Growing Old in Ancient Rome

Head of a Roman Patrician from Otricoli, c. 75-50 BCE, marble (Palazzo Torlonia, Rome) / SmartHistory, Creative Commons

The old were often portrayed as avaricious, cowardly, quarrelsome and irritable, and they always complained about the younger generation.

By Dr. Karen Cokayne
University of Reading

Old age is a topical subject in today’s society. At present, the aged (those over 60 for women and 65 for men) comprise approximately 20% of the total population and this figure is likely to keep on rising. The ageing of society is becoming a major social problem. The old are non-productive and are seen as a strain on resources, from pension rights to medical care. The concern with old age in our contemporary society has also led to a curiosity concerning how other societies dealt with old age and the ageing process, which kindled my interest in the experience of old age in ancient Rome.

One of the first questions to consider, when researching old age in another society, is what was actually meant by old age. For instance, how old was ‘old’ in ancient Rome? This is, however, a difficult question to answer, as the definition of old age can be seen to have been flexible. The ancient sources are by no means clear what they mean by old. One way of determining the onset of old age is to consider the different systems of age division, commonly referred to as ‘Life-cycle tables’ or ‘Ages of Life’. These divisions promote the notion that human life is comprised of a series of phases, from birth to old age. These tables show that what was considered old varied, but from about the 1st century BC, the age of 60 or 65 was frequently mentioned as the threshold of old age, which is not dissimilar to the present time.

This may seem surprising on learning that, according to modern demographers, the average life-expectancy in Rome was around the age of 25. This figure is, however, very misleading, mainly because of a very high rate of infant and child mortality. It is estimated that as many as 50% of children may have died before the age of ten. Life expectancy increased dramatically for those who survived the early danger years and the total span of life appears to have been not significantly different than today. But there is a difference in the number of old people. As I mentioned earlier, today, in Britain, the aged represent circa 20% of the total population and this figure is rising rapidly. In Rome this figure is likely to have been between 6 and 8%, which is comparable to that of the UK in the mid to late 19th century.

The so-called ‘Ages of Life’ were not merely theoretical; they were partly based on social conditions and cultural factors. Here too, the age of 60, or sometimes 65, is significant. At this age, for instance, one could be exempted from jury service and obligatory attendance at the senate. Some other duties, however, lasted for life, such as, for instance, the civil munera, certain public and other duties for the community every Roman had to perform. These duties consisted of financial and personal obligations. For physical duties, and only in exceptional circumstances, exemptions were granted at the age of 70, but there were no exemptions from those duties requiring mental application. The Romans made use of their elderly and had faith in their wisdom and experience, a subject I will return to later.

A reproduction of the fragmentary Fasti Antiates Maiores (c.  60 BC), with the seventh and eighth months still named Quintilis (“QVI”) and Sextilis (“SEX”) and an intercalary month (“INTER”) in the far righthand column. / Wikimedia Commons

But in everyday life what was seen as old was not always related to calendar age and was often based on changes in physical appearance, weakness of the body, mental deterioration and perceived changes in behaviour. Wrinkles, grey hair or baldness, loss of teeth, the trembling of limbs, quavering voices, forgetfulness and loss of wit were often associated with old age. People suffering from these conditions, or disabilities, were seen as old, even if their calendar age did not confirm this. This is, perhaps, not so remarkable. More interesting, I think, are the alleged changes in behavioural and mental characteristics in old age. As in contemporary society, the Romans too were concerned with whether personality changed over the course of life – due, perhaps, to physical, social and cultural influences – or whether innate temperament plays a more important part.

