Ancient Greece boasted many examples of forward-thinking ideas: they invented the concept of democracy, they laid the groundwork for much of Western philosophy, and made some of the earliest forays into science. It turns out, they might have also been way ahead of their time when it came to disabled access and inclusivity too.
While often ignored by archeologists, many ancient Greek temples are known to feature ramps leading up to their entrance. Reported in the journal Antiquity, a new study argues these ramps were most likely used to help people with disabilities access the building.
There is no specific evidence that conclusively explains what these ramps were used for. However, the study explains that the concentration of ramps at sites frequented by people with mobility impairments strongly suggests that the ancient Greeks actively catered for the needs of the those with disabilities.
“The ancient Greeks weren’t some utopian society who treated everyone fairly,” Dr Debby Sneed, lead study author and archaeologists from California State University, Long Beach, told IFLScience.
“It is not a 'given' that ancient Greeks would expend their time, money, and resources to build ramps to make these religious spaces accessible to disabled people, but the fact that they did – and without civil rights legislation requiring them to do so – suggests that we need to rethink ancient Greek society and consider what and whom they prioritized and why,” they added.
It’s especially noteworthy that ramps can be found at many of the temples that served as healing sanctuaries for the sick or disabled, so easy access was a prime concern. Within these sanctuaries, people with disabilities are known to have sought healing from Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, healing, and doctors. A sanctuary to Asclepius in an ancient Greek city of Corinth, built in the fourth century BCE, is known to have held a large number of false limbs, which archaeologists believe are offerings to the god used by people to request healing of their own limbs.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus, another large healing sanctuary, featured at least 11 stone ramps installed on nine structures during renovations that started in 370 BCE.
Disability was also embedded in the mythology of Ancient Greece, according to Dr Sneed. Hephaestus, the Olympian god of metalworking, smiths, and stone masonry, was said to be born with a disabled leg and walked with a limp. While he did face some antagonism for this disability, it certainly shows that the ancient Greeks did not shy away from the topic in their myths.
“In ‘real life,’ there are people like an unnamed 4th century BCE man whom we know from a speech he gave defending himself against a charge of welfare fraud,” Dr Sneed continued to explain. “Ancient Athens had a disability pension system – if you were disabled and couldn’t work as a result of your disability, you were entitled to maintenance from the city. This man, who says he walks with the aid of two crutches, has been accused of not needing it, and we have his entire defense."
We also find this in Ancient Greek pottery, which has been found to feature illustrations of the elderly showing signs of disability and people using a walking stick. Indeed, one archaeological survey at a Classical-period cemetery in Amphipolis suggests the majority of the people buried there had osteoarthritis, a condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff.
It’s easy to assume the “unenlightened” ancient world was hostile towards those with disabilities as if those with a physical impairment were always treated as a social pariah. However, on the contrary, these findings could be used to make the argument that many people with disabilities were not necessarily met with much social exclusion. “Mobility impairments, in and of themselves, did not mark out an individual as exceptional,” the paper reads.
“This is now the earliest evidence we have to show that ancient societies were not only capable of giving active and conscious attention to the needs of their disabled community members but that they sometimes chose to expend considerable resources and labour in order to make certain spaces more inclusive of a wide range of body types,” said Dr Sneed.
Edited 21/07/2020: This article has been edited to include comments from the study author.