With Remembrance Sunday just past, I was reflecting on what happened to those disabled by war in ancient Athens. In Pericles funeral speech over the dead after the first year of the Peloponesian war, there is no word of help for those who were disabled fighting for their country. The other main losers, the orphans, will get brought up by the state.
We know that the ancient Greeks were very concerned about the recovery and proper burial of the dead with truces allowed after battles for the two sides to recover the bodies. There are other cases where we know that the wounded were recovered. One such case is where Theaetetus was brought back on a stretcher from Corinth to Athens.
Εὐκλείδης εἰς λιμένα καταβαίνων Θεαιτήτῳ ἐνέτυχον φερομένῳ ἐκ Κορίνθου ἀπὸ τοῦ στρατοπέδου Ἀθήναζε.
While going down to the harbour, I met Theaetetus being carried from Corinth from the camp there to Athens.
Plat. Theaet. 142a
Another case which shows the importance of helping the wounded is taken from the very poignant description of Thucydides when the Athenians defeated at Syracuse in Sicily have to leave behind the dead and wounded.
τῶν τε γὰρ νεκρῶν ἀτάφων ὄντων, ὁπότε τις ἴδοι τινὰ τῶν ἐπιτηδείων κείμενον, ἐς λύπην μετὰ φόβου καθίστατο, καὶ οἱ ζῶντες καταλειπόμενοι τραυματίαι τε καὶ ἀσθενεῖς πολὺ τῶν τεθνεώτων τοῖς ζῶσι λυπηρότεροι ἦσαν καὶ τῶν ἀπολωλότων ἀθλιώτεροι.
The corpses lay unburied and when anyone saw one of their comrades lying there he was put into a state of grief with fear, and the living who were left behind, the wounded and the sick, caused even more grief to the living than the dead and were in a more pitiful condition than those who had lost their lives.
So these are my thoughts on the matter. The nature of injuries in ancient times would be very different from modern day war casualties. I don’t think there would have been any amputation of limbs (I could be wrong). Those soldiers who are now saved by amputation would have died. There would be many injuries that would lead to either death or a decent recovery. So maybe the number of disabled would be less than might be first supposed. But what of those who were left disabled. We know that there is some provision for pensions for the disabled because we have a speech from Lysias where a man is defending his right to a pension. However, unless you were rich, in most cases if you were so disabled so as not to be able to pursue your trade, you may have been better off dead. Socrates puts this harsh view in the Republic talking about doctors.
ἀλλὰ τὸν μὴ δυνάμενον ἐν τῇ καθεστηκυίᾳ περιόδῳ ζῆν μὴ οἴεσθαι δεῖν θεραπεύειν, ὡς οὔτε αὑτῷ οὔτε πόλει λυσιτελῆ.
But the man who cannot live his normal life, Asclepius thinks should not be treated as he neither useful to himself or the city.
For many people it would have been better to have come back from war either healthy (or at least with a chance of recovery) or dead. And maybe soldiers on the battlefield recognised this and it would be a more humane act to kill the enemy rather than wound him. Thoas’ final blow against Peiroos in the Iliad viewed in that light would be an act of mercy.
τὸν δὲ Θόας Αἰτωλὸς ἀπεσσύμενον βάλε δουρὶ στέρνον ὑπὲρ μαζοῖο, πάγη δ᾽ ἐν πνεύμονι χαλκός: ἀγχίμολον δέ οἱ ἦλθε Θόας, ἐκ δ᾽ ὄβριμον ἔγχος ἐσπάσατο στέρνοιο, ἐρύσσατο δὲ ξίφος ὀξύ, τῷ ὅ γε γαστέρα τύψε μέσην, ἐκ δ᾽ αἴνυτο θυμόν.
Thoas the Aetolian hit him with his sword above the breast as he was rushing away and the bronze spear stuck in his lung. Thoas came close to him and took the spear from his chest and drew his sharp sword and with it he struck him in the middle of his stomach and took away his life.