Sarah Bond: From Monarchs to Miley: Dwarfism on Display in Antiquity

Miley dancing at a recent Christmas concert.
It took me only until the 100th time I glimpsed at a picture of Miley Cyrus to write this post. However, I am not here to condemn her for her racy video choices, her dancing, or her facial expressions. Rather, I would like to emphasize that her recent fascination with the use of little people in her shows is really anything but novel. It is also anything but cool. 

Last week, the Ancient Studies Podcast had an episode exploring an article about the skeletal evidence from Rome for dwarfism found in a necropolis outside the city. This article, combined with some recent tabloid consumption and a number of new books on the subject of physical deformity in antiquity caused me to ask a bit more about not only their use in spectacle, but the broader perception of these individuals in classical antiquity.

Attic red figure (ca. 440 BCE). Youth and
servant dwarf . Now at the Boston MFA.
Much like today, antiquity was obsessed with depicting the beauty of the human form. Corporal anomalies also drew curiosity. Dwarfism was the most depicted of bodily disorders. In Greek, a dwarf was called a νᾶνος. Little textual evidence for these individuals survives outside of myth, but pottery does transmit a number of depictions. They suggest that little people could be used as servants and were perhaps also used in entertainment troupes hired for symposia. They were often associated with satyrs and with the god Dionysus. Little evidence survives that indicates extreme marginalization from society. There seems to be a curiosity surrounding these individuals, however, though the surviving record is inconclusive. A belief prevailed that their phalli were abnormally large. Aristotle in particular (HA. 6.24) notes that, much like mules, dwarfs had large phalli. As a result, ceramic figurines of dwarfs may have served an apotropaic purpose in addition to being comical.

A dwarf boxer figurine
(Roman, early imperial)
Now at the Getty Museum.

It was Rome who took the display of dwarfs to new levels, particularly within the games. Although there is a broad vocabulary, they were most often called a pumilio or pumilus. Suetonius (Aug. 43.3) notes that Augustus displayed a dwarf named Lycius as a curiosity because he was two feet tall and only 17 pounds. If we think of the games as a kind of curiosity cabinet where both rare animals and humans could be displayed, then we can better understand the purpose of them in these spectacles. Women were often paired with dwarf athletes in non-fatal matches that served to amuse viewers for their inversion of the traditional gladiatorial fight.  

Outside the arena, they continued to be used as servants to the elite. As rare (and thus status-laden) bodies, they were especially elite within some aristocratic households. Augustus' granddaughter, Vipsania Julia, was said by Pliny to have the biggest house and the smallest dwarf to serve her. These juxtapositions in size were amusing to Roman writers, but were equally amusing to Roman crowds, it seems. Elagabalus also employed a number of eunuchs and dwarfs to be ogled at.  

Mosaic of a dwarf boxer (Roman, 1-200 CE)
British Museum. 
Rather than focusing on just the dwarfs used for spectacle, I want to close by pointing out that there were some that carried on normal, successful lives. Philetas of Cos served as a tutor to Ptolemy II, for example,  and within eastern monastic narratives, the fourth century monk John the Dwarf is celebrated for promoting basket weaving as a way to stave off idleness and sloth. 

I urge you to go and explore the large amount of scholarship on disability and bodily deformity in antiquity that is currently being produced. I would also encourage us to reconsider the use of these little people as show-pieces on display. I think back to Kid Rock's use of little people and Miley's current fascination with them and think: we are better than this. No matter what the size, shape, or color, the body should be accepted rather than used as a showpiece or curious anomaly for the viewer's pleasure. 

Further Reading:

S. Brunet, "Dwarf Athletes in the Roman Empire," AHB 17 (2003), 17-32; "Female and Dwarf Gladiators," Mouseion 4 (2004), 145-170. 

V. Dasen, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece (Oxford, 1993 [2013]). 

L. Trentin, "Deformity in the Roman Imperial Court," G&R 58.2 (2011), 195 ff. 


  1. Fascinating stuff! And, yes, surely we have come further than that...

  2. Great post! I recently created this webpage on the psychological exploitation of extraordinary human specimens in ancient Rome. http://spectacularantiquity.wordpress.com/
    Hope you enjoy!


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