The Roman emperor Claudius walked with a limp, spoke a with a stutter, and sometimes experienced sudden and uncontrollable movements of his body. These effects were moderate when he was calm but became more pronounced when he was agitated. Claudius’ symptoms are well documented and modern scholars have suggested various diagnoses. Polio was at one time the preferred explanation but has fallen out of favor. More recent suggestions are cerebral palsy and Tourette syndrome.
If he lived today, Claudius could be diagnosed and receive appropriate treatment or accommodation. The systems we have now to describe various disabilities helps us to recognize an individual’s particular set of symptoms as part of an identifiable condition or disease. Knowing what to call things, where they come from, and how to treat or accommodate them makes a difference to how we handle individual cases. In antiquity, all anyone knew was that Claudius behaved strangely in ways that no one could explain.
Lack of labels and explanations does not mean that people did not live with all the same things we live with today. Some are obvious. Romans may not have been able to explain why Claudius’ distant relative, the censor Appius Claudius Caecus, went blind, but there was no doubt about the state of his vision. Other conditions are less obvious, but no less real.
We have only very recently learned to recognize the chronic traumatic encephalopathy experienced by sports players who receive repeated trauma to the head, for example, but brains are not more vulnerable now than they were in past centuries. For most of the past several thousand years, war has meant large numbers of people repeatedly hitting each other in the head, with or without helmets. CTE and the changes in behavior that go with it must have been part of the experience of pre-modern warriors, whether they knew how to identify it or not.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is also a modern diagnosis, but people have always experienced traumatic stresses, not just in warfare but from violence within families and between individuals, sexual assault, and life-threatening accidents. In any population that has experienced such stress, some individuals will experience aftereffects, whether they have a name for them or not.
Similarly, we have only recently (in historical terms) learned to diagnose autism and related conditions, but people have lived with them throughout human history. The same can be said of Alzheimer’s disease. Many people who are described in historical sources as “simple-minded,” “senile,” etc. may have been living with one of these conditions.
Even when people couldn’t name or explain the disabilities and conditions they lived with, their experiences of life could be profoundly shaped by them. Claudius’ family considered him an embarrassment and kept him out of public view. He himself reportedly exaggerated his symptoms and avoided the public sphere when he was a young man to keep himself from seeming like a threat to the rest of the dynasty, which may have helped him survive the murderous palace intrigues of the early empire. When he unexpectedly became emperor after the assassination of Caligula, though, his lack of experience in public business made his claim to the title precarious. To improve his reputation, he initiated the Roman conquest of Britain. Claudius’ condition, whatever it was, ended up affecting the lives of thousands of people.
Thoughts for writers
Historians and writers of speculative fiction are in a similar position: we spend our time thinking about a world in terms that the people living in it would not, perhaps even could not, think of themselves. No historian can suppose that Romans simply didn’t experience post-traumatic stress disorder because they didn’t have a word for it. Writers have a similar responsibility.
Of course, in speculative fiction, anything is possible. We can imagine worlds with magic, or warp drive, or both. We can imagine worlds without gender, without water, without music. All of these are valid artistic choices, but we have to recognize them as choices and take seriously the causes and consequences of those choices.
It’s entirely plausible to construct a fictional world in which people don’t have a word for autism or don’t recognize cerebral palsy as a physical condition, but those conditions exist and affect people whether their culture acknowledges them or not. An ancient Roman could not have explained the laws of gravity, but things still fell down. To create a fictional world in which such conditions simply do not exist is a choice. If we make that choice as writers, we owe it as much serious thought as if we created a world without gravity. Creating a world in which people do not understand disabilities is no excuse for creating a world in which no one experiences a disability.
(Author’s note: I have tried, to the best of my understanding, to use the current accepted terminology to refer to the various symptoms, conditions, and disabilities I have mentioned in this post, but if I have made any mistakes, I welcome corrections in the comments and will update the post accordingly.)
Image: Portrait head of Claudius, photograph by Cnyborg via Wikimedia (currently Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; 1st c. CE; marble)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.