Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Roman-era necropolis for the poor found intact

In my last post, I talked about how finding everyday cargo in sunken ancient ships helps us to understand the common man in the ancient world. This newly found necropolis takes that frame of though even further; by studying the ancient common man himself. The skeletons found in these 1-2nd century CE tombs represent the huge class divisions within the "Pax Romana." These laborers likely have skeletal damage similar to those of other contemporary burials found thoughout the empire. For everyone but the super rich and powerful, life was hard and the tolls taken by the body led to injury and early death. The Emperor Augustus lived to be 75. The unprivileged laborer or slave probably would have been lucky to see 40. The disparities in the lifestyle of classes in ancient Rome is nothing new and is a topic that has been well documented in recent years. What really peeks my interest about this necropolis is the male skeleton with the fused jaw. Today, differently-abled individual are treated as equal members of society, as of course they should be. The ancient world had different views. It was common practice in ancient Rome for the father of a new born the "judge" the child before accepting it into his household. Physically deformed children were commonly exposed, either to die or possibly be snatched up for the purpose of slavery. Physical deformities where not looked kindly upon, whether it be a new born or grown person. The Roman virtue of constantinum was at odds with being physically infirm. That's not to say that disabled people where rounded up the disposed of, but they weren't generally accepted as important members of society. Of course, I'm speaking in generalizations here, so let me not stray from my point. Ancient Roman sources are mute about such people, as they are mute about most people outside their social class. What this new found skeleton shows us is that we need to take a second look on how these people where treated in society. Someone obviously helped care for this person, though to what extent and how long we can not tell. Regardless, though, our perceptions on the treatment of physically disabled people in the ancient world need to re reexamined.