Strange Bodies: The Display of People

This is a very disturbing form of spectacle: the Romans were not enlightened about disability and difference: deformed children were frequently exposed; some might be killed as monstra, signs of the gods’ displeasure. Even minor physical disabilities or ugliness could be laughed at and mocked – see, for example, the Cicero passage below. (For more on this topic see here.)

Caricatures also provoke loud laughter: as a rule they are levelled against ugliness or some physical defect, and involve comparison with something a little unseemly. One example was when I said to Helvius Mancia, ‘I will now show what manner of  man you are,’ to which he answered, ‘So show me,’ whereupon I pointed out with my finger a Gaul depicted on the Cimbrian shield of Marius,[1] which hung below the New Shops, with the body twisted, the tongue protruding, and the cheeks baggy: this raised laughter, for nothing so like Mancia was ever seen. Another example was when I told Titus Pinarius, who kept twisting his chin when he was speaking, that the time for his observations, if he wished to say anything, would come when he had  finished cracking his nut.

Cicero, On the Orator 2.266 (the speaker is not Cicero but Julius Caesar Strabo)

A body that was not normally considered grotesque or risible might become so when being punished: the execution of Vitellius, one of the short-lived emperors of 68 CE, is one such example.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome by the populace

The foremost of the army had now forced their way in, and since no one opposed them, were ransacking everything in the usual way. They dragged Vitellius from his hiding-place and when they asked him his name (for they did not know him) and if he knew where Vitellius was, he attempted to escape them by a lie. Being soon recognized, he did not cease to beg that he be confined for a time, even in the prison, alleging that he had something to say of importance about the safety of Vespasian. But they bound his arms behind his back, put a noose about his neck, and dragged him with torn clothes and half-naked to the Forum. All along the Sacred Way he was greeted with mockery and abuse, his head held back by the hair, as is common with criminals, and even the point of a sword placed under his chin, so that he could not look down but must let his face be seen. Some pelted him with dung and shit, others called him an arsonist and glutton, and some of the mob even taunted him with his bodily defects. He was in fact abnormally tall, with a face usually flushed from hard drinking, a huge belly, and one thigh crippled from being struck once upon a time by a four-horse chariot, when he was in attendance on Gaius [Caligula] as he was driving. At last on the Stairs of Wailing he was tortured for a long time and then killed and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber

Suetonius, Life of Vitellius 17

Anything out of the ordinary was disturbing to the Romans as it was considered a sign of the gods’ anger. I include a selection of texts below some of which relate to what the Romans thought of as monstra being displayed, others of which relate to strange occurrences in nature, such as a woman giving birth to an elephant.

In Peloponnesus also there is found a woman, who gave birth over four births to twenty children, the greater part of which lived. Trogus tells us that in Egypt a woman gave birth to seven babies at one time. It also occurs, moreover, that there come into the world children of both sexes in one, whom we call hermaphrodites. In old days they were known by the name of androgyni, and reputed for prodigies;[2] but now men take pleasure in them. Pompey the Great, in the Theatre which he adorned with remarkable ornaments, as well for the subject as the most exquisite hand of the great artists, among other images represented Eutichtt, a Woman of Tralles, who after she had borne thirty births, was carried by twenty of her children to the funeral pyre to be burnt. Alcippe gave birth an elephant, and that certainly was a monstrous token. Also in the beginning of the Marsian War a slave gave birth to a serpent. It is no lie that females may be turned to males; for we have found it recorded in the Annals, that in the year when Publius Licinius Crassus and C. Cassius Longinus were consuls, there was at Cassinum a woman who, under her parents, became a boy: and by the order of the Aruspices he was taken to a desert island. Lucinius Mutianus reports that himself saw at Argos a Person named Arescon, who had been called Arescusa, and even had been married, but afterwards came to have a beard, and the genitalia of a man, and thereupon married a wife. He also saw at Smyrna a boy changed. I myself was an eye-witness that in Africa L. Cossicius, a citizen of Thysdris, who had been changed into a man the very day on which he was married to a husband….By law, ‘it should be lawful to parents to put to death children that were born monstrous,’ but Dionysius Halicarnassus adds, that it was necessary they should call witnesses to prove that they were monstrous, although  the latter stipulation can scarcely be reconciled with another law, which  gave to parents the right of life and death over their children.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.3-4

Those who were unusually short or tall might be exhibited as spectacles, whatever their status – and that exhibition might continue after their deaths:

Our annals do not tell us what Naevius Pollio’s height was; but we learn from them that he nearly lost his life from the rush of the people to see him, and that he was looked upon as a prodigy. The tallest man that has been seen in our times was called Gabbaras, who was brought from Arabia by the Emperor Claudius; his height was nine feet and nine inches. In the reign of Augustus, there were two persons, Posio and Secundilla, who were half a foot taller than him; their bodies have been preserved as objects of curiosity in the museum of the Sallustian family.

