Old Age and Elders in Rome
For a general discussion of old age in Greece and Rome, including
the representation of elders in Roman comedy, see: T. Falkner and J. de
Luce. 1992. "A view from Antiquity: Greece, Rome, and Elders", in Handbook
of Humanities and Aging, ed. T. Cole, et al, Springer Publishing.
For discussions of intergenerational relations, see: S. Bertman ed.
1976. The Conflict of Generations in Greece and Rome. Gruner.
In any discussion of old age it is essential to distinguish between
those characteristics which are the products of old age in general and
those characteristics which are the products of a particular individual's
personality and life experiences. Thus, at the outset we must be careful to
recognize that many factors affect the experience of growing old: economic
class, social class, status (free or slave, married or single), gender,
health, individual personality. Cicero's de Senectute may suggest, for
example, what old age could be like for certain upper-class men who had
been active in public life, but that old age could not have been enjoyed by
old women. Most of our evidence for old age in ancient Rome comes from the
upper class; thus, while we have a good deal of information about growing
old, we do not have a full picture of what the experience would have been
like for more than a tiny percentage of the population.
In order to understand aging in Rome, we have to make a further
distinction between the accounts of actual men and women and the literary
tradition. Pliny's letters provide valuable portraits of elders,
including his friend Spurinna, at 77, and 79-year-old Ummidia Quadratilla.
Historians such as Tacitus include portraits of old women who exerted their
influence as Vestal Virgins and in their own families. Such sources
suggest the opportunities for influence and the respect which male and
female elders might actually enjoy.
The literary tradition, however, perhaps taking a cue from the
pessimism of the Greek tradition, tends to represent old age as a grim time
of loss in which wisdom and serenity may be accompanied by vulnerability.
At the very least, the Romans regarded old age with ambivalence. Elders
come in for ridicule if they violate the rules of temptestivitas. The
Romans tended to follow a system of age-grading; that is, they identified
certain behaviors and activities as appropriate for particular ages. For
example, old men are ridiculed for their greed, for their timidity, and
above all for their inappropriate lust. Old women, too, may be ridiculed
for their hopeless sexual appetite; indeed they are represented with
particular viciousness for desiring to be sexually active. According to
tempestivitas, passion is the province of the young.
When was a man or woman "old"? While the available evidence for
life expectancies in ancient Rome is neither unequivocal nor complete, it
appears that the median age of death for women was about 35, 45 for men.
Romans tended to regard 70 as the normal life span. Women would have been
regarded as "old" after menopause, around 40, according to ancient
physicians. Traditionally, women are regarded as old earlier than men; in
Rome men would have been regarded as old by 50.
While Rome was not a gerontocracy (that is, elders did not regard
themselves as a class which ruled Rome), old men and women could exert
considerable influence in private and public life. We know that male elders
could remain active in public life. In the senate the first speaker
recognized was the most senior patrician, and among the Augurs the oldest
men enjoyed the privilege of speaking first in debate. Post-menopausal
women, while no longer valued for their fertility, might still exert
considerable influence within their families. Unable to vote, hold office,
or engage in those political activities which old men might still enjoy,
Roman upper class women were not without influence, in part because of the
greater freedom they enjoyed precisely because they were no longer able to
bear children. On the other hand, laws and customs requiring children to
care for their aging parents remind us of the vulnerability of elders
without social services to provide care if the family could or would not.
Selected Bibliography:
J. de Luce. 1996. "Aging and Mythology," in Encyclopedia of Aging.
Academic Press.
----------- 1994. Ed., "Reading Cicero on Aging"; author of introductory
essay,"Continuity and Change: Four Disciplinary Perspectives on Reading
Cicero's De Senectute" (335-338), author of "Theme and Variations in the De
Senectute" (361-371) Journal of Aging Studies, 7, 333-381.
----------- 1993. "Ancient Images of Aging: Did Ageism Exist in Greco-Roman
Antiquity?", in "Changing Perceptions of Aging and the Aged", Generations
17, 41-45.
----------- 1993."Quod temptabam scribere versus erat: From the Despair of Old
Age to the Confidence of the Artist" in Creativity, Aging and Gender in
Literature of the Life Cycle, ed. Anne Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen,
University Press of Virginia.
----------- 1989. "Ovid as an Idiographic Study of Creativity in Old Age" in
Old Age in Greek and Latin Literature.
T. Falkner and J. de Luce, eds. 1989. Old Age in Greek and Latin
Literature. SUNY press. (includes an annotated bibliography)
J. P. Hallett. 1984. Fathers and Daughters in Roman society: Women and the
Elite Family. Princeton University Press.
C. G. Harcum. 1914. "The Ages of Man: A Study Suggested by Horace, Ars
Poetica." Classical World, 7, 114-118.
M. S. Haynes. 1963. "The Supposedly Golden Age for the Aged in Ancient
Rome: A study of Literary Concepts of old Age." Gerontologist, 3, 26-35.
K. Hopkins. 1966. "On the Probable Structure of the Roman Population."
Population Studies, 20, 245-264.
----------- 1983. Death and Renewal. Cambridge University press.
R. B. Kebric. 1983. "Aging in Pliny's Letters: A View from the Second
Century A. D." Gerontologist, 23, 538-545.
V. Rosivach. 1994 "Anus: Some Older Women in Latin Literature." Classical
World, 88,107-117
D. Schaps. 1979. The Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece. Edinburgh
University Press.