On A Limb

The classical world created a variety of means of mobility for the disabled – both mythical and real.

Modern reproduction of the Capua Limb  (c.300 BC), a now-destroyed Roman artificial leg, 1905-15.Hephaestos, the ancient Greek god of fire, smiths, craftsmen, metalworking, stonemasonry and sculpture, is the only Olympian with a physical impairment. His legs and feet are variously described in ancient literature as ‘lame’, ‘crooked’ or even ‘clubfooted’ and are often depicted in ancient art as backwards. The explanations given for this impairment vary from myth to myth: in some, he is described as having been impaired from birth; in others, he is described as having been injured when Zeus threw him from Mount Olympus and crash-landed on the island of Lemnos.

Despite these conflicting accounts, no matter what, his impairment is always one of his defining characteristics. He passed it on to two of his sons, Periphetes (also known as Korynetes) and Palaimonios. It was through this that their divine parentage was made clear – particularly useful for the latter when his paternity was contested. Hephaestos’ impairment has notable physical effects; he is described as being disproportionate, with legs more slender than one would expect them to be considering his size, and as moving slowly and awkwardly, which leaves him open to public mockery and humiliation from his peers. The most famous example of this occurs in Homer’s Iliad, when, serving the other Olympian deities drinks, he is compared to Zeus’ cup-bearer Ganymede and found wanting. Hilarity ensues.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Hephaestos is depicted in both ancient literature and art as employing his knowledge, skill and expertise in woodwork and metalwork to create numerous pieces of assistive technology to facilitate his movement. These range from a simple staff, to a pair of winged sandals, to a winged chariot, to automata in the form of a pair of golden maidens. But what of an ordinary person in classical antiquity experiencing some sort of physical impairment that affected their mobility? What sort of technology, if any, would they have had access to? The lived experience of the impaired and disabled in ancient Greece and Rome is not readily described, discussed, or even depicted in detail by ancient authors or artists. Any attempt made by historians to access this experience necessitates piecing together information from a wide range of literary, documentary, archaeological and bioarchaeological evidence. Once this is done, it is clear that the pieces of assistive technology utilised by Hephaestos – the staff, the winged sandals, the winged chariot, the automata – fantastical though most of them are, have counterparts in real artefacts used by ordinary impaired people in their daily lives.

Staffs, sticks and crutches

It was said that Hephaestos was associated with fire because, just as he would make no progress without his stick, fire would make no progress without wood. In the Iliad, the goddess Thetis visits Hephaestos to request that he forge a new set of armour and arms for her son, the hero Achilles. Hephaestos makes his way around his forge using a staff to support him. The staff, walking stick, or crutch is the piece of assistive technology most frequently depicted in ancient literature and art. It was associated in particular with the elderly and often referred to as ‘an old man’s weapon’, but it was used by anyone in need of support and stabilisation. The staffs depicted in ancient works of art, such as those decorating ancient Greek vases, are relatively plain and simple. They are tall and slender, either T-shaped, reverse L-shaped, or reverse J- shaped, with different types of crossbar at the top. It is clear that a considerable amount of thought went into their creation.

The ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus recommended using mallow for staffs because it grows to great heights quickly and is strong. He followed this up with an additional recommendation to use bay specifically for the creation of walking sticks for the elderly, because it is lightweight and therefore easier for them to manage. Many other materials were used, not just various types of wood, such as olive, laurel and fig. Olive wood, in particular, was readily available in the Mediterranean. Other more prestigious materials, including precious metals, such as gold, silver and orichalcum, and exotic imported substances, such as ivory, usually from elephants, but sometimes from hippopotamus or whale, were substituted. The standard Greek or Roman staff seems to have been relatively plain, as elaborately decorated staffs are commented on at length and decorations would reveal information about the user to the people they encountered.

One of the medical texts in the Hippocratic Corpus, Joints, recommends a variety of different types of crutch, depending on the condition diagnosed and the treatment prescribed. For untreated dislocations that had occurred in utero or in early childhood, one might use one or two crutches. For dislocations that occurred in adulthood and were not successfully reduced, leading to one leg being significantly shorter than the other, one could use a long crutch if capable of walking erect but could not or did not want to place the foot on the ground, or a shorter crutch for those who wanted to place the foot on the ground. Another Hippocratic treatise, Instruments of Reduction, also made recommendations regarding the use of mobility aids. A crutch should be short rather than long, since if it were long the user would not use the foot.

Staffs are not commonly found in the archaeological record, as organic materials such as wood only survive in extremely wet or extremely dry conditions. But evidence of their use can be seen on the skeletons of the individuals who used them. Examples include a skeleton of an elderly man from the Roman necropolis of Casalecchio di Reno in Bologna, which dates to the second or third century AD, which has pathological changes in the right-hand side of the upper body consistent with crutch use. He suffered from degeneration of the right hip, so much so that his right foot would have been unable to touch the ground. A skeleton of a middle-aged man from the Le Colombier cemetery in Vaison-la-Romaine, dating from the fifth or sixth century AD, has pathological changes on his right scapula that are consistent with crutch use, perhaps due to osteoarthritis in his right hip. A skeleton of a relatively young man from the Shurafa cemetery near Helouan attests that he suffered from hydrocephalus, which resulted in partial paralysis of the left hand side of his body. This necessitated the use of some sort of mobility aid. It has been proposed that he used a long staff, held in both hands across the body as a means of supporting the weaker left-hand side.

