Segregated We Stand? The Mutilated Greeks' Debate at Persepolis, 330 BC

Probably the world's earliest recorded policy debate among a large group ofdisabled people. Also the first time a ruler changed his mind in response towhat they actually asked for. First published in Disability & Society 18 (7):865-79. Reproduced with permission of Carfax Publishing, Taylor & Francis,and with some revision. Internet publication URL:


As Alexander reached Persepolis in January 330 BC he met a large group of newly released Greek captives who had been severely mutilated during Persian enslavement. Alexander agreed to aid their resettlement. The men debated whether to return to Greece with money in hand and disperse to their old families, who might be shocked by their appearance; or to stay as a mutually supportive group and receive benefits in Persia with their local partners. Detailed review is made of the historicity of this story recorded by Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus and Justin. Evidence is presented of groupings of disabled people in Middle Eastern antiquity, the transmission of stories about Alexander, textual and linguistic analysis, social responses to severe disability, and truth or exaggeration of war atrocities or gross physical abuse from antiquity and modern times.




(a) Court servants, e.g. blind musicians, eunuchs
(b) Groups segregated because of (perceived) contagious or polluting conditions
(c) Prisoners of war, hobbled or blinded for security
(d) Disabled veterans
(e) Public beggars, deaf people, and others?



Expert views
Embroidered Rhetoric
Monsters and Mutilators at the Margins
Evidence on Responses to Disability








Probably the earliest documented policy debate among disabled people arose amidst war, terror and personal violation, as Alexander 'the Great' advanced to take Persepolis in January, 330 BC [1]. The incident is described in detail by the Latin historian Quintus Curtius (Book V, 5.5 to 5.24, tr. Rolfe, 1962, I: 370-79; also tr. Yardley, 1984, pp. 103-105), writing perhaps four hundred years later. A shorter version appears in Greek by the Sicilian, Diodorus (Book XVIII, 69.2 to 69.9, tr. Goukowsky, 1976, pp. 97-98; also tr. Welles, 1983, VIII: 314-19), writing in the 1st century BC. The tale in a nutshell is that, as Alexander and his fast-moving elite troops neared the great ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid empire, they were met by a band of eight hundred Greeks, just released by the Persians. These were

men who had been punished in captivity by mutilation of their bodies, and who entreated that, "as he [Alexander] had delivered Greece, he would also release them from the cruelty of their enemies." Permission was given to them to go home, but they preferred receiving portions of land in Persia, lest, instead of causing joy to their parents by their return, they should merely shock them by the horrid spectacle which they presented. (Justin, Book XI, ch.14, tr. Watson, 1897, p. 104)

The entire incident, its origins and possible consequences, the speeches and their literary transmission, have undergone a century of sceptical review in classical scholarship as described below, yet remain curiously unknown or neglected in Disability Studies. Records of any similar debate in a disabled people's group can hardly be found before the second millennium CE. The voices of the Greek protagonists, debating whether to stand united as a segregated community or to disperse into whatever 'inclusion' might be offered by their former families and communities, deserve a hearing from those engaged with comparable issues more than 2000 years later.

The chief interest for the disability studies readership might lie in the 'grouping' of Greek captives, the circumstances of their mutilation, the terms of the debate, and the social attitudes they perceived or anticipated. These will be described first, followed by some discussion of historical credibility. This reverses the normal academic order. The point is that, whether the extant account was rooted in contemporary records (which is possible, but not provable), or was reconstructed or devised some centuries later for unknown purposes, the debate encapsulates issues that are current in many countries, especially where physical mutilation is commonplace and public services minimal. If the texts represent fairly the thoughts and voices of mutilated Greek captives in Persia in 330 BC, they form a unique link between some present and ancient views of disability. Even if the main text represents the backward projection of a creative Latin historian in the 1st century CE, placing the 'segregation versus inclusion' debate in the mouths of fictive advocates, it is still a remarkable early document. Modern disabled people might wish to contribute to scholarly scrutiny of the texts, by rating the credibility of the arguments, regardless of the technical niceties of dating and transmission.


The report that many disabled people (800 in Diodorus; or, less credibly, 4000 in Curtius) were grouped together is unusual; yet some evidence exists for informal associations of disabled people in Middle Eastern antiquity:

(a) Court servants, e.g. blind musicians, eunuchs

In ancient Egypt, well-respected groups of blind musicians performed for court ceremonies and religious occasions (Manniche, 1991, pp. 94-107), the latter tradition being continued to the present by blind cantors in the Egyptian Coptic Church (Ragheb Moftah & Roy, 1991). The Achaemenid dynasty annually received a tribute of several hundred castrated boys from Babylon and Assyria in the reign of Darius I (522-486 BC), according to Herodotus III: 92 (tr. 1972, p. 244; see also pp. 558-59). Llewellyn-Jones (2002) suggests that the number of eunuchs at court steadily increased. However, the popularity of peculiarity could fluctuate. At the newly-founded Sassanid court in the 3rd century CE, Ardashir I accepted the usual troupe of musicians, clowns and jugglers, but specifically excluded "les infirmes, les géants, les nains, les difformes, les invertis" and other representatives of the underclass, according to (pseudo-) Jahiz (tr. Pellat, 1954, 52).

