The demographic dynamics of the ancient world were such that overall average mortality and fertility rates were very high, in contrast to those of modern, Western populations. The prevailing disease environments of Italy, Attica, Egypt, and elsewhere across the Mediterranean and North Africa were varied but almost always harsh. Other contributors to rates of death were high population densities in urban areas, general rural living conditions, the extent of warfare and military life, and a lack of advanced medical care. Many of these factors would have adversely affected the majority of the populations of the ancient world but mostly those at the extremes of age: the very young (infants) and the very old. This would have resulted in a predominant age structure in the Greco–Roman world which favored young adults and, to a lesser but still significant degree, those up to and in their sixties.
The likelihood, based on demographic model life tables, was such that in Greco–Roman societies up to 10 percent of the population was over the age of 60 and that half of these could be expected to live until age 75. Frequent references are made to adults in their 60s, and occasionally to those much older, in many literary and documentary sources; and it was certainly not unheard of for people in the ancient world to reach their 90s. In biological terms, the populations of the Hellenistic and Roman world aged as would be expected of any human population in which individuals were capable of reaching old age, subject to environmental and socioeconomic conditions. It is in the cultural markers of age and the responses to “old age” where distinct patterns in the meaning and significance of aging as a stage of both private and public life can be seen.
Attitudes toward Aging and the Aged.
In Greek and Latin literature there are some very well-known motifs in which old people are either revered in their old age for their wisdom or presented within the context of experiencing a harsh and difficult stage of life. The Seven Sages of Greece were associated with old age, and Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C.E. was said to have been 80 or 90 years old. Homer’s Nestor (the famously wise king of Pylos) was said to have lived three lifetimes, an obvious exaggeration but one which illustrates a reverence for age and its association with sagacity. Along with such representations and the pictures of old men in Euripides, Aristophanes, and lyric and elegiac poetry, there is a degree of ambiguity in attitudes toward old age. In much of the poetry and drama of classical Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries C.E., youth (neotas) was viewed as a heroic phase of life full of sweetness and beauty, in contrast to old age (geras), a phase of life which was cruel and unrelenting.
Various negative attitudes toward the aged were common in Athenian philosophy, including miserliness and negativity: “Older men and those who have passed their prime have in most cases characters opposite to those of the young. For, owing to their having lived many years and having been more often deceived by others or made more mistakes themselves, and since most human things turn out badly, they are positive about nothing, and in everything they show an excessive lack of energy” (Aristotle, Rhet. 2.13).
In the Roman world, too, negative attitudes toward the more physical effects of aging were common, as in Pliny the Elder, who laments that “Nature has granted to humankind no more precious gift than the shortness of life” and continues to list problems with limbs, sight, hearing, and digestion, among other ailments (Nat. 7.168). Such physical ailments were frequently described as a horrid humiliation. In the case of Gnaeus Domitius Tullus, a wealthy senator, Pliny the Younger writes a graphic account of the humiliation of his ailments: “deformed and crippled in every limb, he could only enjoy his enormous wealth by contemplating it and could not even turn in bed unless he was manhandled…he was often heard to say that every day he licked the fingers of his slaves” (Ep. 8.18). Juvenal wrote scathingly of deterioration of the body and mind in old age, displaying similar pessimism, in particular about mental deterioration accompanying old age (Sat. 10.188–288).
A “Golden Age”?
But attitudes toward old age were not entirely pessimistic. The more positive characteristics of old age are espoused by Plato, who presents an image of old age as a time in which intellect is developed, along with a more refined spirituality than in youth (Resp. 328d–330a). This positive image is also present in Cicero’s Cato Maior de Senectute, on the life of Cato the Elder who had lived until the age of 84 in around 150 B.C.E. Cicero here offers an eloquent philosophy on the superiority and dignity of old age. Cato, though having withdrawn from public life by the time he was 50, still influenced the senate and, at the age of 80, took it upon himself to learn Greek and become acquainted with sophisticated and cultured Greek literature. Cicero points out that the reasons others consider old age to be an unhappy stage of life are related to their withdrawal from public life, physical deterioration, loss of physical pleasures, and being closer to death. He counters each of these with a discussion of the usefulness of older men in politics and how strength and physical pleasure in old age are neither required nor preferable to intellect.
But there is a mixed message in the use of old age as a metaphor for public skills including oratory and art; Horace used the idea that aging is an improvement in his claim that a dead poet is a good poet (Ep. 2.1.34–91), whereas Cicero frequently described a decline in oratory and art with age.
Old Age and Public Life.
The ability to be of use to society, particularly in public and political life, was of course an important part of one’s aging; and age was a strong feature of the political structures in the Greco–Roman world. In classical Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. there was more focus on younger ages for membership of the ephebeia, the state institution into which young men entered for military and administrative service, literature, philosophy, and music. Conversely, seniority did not bring with it any rights to political position or power. In Athens there was a great deal of conflict between the old and the young, which was institutionalized in the laws and politics of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. Charges of “corrupting the young” were famously brought against a 70-year-old Socrates in 399 B.C.E. Athenian men served as arbitrators in public trials but not until they were 60 years old.
