The Roman Giant
Gigantism is a rare disorder that only affects three people in every million around the world. It begins in childhood when the pituitary gland malfunctions, causing excessive, unchecked growth. Unsurprisingly, it is not something that shows up in the archaeological record very often. Would be giants have been found in places like Egypt and Poland. However, these remains have never been complete enough or sufficiently well preserved for archaeologists to definitively identify the condition.
However, in 1991, the oldest complete skeleton of an individual with gigantism was unearthed from the necropolis of Fidenae, a territory just outside the city of Rome. The body was that of a young man, buried in an abnormally large tomb to accommodate his above average size sometime in the third century AD. Scientists confirmed his gigantism from damage to his skull consistent with a pituitary tumor that could have caused the gland to over produce human growth hormone.
At six foot eight inches tall, the Fidenae giant would have towered over his contemporaries who on averaged did not exceed five and a half feet. A comparison of his tibia or shinbone with an average sized male of the time gives some idea of this difference in height and build. It seems his growth did not stop even when he reached adulthood, as his limbs were disproportionately long.
What would have been the role of such an ungainly individual in Roman society? Simona Minozzi, a paleopathologist at Italy’s University of Pisa has suggested the Fidenae giant could have made his living as a novelty act entertaining Rome’s elite who had “developed a pronounced taste for entertainers with evident physical malformations such as hunchbacks and dwarfs.” Giants would have been even rarer, and so even more sought after as a novelty.
The Fidenae giant died sometime between the ages of 16-20 years old. His early death was probably due to his condition, as a side effect of gigantism is heart disease and breathing difficulties. No grave goods were found in his grave. But his respectful, individual interment in a communal cemetery shows that however, he made his living, the Fidenae giant was not alone in the world and nor was he disrespected.
Finally, some bones show that, no how many millennia separate us, we weren’t so different to our early human relatives.