(b) Groups segregated because of (perceived) contagious or polluting conditions

Some ancient Persian literature mentions the gathering of diseased or disabled people in the Armest-gah, a place of seclusion outside the city (Zend-Avesta, tr. 1895, Introduction V (15); Herodotus I: 138, tr. 1972, p. 98; DeJong, 1997, pp. 240-41). Provision of "lodging accommodation for the sick and secluded and traders" would later become a longstanding meritorious practice in Zoroastrianism, where 'secluded' (armest) people might have a variety of significant disabilities (Pahlavi Texts, III, tr. 1885, pp. 42, 75). The Hebrew book of Numbers, ch. 5, v. 2 (Jerusalem Bible, 1966, p. 176) recorded the deity's instruction to Moses, probably in the 13th century BC, to "put out of the camp all lepers". Three thousand years later, people grossly deformed with "elephantiasis" were noticeable as groups begging outside Persian cities or villages. Samuel Wilson (1896, p. 140), journeying from Tabriz to Teheran, remarked on a village of leprosy sufferers, "about five hundred of them, little, if at all, segregated."

(c) Prisoners of war, hobbled or blinded for security

Ignace Gelb (1973, p. 72) suggested that in early warfare, "At first, men were killed, and only women and children were taken captive". As Mesopotamian states became better organised, they used male captives as slaves, rendering them identifiable and harmless by branding and hobbling, or sometimes blinding them (Gelb, 1973, pp. 72, 86-87; Herodotus IV: 2, tr. 1972, p. 271; Adamson, 1990). From 12th century BC Palestine, Adoni-Bezek in the Hebrew book of Judges (I: 7) claimed that, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to pick up the crumbs under my table" (Jerusalem Bible, 1966, p. 306). Modern squeamishness has led some scholars to try to soften or dismiss these practices, which are nonetheless well attested both in Middle Eastern antiquity (Postgate, 1992, pp. 254-55, 318, 325), and subsequently in other regions including Europe (Bruce, 1941). Some maimed or blinded prisoners were grouped as work teams. Gelb (p. 72) also noted blind people's employment as millers.

(d) Disabled veterans

The associative aspect is perhaps more speculative here. The Athenian poor "maimed so as to be incapable of work" were entitled to a daily dole of two obols, and they may have been "originally those disabled in war" (Hands, 1968, pp. 100, 202; Garland, 1995, pp. 22-23, 36, 38, 78). Probably some of them gathered near the seat of payment, to scratch their wounds and curse anyone who should be cursed. Addressing the informal 'Battle of the Sexes' in Babylon, Herodotus (I: 199, tr. 1972: 121) noted the annual auction of marriageable girls as an occasion for the ugly and crippled to assemble together. After the pretty girls had been sold to the highest bidder, each of the plain or lame girls was disposed of in a Dutch auction, to the man who was willing to accept the lowest fee for marrying her.

(e) Public beggars, deaf people, and others?

Scattered mention occurs of groups of beggars who were blind or had physical impairments, throughout Middle Eastern histories. Some were probably there in the early cities, e.g. the men with leprosy at the city gate of Samaria in the Hebrew book of Kings (II: 8, 7) in the 9th century BC (Jerusalem Bible, 1966, p. 462). Jewish legend tells of deaf people in Persian exile in the 5th century BC, whose sign language was established and was understood by a hearing person (Ginzberg, 1968, 4: 382-83). Writing c. 401 BC of the Asia Minor provinces under Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon (tr. Warner, 1949/1967, p. 53) commented that, "along the more frequented roads one often saw people who had been blinded or had their feet or hands cut off" for their crimes, reduced to begging from wayfarers.

Though details are sparse, there is sufficient indication that disabled, infirm or deaf people sometimes grouped together for mutual support, or were driven together by rulers or by social pressures. Records are lacking of any discussion or policy debate among such groups. The exception is the debate among the mutilated Greeks.


Justin's paragraph, quoted above, conveys the essential story. Diodorus's account uses about 400 words in translation; that of Curtius takes 1100. The calculated violence done to the captive Greeks is among the extraordinary features in Diodorus. The men were

"about eight hundred in number, most of them elderly. All had been mutilated [EkrOtEriasmenoi de pantes], some lacking hands, some feet, and some ears and noses. They were persons who had acquired skills or crafts and had made good progress in their instruction; then their other extremities had been amputated and they were left only those which were vital to their profession" [auta de mona ta synergounta pros tas epistEmas apeleleipto]. (Diodorus, 1983 tr. Welles, 1983, VIII: 315, 317). [Greek translit. added]

This seems to depict an archetype of 'production worker as robotic slave', existing to perform a programmed series of actions without the distraction of any choices or extraneous bodily needs or activities. (The story might appeal to modern efficiency chasers in some factories, schools and call-centres). Some rationale is apparent for security measures as mentioned in the 'Prisoners of War' category above, to prevent slaves from absconding (i.e. by chaining or amputating feet, and branding heads), or to reduce the risk of slaves rising and killing masters (by blinding the slaves or amputating their thumbs). The Greek captives' mutilations could be comprehensible in such terms, the removal of ears and noses being a form of branding. [2] Otherwise the explanation could lie in using cruelty, degradation and terror as forms of control (Adamson, 1990), both of these captives and of other foreigners at Persepolis. By contrast, Gelb (1973, pp. 91, 95) emphasized the growing awareness of a need to give captives some hope for their futures, if they were to become effective workers. [3] However, that intelligent and forward-looking strategy may have seemed unnecessary in this proud citadel of the Persian heartland.

