Friday, 22 April 2016

Disabled Giants of History

A chance encounter with a tweet about the low rate of disability in fantasy made me think about writing a piece on significant historical figures who were disabled.

It’s worth noting that, historically, beauty could be seen as the favour of gods (or God), and ugliness as their/his displeasure. Indeed, in one Athenian trial the woman’s defence was to disrobe whilst her lawyer argued that one who was so clearly Aphrodite’s handmaiden could not be guilty. (She was acquitted, incidentally).

At the other end of the scale, being Eastern Roman/Byzantine Emperor required physical perfection (completeness rather than handsomeness), so rivals would often have their ears or nose cut off to prevent them from aspiring to the top job.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list or anything like that, merely a recounting of historical figures I happen to have read about who also have (although definitions can vary) one or more disabilities.

Hannibal is perhaps my single favourite chap from history. He won arguably the greatest battlefield victory ever, had arguably the largest ambush ever, and slapped the Romans about in Italy for a decade. Even when the Romans got top commanders like Marcellus, Nero, Quintus Fabius Maximus and Scipio, he still prowled around the country until he was recalled home. During the march through the Arnus Marshes, conditions were terrible. So bad, in fact, he lost an eye to exposure.

Caesar and Alexander were both epileptic. My understanding is their fits became rarer as they aged (although Alexander didn’t age all that much). For Caesar, this may explain why he did his best work when he was older. Hmm. It doesn’t explain how Alexander destroyed the Theban Sacred Band when he was 17 and spent his 20s conquering the whole Persian Empire…

Claudius had a stutter and club foot and was taken for a fool, but he was rather sharper than many thought (and certainly saner than either his predecessor or successor). His clumsy foot and tongue were made famous for modern audiences by the TV series I, Claudius (which I can strongly recommend).

Tamerlane was a 14th/15th century version of Genghis Khan, from whom he claimed descent (which is entirely possible given the number of children Genghis Khan had). His name, of which there are various versions, can also be read as Timur the Lame, because he was lame. He also had a withered right arm (I think this was due to injury whereas his lameness was from birth). When electing a leader by who would win a foot race to a stake, he lagged behind his rivals but threw his cap onto the stake to claim it, and duly became leader. As a warlord, he was unsurpassed in cunning (planting crops on a road three years ahead of time so his army would have food in the future), but also pretty damned brutal.

Enrico Dandolo was the Doge of Venice in the 12th and early 13th centuries. He was around 90 during the Fourth Crusade. He was also blind, but despite this literally led the assault on the hitherto impregnable city, achieving the stunning feat of conquering it. Blind he was, and old too, but orbs of steel did within his codpiece dwell.

More recently, there’s the famous British example of Nelson. Being disabled didn’t stop him giving the French a damned good thrashing. More than that, it provided some comedy disobedience, when, at the Battle of Copenhagen, he raised his telescope to his blind eye and claimed he could not see the signal of Admiral Parker ordering a retreat (Nelson went on be victorious). He also, of course, had his right arm amputated.

I almost, appallingly, forgot Antigonus Monopthalmus, perhaps my favourite of the Diadochi. His nickname (Monopthalmus) means one-eyed. When he received the battle wound that deprived him of sight in one eye, Antigonus refused to seek medical attention and kept fighting until the battle was done.

I think it’s also worth raising the example of David Blunkett. He was Home Secretary under the previous Labour Government, despite being blind. That’s a phenomenal achievement, not least because although blind people can read Braille there’s no way to quickly skim or scan that (because it involves feeling bumps on paper) the way a sighted person can with a visually written document.


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