Mobility impairment: identifying lived experiences in Roman Italy

Graham, Emma-Jayne (2020). Mobility impairment: identifying lived experiences in Roman Italy. In: Laes, Christian ed. A Cultural History of Disability in Antiquity. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 31–45.


At an unknown moment in the second or third century CE, mourners gathered in a cemetery at Casalecchio di Reno (near modern Bologna, Italy) to bury the remains of a member of their community. The remains of the adult man they laid to rest were inhumed in a simple grave, like those of the majority of the other members of the necropolis population. In death, the man’s body was no different from those who had been interred before him. However, when his skeletal remains (T.130) were discovered by archaeologists almost two millennia later, they presented a slightly different picture, revealing evidence for severe degeneration of the bones of the right leg, especially the head of the femur and “nearly complete anchylosis [fusing] of the right hip joint,” which had fixed the leg in “a semiflexed position (about 70°–80°),” the foot unable to touch the ground (Belcastro and Mariotti 2000: 530–1). Although the cause of this condition is uncertain, the man’s response to it was clear: further skeletal degenerative changes point toward regular compressive forces affecting his upper limbs, including his wrists and hands, with slightly different osteological consequences for the right and left sides of his body, while the locations of muscle attachments in his shoulders and elbows suggested that regular weight-bearing had led to his arm muscles becoming particularly well developed (Belcastro and Mariotti 2000). In short, bioarchaeological study of the man’s remains indicated that during life he had possibly mitigated the “severe difficulties of deambulation” (Belcastro and Mariotti 2000: 530) caused by the damage to his right leg by making use of external supports, probably ‘two different types of crutches (such as a stick and an axillary crutch) or a different distribution pattern of the body weight on the crutches’ (Belcastro and Mariotti 2000: 538).

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