Blog #11: Grad Student Feature with Jelena Todorovic

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

My name is Jelena Todorovic, and I am a PhD candidate in Classics in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. My doctoral research explores the representation of disability on the ancient Roman comic stage. It introduces the questions of critical disability studies and disability theatre studies to the world of ancient Roman performance, with a focus on comedy.

The history of highly militarized societies, such as Rome, by extension, has to be a history of disability. It is no news that times of war generate disabilities: wounded soldiers, mutilated hostages, tortured enslaved peoples, etc. This must have been the case of Rome in the times of the Punic Wars, for example, when Plautus, the most well-preserved Roman comic playwright, lived and worked. Other periods of Roman history also contained wars, insecurities, and social turmoil. Historical events and social realities are echoed in arts and literature. Therefore, it is inevitable to conclude that disability must have been treated in dramatic literature and performance, especially if we take into account that disability has lent itself as a source of humour across time periods and societies. The comic tradition of ancient Rome cannot be an exception to this rule.

Fig 1. Terracotta figurine, 2nd century BCE. Musée du Louvre, Photograph © Alexandre G. Mitchell.
Fig 1. Terracotta figurine, 2nd century BCE. Musée du Louvre, Photograph © Alexandre G. Mitchell.

Conforming with the growing interest in social history and, with it, in the history of marginalized social groups, scholarship on Roman Comedy has been expanded by a great number of works that examine the role of enslaved peoples, freedmen, and the members of so-called “lowbrow” society. Furthermore, the rise of women’s studies and gender studies, encouraged scholars to try to recover women’s history and female voices in Roman comedy. Even though disability is not as visible as these other social categories represented in comedy, it is found throughout the works of Plautus, Terence, as well as in various popular non-scripted comic forms. I believe that just as race, class, and gender have reshaped the scholarly discourse, it is now time for the study of disability to become a useful academic tool to reframe discussions of ancient texts. My doctoral thesis pioneers the application of the critical disability studies to the study of Roman comedy.

What sources or data do you look at?

In my research I am mostly focused on text and the evidence found in the literary sources. Within the broader comic setup, I predominately look at the works of Plautus, but I also consider the instances of disability treatment in Terence, and other performative forms, like the mime, where some textual evidence exists. However, some types of disabilities, like physical deformities, are underrepresented in comic literature. On the other hand, this type of disability is very prominent in the figural and visual arts. Therefore, in my research, I examine the examples of the artwork representing deformed bodies, like dwarfs, hunchbacks, or any other deformed type of body, and interpret them as material evidence for performance history when possible.

For example, there is one big class of objects in Roman archaeology, categorized under the term of “grotesque”. Artifacts belonging to this category are small-sized figurines representing disparate bodies, with three main types of figures that we can distinguish: stage actors, humorous caricatures, and representations of known pathologies. Other examples come from South Italian vase painting, from where we draw most of our visual evidence for performance history.

How does your research shed light on real people in the past?

Even though strongly rooted in activism and social justice initiatives in scholarship, and seemingly undivorceable from modern times, studies of disability and disability theatre cannot be limited to the geographical and temporal borders of the modern world, where activism is possible. On the contrary, like gender, race, and class, disability is to be understood as a social category, and as such, analyzed both diachronically and synchronically and across space.

Bronze statuette of standing comic actor, Greece, 200-100 BCE, Getty Images
Fig. 2 Bronze statuette of standing comic actor, Greece, 200-100 BCE, Getty Images

Understanding disability as a distinct social category, my dissertation considers representations of this phenomenon within ancient Roman comedy and interprets them. In doing so, it contributes to the rethinking of ancient Roman social history against the cultural discrimination of a social minority and identity group of persons with disability. While growing research interests in the history of disability, as a subfield of cultural and social history, have furthered scholarly understandings of disability in Greco-Roman antiquity, there has been no distinct endeavour to treat the representation of disability in Roman comedy in the way other social categories, like class or gender, have been thoroughly scrutinized in the last two decades. My research attempts to bridge this gap by adding disability as a distinct category to the equation.

Furthermore, my research considers disability using the methodology of critical disability studies and disability theatre studies, which approach the phenomena of disability and ability as social constructs and, as such, not absolute nor common across different societies. While critical disability studies draw the line between disability, constructed to a greater or lesser extent within any given society, and impairment, an acquired or congenital quality of an individual body, they also recognize that disability is a marker of identity. This identity is produced as a shared, group identity, through the social experience of disability. The overall goal of my dissertation is to contribute to the rethinking of ancient Roman social history against the cultural discrimination of the social minority and identity group that persons with disability represent. 

Jelena Todorovic graduated from the University of Belgrade on Plautus’ Menaechmi and conducted MA studies in Promotion and Popularization of Classical Culture at the University of Catania. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. Jelena is interested in ancient Greek and Roman drama and performance, reception studies and disability theatre studies. Her doctoral research is focused on interpretation and study of representation of disability on the ancient Roman comic stage. Jelena’s current research projects include the project on reception of classical poetry and performance in Modern Serbia. Jelena is a UBC Public Scholar, and the Graduate Student Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Histories Research Excellence Cluster (UBC).

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