Braille Monitor                          March 2020

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Blind and Respectable in Ancient Rome:
Unearthing the Forgotten Genius of Appius Claudius Caecus

by Kane Brolin

Kane BrolinFrom the Editor: Kane Brolin is the president of the National Federation of the Blind Michiana Chapter which, as you can guess from its name, borders Indiana and Michigan. Kane honors the Braille Monitor with an occasional piece that goes beyond the surface and shows the intellect and talent he possesses. What I find most heartwarming is that he chooses to share some of his gifts with us, and here is one of the finest I have seen:

No matter how long you or your ancestors have lived in the United States of America, you play a role in something that still is fairly new here on planet Earth. Maybe the newness of the American experiment, coupled with the fact that everything changes so rapidly these days, is why for us Americans learning history tends not to be a high priority. The movers and shakers of our nation are known for conquering frontiers, inventing technologies, fighting battles, and solving problems with the goal of carving out a legacy. We teach our children to be ambitious and to point their gaze mostly forward, seldom backward.
This is evident even in the everyday language we use. In my peer group, ancient history was what we said to describe some episode in a friend’s life that we believe should be discarded for irrelevancy (I vaguely recall using this phrase to dismiss some of the things my parents used to say, too).

Sometimes our choice to discount the value of history isn’t just cultural; it’s personal. It can get painful when we find ourselves to be members of a class that has been ignored or marginalized as long as anyone can remember. If I am blind and spend a lot of my time meditating on treatment of the blind in bygone eras, this would seem to produce a result much more depressing than edifying. The Encyclopedia Britannica has a brief online entry that discusses the blind and their place in antiquity:

It has long been assumed that in the ancient world the blind enjoyed few opportunities and lived out their days in penury as beggars or as wards of their families in the absence of any systematic state or government assistance. Historical knowledge of the lives of blind people in the premodern Western world is extremely limited, and it is strongly influenced by literary or religious texts. Traditional interpretations of classical literary representations hold that blindness is a punishment for social or religious transgressions or, alternatively, is the price one pays to gain spiritual vision and insight. … The negative historical assumption is of the blind as objects of charity rather than active agents in history. Occasionally, the blind could be found clustered in certain state- or church-sanctioned professions or guilds, but in large part blindness was assumed to be a ticket to misery, a curse, or a sentence to second-class status.1

Of course, noteworthy exceptions exist. Memorable blind individuals do figure prominently as characters even in classical literature.2 Even Homer, possibly the most widely known epic poet of ancient Greece, is said to have been blind. But even with those exceptions, some try to erode their credibility by downplaying or stripping away the characteristic of blindness. The main page devoted to Homer and Homeric scholarship on Wikipedia puts it this way: “Some claims were established early and repeated often. They include that Homer was blind (taking as self-referential a passage describing the blind bard…) Many traditions circulated in the ancient world concerning Homer, most of which are lost. Modern scholarly consensus is that they have no value as history.”3

But in other cases, there is no disputing it. Triumph rises above what could have been tragedy. Enter the person of Appius Claudius Caecus. Judging from his name alone, we learn of Appius Claudius’ most noticeable characteristic; caecus means “totally blind” in Latin. It is universally recognized that he was blind, and that he lived some two centuries before Julius Caesar sprang onto the scene. Yet, blind or not, he stands as one of the most accomplished and memorable figures of the Roman Republic.

So who was Appius Claudius Caecus? He was a statesman, urban planner, and civil engineer within the Roman Republic, who attained political prominence after being appointed to serve in the role of censor in the year 312 BCE. "According to [the ancient Roman historian] Livy, he had gone blind because of a curse… "Appius is best known for two undertakings he began as censor: the Appian Way (Latin: Via Appia), the first major Roman road, running between Rome and Beneventum to the south; and the first aqueduct in Rome, the Aqua Appia.”4 An aqueduct is “an artificial channel conveying water, typically across a bridge or other gap.”5 The Aqua Appia was built largely underground to protect the water supply from enemies and prevent water pollution. A consistent supply of clean water was essential to a thriving population center such as Rome to provide for public baths, private homes, fountains, and crop irrigation. The Roman establishment had so much trust in Appius Claudius that, first in 292 BCE and again in 285 BCE, they appointed him dictator.6 Although it is said that he became blind later in life, Appius Claudius never quit his service to the state. Since his second term as dictator would have corresponded to his 55th birthday, it is reasonable to think that a lot of what Appius Claudius accomplished for his country was concluded while he was completely without eyesight.

Appius Claudius’ moment on the Roman stage was anything but fleeting, his accomplishments much more than a mere flash in the pan. His career in Roman governance was lengthy: something that would have been hard for anyone, sighted or blind, to achieve in the scandal-ridden, often treacherous, and sometimes deadly vocation of statecraft in the ancient Mediterranean world. "After his time as censor, he came to serve as consul twice, in 307 BCE and 296 BCE.”7 “Appius wrote a book called Sententiae, based upon a verse of Greek model. It was "the first Roman book of literary character. He was also concerned with literature and rhetoric, and instituted reforms in Latin orthography, allegedly ending the use of the letter Z."8
You might ask, “So what?” That was then, this is now. Appius Claudius Caecus’ remains have returned to dust. His accomplishments, while magnificent, are yesterday’s news. And, by the way, he was an aristocrat, one from a noble and wealthy family who should have had all possible worldly advantage: plenty of tutors, plenty of servants. If he needed someone to read to him, prepare food or apparel for him, or transport him wherever he needed to go, help presumably was no farther away than the snap of a finger. Few of us who read the Braille Monitor ever could count on social or financial advantages like those Appius Claudius must have had. Is there anything about this blind dignitary’s life that is worth our celebrating? I argue very strongly that there is.

