The "Era of Extermination":
Ancient Greece and Intellectual Disability

M. Lynn Rose

Truman State University


Intellectual disability mirrored the ancient Greek socio-economic hierarchy. Literate Greeks observed that uneducated people lacked the characteristics of the educated; that is, that the poor, rural population lacked the characteristics of the wealthy elite.  Intellectual inferiority also resulted from the socio-economic hierarchy; that is, poor Greek peasants' intellectual development was stunted by scarce resources and low expectations.  Poverty has ramifications in nutrition, medical care, and the social and intellectual environment. Mild intellectual disability (which composes the vast bulk of all intellectual disability) has an intergenerational nature, and while not all poor people live with intellectual disability, intellectual disability is a phenomenon of the poor.  Such conditions—erratic nutrition, herbal-magical medical care, and generation after generation in the isolated villages and islands of ancient Greece—were standard for the poor country-dweller.  A wide variety of Greek literature, from the Homeric epics through Plutarch's essays, portrays people who differed in intellectual ability, and there is a rich Greek vocabulary for intellectual inferiority.  The conceptual distance between uneducated to uneducable is short, nor is it a long step from hereditary aristocratic intelligence to hereditary rural stupidity.  Intellectual deficiency was an expected, appropriate characteristic of the agroikos, as Avital Ronell points out in Stupidity (University of Illinois, 2002.)

Fortified by the deeply ingrained popular misperception that all Greeks routinely hurled their physically disabled babies from cliffs, the view of ancient Greece as an era of extermination of people with any sort of disability has become a staple "fact" in popular culture.  Martin Barr, in his 1904 Mental Defectives, writes that in ancient times, "the awful appellation 'idiot' not only inspired horror and disgust, but meant, for the unfortunate, a forfeiture of all human rights and privileges."  A 1965 handbook on special education calls ancient Greece an "era of extermination" of people who were intellectually inferior, and even R.C. Scheerenberger, the author of the standard history of mental retardation, published in 1983, states that mentally retarded people had no place in Classical Greek society.  A Google search using key phrases such as "mental retardation and ancient Greece" confirms this pervasive misunderstanding about the attitude toward people with intellectual disabilities in ancient Greece.

Even if the inequitable distribution of expectations and resources resulted in populations with a large number of people with what we today would term intellectual disability, an attitude of horror and disgust, let alone an "era of extermination," does not necessarily follow.  A collective eugenic impulse can only be expressed against a category of people.  The category of intellectual disability to which Martin Barr refers, a category that draws on Greek words such as "idiot" and "moron," would only be invented about two millennia after the end of Classical Greek civilization.  Even if the entire Greek peasant population was expected to be intellectually inferior, and even if the entire population sunk to these expectations, there was no reason for aristocrats to want to "kill the peasant goose that laid them golden eggs," as Peter Garnsey puts it in Food and Society in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge UP, 1999).  The collective eugenic impulse against people with intellectual disabilities is a product of our own age, not a Greek legacy.

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]