The Romans were as aware as Jeremy Kyle was of the pleasure that people could get from situations in which others were seen to be in trouble or humiliated in one way or another. Such situations were exploited by everyone from emperors to artists. Is there a new TV show here to replace Mr Kyle’s?
Romans would have made programmes exploiting the disabled. There was a fad among emperors for purchasing deformed slaves, and every elite home wanted to have one (we are told there was a market in Rome specialising in them). We hear of someone who paid a vast sum for a guaranteed cretin, only to demand his money back when he turned out to be no fool at all. The emperor Domitian staged a gladiatorial contest between a band of ‘knotted, ball-shaped dwarfs’. Elagabalus amused himself by hosting banquets for eight bald, or one-eyed, black, deaf or fat men ‘to get a laugh, e.g. from the last group because they could not all fit on to one couch’. Artists depicted hunchbacks, cripples, dwarfs and fat women trying to dance or juggle or do acrobatics. One could get amusement from calling a dwarf ‘Magnus’ or ‘Atlas’.
Even the most determined TV producer might baulk at such material. But the deformed could fight back. The misshapen cobbler Vatinius, ‘among the most revolting monstrosities in Nero’s entourage’, who well knew what it was to be on the receiving end of vile abuse and ridicule, made himself feared and wealthy by informing on people. The humane essayist Plutarch warned drinking parties against antics such as ordering drunken stammerers to sing or bald men to comb their hair. He cited one Agamestor who had a withered foot and elegantly got his own back on fellow drinkers who tried to exploit him for it. Further, the deformed were often thought to have supernatural powers, or to bring good luck. Early Greeks saw some dwarfs as helpers (e.g. the Telchines, discoverers of metallurgy) and protectors of sailors or children.
It is all too easy to imagine such a degrading series in the name of ‘public service’ (well in line with TV’s ‘values’), being fronted by a top comedian, justifying the exploitation with lots of nodding about ‘deeper ethical and religious issues’.