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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The first evidence of education of a deaf person

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Well known is that infanticide and the exposure of children are admitted to practice in Greece and Rome either for religious reasons (disability as a punishment or consequence of the anger of the gods) or for reasons of political and cultural tradition.

The Greek polis and ancient societies need strong men to frequent exercise of warfare. The community  excludes the invalid, the not-valid.

On the other hand the Greek cities always tried to avoid the excessive  overgrowth of citizens for not sharing the land and maintain the relationship between wealth of the city and number of citizens. Plato in his Laws, V, 737e  considered as ideal the quantity of 5.040 citizens in  his ideal city.

In Greek thought and culture is very important also the beauty and physical perfection.

This explains why the legislators themselves as Lycurgus, Plato and Aristotle  dictate and theorize about the size of cities and punished in their laws or in their proposed constitutions  eugenic practices  or search of genetic health of future generations.

In this context, children born with some physical malformation were simply eliminated.

Thus Plutarch tells us in his Lycurgus, XVI , 1-2:

Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state. (Plutarch, Lycurgus : Bernadotte Perrin, Ed.)

“Τὸ δὲ γεννηθὲν οὐκ ἦν κύριος ὁ γεννήσας τρέφειν, ἀλλ´ ἔφερε λαβὼν εἰς τόπον τινὰ λέσχην καλούμενον, ἐν ᾧ καθήμενοι τῶν φυλετῶν οἱ πρεσβύτατοι καταμαθόντες τὸ παιδάριον, εἰ μὲν εὐπαγὲς εἴη καὶ ῥωμαλέον, τρέφειν ἐκέλευον, κλῆρον αὐτῷ τῶν ἐνακισχιλίων προσνείμαντες· (2) εἰ δ´ ἀγεννὲς καὶ ἄμορφον, ἀπέπεμπον εἰς τὰς λεγομένας Ἀποθέτας, παρὰ Ταΰγετον βαραθρώδη τόπον, ὡς οὔτε αὐτῷ ζῆν ἄμεινον ὂν οὔτε τῇ πόλει τὸ μὴ καλῶς εὐθὺς ἐξ ἀρχῆς πρὸς εὐεξίαν καὶ ῥώμην πεφυκός.”

Plato in his  Republic, V, 460b and c,   is inspired in Sparta’s way of life to recommend the infanticide.

Aristotle in his Politics, Book VII, 1335b (16.15) says:

About the exposure and parenting, there should be a law prohibiting the nurture of any defective person”.

Περὶ δὲ ἀποθέσεως καὶ [20] τροφῆς τῶν γιγνομένων ἔστω νόμος μηδὲν πεπηρωμένον τρέφειν,

and recommends  abortion as the best measure.

In Rome the law and custom  guarantee to the paterfamiias  the right of life and death over their children, who can recognize them or not at birth, so that the fate of those born with a physical defect is not better than in Greece. Children with congenital deformity  are thrown into the Tiber or exposed at the  “Lactaria” column.

Aristotle in his History of Animals, Book IV,9,15-16 (537a) refers to the phenomenon of the voice:

Viviparous quadrupeds utter vocal sounds of different kinds, but they have no power of converse. In fact, this  power, or language, is peculiar to man. For while the capability of talking implies the capability of uttering vocal sounds, the converse does not hold good  Men that are born deaf are in all cases also dumb; that is, they can make vocal sounds, but they cannot speak. (trans. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson)

Hippocrates considered that a malformation  is the result of a disease, but this opinion  in no way altered the cruel custom of eliminating  the disabled persons.

Lucretius in his  De Rerum Natura, L. V, 1052-1055 says:

A task not easy is in any wise to teach and to persuade the deaf concerning what
is needful for to do

Nec ratione docere ulla suadereque surdis, quid sit opus facto, facilest:

In view of these testimonies is easy to assume the social rejection that a handicap  occurred in the ancient world. It's no wonder that a text of Pliny the Elder was certainly striking already in antiquity itself. 

Pliny tells about  the education of a deaf boy as a painter. It is the first case of education of a disabled boy about what  we have historical record and the first deaf person whose name we know:Quintus Pedius. He was the son of Roman senator and orator Quintus Pedius Publicola, His paternal grandfather was the consul Quintus Pedius; his paternal grandmother was Valeria, , relative, perhaps sister, also of the senator and orator Marcus Valerius Messala Corvinus. His grandfather and Emperor Augustus were cousins on his mother. So this boy was from a good family.

Messala  advised and Augustus authorized the education as a painter, but unfortunately he died young. This is what  Pliny says  in his  Natural History 35, 7, 21:

I must not omit, too, to mention a celebrated consultation upon the subject of painting, which was held by some persons of the highest rank. Q. Pedius, who had been honoured with the consulship and a triumph, and who had been named by the Dictator Cæsar as co-heir with Augustus, had a grandson, who being dumb from his birth, the orator Messala, to whose family his grandmother belonged, recommended that he should be brought up as a painter, a proposal which was also approved of by the late Emperor Augustus. He died, however, in his youth, after having made great progress in the art. (John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.)

… et principum virorum non omittendum de pictura celebre consilium, cum Q. Pedius, nepos Q. Pedii consularis triumphalisque et a Caesare dictatore coheredis Augusto dati, natura mutus esset. in eo Messala orator, ex cuius familia pueri avia fuerat, picturam docendum censuit, idque etiam divus Augustus comprobavit; puer magni profectus in ea arte obiit”.

Then it took many centuries to the social acceptance of the measures of reintegration of people with disabilities. In the history of education and deaf education has played an important role Spain, considered the cradle of deaf education through the work of the Benedictine  Pedro Ponce de León (1513? -1584) Born in Sahagún (León), which was based on the proposals of Girolamo Cardano (born in 1501) who thought that the hand signs could help the deaf to communicate. The language and numbering signs were known from antiquity, but  they were not applied to the communication of the deaf.
Unfortunately there are still many places in the world where it is still very insufficient attention to these people and the reasons or injustices come to be the same as in Antiquity.


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