Curtius suggested a simpler motivation, omitting captives' working skills or reduction to robotic level. His report favoured the 'horticultural art' hypothesis, in which gardeners grow tall hedges and clip them to various shapes for their own pleasure and to impress the neighbours:

"Some had their feet cut off, some their hands and ears. They had been branded with letters from the Persian alphabet by their captors, who had kept them to amuse themselves over a long period by humiliating them. ... They looked more like outlandish phantoms [inuisitata simulacra] than men, with no recognizable human characteristic apart from their voices." (Curtius, tr. Yardley, 1984, p. 103)

Is this a more credible account? Historical records have ample evidence of the reduction of captive adversaries and despised 'others' to sub-human status, after which they become mere objects to be knocked about or casually ripped to pieces. Curtius (4.6.29, tr. Yardley, p. 66) recorded that Alexander had a worthy and determined fighter, Betis (or Batis), governor of Gaza, tied and dragged (alive, at the start) by horses around his captured city. Alexander "gloated at having followed the example of his ancestor Achilles in punishing his enemy". The Greek historian Arrian, in the 2nd century CE, noted that Batis was a eunuch, and recorded (2.27) merely that all the city's defenders were killed at their post. James Hamilton, revising Aubrey de Sélincourt's translation of Arrian (1971, p. 147), footnoted that "we need not credit" Curtius's story of barbaric behaviour by Alexander -- but gave no reason for disbelieving it. Lawrence Tritle (1997) picks up the "Victorian sensibilities" of European historians clinging to the belief that "good Europeans did not act like this", and makes a detailed comparison of wartime atrocities in ancient Greece and modern Vietnam. Tritle's evidence suggests that from ancient Persia and Greece to modern Europe and America, there has been periodic mindless brutality and the destruction of some humans as entertainment for others. [4]

When the Greek captives' debate opens, Curtius (tr. Rolfe, 1962, p. 373) has the first speaker, Euctemon, refer to the group as "We who but now were ashamed to come out from the darkness of a dungeon..." This might be taken to refer to an underground prison. Punitive work in Egyptian mines, described by Diodorus (3.12 - 3.13), has been suggested for comparison (Baynham, 1998, p. 51). Such a level of containment and concealment would have reduced the 'entertainment value' of the captives, unless they were periodically dragged out and made to jump about as grotesques. However, Euctemon's comment, or indeed any part of the two main descriptions of the mutilated Greeks, might involve some rhetorical embroidery. During the debate, reference to the men's wives or partners, and children, "whom chance and necessity have joined to us as our sole consolation" (Curtius, tr. Rolfe, 1962, p. 375), suggests a more settled and regular existence, for some at least. This accords with archaeological data assembled by JP Guépin (1963-64) on Greek artisans working at Persepolis.


Alexander, meeting the fearful band of Greek spectres and hearing their desperate pleas, reportedly shed tears and promised their leaders that they would be restored to family and prosperity in Greece. Having gained his ear, the disabled men promptly retired to discuss what they should bid for. An immediate split occurred: "some wished to ask for an abode in Asia, others to return to their homes" (Curtius, tr. Rolfe, p. 373). Debate on these goals has been framed in the mouths of two supposed advocates or orators, Euctemon of Cymae, and Theaetetus of Athens, neither of whom is otherwise identifiable, at this date, in classical prosopography (see Atkinson, 1994, pp. 102-110).

Opening the debate, Euctemon went straight to the 'bio-psycho-social' crux. In a declamation with 'Asiatic' embellishment, he enquired,

"Do we now desire to parade these injuries of ours before all Greece, as if they provide a pleasing spectacle -- injuries for which I'm not sure whether we feel more shame or bitterness? Yet people who hide their distress bear it best, and to those suffering misfortune no homeland is as welcome as solitude and being allowed to forget their former circumstances." (Curtius, tr. Yardley, 1984, p. 103)

He then suggested that any compassion they might arouse in long-lost families would soon be spent, since "No one can maintain constant affection for what he finds repulsive". He reminded his fellows that, "Were we not sharing misfortune, we should long ago have found each other disgusting" (p. 104). They had been fit young men when they married. Did they imagine that their wives would welcome the return of mangled scarecrows? They had left Greece when their children were small, so their own sons would not even recognise as fathers the "left-overs from the slave-prison" (p. 104), if they managed to drag themselves the wearisome way home from remote Persepolis. Meanwhile, what of their present wives and small children, who were at least used to the sight of them? Should these be abandoned for the prospect of an uncertain reception in a homeland where they were now unknown?

To counter this ornamented but gloomy view, Theaetetus delivered his oration in plain Attic speech, appealing to higher sentiments while slyly casting aspersions on the first speaker:

"No good man will judge his kin by their bodily condition, especially when the cause of their calamity has been an enemy's cruelty, not Nature. He deserves every misfortune who is ashamed of a misfortune due by chance; for he has a sinister opinion of humanity, and despairs of pity only because he himself would deny it to his fellow men." (Curtius, tr. Rolfe, 1962, pp. 375, 377).