In the reign of the same emperor, there was a man also remarkable for his extremely diminutive stature, being only two feet and a palm in height; his name was Conopas, and he was a great pet with Julia, the granddaughter of Augustus. There was a woman also of the same size, Andromeda, a freed-woman of Julia Augusta. We learn from Varro that Manius Maximus and M. Tullius, members of our equestrian order, were only two cubits in height; I have myself seen them, preserved in their coffins. It is far from an unknown fact that children are occasionally born a foot and a half in height, and sometimes a little more; such children, however, die by the time they are three years old. We find it stated by the historians that the son of Euthymenes of Salamis had grown to be three cubits in height, at the age of three years; that he was slow of gait and dull of comprehension; that at that age he had even attained puberty and his voice had become strong, like that of a man. We hear, also, that he died suddenly of convulsions of the limbs, at the completion of his third year. I, myself, not very long ago, was witness to exactly similar appearances, with the exception of the state of puberty, in a son of Cornelius Tacitus, a member of the equestrian order, and procurator of Belgic Gaul. The Greeks call such children as these, extrapeloi; we have no name for them in Latin.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.16

Varro, speaking of persons remarkable for their strength, gives us an account of Tributanus, a celebrated gladiator, and skilled in the use of the Samnite  arms; he was a man of meagre person, but possessed of extraordinary strength. Varro makes mention of his son also, who served in the army of Pompey the Great. He says, that in all parts of his body, even in the arms and hands, there was a network of sinews, extending across and across. The latter of these men, having been challenged by an enemy, with a single finger of the right hand, and that unarmed, vanquished him, and then seized and dragged him to the camp. Vinnius Valens, who served as a centurion in the prætorian guard of Augustus, was in the habit of holding up wagons laden with casks, until they were emptied; and of stopping a carriage with one hand, and holding it back, against all the efforts of the horses to drag it forward. He performed other wonderful feats also, an account of which may still be seen inscribed on his monument. Varro, also, gives the following statement: “Fusius, who used to be called the ‘bumpkin Hercules,’ was in the habit of carrying his own mule; while Salvius was able to mount a ladder, with a weight of two hundred pounds attached to his feet, the same to his hands, and two hundred pounds on each shoulder.” I myself once saw —a most marvellous display of strength—a man of the name of Athanatus walk across the stage, wearing a leaden breast-plate of five hundred pounds weight, while shod with shoes of the same weight.

 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.19

The Emperor Domitian had a deformed boy as a favourite; he also had dwarfs fight in the arena:

Throughout every gladiatorial show there always stood at his feet a small boy clad in scarlet, with an abnormally small head, with whom he used to talk a great deal, and sometimes seriously. At any rate, he was overheard to ask him if he knew why he had decided at the last appointment day to make Mettius Rufus prefect of Egypt.

Suetonius, Domitian 4.2

He would also frequently stage the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other.

Cassius Dio, Epitome Book 67

In the middle of this noise and the new luxuries there appear women trained to wield the sword wildly daring to fight like men. You would believe that the Amazons of Thermodon were fighting wildly by Tanais or savage Phasis.  Now a bold unit of dwarfs appears, whose growth nature suddenly cut short, binding them in one movement into a knotted lump. They give and receive wounds and threaten death with tiny hands. Mars, our father, and bloody Virtus laugh and cranes hover over the scattered loot marvel at the tiny fighters.

Statius, Silvae 1.6.52-64

Elagabalus was a member of the Severan Dynasty and ruled from 218-222. He was only fourteen when he came to the throne and he ruled about as well as one would expect a fourteen year old to do; in other words, he rather resembled Joffrey from Game of Thrones. He surrounded himself with a range of people the average Roman would not have thought fit company for an emperor, most of whom his successor, Alexander Severus, got rid of:

Bust of Elagabalus

All the dwarfs belonging to Elagabalus, both male and female, fools, catamites who had good voices, all kinds of entertainers at table, and actors of pantomimes he made public property; those, however, who were not of any use were assigned, each to a different town, for support, in order that no one town might be burdened by a new kind of beggar. The eunuchs, whom Elagabalus had had in his base councils and had promoted, he presented to his friends, adding a statement to the effect that if they did not return to honest ways, it should be lawful to put them to death without authority from the courts. Women of ill repute, of whom he arrested an enormous number, he ordered to become public prostitutes, and he deported all catamites, those with whom that scourge had carried on a most pernicious intimacy, being drowned by shipwreck.

Historia Augusta, Alexander Severus 34.2


  1. A shield captured by Marius in the Gallic War, 101 BCR.
  2. In other words, they were frequently thrown into the ocean if discovered. Only Pliny could look back on that and think the Romans had fallen from true, decent values by stopping it.


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Spectacles in the Roman World by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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