-armed, or have three eyes, or ostrich-heads, and searching to learn whether there has been born some commingled shape and misformed prodigy, yet if one continually conduct them to such sights, they will soon experience satiety and nausea…”
In the ancient Greek: πλησμονὴν καὶ ναυτίαν (satiety and nausea) is caused by ζητοῦντες εἴ τι γεγένηται σύμμικτον εἶδος κἀποφώλιον τέρας. The word teras/τέρας is translated in our example as prodigy, but can also be translated as a sign, a wonder, a marvel or, in a very concrete sense, a monster. In this latter sense one must be careful not to ascribe a value-judgement to the word ‘monster’ but, rather, understand it as being purely descriptive. The ‘nausea’ is a purely negative usage as, according to Liddel and Scott, the word holds implications of disgust. This is, to my knowledge, the only example of a purely negative emotional reaction to the physical appearance of a human being on display that occurs in Rome itself (“Therefore just as at Rome…”). Problematic, however, is the fact that the author, Plutarch, is Greek, and one might interpret this passage as the observations of a foreigner commenting on the practices of the Romans, superimposing personal value-judgments and all (“they will soon experience satiety and nausea”).