To me, Appius Claudius’ accomplishments are not what makes his story stand out. Even more amazing is that even though this man lost all of his eyesight, he seems to have lost no respect from the citizens of the Roman Republic because of it. Those who came afterward to preserve his legacy were deliberate in recording for posterity who he was and that he lived with the characteristic of blindness; but they did not cast that characteristic in a negative light. Appius Claudius easily could have responded to his condition by hiding himself in the protective folds of a wealthy and large clan, losing himself to momentary pleasure from every available source and receiving unquestioning service from slaves and clients even if he had not lifted a finger to help himself or to serve others. Little would have been expected of him after he was made to bear the “curse” of blindness.

But again, so what? For those of us who find ourselves imprisoned by the here and now, it might seem hard to come up with a useful takeaway for our own lives. However, he achieved things. We know Appius Claudius had to get by without the tools our tech-laden age demands: the smartphone, the notetaker, and Bookshare. Not even the white cane or Braille was available to him. But a closer look reveals that he did share two things in common with members of the National Federation of the Blind: a lifelong commitment to public service and a lifelong desire to raise expectations of himself continually. Born in 340 BCE, Appius Claudius had assumed the role of censor over the whole republic by age twenty-eight. At an age when many in Western society today are still struggling just to get a handle on who they are, this gifted and goal-driven 28-year-old was serving as “a magistrate whose original functions of registering citizens and their property were greatly expanded to include supervision of senatorial rolls and moral conduct.”9 Not content to serve only himself or his own patrician class, Appius Claudius “sought support from the lower classes, allowing sons of freedmen to serve in the Senate, and extending voting privileges to men in the rural tribes who did not own land.”10 He reformed land laws and left a permanent mark on Roman grammar, poetry, and rhetoric.11 Perhaps his greatest contribution to the common people of Rome was that in 305 BCE he authorized the publication of a calendar of court days and a formulary of legal procedures for the use of the public. Until then, that essential information had been kept for the private viewing of mostly an elite priestly class.12

It would, of course, be a mistake to superimpose our 21st century cultural values of equality and diversity onto the subject of this article. All men and women certainly never were thought to have been created equal in ancient Rome, and it seems pretty certain that Appius Claudius would not have looked for opportunities to emancipate, educate, and empower slaves or to carve out an activist organization of the blind formed from a cross section of all Roman society. But the point is not to hold our standards over the head of Appius Claudius Caecus, nor is it helpful to compare the lifestyle of a Roman aristocrat who lived three centuries before Christ to a “woke,” 21st century citizen who stands to benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But we can without a doubt draw inspiration from Appius Claudius Caecus, a man who beat the odds by focusing on his strengths and refusing to be held back by his limitations.

Around the year 280 BCE, Appius Claudius gave a resoundingly patriotic speech which is recognized as the earliest known political speech in Latin. In that oration, Roman historian Livy records that Appius Claudius used the phrase "every man is the architect of his own fortune" (Latin: quisque faber suae fortunae).13  I feel that this phrase and this speech stood out not so much because of what words were spoken, but because of the deep respect Rome held for the individual who spoke them. By this time, he was not only blind, but apparently unable to move under his own power. Livy records that he had to be carried into the forum so he could speak to the senate. This was in essence a deathbed speech. His oration had so much impact that it decided the fate of an ongoing war and influenced Roman military doctrine for centuries to come.

As someone who is blind myself, I have gained over the years a deep interest in the skills, training, and tools of blindness—many of which we ourselves have helped to develop and promote through the National Federation of the Blind. As I try to imagine what Appius Claudius’ life must have been like, I am hugely curious about what alternative techniques this brilliant and strong man must have learned or developed after the onset of blindness to manage his affairs and to live out his career journey while navigating the daily grind in ancient Rome—whatever that felt like then. I am sad that I cannot ask Appius Claudius Caecus how he did it. Yet, even knowing as little as I do, I am thankful to history for at least preserving the truth that he did it.

1. Taken from “History of the Blind

2. For a more detailed survey of this topic that emphasizes Western literary traditions, read “Blindness: Is Literature Against Us?”, a banquet speech delivered by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan at the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Chicago, Illinois, on July 3, 1974.

6. In the early Republic, a dictator held nearly absolute power, but one was appointed only when the need came to address a military or civil emergency posing an existential threat to the state. The term of the dictator’s rule was usually limited to nine months or fewer, and following the emergency the dictator would step down as rule by the people was once again affirmed.

7. See the Wikipedia entry on Appius Claudius Caecus, as cited just above.

8. Ibid.

10. See the Wikipedia entry on Appius Claudius Caecus, as cited just above.

11. Caesar and Christ: The Story of Civilization, Volume III by Will Durant, © 1944, p. 29.

12. Ibid., p. 32. 

13. Ibid., p. 36.

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