Theaetetus offered the men a chance to regain all they had lost: "fatherland, wives, children...", to breathe the air of home, and enjoy again their "own customs, sacred rites, community of language", their household gods and everything for which they were homesick. Those who valued their present domestic ties were welcome to them, but "those at least to whom nothing is dearer than their native land should leave theirs behind." (p. 377)

Between the hope of prospering in the situation they knew and where they were known, and the prospect of a long, hazardous journey to an uncertain welcome, there was no contest. When Theaetetus finished his idealistic plan,

"A few concurred, but for the rest, habit, more forceful than nature, prevailed. They agreed that the king should be asked to assign them a place to settle, and 100 spokesmen were appointed for this purpose." (Curtius, tr. Yardley, 1984, pp. 104-105).

Pathetic as was their condition, they could not be certain they would get what they wanted from the dashing young hero. Alexander had already convinced himself that "they were going to ask for what he himself was thinking of awarding them" (p. 105). In fact, the story has Alexander launched on details of how he has already arranged for their transport home, and the cash in hand for each one, when he noticed a lack of enthusiasm among the delegation:

"Tears welled up and they stared at the ground, daring neither to raise their eyes nor say a word. At last when the king asked the reason for their dejection, Euctemon answered much as he had spoken at the meeting. Alexander was moved to compassion not only for their misfortune but also for their feelings about it." (Ibid., p. 105).

In a tale already remarkable, some readers might consider the least likely feature to have been Alexander's readiness to dismiss his own idea of repatriating the captives with money in their hands, in favour of what the mutilated men actually requested. If this is history's first recorded policy debate among disabled people, it must also be the first time 'the authorities' have changed their plan and given disabled people something that the great majority actually wanted. Detailed provisions were ordered, for money, clothing, livestock, wheat, tax exemption, a grant of land, and a watchful eye on their welfare by the king's administrators. The Greeks did not know it, but they might have pitched on an ideal moment. Alexander had begun to consider himself the rightful 'King of Asia', with vast lands at his disposal (Plutarch, Alex. 34, tr. Scott-Kilvert, 1973, pp. 291-92). He could settle these unfortunates in his own 'new territories' here, a compassionate and pious act for the gods to approve, before he fell upon Persepolis, which now lay open before him. [5]


Many questions arise about what 'really' happened even in today's football match replayable on video from six angles. The mutilated Greeks' debate, if it happened, took place somewhere outside a now-ruined city in South West Persia about 2,300 years ago. The earliest extant manuscript reporting the debate is from the 9th century CE, over one thousand years later. That manuscript is perhaps a copy of one written in the 1st century CE, and very little is known of the author, Quintus Curtius (Heckel, 1984, pp. 1-4). So any dogmatism is unwise, about 'what really happened'. For informed estimates of probability and credibility, one must consult 30 or 40 scholars and linguists of Greek and Persian military, economic and social histories, and experts in literary composition, transmission and historiography. Only recently would the thought arise that specialists in disability histories might also contribute; but very few of the latter could claim any profound insight into the group psychology of early Greek artisans forced into labour for Persian masters who lopped off some of their limbs and facial parts; or alternatively, of Greek criminals punished by amputation and then sent to labour camp.

Expert views

The composite account given above is underpinned by translations and footnotes of modern Classical specialists, but has not indicated which among them think the event happened. The earliest critical scholar to retain the respect of recent participants is probably Simon Dosson, whose textual inventory is still cited. Dosson (1886, pp. 244-46) considered "L'épisode des Grecs mutilés" an example of Curtius working up material in the declamatory style of earlier rhetoricians. He was clear that the debate was embroidered but did not dismiss the entire episode, which he noted was covered briefly by Diodorus and Justin. Dosson's view seems to have been the median for nearly 120 years. The modern Greek historian Dascalakis (1966, pp. 224-25) noted the inflationary tendencies of Curtius, but presented the story as historical. Examining Curtius's inventive powers, Harry M Currie (1990, pp. 73-74) reaches a similar conclusion. Elizabeth Baynham (1998, pp. 47-49) sees the Greek captives' speeches as a rare instance of Curtius producing "sheer rhetorical virtuosity for the sake of it", yet believes that some such incident derives from an early source such as Cleitarchus, and that Curtius has been judged too harshly.

Other scholars have ranged either way. Georges Radet (1927, pp. 6-8) pointed out that hypercritical views were no better than naively credulous ones, and found the mutilated Greeks credible, comparing them with modern cases of the riff-raff of the corrective labour camp (ergastulum). Waldemar Heckel (1980, p. 173) writes of a "lamentable, but undoubtedly fictitious, crew of mutilated Greek prisoners". Heckel later emphasizes that Curtius, as a source, has some merits; he upgrades the story slightly, to "probably fictitious" (Heckel, 1984, pp. 14-15, 281). Inclining the other way, Ernst Badian (1985, p. 443) thinks the story "may or may not be true", but later tells John Atkinson (1994, p. 104) that it was "a fiction, worked up by Curtius". Atkinson, however, mentions some points, such as the "very specific list of grants" made to the captives, suggesting that "the story has some factual basis". The grants also persuade Pierre Briant (tr. 2002, pp. 735-37) that there is some merit in the story. Paul Goukowsky, in his edition and translation of Diodorus XVII (1976, p. 221), seems ambivalent, finding mutilations commonplace among the Persians, while the orators Euctemon and Theaetetus are "personnages fictifs". Perhaps he reacted against Bardon, an earlier French editor/translator of Curtius, who wrote confidently of Euctemon that "Le personnage est historique", giving Diodorus and Justin as evidence (Curtius, tr. Bardon, 1947, p. 138).

