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Status of Older People: The Ancient and Biblical Worlds

Images Of Aging

Certainly old age’s negative repercussions were noted in general literature as well, most clinically by Aristotle (Rhetoric 2: 13) and most memorably by Juvenal (Satires 10: 188–288). (note also Ecclesiastes 12: 1–8, as well as, from ancient Egypt, Ptah-hotep’s Maxims 4.2–5.2, probably the earliest extant text [ca. 2450 B.C.E.] to deal with old age). Literature focused on upper-class males. Elderly females tended to get stereo-typed as sex-crazed witches or alcoholics. Besides being unpleasant, this points to marginalisation. Past reproducing, older women might be dismissed as nonfunctioning members of society.

For the poorer classes, old age must have been singularly unenviable: it was a common proverb that ‘‘old age and poverty are both burdensome, but in combination they are impossible to bear.’’ Children were expected to look after parents in old age, though ‘‘honour thy father and thy mother’’ is only part of it. Indeed, security in old age was allegedly one motivation for having children. If you had no willing children, then a destitute and lonely old age may have ensued. And the obligation, enforced by law in some societies (such as classical Athens), may not always have extended to the female side of the family. ‘‘Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old’’ (Proverbs 23: 22) perhaps reveals something of the extent of the gender difference in terms of expectations.

In the case of the vast majority of the individuals we know of from ancient times, however, poverty was not a problem, and wealth, as well as the existence of slaves, must have helped to ease the problems for them. But if a person’s failing health led to an inability to be self-supporting, then, in the absence of effective medication, dependence may have been short-lived anyway. The key was not how old, but how active or useful a person was. Cicero’s words are timeless: ‘‘Old age will only be respected if it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone, and asserts control over its own to the last breath’’ (On Old Age).

On the other hand, in antiquity, old age was less of a ‘‘problem,’’ at least for men, than it appears to be today. Old age was not formally seen as a distinctive stage of the life cycle. In the absence of wage-labor and retirement, most people were expected to go on doing whatever they had always done until their last breath. Old age, with all the negative features it might entail, was still regarded as part of the natural course of adult life.



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