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International Day of Disabled: How Ancient Greeks Cared for Them

A digital rendering of the fourth-century B.C. Temple of Asklepios at Epidaurus (right). Notice the ramp on the temple’s east side allowing easy access for the disabled in ancient Greece. (Image credit: ©2019 J. Goodinson; Scientific advisor J. Svolos; © Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2020)

As the world marks the International Day of Disabled Persons on December 3, new evidence emerges on how the ancient Greeks had the disabled in mind when they constructed buildings, especially those having to do with healing.

Building graceful stone ramps at the entrances to temples, the Greeks of antiquity showed they were indeed sensitive to the needs of those who found it difficult to navigate stairs.

Although not widespread, the presence of such ramps at the sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidaurus as well as Corinth is evidence that the disabled were accommodated, at least when they were attempting to be healed.

Dr. Debby Sneed, a lecturer in the Department of Classics at California State University, Long Beach, states in articles and an upcoming online presentation for the Classics, Ancient History, and Archaeology department at the UK’s University of Birmingham that making facilities accessible to the disabled and elderly was the function of the ramps once featured at these sanctuaries.

Disabled in Ancient Greece were accommodated in a number of surprising ways

Dr. Sneed’s paper on the subject, published in the journal Antiquity, called “The Life Cycle of Disability in Ancient Greece,” was awarded the Ben Cullen Prize for outstanding work in archaeology.

Sneed posits that the ancient Greeks, “especially those constructing monumental buildings in the 4th century BC, built stone ramps at healing sanctuaries of Asklepios in order to make the buildings accessible to mobility-impaired visitors, which can include not just disabled people, but also the elderly, pregnant women, small children, and anyone for whom a ramp is easier than stairs,” she tells Greek Reporter.

This, she says, was “the primary function of the ramps even if they could also serve additional functions (like moving heavy items in and out of the temples).

Sneed says that: “Because of this understanding of ramps, we can apply the interpretation to other, non-healing contexts: the ramp that led up to the Acropolis in Athens, for example, was 10 meters (33 feet) wide by 80 meters (262 feet) long, and while it likely also provided a means for conveying building materials and sacrificial animals up the slopes, it also would have provided access to mobility-impaired Athenians participating in the Panathenaia, for example.”

Ramps on Acropolis harken back to original access

Many recall the recent scenes of the construction of ramps at the Acropolis so that those in wheelchairs and individuals with mobility issues could have the total experience there. The concrete ramps installed at that time drew furor from some, who believed that no additional constructions should ever have been made atop the Holy Rock.

An exhibit at the Venice Biennale showed just how accessible the Acropolis was in ancient times, with one of the collaborators of the exhibit being Greece’s Mantha Zarmakoupi.

Given the new accessibility features on the Acropolis in Athens, Sneed says, it is important to realize “how it was originally (at least as early as the 6th century BC with the construction of the first ramp) intended to be accessible!”

“The collective experience of the ascent”

In ancient times, the path ascending the Acropolis was a ramp that led all the way from the Agora up to the Parthenon. This allowed for almost all people, regardless of disability, to be able to traverse the sloping route, “helping one another or being helped as needed within the collective experience of the ascent,” as the exhibit’s creators state.

However, “in the 19th century, the path was changed to its current form: a narrow, switchbacking trail in keeping with the times by embracing the romance of the solitary pilgrimage,” it was added. “But lost was the journey’s communal aspect, along with the potential for visitors with disabilities to join their peers in the ascent.”

And it wasn’t just in these monumental structures that the sensitivity to disabled people is found in the world of Ancient Greece. Sneed also focuses on other kinds of accessibility features we see in ancient Greece, such as “prostheses (including the so-called Capua limb from c. 300 BC) and other mobility aids like crutches and canes (as one seen tucked up under Hephaestus’s arm on the Parthenon frieze,” the professor says.

Hephaestus is seen on the right of the frieze, “and the crutch under his armpit would have been more visible originally, when the frieze retained its paint,” Sneed points out.

She states that the evidence for medical prostheses is also “both archaeological, and literary: a famous example comes from the work of Herodotus, who discusses a man named Hegesistratos of Elis who was imprisoned by the Spartans; he cut off part of his foot to escape his shackles, then when he was safe he had a wooden foot made from wood that he used as a prosthesis.”

Payments for the disabled in ancient Greece

The existence of such medical helpmeets has also been seen in the Egyptian mummy that had a wooden foot, which was interred with its owner and survives intact today.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Sneed also told Greek Reporter of a 4th century BC law in Athens that “provided a daily pension for disabled citizens, known from multiple sources, including a speech written by the orator Lysias.”

“In this speech, known as ‘Lysias 24,'” Sneed says, “a man (whose name we never learn) was accused of receiving this pension fraudulently, and he is defending his right to it, pointing to the fact that he uses two crutches to move around and that he rides horses for the same reason (that is, the horses are another mobility aid for him).”

He says he has no family to care for him, and no enslaved people to assist him in his shop although we never learn the type of business he has. Finally, he says as he’s aging he’s only getting more disabled, so he asks, why he would receive the pension when he was young, stronger, and disabled and not in older age when he was weaker and still disabled.

At the end of her presentations, Sneed explains, she draws a critical distinction between what we call accommodations, which are after-the-fact modifications to existing structures, to what she calls “accessibility features” that were part of the original structures.

We must make accommodations since most of our buildings were built for able-bodied people: “we have to modify our society to accommodate disabled people in it,” she states.

However, in the days of Ancient Greece, “at healing sanctuaries, disabled people were factored in from the beginning, as evidenced by the construction of ramps,” she points out. “The ramps weren’t added later, but were included as a part of the 4th century BC building program, and they didn’t require laws that required them to do it…it was just a practical matter of ‘Who’s going to use this sanctuary? We should build it in such a way that they can use it.'”

Dr. Sneed received her B.A. from the University of Wyoming, her M.A. from the University of Colorado, and her Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Her article “The architecture of Access: Ramps at Ancient Greek healing sanctuaries” was published in 2020 in the journal Antiquity; her forthcoming works include “Disability and infanticide in ancient Greece” (Hesperia, 2021).

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