Naturally, commentators who think the episode never happened spend little time seeking evidence that might support it. Specialist opinion divides into a few believers, some disbelievers, and a cautious majority in between. There is no evidence that disproves the story, but some evidence strongly suggests that it has been reconstructed with enhancement. The balance of scholarly views should not be lightly dismissed. Cultural historians seeking 'roots' for embattled minority communities are often tempted to amplify stories, adding 'modern' meanings and asserting what the people involved 'must have' thought; but it is doubtful whether disabled people are well served by history that cannot stand sceptical scrutiny.


The incident of the mutilated Greeks is missing from the carefully sifted accounts of Alexander by Arrian and by his contemporary, the biographer Plutarch. Arrian (tr. 1971), having personal experience of military command, gave a lengthy synthesis of 'The Campaigns of Alexander', but wrote very little on the taking of Persepolis, which he may have seen as 'mopping up', since no formal fighting took place. He was not necessarily interested in the grim oddments and barbarities usually accompanying the invasion of other people's lands. Arrian did not mention the report that the Persian king Darius had earlier ordered the hands to be hacked off some sick and non-combatant Macedonian captives, the stumps cauterised, and the amputees turned loose to rejoin Alexander's army and spread alarm and despondency (Curtius, 3.8.14-15, tr. Yardley, 1984, pp. 38, 271). Arrian (2.7.1, tr. 1971, p. 111) stated merely that Darius mutilated and killed the unfit Macedonians.

Dascalakis (1966, p. 4) noted that Alexander "took measures of admirable foresight and minute precision that his deeds and his entire work might last in detail forever. Day by day the 'royal journals' were drawn up, under the personal supervision of Eumenes, the king's chief secretary." These included not only military events, but the king's words and deeds, with some burnishing for posterity, and files full of reports from senior officers and administrators. Some of the senior men also kept their own private notes. Assorted 'literary journalists' also tagged along to add their opinions on instant history (Badian, 1985, p. 425). These worthies were seldom among the elite troops whom Alexander led in his characteristic forced marches into the heart of enemy territory. After taking Pasargadae, Alexander raced on to Persepolis, leaving his main army to mop up and follow at its usual pace, subject to the availability of supplies (Engels, 1978, pp. 72-76). Dascalakis deduced (p. 225) the possibility "that Ptolemy, Aristobulus, and others, were not present" when the mutilated Greeks appeared. In the course of reporting the whole campaign, an incident such as this, if it happened as Curtius and Diodorus relate, would have been merely a footnote; and among all the extensive contemporary records of Alexander's deeds, we now see mere fragments. [6]

Embroidered Rhetoric

Linguistic analysis strongly suggests that the debating speeches were constructed or reconstructed much later by Curtius, or by other editors. If a sizable group of older, mutilated Greeks, whose long-time captors and tormentors had suddenly lost interest in them, found themselves free but penniless and far from home, encountered the heroic Alexander near Persepolis and gained his promise of help, it seems improbable that they would sit in an orderly way taking notes for posterity on the carefully composed speeches of two orators among their number. More likely, small groups would have engaged in argument, fuelled by the urgency of reaching a decision before Alexander swept onward to seize the city's treasure. However, rumours of Alexander's campaigns might have reached these Greeks and prompted earlier discussion of what they could hope for if liberated. If in fact they were subsequently awarded specific compensation as Curtius and Diodorus record, it is possible that one of the official court reporters or independent literati accompanying Alexander's main army, smelling a human-interest story, interviewed the protagonists and reconstructed the debate within weeks of its occurrence.

Monsters and Mutilators at the Margins

Reports of atrocities committed by far distant people require some sceptical gaze. Albert DeJong (1997, p. 444), describing some unpalatable Persian practices, notes the "distinct danger that the reports are the product of the imagination of the Greek authors concerning barbarian cultures", intending to contrast such behaviour with their own "high civilisation". The more distant the people, the more easily dismissed as savage, incestuous cannibals. Strabo and Diodorus Siculus had some such view of the British and Irish, but as Rhiannon Evans (1999, pp. 57-58) remarks, the latter underwent mild rehabilitation as Mediterranean troops penetrated northward and found them merely "unremarkable savages rather than outright monsters". A sympathetic writer could present the "humanitarian feelings in ancient Iran" in a still more admirable light (Naficy, 1957).

