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Status of Older People: The Ancient and Biblical Worlds - Realities Of Aging

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Many people today assume that individuals in the distant past grew old at a very young age, or that they tended to die at a young age. Yet there is abundant evidence that throughout history, at least some individuals lived to a ripe old age. In fact, if ancient testimony were to be believed, people lived a lot longer then than they do today. Whole races of people, mostly far distant if not mythical, were routinely credited with fantastic life spans, just as were various species of animals who were synonymous with long life (e.g., the crow, crab, stag, raven, and, of course, the phoenix). Ages of three hundred or five hundred years are cited for pseudo-historical individuals in classical literature, while mythical characters, such as Tithonus, Teiresias, and the Sibyls, were attributed with lives of several centuries, if not of eternity.

From Homer comes the epitome of old age throughout classical times, the pagan equivalent of Methuselah: Nestor, king of Pylos, who outlived three generations, or, as it came to be commonly understood, three lifetimes or centuries. The Old Testament attributes ages of up to a thousand years to individuals from the past. Saint Augustine (City of God 15–16, utilising Pliny the Elder’s Natural History book 7) argues that the fabulous ages attributed to figures from the Old Testament are to be believed, despite the incredulity of many. He notes that in the days of Genesis people lived such a long time that they did not think a man of one hundred years was old.

From at least the time of Homer’s Nestor, old age was conventionally associated with wisdom. Thus, for example, the Seven Sages of Greece were credited with extended life spans. Likewise, the somewhat nebulous figure of Pythagoras in the sixth century is usually credited with living eighty or ninety years, though one ancient source records that he lived to his 117th year in fine fettle, thanks to a special potion made of vinegar of squill (sea onion). This confusion concerning ages at death is a common one, and it is clear that the longevity of someone long dead, especially of someone notable, might become exaggerated as time passed and as circumstances suited.

Nevertheless, there is ample evidence from more ‘‘historical’’ times, of people surviving into their nineties and beyond, and often there is little obvious reason to doubt the figures quoted. It is important to realize that, despite the demographic transition following the Industrial Revolution and the advances in medicine in the twentieth century, people do not live significantly longer today than they did in the historical past. In classical times, dying in one’s sixties or beyond was regarded as natural; to die younger was usually seen as a harsh and unnatural fate. The biblical ‘‘three score years and ten’’ (seventy years) was held to be a general figure for a good age, not a remarkably extended one. Very high levels of infant mortality meant that life expectancy at birth was indeed low in the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome and of the Bible. But those that survived their first years of life had a good chance of living to be at least sixty years of age.

Old age, in purely chronological terms, was regarded by people in antiquity not so differently from the way contemporary people view it. While some ancient poets might have expressed horror at the emergence of grey hairs on their head at the age of forty, most ancient writers seem to have assumed that people were old once they were in their sixties. No more specific age limit need be expected, especially as there were no general institutionalised schemes of retirement or pensions in ancient times. The tombstone of one fifty-year old male from Roman Algeria in the third century C.E. recorded that he died ‘‘in the flower of his youth,’’ while a young lad in Egypt in the fourth century C.E. complains that his grandfather’s sister is ‘‘really incredibly old: She’s actually lived to be over sixty years old!’’ While we do not have comprehensive statistical evidence from ancient times, it may be estimated, for example, that around 6 to 8 percent of the population of the Roman Empire in the first century C.E. was over the age of sixty. A very select few would have even survived to be centenarians. The human life span has not increased dramatically over the past two or three millennia, it is just that a greater proportion of people now survive into old age.

It is also often alleged that older people in the classical past enjoyed something of a ‘‘golden age,’’ during which time they were treated with great respect and held primary authority over political, religious, and social spheres. It is certainly true that in societies with a strong oral tradition, older members of society may have acted as important repositories of lore and wisdom. For some, old age was not an unhappy or unaccomplished time. We know of many individuals in the ancient world—politicians, writers, priests, prophets, and philosophers—who were admired for their active old age. Literature provides a host of both positive and negative images of old age. Philosophers attributed the perceived negative features of old age to people’s dissipated youth (note Proverbs 10.27: ‘‘The fear of the Lord prolongeth days: But the years of the wicked shall be shortened’’) and they stressed the boons of aging, not least in the political sphere. Best known is perhaps Cicero’s dialogue Cato the Elder on Old Age, written around the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar, when Cicero was sixty-two years old. But this work cannot be read in isolation, and dozens of other works are equally important to the overall picture. Not surprisingly, images of, and opinions about, older people cover a wide range, from cheerfully positive to bitterly negative.

This range of views is revealing. Old age did not automatically confer the respect and authority that some felt it deserved. Literary perceptions and artistic depictions alone do not provide a reliable picture of the realities of life. Most power, and indeed most wealth, in the ancient world usually lay with younger generations. From the aristocracy down to lower-class families and slaves, the realities of life for older people hinged predominantly on one factor: the individual’s ability to remain a functioning member of society, be it as a leading politician or as a child minder. In the absence of any form of welfare state or effective medical care, the support of older individuals rested with their immediate kin. Even for the wealthy elite, about whom most of our surviving evidence is concerned, old age was viewed typically as a time to be endured rather than enjoyed.

In democratic Athens, seniority did not bring automatic political power. In Rome most authority—emperors (young or old) excepted—tended to lie with senators in their forties and fifties. Sparta alone operated along gerontocratic lines: members of its senate, the gerousia, had to be at least sixty years old. But even there, effective rule lay with younger elected officials called ephors, and Aristotle noted the risks in giving power to men subject to the potential liabilities of old age.

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