The Romans believed that each individual would pass through several phases of life; each phase of life was given distinct physical, mental, and behavioral characteristics. Horace, for instance, in a poem characterizing the ‘Ages of Man’, depicted four stages of life: the child, the youth, the man and the old man, each with distinct and unique characteristics conditioned by their physical state. The characteristics of the old, whose bodies were feeble, were the most negative of the four. He wrote:

Many ills encompass an old man, whether
Because he seeks gain, and then miserably holds aloof from
His store and fears to use it, because, in all that he does, he
Lacks fire and courage, is dilatory and slow to form hopes, is
Sluggish and greedy of a longer life, peevish, surly, given to
Praising the days he spent as a boy, and to reproving and condemning the young

Ars Poetica 169-174

The old, therefore, were portrayed as avaricious, cowardly, quarrelsome and irritable, and they always complained about the younger generation. Times have not changed much, the old were, in fact, depicted as real Victor Meldrews. Attacks on the personality of the old were found in a variety of different texts, from philosophical writings to comedy. Plautus, for instance, depicted several irritable and cantankerous old men. The characters in comedy were hugely exaggerated, as they were meant to entertain, but for this to work these fictional men must have had their counterpart in real life.

The personalities of the old were, however, not always seen as negative. As I mentioned before, Horace’s pessimistic picture of the mental characteristics of the old was based on physical frailty and weakness of the body. But not everyone in antiquity believed that intellectual and physical decline went necessarily hand in hand. Old age was also seen as a period when accumulated experience could bring increased wisdom and good judgement. Cicero wrote:

‘for there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that’.

Tusculanae disputationes 1.39.94; cf De Senectute 6.17
Clement of Alexandria from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584) by André Thévet. / Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons

Many Christian writers expressed similar feelings. For Clement of Alexandria (2nd c. AD), for instance, judgements attained maturity with time. He believed that the vigour of long experience gave strength and confidence to old age. Writing poetically, he saw the ‘hoary head as the blossom of experience, (Paedagogus 3).

But, and this was frequently emphasized, wisdom did not come automatically to the old; ‘Wisdom comes haphazard to no man’, said Seneca (Epistles 76.6). Not all old men were therefore wise men. Wisdom had to be worked at – by hard work, study and especially by virtuous living. The old were expected to act with moderation and dignity, at all times. The old had to be an example to the young, as it was thought the young learned by example. This was ingrained in Roman society. A proverb found in Publilius Syrus, 1st century BC (Sententiae 590W) proclaims: ‘When seniors blunder, juniors learn but ill’. It was made abundantly clear: flamboyance and extravagant behaviour should only belong to youth.

Rome had, traditionally, faith in their aged and believed that society should make practical use of the experience and wisdom of the old. They were seen as teachers and counsellors. This goes back as far as early Rome: Livy (1.9) described how Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, in his organization of society, had created a body of hundred older senators, senes, capable of ensuring continuity of policy. The old, therefore, still had a public role to play. Cicero wrote, for example:

‘The old…should have their physical labours reduced; their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavour too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state’.

De Officiis 1.33.123; De Senectute 5.15ff

Moralists, such as Cicero, believed it was the old man’s duty to be useful to society; an ideology echoed by Plutarch in his treatise on old age. (An Seni Respublica Gerenda Sit, which roughly translates as: Should an old man still have a role to play in public life?.)

There is no shortage of practical examples of aged statesmen, even generals – especially under the Republic. These men were illustrious figures: heroes, to be held up as examples to the younger generation. One of the traditional heroes was Appius Claudius, 4th century BC, who lived until extreme old age. He was an influential figure: scholar, statesmen, jurist, poet and orator. He became blind in old age (perhaps through cataracts), but Cicero emphasized that neither age nor blindness interfered with his private or public duties (Tusculanae disputationes. 5.112). He was respected and his advice was taken seriously – even when he was old. For instance: when the Romans were defeated in the war with Macedonia in 280 BC, the senate proposed to accept a peace treaty. Appius Claudius was furious when he heard of this proposal – Romans did not surrender. Old and blind, he had himself carried into the senate house by his sons and sons-in-law. He was, by then, well into his eighties. After this dramatic entrance, Appius, in a passionate speech, addressed the senators and told them to block the peace proposals. The old man’s speech became famous and was still circulated in Cicero’s days circa three centuries later. We are told by Plutarch, that the senators, out of respect for the man and his age, kept a respectful silence. They took heed of his wisdom and the peace proposal was blocked. This incident shows that, in real life, Rome produced some feisty old men, both confident and courageous. The behaviour of Appius Claudius is a contradiction to Horace’s portrayal of the old, which suggests that attitude to old age in ancient Rome was complex and at times ambiguous.