However, the sanction of mutilating punishments, and instances of its implementation on both men and women, are soberly documented from archaeological and textual sources within ancient and medieval Mesopotamia and Persia (e.g. Adamson, 1978; Dhalla, 1911; Driver & Miles, 1935, passim; Gelb, 1973; Pahlavi Texts, Part IV, tr. West, 1892, pp. 68, 74-75; Pritchard, 1969, pp. 175-77, 540), as well as the neighbouring empire of Byzantium (Lascaratos & Dalla-Vorgia, 1997). Sometimes the extreme penalty was probably replaced by a heavy fine. Yet more recent claims to have witnessed mutilating punishments cannot credibly be dismissed without showing contrary evidence. A youthful British witness, Henry Pottinger (1816/1972, p. 214), reported with corroborating detail, from a palace in Eastern Persia where he was a guest, that on 15 May 1810,

"About three in the afternoon, the Prince pronounced sentences on those convicted; some were blinded of both eyes, had their ears, noses and lips cut off, their tongues slit, and one or both hands lopped off. Others were deprived of their manhood, their fingers and toes chopped off, and all were turned out into the streets with a warning to the inhabitants not to assist or hold any intercourse with them."

Those mutilated had been convicted of murdering a royal servant, so the severest punishment was predictable. Presumably most of them died within days from shock and haemorrhage, if all help was withheld.

Evidence on Responses to Disability

How accurate was the mutilated Greeks' anticipation of negative social and family reactions to their appearance? There have been some extended studies on disability in classical Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies, such as those of Cassin (1987, pp. 51-97), Dasen (1993), Garland (1995), Rose (2003), Stol (1993) and others; [7] but the available evidence is too narrow and ambivalent for conclusions that could endorse or rebut the Greek captives' fears. Textual remnants, or iconography (in Véronique Dasen's interesting study), can hardly be reliable guides to the welcome a particular person might expect on returning, seriously damaged, to his village or town years later. Of course some feelings of revulsion were expressed toward the Body Imperfect, by Greek aesthetes -- as would be the case among people of affected sensibilities at any period. Disabled people may have had some curious apotropaic usefulness in the ancient Middle East, as suggested by Doro Levi (1941). This does not necessarily translate into longer-term family and local community responses.

In the present instance, the negative anticipation was immediately and vigorously contested, according to Curtius, by the speech of Theaetetus. That the large majority opted to stay in Persia makes no definite case, since the outstanding influence may have been an attachment to 'the familiar', the present 'tolerant mutuality' (and also the present wife and children!), as against the challenge of the unknown or the distantly remembered in far off Greece. In fact the first recorded 'community reaction' to the mutilated Greeks was from the Greek troops accompanying Alexander. The description of the victims as 'outlandish phantoms', scarcely recognisable as human but for their voices, could well derive from those eye-witnesses. Curtius (tr. Yardley, 1984, p. 103) suggests that there were more tears from the witnesses than from the mutilated men. In a fine 'charity model' prequel to some elaborate modern classificatory systems using medical models of disability, the observers noticed that,

"while their sufferings were superficially similar, they were really of different kinds, so that it was impossible to determine who was to be pitied most." (p. 103)

The unhappy portrayal of their situation has some resonance with a description from the 6th century CE historian Agathius of an earlier Persian custom, in which men falling sick during army service were left in exposed places with bread, water and a stick. While they had strength, they could beat off wild dogs and carrion birds. If their disease overpowered them, they suffer no lingering death because the scavengers would soon kill them (DeJong, 1997, pp. 232, 239-40, 445-46. See also Briant, tr. 2002, pp. 94-95, 1027). The interesting point is that some exposed conscripts did recover, and returned home; but they were then treated

"like actors on the stage, in a tragedy who have come from the 'gates of darkness,' feeble and cadaverous, fit to terrify those they meet. If a man does return like this, everyone turns away from him and avoids him as though he is accursed and still in the service of the infernal powers. He is not allowed to resume his former way of life until the pollution, as it were, of his expected death has been exorcised by the Magi, and he can take in exchange, so to speak, his renewal of life." (Ibid., p. 232)

Though this is a Persian response of some centuries after the fall of Persepolis, it catches the religious element of horror inspired by people who seem to have come back 'from the clutches of hell'. Their only fit companions are those who have made a similar journey.

Plutarch (tr. Scott-Kilvert, 1973, pp. 292-93) provided brief, contemporaneous evidence of ambient attitudes, from Alexander's march toward Persepolis. Alexander was impressed by the sight of naturally occurring streams of incandescent naphtha. For amusement, his servant Athenophanes proposed that another servant, "a boy named Stephanus, who possessed an absurdly ugly face but an agreeable singing voice", be asked to smear his body with naphtha, to see what would result. Surprisingly, the boy agreed; but "his whole body was so severely burned that he was critically ill for a long time after." Perhaps physically unattractive servants were more likely objects for risky practical jokes. Ugly and deformed anti-heroes also seem to have played curious roles in Persian folklore and ceremony (Krasnowolska, 1995).


The word 'mutilated' is applied to the Greek captives throughout this paper, rather than the generic 'disabled' or the more medical 'amputees', because the origins of their various conditions probably affected their perceptions of disability and difference. People suddenly experiencing impairment and disability in an accident in youth or adulthood are likely to have a sharp awareness of their changed situation and loss of activities and social participation. In the extreme case considered here, there was no 'accident' but a deliberate, cold-blooded decision to chop off well-functioning parts of people's bodies, so as to cause pain and damage, to make them objects of derision, and perhaps to terrorize the population. From such traumatic origins, it seems reasonable to expect a heightened sense of loss, affliction, anger, grief, self-loathing, despair, and fear of further mutilation. This might account for much of the group cohesion evidenced in the result of the Greek captives' debate -- even though Alexander's troops realised that "their sufferings ... were really of different kinds". Though their impairments were varied, the gross social insult and rejection were experienced in common. They had all died this death.

