Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Old Age in Ancient Rome

Old Age in Ancient Rome | History Today

Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence look at what it meant to become a senior citizen in ancient Rome, and how this early model has a bearing on our attitudes towards ageing today.

Rome held an empire stretching across one-sixth of the surface of the globe, with a population of some 60 million - an achievement equalled by the Chinese empire in the east and only surpassed by Russia and the United States in the nineteenth century. Its capital, Rome, was the first ever metropolis, containing one million people and an urban culture that included architectural achievements unsurpassed until the modern period. This picture of an almost modern nation masks another of massive inequality, alongside sickness and disease that have not been experienced in the West for generations. Life expectancy at birth was short: on average roughly twenty-five to thirty years, with 50 per cent of those born not passing the age of ten. In other words, the demographic regime was not unlike that experienced in countries today such as Botswana through the causes of AIDS, international debt, poverty and inequality - a far cry from the modern Western world where average life expectancy becomes ever-higher and runs well into the seventies. A key question for understanding Rome is  how society viewed those few people who survived into old age and experienced a life-span not unlike our own today.

There was a strong distinction between the elderly and others in Roman society. The old man was the opposite of the young man, whereas the man in his thirties or forties combined the better qualities of old and young. Such thinking, developed in Greece and in Alexandria, was incorporated into Roman society with an emphasis on a set sequence of stages of life from birth until old age. Varro (writing at the end of the last century bc) gave the framework along chronological lines: puerita, up to age fifteen; adulscentia, from fifteen to thirty; iuventus, from thirty to forty-five; seniores, from forty-five to sixty; senectus, from sixty until death. Other writers, such as Horace, gave a biological and social dimension to such stages: infancy was associated with a lack of teeth and therefore an inability to communicate; childhood with the ability to speak but needing control; youth with the inability to grow a beard and the potential for wild behaviour and excessive spending; the adult strove for consistency of behaviour, sought wealth and friendship; the old man suffered mental and physical degeneration and was capable only of criticising those younger than himself.

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