If the shoe fits

There are some curious depictions in ancient art of Hephaestos wearing winged shoes, a type of footwear usually associated with the god Hermes and the hero Perseus. These usually occur in conjunction with him assisting the birth of Athena, where he split open the head of Zeus with his axe to allow the goddess to emerge. They can perhaps be interpreted as indicating that he needed to be especially fast on this occasion, with the shoes making the normally slow-moving Hephaestos as swift as Hermes and Perseus.

These winged shoes have a counterpart in the corrective footwear that was recommended for the treatment of congenital conditions such as club foot, Talipes equinovarus. Ancient physicians recommended treating this condition as early as possible, although examples of untreated club feet are present in the archaeological record, such as in the skeleton of an adolescent from a Romano-British cemetery at Kingsholm in Gloucestershire, which has a wasted limb and would have had limited mobility as a result. Treatment for club foot involved dressing and bandaging the foot in a very particular way and then adding a sole made from a firm substance, such as stiff leather or lead. It was recognised that there would be variations in the severity of the condition and that the dressings and bandages applied should be likewise varied. If the manual adjustment, dressing and bandaging were not effective, one could go a step further and utilise corrective footwear. The Hippocratic treatises recommended a particular type of shoe, described as resembling a Chian or a Cretan boot, because it was unyielding; these two styles of ancient footwear seem to have been especially high boots. There are several ancient literary references to individuals with these sorts of conditions using corrective footwear. Their stories are repeated as amusing anecdotes by Plutarch and Athenaeus. One such individual was a music master, Damonidas, who lost a pair of boots specially made for his impaired feet. Depending upon how you interpret his response, he either generously or snidely prayed that they might fit the feet of the thief. Another was a musician named Dorion, who suffered from club foot and lost his specially made shoe at a party, which led him to curse the thief that the shoe might come to fit him.

Parts and service

The poet Erycius wrote an epigram that describes the experience of a farmer, Mindon, who was cutting down an olive tree when a spider crawled out from underneath it and bit him on the foot. The bite became infected and his leg was amputated and replaced with a prosthetic limb made from the very wood he had been cutting. The satirist Lucian tells a tale of a rich man who spent the night out in the snow and lost both feet to frostbite; he apparently replaced them with wooden feet upon which he took care to wear expensive shoes. According to Herodotus, the priest Hegesistratus of Elis, imprisoned by the Spartans, cut off part of his own foot so he could extricate himself from his shackles and flee. Once he was safe, he procured a prosthesis made of wood. It probably looked something like several examples of prosthetic toes in use in Egypt around the same time. The Greville Chester Toe, made from cartonnage, and the Cairo Toe, made from wood and leather and found fitted to the foot of a woman aged between 50 and 60, show the variety possible even in the smallest prosthetic device. Wear and tear on the bottom of these prostheses shows that they were worn for walking rather than just for appearances. Experimental reconstruction has shown that they could have been worn either barefoot or with sandals and would actually have been quite comfortable.

Much more elaborate and impressive than the Egyptian prosthetic toes is the ‘Capua Limb’, a prosthetic right leg recovered from a tomb in Capua, north of Naples, that can be dated to approximately 300 BC. It is one of the oldest known functional prosthetic limbs in the world. It consisted of a wooden core covered in bronze sheeting worn in conjunction with a leather and bronze belt and, assuming that the prosthesis could be securely fastened at the thigh and the waist, facilitating a limited amount of movement in conjunction with a crutch. Other finds recovered from the tomb were a bronze urn and some locally produced red-figure pottery. Judging by these and the materials used in the limb’s construction, it was likely to have been worn by a high-status individual, or at the very least, a wealthy one, perhaps a veteran of the Second Samnite War (327-304 BC) or even a retired gladiator. Capua was a city of considerable wealth and luxury, particularly feted for its bronze, so it would have been the perfect place to wear such an item.

It is not until Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages that we see evidence from sites in northern Europe for the use of extremity prostheses. A skeleton of a man missing a foot and bearing a prosthesis comprising a leather pouch with a wooden sole attached to it by iron nails in its place has been excavated at Bonaduz in Switzerland and dated to between the fifth and seventh centuries AD. The pouch was filled with hay and moss, presumably intended to cushion the stump, but possibly also to soak up pus from the wound. The individual lived for a maximum of two years after the amputation. It is debatable whether this prosthesis was functional in the sense of allowing the wearer to walk around since there seems to have been no means of attaching it to the ankle.