The 'social model' perception, that disability arises from adverse social attitudes and misdesigned environments, gains early support from Euctemon's argument that if the group returned to Greece, their appearance would elicit revulsion from families and the public -- and that they all knew this, because they too would find the others repulsive were they not in the same boat. Even the second debater Theatetus could not deny the point directly, saying only that good people would not think like this. However, attempts to interpret the disabled Greeks' thoughts in terms of modern theories are speculative and problematical. Only a brief, edited summary remains of their debate and its context. It is fascinating, yet insufficient for any confident claim to 'understand' how the men perceived their situation.

People did not suddenly come up with the idea of chopping off part of someone else's body, in isolation from all their other activities. At the crudest level, warfare used to be much more a hand-to-hand affair; surgery and the butchering of animals were also bloodier, noisier events. Self-mutilation by amputating fingers or toes as an expression of mourning or to appease spirits, by hook-swinging, filing teeth or by causing other deformities for begging purposes, have been known around the world (Friedmann, 1972). Cranial deformation has occurred in all continents (Dingwall, 1931). Application of heated iron to the body has a long history across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Gender considerations are also not very illuminating here. The centuries-long, documented practices of crippling girls by breaking the bones of their feet, or mutilating their genital parts, have indeed produced some horrendous 'survivor' stories, and a growing investigative literature; but such customs were and are not intentionally punitive, and the results have been 'socially approved' over many centuries, however bizarre this may now appear.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to do more than mention these complex issues of personal feelings and social attitudes, because the available evidence in European languages is very largely from 'modern western' sources, generated in conditions substantially different from those of ancient Greece or Persia. Any synthesis of thought and experience between the ancient and modern worlds may require a broader participation from countries where experiences of disability and social attitudes have moved in different directions from those taken in the Western European and North American enclave. Opportunities for intelligent and non-intrusive studies with participation by people who have experienced deliberate mutilation are rare in the modern nations where disability studies are well established. In countries where punitive mutilations are officially sanctioned, such an investigation would hardly be encouraged.

An overview of conflicts within theoretical perspectives on disability in this enclave (Williams, 2001) suggests a growing awareness of both the postmodern distrust of grand theoretical metanarratives and of the need to study disability experience in the other 80% of world population. A further dimension may be to learn from the histories of social responses to disability in that 80%, though to do so may mean some disturbing encounters with what look like human brutalities. For example, the uses of disability in 20th century Korean literature, depicting casual violence and humiliations practised on disabled people, in parallel with Korean national humiliations under Japanese colonial rule (Kyeong-Hee Choi, 2001), might generate a greater understanding of the predicament of the mutilated Greeks in ancient Persia than would Western European experiences -- not because the Korean and Japanese experiences were more primitive or more brutal than Western experiences, but because they are described from a significantly different conceptual world.

A more accessible issue linking the mutilated Greeks with modern disability interests could be that posed in the title: "Segregated We Stand?" The converse might appear to be "Included We Fall?", or less provocatively, "Assimilated We Disappear?". Some 20th century experience suggests that local 'deaf or disabled cultures' grew strongly in segregated residential institutions (of the sort now closed, or targeted for closure, in several Western European countries and parts of North America). There has been some recognition that the deaf or disabled child in 'ideal educational inclusion' from kindergarten to university should gain great benefits -- but might not find (or feel any need for) an independent and proud disability culture or deaf culture. The freed Greek captives faced a starker choice, where the mutual support of 'mutilated culture' in Persia seemed more attractive than facing a (presumed) unwelcoming Greek community without their fellows' support. Of course, no modern disabled child does yet experience 'ideal educational inclusion', so the need for strong disability culture and support will continue; but will it be feasible, without the camaraderie of at least some residential centres? Could such benefits be achieved by other means, e.g. the 'virtual camaraderie' of the Internet chat group?


The historicity of the mutilated Greek captives' debate cannot conclusively be proved or disproved. At present it appears to be the earliest record, by many centuries, of a policy discussion within a large group of seriously disabled people, and of a ruler's resultant change of decision. Study of the disability-related evidence suggests some plausibility in terms of attitudes and practices attested from Middle Eastern antiquity. The debate as portrayed by Curtius also seems quite a credible representation of arguments attributable to advocates among the mutilated Greeks; but this could usefully be examined further by disabled people who have survived modern situations of deportation, torture, forced labour and gross physical humiliation. Whether from the late 4th century BC, or the 1st century CE, the story seems to fly across millennial, geographical and cultural boundaries to engage our attention and comprehension in the early 21st century. That may be its most remarkable feature.


Useful comments on earlier versions of this paper were received with appreciation, from V. Dasen, H. King, M. Rose, D.P.M. Weerakkody, and participants in a workshop on "Corps et différences" at the University of Fribourg, March 2003. The vast and ongoing collaborative efforts of classical scholars in recent centuries, to retrieve, compare, edit, translate, annotate critically, and illuminate the relevant texts in which some disability history is casually embedded, are usually passed over with scarcely a nod of recognition -- yet without their efforts, the antiquity of disability would remain purely mythical.