Traditionally, the waging of war was seen as more suited to the young and vigorous. Those between 46 and 60 years of age were seen as seniors and were likely to be called up in emergencies only (Gellius Attic Nights 10.28). But in times of need, Rome did make use of her experienced aged generals – even those in their 60s or 70s. Many practical examples can be found. One example should suffice. Aemilius Paullus, at the age of 64, personally led his troops when he conquered Pydna in 168 BC, thereby ending the Third Macedonian War. From Livy (44.41.1) we learn he put up with the vigours and hardships of war and battle as well as his young soldiers. After his victory, he returned to the senate and was appointed to the prestigious post of censor at the age of 68 (in 164 BC). He was still augur at the time of his death, aged 72.

Bust tentatively identified as Scipio Africanus, formerly attributed to Sulla. It might have been on the facade of the Tomb of the Scipios. / Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Wikimedia Commons

But, it was more usual for the old to advise war, while the young waged it – as phrased by Ovid (Fasti 6.88). An example can be found in the defeat of Hannibal during the second Punic war, 3rd century BC. It was the young and bold Scipio – aged 31, later known as Scipio Africanus – who travelled to Africa and physically defeated Hannibal. But it was commonly accepted that the experience and prudence of Fabius Maximus – general, consul and twice dictator, aged about 72 – whose cautious planning made this victory possible.

Under the Empire, individual senators could not achieve the same eminence as under the Republic, but, nevertheless, some examples can be cited of old men, sometimes even octogenarians, who held important public posts. Many of these men were in advisory positions, such as the members of the consilium principis. This was a body of leading senators and equestrians, with the emperor at its head. The council controlled the finances, the army and the foreign policy. Of interest is one of Juvenal’s satires, in which he presents us with 11 members of Domitian’s consilium, several of them extremely old men, who were called to an emergency meeting, because the emperor wanted advice on how to cook an enormous turbot which had been presented to him (Satire 4). Juvenal’s satire emphasized the notorious fickleness of the emperor Domitian – and showed that even old and respected statesmen were at the beck and call of his fancy – but we also learn that some men of very advanced old age were still part of his advisory team. One of these was the elderly Vibius Crispus, aged 80.

Juvenal depicted Crispus as a yes-man, but he may have had no choice in order to survive. Others, such as Quintilian, portrayed Crispus as a witty and well respected old man, who appeared to have enjoyed being in the public limelight and relished its attendant social scene. He was consul for the third time at the age of 73. Three times consul was the most to which a private citizen could aspire to and few managed to achieve this. On a lower level, the town councillors, who ran Roman local government, were also frequently of an advanced old age, as this position was for life. We have examples of 80 year olds who still exercised the office (e.g. Calpurnius Piso).

Many old men appear to have enjoyed the status and authority given to them by an official post and were reluctant to relinquish this. Seneca related an amusing anecdote concerning a certain Sextus Turannius (On the brevity of life 20.3). Turannius was said to have been in his 90th year, when he was released by Caligula from the duties of prefect of the corn supply, a post he had held for 34 years. Turannius, however, did not feel ready to retire, even at the advanced age of 90! He enjoyed the public status and esteem the position gave him. Deprived of this, he decided he might as well be dead. He reputedly refused to take any food and ordered himself to be laid out on his bed to be mourned by the assembled household – as if he died already. The whole house was said to have bemoaned the enforced leisure of its old master. His tactics paid off and his accustomed work was restored to him, which suggests that extremely aged men were respected, but also, perhaps, indulged.

