Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.27

Pat Thane (ed.), A History of Old Age.   London and Los Angeles:  Thames & Hudson and J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.  Pp. 320; color ills. 108, b/w ills. 123.  ISBN 0-89236-834-9.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Marcus Sigismund, Bergische Universität Wuppertal (
Word count: 1412 words

Much time has passed by since Philippe Ariès announced in 1983 the forthcoming relevance of the theme history of old age.1 Especially in the past 10 years a large number of studies on the topic has emerged from scholarly research. While some of them deal with particular issues, others give profound views on the history of old age as a whole or in single eras.2 The book under review provides another fine compendium on the history of old age in the West from antiquity to the 20th century. Though neither as innovative as Simone de Beauvoir's La Vieillesse nor as thorough as e.g. Peter Borscheid's Geschichte des Alters,3 it presents a richly illustrated (108 color and 123 b/w illustrations), consistently well-written and informative study, which gives a good general survey of the topic.

Each participating author is an acknowledged expert in the field his or her particular essay deals with. After a general introduction by Pat Thane (pp. 9-30), the book contains six different essays. Tim G. Parkin describes aspects of old age in Greek and Roman antiquity (pp. 31-70), Shulamith Shahar in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (pp. 71-112), Lynn A. Botelho in the 17th century (pp.113-174), David G. Troyansky in the 18th century (pp. 175-210), Thomas R. Cole with Claudia Edwards in the 19th century (pp. 211-262) and Pat Thane in the 20th century (pp. 263-302). The book is completed by few but --for the purposes of this study-- sufficient notes (pp. 303-312), a short list of suggestions for further reading (pp. 313-314), information on the sources of the illustrations and an index, which unfortunately only contains the names of the artists whose works are shown in the illustrations and of authors quoted, together with very few keywords.

In the introduction Pat Thane first of all does away with the current cliché, that in earlier times people did not live to a great age. On the contrary she points out that e.g. in the 18th century 10% of West European society were older than 60. She also moderates the myth of loneliness among old people. After that, starting from the Cephalus-episode in Plato's Republic, Thane sets out the aim of the book, which is to show the diversity of old age. At this point, the study restricts itself deliberately to Europe and countries colonized by Europeans, because consideration of other cultures would have gone beyond the scope of a single volume. Regarding the question: "how old is old"? Thane concludes that the age of 70 can be seen as a mark for old age, but that the definition of being old also depends strongly upon the physical and mental condition of the individual. The introduction is completed by several well-known self-reflexive remarks made by ageing poets and philosophers.

Discussing each essay of the book in detail would go too far. It is common to all of them that they explore, each for the particular era they deal with, at what age one was considered to be old and how great a part old people played in their society. They also examine old people's roles in public and in the family, show what characteristics were ascribed to them, and illustrate how old age was viewed in general. The reader learns that the definition of "old age" was vague at all times, and that it encompassed everyone from the age of 50 onwards. The volume as a whole also shows that the quota of old people in societies of all eras should not be underestimated. In the Roman Empire of the 1st century C.E. old people (here 60 and older) constituted ca. 6 to 8 % of the population, in the 17th-century their proportion rose as high as 10%, and in Sweden they even reached 18 % by 1962. Nevertheless, most old people have always lived at the margins of society.

The organization of the book itself shows a strong focus on modern times. Antiquity and the Middle Ages receive a comparatively short treatment. But since antiquity is especially interesting for the readers of BMCR, Tim Parkin's essay on The Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds is picked out here for closer consideration. The author (Professor of Classics at Canterbury University) solves the problem of summarizing the complex topic of old age in the whole of classical antiquity very well. He points out that many of the images and motifs we know from later eras or from today already existed in ancient times, and that the life-span of people in antiquity did not differ much from today's. Considering the large period of time encompassing Greek and Roman antiquity, many different views regarding old age are outlined. Although images and texts show that old people were generally regarded as wise, Parkin emphasizes that respect for the old, of the kind that is often attributed to antiquity, did not generally exist in reality. It was not the age of a person that caused respect, but his or her personality and individual abilities.

After that, the author informs us about the filial duty of providing for one's parents, which simultaneously demonstrates the dependence of many old people on the younger. Although statistically only one per cent of Greeks or Romans at the age of 20 still had their grandparents, according to Parkin multi-generational households were not as rare as many scholars suggest, as he is able to show on the basis of copies of census returns from Roman Egypt.

Parkin then focuses on the role of old people in public life and in the family, where he places extensive emphasis on their religious duties. Their political functions, however, for example in the Spartan gerousia, do not receive a proper share of his account.

After that Parkin deals with a number of negative images of old age and their treatment in ancient literature. At issue is old people's fear of death as well as the negative characteristics which were ascribed to old age in ancient times. The last part of the essay deals with ancient medical theories concerning old age. The illustrations accompanying this essay show many familiar typological elements of ancient art on the one hand, and an often crude, realistic way of picturing old age on the other . Parkin concludes that the meaning of being old in antiquity did not derive from how old someone was, but how active or useful. Therefore he completes his essay in fine style by quoting the appeal of Cato (CiceroDe senectute 38), that "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 the whole, a special merit of all the articles is that they consider the different social classes and also gender distinctions, as far as the source material permits. It is also most laudable that none of the authors expects the reader to have specific background knowledge about the eras the essays deal with. The illustrations enclosed are all of high quality and their explanatory texts are helpful throughout. Concerning the meaning and interpretation of the works of art, the reader is never left to his or her own devices. At the same time, one's own reflection on the works is not stifled by excessive explanation. The only aspect of the illustrations to be criticized is the fact that they are not always printed in the part of the text that discusses them. Another minor problem with this volume is the notes. Although they are useful for the most part, they do not always provide the information one expects when reading the main text. E.g. "note 29 on p. 84" suggests that one will find an explicit source of a quotation in the note, while in fact it only provides some background information on the development of the theory of transience and the vanity of all things.

All in all the book can be recommended as a good introduction to the history of old age. Since it deals with many different eras, there is much to learn and ponder even for one well acquainted with the topic. After reading the book, one has to agree with the editor that old age is very much characterized by diversity. The compendium succeeds very well in showing that diversity. Therefore the book is not only informative but encouraging. "The story of old age is a much more hopeful one than, all too often, we are led to believe"(p. 28).


1.   Philippe Ariès, 'Une histoire de la vieillesse', Communications 37 (1983), 47-54: 54.
2.   Regarding Greek and Roman antiquity cf. e.g. Tim G. Parkin: Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History, Baltimore 2003; Andreas Gutsfeld and Winfried Schmitz (edd.): Am schlimmen Rand des Lebens? Cologne 2003; Hartwin Brandt: Wird auch silbern mein Haar. Eine Geschichte des Alters in der Antike, Munich 2002; Umberto Mattioli (Ed.): Senectus: La vecchiaia nel mondo classico, Bologna 1995.
3.   Simone de Beauvoir: La Vieillesse, Paris 1970; Peter Borscheid: Geschichte des Alters. Vom Spätmittelalter zum 18. Jahrhundert, Munich 1989.

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