[1] The remains of Persepolis lie in Fars province in Iran, 60 km. from Shiraz. Older textbooks dated its fall to 331 BC, but the current consensus has Alexander arriving in mid-January 330 (Badian, 1985, pp. 443, 498-501; Heckel, 1984, pp. 281, 303). Alexander's honorific 'the Great' is here given warning apostrophes. His major exploits, i.e. laying waste cities, cultures and peoples across South West Asia, are not universally admired. Ironically, as Alexander left no heir, his empire passed nominally to the only surviving son of Philip II, "who was said to be half-witted" (Badian, p. 493).

[2] Cf. physiognomical descriptions in Egyptian-Greek legal documents such as "proclamations for the capture of runaway slaves", mentioned by Elizabeth Evans (1969, p. 39); paralleled by more recent media proclamations for the identification and capture of slaves or criminals.

[3] A prison observation by Primo Levi (1989, p. 17), though distant in time and context, might shed some light on the condition of the Greek captives. Amid the dehumanising brutalities of life at Auschwitz, Levi saw that some prisoners "who were made to exercise their own trade: tailors, cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers; such people, resuming their customary activity, recovered at the same time, to some extent, their human dignity".

[4] Tritle's paper appeared before the notorious murder of James Byrd Jr., a middle-aged disabled African American. Byrd was picked up at night on June 7, 1998, at Jasper, East Texas, by three white men who saw him hitchhiking. It appears that, after some preliminary conversation, they chained his leg to the back of their truck and dragged him three miles down the road while his flesh, limbs and head were progressively scraped off. Before trucks were available, an old Indian custom was to tie a condemned person to an elephant's leg and drive the beast across country. Ibn Batuta recorded that after Sultan Muhammad Shah forced Delhi's residents to move to Daulatabad in 1327, his men searched the city and found one blind and one paralysed man still there. The Sultan "ordered the paralytic to be shot away from a manjanik [device for hurling boulders], and the blind man to be dragged from Delhi to Daulatabad ... The poor wretch fell in pieces during the journey, and only one of his legs reached Daulatabad," (Elliot & Dowson, 1867-1877, III: 614).

Even the mutilation of an Akkadian royal statue, possibly at the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, which Nylander (1980) saw as a "selective disfiguration" underlining the defeat of a hated regime, has had its present-day counterpart in the symbolic decapitation of a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

[5] Some useful context or parallels to this decision are discussed by Richard Billows (1995, 158-59), i.e. occasions when troops accompanying Alexander wished to settle in the new territories, or to be repatriated, most pertinently the occasion at Opis when Alexander thought to send home some men who were "unfit through age or disablement for further service" (Arrian 7.8.1, tr. de Sélincourt, p. 359). After a general uproar, a large number of unfit men were indeed repatriated with a good sum in hand (Ibid. 7.12.40; tr. pp. 366-67; Badian, 1985, 482-84).

[6] The ancient evidence essentially comprises Curtius, Diodorus and Justin. The medieval collection of Alexander myths and legends now known as the 'Alexander Romance', in many versions and translations, can hardly be relied on for any historical detail not otherwise supported, yet may preserve a few nuggets from some missing early source. The 14th C. Hebrew version by Immanuel Ben Jacob Bonfils, translated by Kazis (1962), has Alexander camping outside Persepolis while King Darius is inside the city. Eventually Darius moves out, crosses the Tigris, and his army engages with Alexander and is defeated (pp. 107-109). Alexander then investigates some Persian palaces and hidden treasures. "In a field nearby there was a high tower where the men who had fled from battle had gone into hiding. Some of them had suffered the loss of arms and legs. When they heard the beat of the horses' hoofs and the voices of the soldiers and the clatter of their weapons, they cried out and pleaded, saying: "Save us, O King Alexander." When King Alexander heard these men, his compassion was aroused for them and he wept." (p.109) Alexander then had money given to them. In the next section Alexander left and "came to the edge of Persepolis" (p. 110). Though apparently muddled in place and order, this is an interesting fragment about amputees in hiding, who appeal to Alexander and are rewarded, somewhere near Persepolis. Later, Alexander goes eastward and meets unpleasant folk, "who were skilled in the art of magic. They had only one leg, one arm and one eye and they ran like horses" (p. 114, & note p. 209). These apparently belong to mythologies of 'half-people' at the world's margins. The sceptical literary critic might ask whether these fragments were conflated in Curtius's account; or whether the latter's sources had taken other routes, generating some 'mutilated half-person' legends.

A medieval English version of the Alexander Romance (Prose Life, ed. Westlake, 1913, pp. 51-52) has a leaf missing at the parallel story. The gap is filled from a Latin version in which Alexander passes "a narrow and evil tower, on which stood many men, some with cut legs, some with broken thighs, some with torn hands, and some blinded ... For Darius kept them in prison, since they were of noble birth, and awarded all their possessions to his thralls." A Greek text of 'Pseudo-Callisthenes' (Müller, ed. 1846, p. 75) has the tomb crowd missing hands, feet, ears or noses, begging Alexander's aid. (See also Wallis Budge, 1889, pp. ix, lvii, lxxi, 78). Such fragments underline the need for caution in building any interpretative edifice on the classical tale of the mutilated Greeks. Yet it is not impossible that some further early evidence might yet emerge that could strength or weaken the story.

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