Many emperors ruled until they were of extreme old age. Augustus, who lived until the age of 76, remained in office right until his death and only stopped visiting the Senate on a regular basis when he was aged 74 (Dio 56.28.2-3). Emperors seldom retired, they were either killed or stayed in their posts until they died; the first emperor to retire was Diocletian, 4th century AD. Some emperors were chosen when they were already old. Galba, for example, was aged about 72 when he marched on Rome – carried on a litter as he was said to be old and weak. In spite of this, his soldiers proclaimed him emperor, which was later sanctioned by the senate. So it can be seen that old men could still hold key governmental positions. They were involved in decision-making and could be powerful and influential. Age, therefore, proved no barrier to power. Ageism, discrimination against old people in the work force – which is seen to be a concern in contemporary society – was not a particular problem and an old man was not automatically written off because of his age.

For the poor to keep on working would have been an economic necessity as there were no pensions or other special pay-outs for the aged, but for the well-to-do usefulness was mainly a matter of pride. Rome’s competitive society was extremely conscious of glory and public status. Having a role to play in society provided an old man with this status, which in turn would nourish his self-confidence and self-esteem. Public distinction and worthiness had associations with dignity (dignitas), a highly desirable virtue in Roman ideology, commanding reverence and respect. For this reason, some old men were keen to promote a self-image of gravity, sobriety and virtuousness.

This is particularly evident in the old age portraits which began to appear sometime during the 1st century BC. These portraits showed a ruthless adherence to the realistic features of old age, such as wrinkles, folds of loose, flabby skin, sunken cheeks, blemishes and balding heads. Old age was emphasized, even exaggerated. It is notable that the majority of the old men appear solemn, which was indicative of the gravitas of age. A young student of mine referred to these portraits as ‘miserable old gits’, but this was not the case for the Romans. The portraits revealed how these old people wanted to be seen and the depiction of old age is deliberate. These portraits suggest worthiness and dignified behaviour. Facial expression was seen as an expression of character and these portrait busts therefore gave moral judgements. The stern and serious-looking faces, with their exaggerated wrinkles and folds, were suggestive of years of hard work and experience. These old men seem comfortable with their age. Only the old who lived up to societal expectations could expect reverence. These old men looked as if they had done their duty and had rightfully earned their status and respect.

Portrait Bust of a Man, Ancient Rome, 60 BCE. / Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol, Glyptothek, Wikimedia Commons

My talk has concentrated on old men. This is because Rome was a patriarchal society and women could not take part in public life. Besides, our evidence was written almost exclusively by males, who did not concern themselves with female domestic affairs. But this did not mean that old women were without respect. Like old men, old women too still had a role to play. They often managed substantial households and looked after the moral education of their children and their grandchildren. Mothers were able to assert authority over their children throughout their lives – so even older mothers expected obedience even from their adult children. Roman society demanded respect for parents, and for age in general. So age actually increased their authority. The empress Livia, for instance, when she was in her 70s and 80s, endeavoured to use her authority over her son Tiberius, who was then in his 60s and early 70s.

Of course only the fit and able were still capable of being of use to society. Many of the old therefore made considerable efforts to keep physically and mentally fit. Cicero even thought that it was an old man’s duty (my italics) to fight old age by taking care of himself through following a regimen of health – so he could be useful to the state (De Senectute 11.35-36). It was believed that living a moderate lifestyle with regular physical and mental exercises would preserve health and delay the symptoms of ageing. Old age was not seen as an excuse to take things easy – but allowances were made for age. In old age, physical exercises should be gentle. Recommendations included walking, running, light ball playing, and – perhaps strangely to us – carriage rides and reading aloud (the latter was believed to accelerate the breathing process which in turn would purify the blood and clear out the arteries).

Mental stimulation too was recommended. As Musonius, the 1st century AD Stoic philosopher put it: ‘to relax the mind is to lose it’. In contemporary society, a great deal of research has gone into the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, and is still ongoing. Diamond, a psychologist who researched into the activities of the brain in old age, wrote ‘I found that people who use their brains don’t lose them. It is that simple’. These words seem to echo those of Musonius, writing nineteen centuries earlier!

