Status of Older People: The Ancient and Biblical Worlds

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Realities of aging

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 1516, utilising Pliny the Elders 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 Homers 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 ones 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 grandfathers sister is really incredibly old: Shes 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 worldpoliticians, writers, priests, prophets, and philosopherswho 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 peoples 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 Ciceros 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 individuals 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 authorityemperors (young or old) exceptedtended 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.

Theories on aging

While the afflictions old age may bring were well appreciated by the ancient writers, the literature is less pragmatic regarding the causes of such afflictions. Medical writers also attributed aspects of old age to bad habits in ones youth, but they realized that aging is inevitable. The most common theory to be found in the extant ancient literature, both medical and philosophical, on the cause of aging is that in time the body loses its innate heat and fluidits life force, or pneuma (like a lamp running out of oil). Hence, the infant is warm and moist while the older personlike a corpseis cold and dry. In other words, aging is a cooling and drying process, and the desiccation of the heart and liver leads to death. Just as during an illness, in old age the balance of the four humors has been lost: blood and yellow bile are lacking, phlegm and black bile [melancholy] are abundant. As heat dissipates, the body takes longer to recover from illness and injury, but for the same reason symptoms such as fever become less acute in older people, as does activity in general.

Twice in the Hippocratic corpus there appears another theory, namely that the elderly person is cold, but humidor moist (rather than dry). This countertheory is soundly and insistently refuted by the later medical writer Galen (129199 C.E.): The mistake is due, he remarks, to the external appearance of moisture about the old personcoughing, runny nose, and the likebut these are merely an abundance of external, phlegmatic secretions, or the residue of humidity, and are not to be taken as an indication of the innate condition of the elderly individual.

This idea that old age is cold often recurs in general literature as well. As for its dryness, old age is regularly described as having been drained of the moist (and hot) humor of blood (note, for example, the image of the dry and shrunken Sibyl). What blood the aging body does have is thin and icy cold, an image Virgil evokes in the person of Entellus: My blood is chilled and dulled by sluggish old age, (Aeneid 5: 395396). Galen noted that the coldness of old age affects not only the body but also the mind: So why do many people become demented when they reach extreme old age, a period which has been shown to be dry? This is not a result of dryness, but of coldness. For this clearly damages all the activities of the soul (Kühn 4: 786787) Old age, it was concluded, destroys everything.

Furthermore, because aging was conventionally seen as a process of desiccation, those who were by nature very humid were held to have the greatest chance of a long life. With similar logic it was stated that men, being warmer, age more slowly than women and hence live longer (the latter observation may well often have been accurate in the ancient world, though for other reasons). At any rate, physical exertion dries one out, and so hard-working people age more quickly. For the same reason it was believed that excessive indulgence in sexual intercourse is deleterious to the aging frame.

It was a literary commonplace, adopted by the Pythagoreans in a system of four ages (which mirror the four humors), that old age is like winter, at least in its coldness. Part of the theory was that one felt best in the season appropriate (that is, complementary, or opposite) to ones age. So it was observed that summer and early autumn were the seasons in which older people might thrive, and winter was the season to avoid as best one could.

To counter the dryness and coldness of old age, it was thought to be necessary to restore the balance of the humors, by giving warmth and humidity to the body. Finding a means to warm and moisten the body was the chief aim of what geriatric medicine there was in the ancient world. It was common in antiquity to state that old age was itself a disease; in fact, Seneca the Younger (Epistles 108: 28) stated that old age is an incurable disease. In the second century C.E., Galen, for one, disagreed vigorously: while diseases are contrary to nature, he claimed, old age is a natural process, just as to die of old age is natural. Therefore, Galen insisted, old age, is not a disease; though it is also not complete health either. Rather, old age has a state of health peculiar to itself, and this may be maintained through a moderate lifestyle. It was apparently a common practice for physicians to recommend a particular regimen or diet that older individuals should follow. Dietetics was one of the main traditional divisions of ancient medical therapy, the others being pharmacology and surgery.

In the fifth book of his work On the Preservation of Health, Galen provided abundant material on the subject, considerably more detailed than anything that preceded it and of considerable influence on treatments of the subject over the following centuries. Galens concern was with lifestyle, not just diet: his recommendations incorporated massage and gentle exercisenot too much and not too little, depending upon the constitution of the patient. If strong enough, the elderly patient was advised to engage in horse riding and ball throwing, or travel on a ship or in a litter; if bedridden, reading aloud could be highly beneficial. Galen recommended for the older patient the right amount of sleep (good for moistening and warming the body), and tepid baths (two or three times a month, but never if bedridden). Blood-letting, according to Galen, is good for stronger patients up to the age of seventy years, though it was not recommended for the very elderly, who, Galen added, need every drop of blood that they have. As to diet, he believed older people need little food, which was perhaps just as well since many food items were not recommended or permitted. Some foods he considered to be beneficial (plums are good as laxatives for the older patient, according to Galen), but he thought many others to be dangerous (such as cheese, hard-boiled eggs, snails, lentils, mushrooms, and many vegetables). Also recommended were fish, some types of soft bread, and lean meatespecially young goats fleshbut not pork.

Regarding beverages, water was not recommended, nor was milk, which was believed to rot aged teeth and gums. For older individuals, however, Galen did specifically recommend human breast milk and warm donkeys milk, or milk mixed with honey. One farmer is mentioned who survived beyond the century mark thanks to goats milk mixed with honey and wine. Wine, the gift of Dionysus, was particularly commended, and in the name of science Galen devoted much study to the question of which wines were best for medicinal purposes. Wine was thought to have positively rejuvenating effects. Indeed, it was proverbial in antiquity that wine makes an old man dance, even against his will. Wine makes the body warm, and, Galen added, it also serves to counter the sadness and anxieties that long life may bring.

Images of aging

Certainly old ages negative repercussions were noted in general literature as well, most clinically by Aristotle (Rhetoric 2: 13) and most memorably by Juvenal (Satires 10: 188288). (note also Ecclesiastes 12: 18, as well as, from ancient Egypt, Ptah-hoteps Maxims 4.25.2, 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 persons 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. Ciceros 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.

Tim G. Parkin

See also Gerontocracy; Prolongevity.


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