A skeleton of a man aged 35-50 years old missing his lower left leg and bearing a wood and metal prosthesis in its place has recently been excavated from a Frankish settlement at Hemmaberg in southern Austria and dated to the sixth century AD. There is evidence of osteoarthritis in the knees and shoulders, indicating that he used the prosthesis in conjunction with a crutch. A skeleton of a man aged 57-63 missing his lower left leg below the knee and bearing the remains of a wood and bronze prosthesis in its place has been excavated from a Frankish cemetery at Griesheim near Darmstadt in Germany from a site dating to the seventh or eighth century AD. The skeleton’s left femur was atrophied, indicating that the man had survived for a considerable time after the amputation but had only restricted movement.

Human help

Hephaestos built a number of chariots, including one with wings for himself that he is often depicted riding in on vase paintings. There are a few depictions of young children in ancient literature and art using wheeled walking frames similar to modern Zimmer frames, but none of adults doing something equivalent. There are rather more depictions of immobilised individuals being carried around in chairs and litters, at least for journeys of short duration; one example of this is Artemon, an immobilised siege-engine designer who was carried around in a litter during the siege of Athens. Longer journeys were probably carried out with the assistance of equids, such as donkeys or mules, and carts or wagons. Here we should bear in mind the mythological episode of the return of Hephaestos to Mount Olympus, a popular motif on Greek black- and red-figure vases in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Hephaestos is frequently shown riding a donkey. In mythological episodes where Hephaestos is depicted in the company of other Olympian deities, such as the wedding of the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus, he remains on his donkey, while the other deities are depicted either on horses or in horse-drawn chariots; this difference was perhaps intended to indicate his lower status, the result of his impairment.

But the assistive technology used by Hephaestos that has received the most attention from scholars is his pair of automata in the form of golden maidens. While he is described as fashioning a range of automata (variously humanoid, animal and tripod in form), all of which served and assisted either gods or mortals in some way, he fashioned for himself a pair of golden maidens to serve and assist him in his workshop. This link between assistive technology and human assistance is made explicit as the individuals involved are described in those terms, even as assistive technology personified; both the blind Oedipus and the elderly Hecuba refer to their carers as their ‘staffs’. In reality, physically impaired individuals probably sought the assistance of their family, friends and staff more often than assistive technology. In one personal letter that has survived from Egypt, Judas writes to his sister Mary from Babylon, where he is immobilised after an accident and begs her to come to assist him because he is unable to turn himself over in bed or even feed himself.

Workplace hazards

There seems to have been a strong connection between impairment and technology in the minds of the Greeks and Romans. Attempts to explain Hephaestos’ impairment have included seeing his lameness as compensation for his technological talents, as a visible symbol of his wisdom and intelligence and as an indicator of fire needing to be crippled to be controlled. Hephaestos is not the only physically impaired god of craft in world mythology: the Norse blacksmiths Brokkr and Eitri (also known as Sindri) are dwarves, while another, Wayland, is lame. However, it is also possible that Hephaestos was depicted as impaired because impaired individuals had a tendency to undertake trades. According to the author of Joints, the Amazons deliberately dislocated the joints of their male offspring and set them to work as artisans, forcing them into sedentary lifestyles and supportive roles, thus ensuring the continuation of Amazonian female superiority. This course of action would have been abhorrent to ancient Greeks. It was believed that those who undertook trades would become impaired, as a combination of the sedentary nature of the occupation and the repetitive physical activity it required would deform the body. Certainly, repetitive exertion would lead to disproportionate muscle development and build up of calluses that would look very different from a body that had been honed in the gymnasium. Additionally, the dangerous conditions found in ancient workshops made it likely that individuals who worked in them were frequently scarred. Impairments could arise from arsenical neuritis, poisoning due to the high concentrations of arsenic in metal being smelted and worked. Whether or not impaired individuals were likely to undertake trades or those undertaking trades were likely to become impaired, we need to consider the possibility that physically impaired artisans used their experiences to inspire and inform their work.

Fantasy and reality

While ancient assistive technology was not as advanced in reality as it was in the classical imagination, all incarnations served the same purpose: facilitating movement in those who had limited physical mobility. The differences between actual assistive technology – wood, leather, bronze, iron, people, animals – and imagined assistive technology – winged shoes, winged chariots, automata – are less significant than they first appear.

When deciding to use one type of assistive technology over another, an individual was making a conscious choice about how they wished to be perceived by their peers. It is telling that ancient assistive technology is not described or discussed in explicit or extended detail by ancient authors; staffs, sticks, canes, crutches, corrective footwear, extremity prostheses and other types of mobility aid are generally mentioned only when the author wants to make a point; clearly, they were simply part of daily life in classical antiquity. Their users were not necessarily automatically marginalised as a result of their impairments; rather, they were empowered and, in some cases, assistive technology was a cause for celebration and admiration that contributed to their being remembered by posterity – even two and a half thousand years later.

Jane Draycott is Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Ancient Science and Technology at the University of Glasgow.