In Sparta the young were not entrusted with public responsibility; it was usual for men to remain in barracks until they were 30 years old since their youthful age was deemed by older men to have been incompatible with engagement with the laws of society (Plato, Leg. 643D). The powers of the council of elders (gerousia) in Sparta were an institutionalized form of respect for the importance of older age and the intellect and responsibility associated with it. Two kings and 28 elders, each over the age of 60 and with their position for life, made up this gerousia and held much of the political and legal decision-making power in Sparta, though a share of power was in the hands of the younger ephors.
Under the Roman republic (599–27 B.C.E.) age was in fact an important qualification for the holding of public office, and the positions which commanded the most power were held by those of advanced years: senators, teachers, censors, and fathers. The categorization of seniors or senex starts between the ages of 46 and 60, and it is with the senators within this age category that most of the power within Rome lay. Roman citizens, once they were over the age of 60, no longer voted in the assembly of the centuries; senators over 60 were excused from attendance at the senate; and judges and heads of local councils could retire but keep their title. Exemption from many public duties was permitted from the age of 60, and in military circles the age divisions reflected the physical nature of military life: at age 46 soldiers were seniores, and at age 50 they were no longer fit to serve, unless in the case of military emergencies.
There was no real concept of retirement in old age in the Greco–Roman world; the closest institutions to employment in the ancient world were the military career and the political career, involvement in which was a function of age only at the start of one’s career. Nonetheless, one does hear of the desire to retreat from public life and into leisure time in old age. Seneca, prominent in the Stoic school of the first century C.E., wrote a moral essay, “On the Shortness of Life,” espousing Stoic principles on the nature of time and old age. In this essay Seneca turns to the subject of his own aging and his concerns about it; he points out the wastefulness of youth and asks how best one might spend one’s free time (otium), in leisure or being busy. Seneca poses these questions very much with a sense of entitlement in old age to the enjoyment of otium; this is at great odds with republican values which viewed leisure time as wasteful—indeed, otium was often used as a pejorative term, in contrast to business (officium).
Under imperial rule aristocratic males such as the imperial poets (Statius, for example) or wealthy senators like Pliny were free to enjoy their otium, and the only intrusions into it were the physical ravages of old age themselves. Other notable Augustan poets reflect on their own aging with similarly mixed feelings of concern for physical well-being and an appreciation of the time to reflect. Ovid wrote of the loneliness and weariness of being old (Tristia 4.83) and found this and physical difficulties hard to bear. The emperor Galba at age 72 was afflicted by physical deterioration but also was able to enjoy his political life.
It was all very well for philosophers and the aristocratic elite to concern themselves with aging and how to endure or enjoy it, but for the vast majority of the population of the ancient world the realities of life in a largely agricultural economic and domestic setting did not allow them the luxury of time to reflect on their aging to the same degree. Old age would have been particularly difficult for the very poor and for women, and tradition, if not law, demanded that children be responsible for their parents in their old age. This was particularly enshrined in Athenian law, though it was the tradition of paternal control over the family that meant the law was unnecessary in Rome.
Throughout the Greek world the Homeric tradition of owing a debt to one’s parents persisted (Homer, Il. 4.477–478). This tradition was put into a legal framework by Solon’s reforms: those who did not support their aged parents were stripped of their citizen rights. The obligations from children to parent in terms of aging, in conjunction with the power that fathers held over their children in many other aspects of life, was responsible for a great deal of conflict in the family, particularly between fathers and their adult sons. A father was legally entitled to decide at the birth of his son whether to raise him or expose him; and, on the son’s 18th birthday, a father was responsible for supporting his son’s entrance into society, granting him the freedom, and autonomy from his father’s rule, of citizenship. Conflict resulted as a consequence of the nature of this power and obligation relationship, as reflected in the popular Aristophanic comedies: in The Birds one inhabitant of the imaginary city (nephelococcygia, cloud cuckoo land) was a son keen to murder his father, and The Clouds depicts violence from a youthful son against his father (in his 60s) once the son has learned a degree of disobedience.
The Roman virtue of pietas ensured that one respected one’s parents, no matter what their age or condition. One primary concern of families was to ensure that they bore enough children to guarantee that at least one or two of them would survive to support them in their old age. In addition to this, the uniquely Roman power of patria potestas guaranteed fathers a high degree of legal authority over their children’s lives and finances (Gaius, Inst. 1.55) and gave them the security that those sons still under their legal power would have to take care of them.
Diseases of Old Age.