In ancient societies great emphasis was placed on the spoken word, so to have a good memory was especially important. People with good memories were admired, it could bring prestige and status. It is therefore no wonder that special attention was given to mnemonic exercises and techniques in the ancient texts. We know from Cicero that the elder Cato exercised his memory daily – his ‘intellectual gymnastics’ he called it. For instance, he regularly read the names of the dead on tombstones and refreshed his memory by his recollection of them. He boasted that he, in his 84th year, could not only remember the names of the people who were living, but could also recall the names of their fathers and grandfathers. (This was impressive, as upper class Romans generally had three names!)

The sense of duty and hard work (industria) was so ingrained in Roman society that retirement was a moot point. So far I have discussed old men who enjoyed staying in the public limelight, but others were quite happy to withdraw from public life and thought that old age had earned them the right to retire from official duties. They saw old age as a time they could spend on themselves. Pliny, for instance, wrote: ‘It is our duty to give up our youth and manhood to our country, but our last years are our own’ (Epistles 4.23.4). Today, old age has legal status and most western cultures have a clearly defined retirement date. Distinctions were not so clear-cut in Rome. Pliny, writing in his early 40s, said he looked forward to his own retirement, but was uncertain what the ‘proper’ retirement age would be. The Roman work ethic, with its emphasis on public responsibilities and duties, appears to have been strong, and an unduly early retirement is seen to have incurred criticism. From Seneca we learn that a man who retired pre-maturely was seen as a ‘trifler and sluggard’ (Epistles 36.2).

But even in retirement idleness and mental inactivity were frowned upon. Otium, often translated – for lack of a better word as ‘leisure time’ – was a highly charged word in the moralistic texts and was often associated with a degenerate life style. Retirement was seen as the right time for study and other learned activities. The possibility of a mental decline in ageing was not considered in these contexts. Seneca, when in his late sixties, wrote that he never spent a day in idleness; he even appropriated part of the night for study (Epistles 8.1). Ideally, one should set aside a certain part of every day for improving one’s mind by reading, writing and serious conversations. Pliny gave the perfect example of this in the daily routine of his friend Spurinna, who was, at the age of 77, rightfully retired (he only withdrew from public life at the age of 74). Spurinna can be seen to have exercised both body and mind at set times of the day. He was depicted as a sprightly old man, physically and mentally still very agile. Pliny stressed that Spurinna had lost none of his intellect. We are told that his old age had brought him nothing but wisdom (Epistles 43.1.4-8). Because of this, Spurinna earned respect, even in retirement he still enjoyed status.

Bust of Plautus / Wikimedia Commons

So was ancient Rome therefore a golden age for the old? No, not entirely, as the earlier quoted poem by Horace already showed. As I have shown an old person could have status, authority and reverence, as long as he was still useful to society and as long as societal expectations about how life should be lived were fulfilled. Only the old who were feisty and well-behaved were admired and held up as an exemplum. The weak and the decrepit were considered to be a burden – and were often viewed with contempt – while those who transgressed the rules were ridiculed. The more popular literary writings, comedy, satire and poetry, give plenty of examples. Comedy especially, has many illustrations of old men who did not live up to society’s behavioural expectations. One such character was the ‘old-man-in-love’. The old-man-in-love still saw himself as young and attractive and went out womanizing. Of course this was seen as ridiculous, love was only for the young. These old men were invariably depicted as exceedingly ugly. In contrast to the old age portraits, in this context, the features of old age were despised and caricatured. The comedy writer Plautus has, for example, a character called Demipho (in Mercator). He is described as a ‘grey-haired, knock-kneed, pot-bellied, big-mouthed, stubby sort of fellow’ (546-549). Yet, he was searching for love. Such a misbehaving old man left himself open to derision and he would have been jeered and gibed at.

