March 15, 2017

Welfare, Disability, and the Athenian Judiciary

The UK government spends roughly £13billion a year on Disability Living Allowances and Personal Independence Payments. ( 2017) These payments, claimed by over 3.5 million people, are intended to cover the extra costs incurred from living with impairments, irrespective of the claimant’s financial status.

However, the government believe that this system is being abused by fake or exaggerated claims. In a recent statement, George Freeman, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, emphasised that the payments are only intended for the “really disabled” not, as he put it, those who are “taking pills at home, suffering from anxiety.” ( 2017) Such claimants, Freeman suggested, should no longer qualify for financial assistance. These unfortunately phrased comments have since been widely condemned. Freeman stands accused of trivialising the debilitating effects of mental illness by insinuating that those who experience it are not really experiencing a disability at all but are instead abusing a system which is intended only to care for the ‘most’ impaired.

These comments are the result of an announcement that the government are planning a £3billion funding cut to the disability welfare system. As such, deciding as a society what is, and more importantly what is not, a disablement deserving of our government’s continued financial assistance appears to be an immediately pressing concern.

However, financial assistance for the impaired was not always decided upon in such medically categorising terms. The judicial system of the Athenian court, for example, took a different approach, one which should perhaps be considered again today. A law court speech from the 5th Century BCE clearly demonstrates this system but first, an ambiguity in its translation needs to be corrected. This speech, entitled “On the Refusal of a Pension”, (Rose: 2017) hinges on the following statement:

“φησὶ γὰρ ὁ κατήγορος οὐ δικαίως με λαμβάνειν τὸ παρὰ τῆς πόλεως ἀργύριον: καὶ γὰρ τῷ σώματι δύνασθαι καὶ οὐκ εἶναι τῶν ἀδυνάτων…” (Lysias 24: 4 Trans. W. R. M. Lamb: 1930)

“My accuser says that I have no right to receive my civil pension, because I am able-bodied and not classed as disabled…”

From this common translation, the approach of the Athenian court does initially appear to be identical to that of modern day. The prosecution seems to be accusing the unnamed defendant of not being ‘disabled enough’ to justify financial benefits, just as George Freeman was asserting. However, this translation of the term άδυνάτος, although widely accepted, is in fact inherently misleading. The term has here been translated as ‘disabled’ yet, objectively speaking, the term simply means to be unable to do something; to be weak, poor, or powerless. None of these definitions are, necessarily, exclusively concerned with a person’s physical inability.

By translating the term άδυνάτος as ‘disabled’ then, the modern translation focuses purely on the physical interpretation of the word, implying that physical inability was the condition for financial assistance. However, this is not the case. Unlike our modern disability welfare system, which provides benefits on the basis of need regardless of financial earnings, the Athenian judiciary required the receiver of a pension to be financially incapacitated as a result of physical inability. With this is mind, when the prosecution suggests that the unnamed defendant is considered able rather than άδυνάτος, they mean he is able, rather than unable, to function and support himself. It is his ability to support himself which, the prosecution argue, ought to preclude him from seeking financial support, regardless of his physical status.

Indeed, every argument that the defendant is forced to refute is based not on his physical ability but on his supposed financial ability. For instance, the primary accusation is that the defendant engages in a trade (τέχνην ἐπίστασθαι). The prosecution are not arguing that an impaired man would not be able to engage in a trade, but that by engaging in a trade, the man would earn a living that outstripped his need for state aid. In a similar vein, the second accusation is that he rides a horse (ἵππους ἀναβαίνω). Again, what seems to be at issue here is not that an impaired man would not be able to ride a horse but that a poor man would not be able to afford one. (Rose: 2003 pp. 95-100)

Perhaps however, the most telling indicator that this is an argument of proving financial rather than physical need, is that the defendant spends none of his speech elaborating on his physical condition. (Amundsen: 1977) In fact, beyond the knowledge that he uses two sticks to get around, we have no idea what his physical impairment may have been. If this had been a case which rested on the defendant needing to prove his disability, it would be expected that the defendant would attempt to garner pity from the judiciary by elaborating on his physical ailments and how they manifest themselves. However, this is conspicuously lacking within the defendant’s arguments. What this case helps to prove is that

in ancient Athens, the validation of inability lay not in the physical impairment but in the financial consequences that this impairment may have incurred.

In contrast to the Athenian courts then, the question our current government is wrestling with is this: Who, based solely on the severity of their physical need, is most deserving of financial assistance?

The Athenians, on the other hand, would likely have advocated a different question: Who, based upon the severity of their fiscal need due to physical impairment, is most deserving of financial assistance?

Perhaps, in the face of a struggling welfare system, this is a better question to be asking ourselves today.


D. W Amundsen (1977) ‘The Physician as an Expert in Athenian Law’ in the
Bulletin of the History of Medicine. v. 51. no. 2. pp. 202-213

Lysias Lysias Translated by W. R. M. Lamb (1930) Loeb Classical Library 244. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

M. Rose (2003) The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (London: University of Michigan Press)

M. Rose ‘Ability and Disability in Athenian Oratory’ in C. Laes (2017) Disability in Antiquity (London: Routledge)

Annie Sharples is a first year PhD candidate in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research interest is the study of impairment and disability within Ancient Greek culture and society. Annie is currently investigating the language of disability and how it has been used, or more often misused, within modern discussions and translations of ancient texts. Her wider academic interests include the unideal body within Greek art, aging within Greek society, and the relationship between ancient medicine and the gods.


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