Of course, the primary concern of most adults in the ancient world would have been the physical aspects of aging and how they might avoid or deal with them, not just in terms of physical illness but also in terms of mental deterioration. Roman law recognized mental illness of the elderly and invalidated contracts made while suffering from mental incapacity such as paranoia, dementia, or insania. Medical understanding of disease and illness in old age was widely accepted—the Hippocratic Aphorisms offered a biological explanation for the mental states of elderly people. The common theory of physical illness was the body’s loss of heat and fluid, its force, and an upset of the balance of the four humors (blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile); but for aging the explanation was slightly different in that the old person has lost heat but has not lost fluid. Galen, the well-known medical practitioner (129–199 C.E.), refutes this and puts it down to the physical aspects of various fluids and moisture around older people. Loss of heat, and the notion that old age was cold, is common in the medical writers and the literature. This coldness, according to Galen, impacted on the mind as well as the body, causing mental and physical illness in many cases.
A number of medical, philosophical, and literary texts deal with mental deterioration in old age in the Greco–Roman world. Aristotle linked directly the deterioration of the mind with old age and explained that old age in itself was a disease (De an.). Galen insisted that old age was a natural process and not a disease but a phase of life in which one was particularly prone to ill health which needed to be remedied by moderation in lifestyle and diet (On the Preservation of Health); he saw the loss of memory as a symptom of the aging process. Literary texts depict some of the characteristics of mental deterioration but also the implications of them in personal terms.
Aging in Greco–Roman Egypt.
Outside of the legal and economic concerns of the Athenian and Roman upper classes, experiences of aging would have been subject to a number of other considerations. In Egypt of both the Hellenistic and the Roman periods the laws, customs, and patterns of marriage and the family were different from those of Athens or Rome. Women were entitled to own, and therefore pass on to their children, property and wealth; and there was no strict adherence to any of the Roman customs surrounding the patria potestas. In the largely hellenized metropoleis of Oxyrhynchus, Hermopolis Magna, and Arsinoë there was some adherence to the political customs involving age, for instance, the entrance of young boys into the gymnasium (the institution for physical, social, and intellectual education of the hellenized elite). This registration of young boys at age 14 into an ephebia style of privileged social and administrative group existed in the Hellenistic period and was formalized into a rolling registration system, the epikrisis, under Roman rule. Boys were registered and documented through a rigorous procedure of proving their lineage in a registration list (e.g., P.Oxy 38.2855, 43.3114, 44.3183 [291 C.E.]). But again there was no similar function in public life associated with the older ages.
The private letters and documentary sources on papyri from Greco–Roman Egypt show the vulnerability and rhetoric of old age, as well as the usefulness and necessity of those in the older age groups. In one petition written by Haynchis to the local official Zenon in 253 B.C.E. (P.Lond. 7.196) an aged mother requests that Zenon intervene and insists that her adult daughter return home from her new life and husband, to help her manage her business affairs: “she was managing the store with me and supported me since I am old…Now I sustain a loss since she is gone.…I ask you then to help me because of my old age.”
In the Roman period the census data reveal a wealth of grandparents, particularly grandmothers, who take some responsibility for child care within the family. Across 29 households there are grandparents. The oldest recorded grandfather is 75 years old and the youngest 56, and the oldest grandmother recorded is 75 and the youngest 46. Many of these grandparents took care of children in the absence of the children’s fathers, who were often away at war, a situation which is recorded in private letters written home to those grandparents (e.g., BGU 2.380, after the third century C.E.). Also seen are older grandparents functioning in place of parents as guardians for orphaned children (P.Fouad 35 [48 C.E.], SB 5.7558 [172/73 C.E.]).
Across the Greco–Roman world, children had a duty, whether legal or otherwise, to care for their parents as they aged. The concepts of employment, welfare, and retirement did not exist, so the societies of Greece, Rome, and Egypt built some of their laws and political customs around considerations of age and how to deal with the physical and mental deterioration that often accompanies old age. Needless to say, people in the past experienced old age differently according to their socioeconomic position, their environment, and the family and culture around them: those without wealth, property, or inheritance to worry about were the poor and had instead to worry about the day-to-day difficulties of survival and a degree of dependence on the younger members of their families. Women in particular lacked much in the way of legal or social power when it came to safeguarding their care in old age, which would particularly have affected those who were widowed. However, old age was not always something distasteful or to be feared: for some, the freedom from public life and the leisure time afforded them in old age were welcome, and in Greco–Roman Egypt there was a strong culture of men and women over age 60 being an essential part of family life, child care, and guardianship.
[See also DEATH AND BURIAL, HELLENISTIC AND ROMAN PERIOD, PALESTINE; DEATH AND BURIAL IN THE JEWISH DIASPORA; DEATH AND BURIAL IN THE ROMAN WORLD; EGYPT, HELLENISTIC AND ROMAN; FAMILY STRUCTURE, HELLENISTIC AND ROMAN PERIOD; INFANCY, CHILDHOOD, ADULTHOOD, OLD AGE, BRONZE AND IRON AGE.)]
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