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Hearing Loss in the Ancient World

03/12/2015

Today is March 12 – the infamous “Ides of March” that Julius Caesar was warned would be a very bad day for him. Perhaps his hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be by that time, or he might have heard Brutus and his crew plotting against him. But even if Caesar had hearing loss, he certainly wouldn’t have told anyone, as in his day the way people were treated was—to put it mildly—unkind.

Hearing aids and assistance were effectively non-existent

Alas, our ancestors didn’t have much by way of hearing aids, but according to The Ebers Papyrus, which dates to around 1500 B.C.E., the ancient Egyptians tried to treat “ear-that-hears-badly” by pouring a concoction of olive oil, red lead, ant eggs, bat wings and goat urine into the affected ears. On the plus side, the Egyptians had a code that required them to respect people with disabilities.

The earliest examples of what are believed to have been used as devices to improve hearing were found in Greek excavations. A Greek scientist known as Alcmaeon of Croton is credited with creating the first version of an ear trumpet around 55E B.C.E. Later, seashells traced to around 300 B.C.E. were apparently used to boost sound for the hearing impaired by being hardened and painted. Unfortunately, the ancient Greeks mostly handled hearing loss by shunning anyone who had it. In fact, the famed philosopher Aristotle referred to people with hearing loss as “barbarians” because they couldn’t learn or speak the Greek language. People with hearing loss were considered “non-persons”.

As for the ancient Romans, they were known to be even crueler to those with hearing loss than their Greek counterparts, again because an inability to speak their language was equated with lack of intelligence. Roman law stated that those who couldn’t hear had no legal standing in their society, unless they lost their hearing later in life after having developed speech, in which case they were treated as equal under the law.

Perhaps these ancient prejudices are why little to no effort was exerted trying to communicate with or teach the hearing impaired, and no significant advances in developing assistive devices were made until centuries later. We’ve come a long way since then in how we treat people with hearing loss especially when it comes to the large variety of hearing aids and assistive services available.

Has your hearing loss affected how others treat you? Share your experiences in the comments!

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