Juvenal was particularly savage in his attack on old age. He devoted an entire satire, Satire 10, to the futility of the prayer for a long life – by outlining, and exaggerating, the alleged characteristics of old age, from repulsive ugliness to a variety of debilitating geriatric illnesses and the losing of one’s wits. Juvenal especially emphasized the helplessness and uselessness of the aged. The old were seen as loathsome and distasteful, not only by others but also by themselves; they even lost their identity. I will give a few lines as an example:

But old men all look alike, their voices are as shaky as their limbs,
their heads without hair, their noses driveling as in childhood.
Their bread, poor wretches, has to be munched by toothless gums.
So offensive do they become to their wives, their children, themselves
That even the legacy-hunter, Cossus, turns from them in disgust.
… Besides all this, the little blood in his now chilly
frame is never warm except with fever; diseases of kind
dance around him in a troop. (10.198-203, 217-218)

According to the literary sources, legacy-hunters were morally despicable characters who bestowed attentions on the old and childless – such as presents, sick-bed attendance and so on – in order to be remembered in their wills.) In Juvenal’s satire, the physical disabilities of the elderly denoted a loss of human dignity. In his continuing lines Juvenal imputed that the old could not even feed themselves. He likened their gaping mouths to that of a swallow’s chick, waiting for the mother to fill it.

Juvenal’s fictional portrait of the old was likely to have a firm foundation in reality. Pliny, in his Letters, described the indignity suffered by the real life aged Domitius Tullus, who was so crippled and deformed in every limb that he had to have his teeth cleaned for him by his slaves: ‘a squalid and pity detail’, wrote Pliny. We are told that Tullus was often heard to complain about the humiliation of having to lick, every day, the fingers of his slaves (Ep. 8.18.9). In Juvenal’s diatribe old age was certainly not much fun. Juvenal showed that – as physical ageing with all its disadvantages was unavoidable – why pray for a long life? Juvenal was probably in his seventies when he wrote his satires. The miseries of old age he depicted were a literary topos, but I think it quite likely that Juvenal himself was irritated by the physical weakness and ailments of old age, some of which he undoubtedly experienced himself. Physical decline and uselessness was also a feature in the comedies of Plautus, which could mean that this depiction of the old was quite common. One of his characters declared (Bacchides 820-22, on handout): ‘Whom the gods hold dear dies young, with strength and sense and mind intact. If any god loved him, he should have died more than ten years ago or more than twenty. He walks a bane upon the earth: no mind, no sense, as useful as a rotten mushroom’.

A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius at the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France. / Wikimedia Commons

My two examples came from satire and comedy, but we do have examples from real life, which show that the old themselves found the physical deterioration of old age cumbersome and trying, as can be learned, for instance, from the correspondence between the orator Fronto and his pupil, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century AD. It can be seen that about a quarter of Fronto’s extant letters deal with his own personal physical sufferings. Fronto must have suffered from arthritis, as he regularly began a letter with complaints about pains in his knees, neck, groin, elbows, arms, feet, ankles and so on. To many modern readers, Fronto appears to have been a bit of a hypochondriac, but it is clear that he found the physical disabilities of old age hard to bear.

So in conclusion: Old age is a complex event, now and in antiquity. It can be established that Rome’s view on old age was ambivalent and that two polarized attitudes can be found. These positive and negative polarizations were highly dependent on the biologically inevitable physical and mental deterioration in ageing, which made an enormous impact on the elderly themselves and on society around them. The literary sources especially show us that there was not much sympathy for the weak and the decrepit. They were often marginalized, as they no longer contributed to society. The old themselves too found it hard to cope with the decline of physical health and frequently bemoaned their geriatric illnesses. For some old people, therefore, old age must have been a burden.

On the positive side, the old were believed to be knowledgeable, capable of good judgement; and their experience was seen as beneficial to society. These were not mere idealistic ideologies. There are many concrete examples of old people who still played an active part in the organization of society. These physically, and especially mentally fit, and able men were admired and commanded respect. For these men old age was not seen as onerous. In the words of two such old Romans themselves, old age could ‘not only not be burdensome, but even happy’ (Cicero’s words in De Senectute 23.85) and ‘a time of bloom’, the words of Seneca (Epistles 26.3). How the old are treated is a cultural phenomenon, but my research has shown that attitude towards old age was also influenced by the old themselves, and was dependent on their personal health and constitution and especially their attitude to life.

Originally published by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI), 03.21.2005, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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