BMCR 2003.03.16

Wird auch silbern mein Haar: Eine Geschichte des Alters in der Antike

, , Glass & reflection : release 3 and 4. 3D studio tips & tricks series. Munich: Delmar Pub, 1995. 109 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0827370148 USD 2990 3-406-49593-1.

Concluding his epilogue, Hartwin Brandt restates the double purpose of this very useful book: to clarify and illustrate not only the living conditions of the elderly in the Greco-Roman world but also their reflection and reworking in philosophy, poetry and representational art (p.244). The perspective of the book is clearly historical; hence, the division of the book in six chapters, each covering a conventionally distinct period from late 8th c. BCE to mid 6th c. CE: I. Early Greece; II. The Greeks in classical times; III. Hellenistic times; IV. The Roman Republic; IV. The Roman Empire; and VI. Late Antiquity. These are supplemented by a brief introduction and epilogue, while the appendix includes 708 notes, a list of abbreviations, a list of books cited, and, last but not least, a wisely organized general index. Individual chapters are generally structured according to the author’s purpose, moving from a presentation of social reality to literary and pictorial representations of old age through philosophical reflection on it. Only ch.I lacks a separate discussion of non-literary evidence, while ch.II apparently follows the track in the opposite direction. Although chapters vary in length from 20 (ch. I) to 52 pages (ch. V), there is no considerable imbalance in the treatment of Greek and Roman times. Naturally, however, Brandt, the author of two books on late antiquity,1 becomes more authoritative and less cursory in the treatment of his material as he moves towards his pet-period.

In the Introduction, Brandt reminds the reader of Tithonos, the mythical archetype of old age, makes clear his objectives, delimitates his subject, fixing the age of 60 as a rough lower boundary of old age, and points out the limitations of the available evidence. Homeric old age (I.1) is discussed with reference to the figures of Nestor, Priam, Phoenix, Laertes and Eurykleia: the former two represent aristocratic ideals from opposite perspectives (active-passive), while the latter are closer to real life in Homeric times. Brandt shows himself conscious of the problems involved in sociological readings of Homer and reminds the reader that Homeric γέροντες are not necessarily old. Hesiodic old age (I.2) is presented as a step further towards a realistic, almost prosaic representation as well as a continuation of the Homeric view of old age as a distinct form of existence, not as a stage within a process. With Greek Lyric (I.3) we reach 6th c. BCE. It is represented by Theognis, Tyrtaios, Pindar, Alcman, Mimnermos, and, of course, Solon, whose verse in Latacz’s poetic translation Brandt has borrowed for the book’s title.

Discussing the reality of old age in the classical polis of 5th and 4th c. (II.1), Brandt is careful to distinguish between Athens and other city-states, notably Sparta, as well as between old men and women. Classical Greek philosophy (II.2) is represented by Thrasymachos of Chalcedon, Democritos, Plato and Aristotle. Just as the latter two are contrasted with each other, tragic (II.3) is counterpoised by comic old age (II.4). The Aeschylean Dareios, the male chorus of Agamemnon, Oedipus at Colonus, the male chorus of Euripides’ Herakles and the female chorus of Euripides’ Suppliants are the multiple faces of tragic old age, bringing about an ambivalent psychology of ageing.

The chapter on Old Comedy confronts the reader with two crucial aspects of the sources: (a) how far the oeuvre of a single author (Aristophanes) is representative of a whole genre (Old Comedy); (b) in what sense is literary representation of a social type (e.g. old women) witness to socio-historical reality. Brandt resolves the first issue cursorily by deferring to Ehrenberg’s authority. Indeed it is his invariable strategy to set out the predominantly German authorities on whose work his discussion is founded: this is honest scholarship as long as it does not lapse into adulation and does not obscure the real problems. The second would not be of paramount importance if the methodological frame of the book were not largely informed by a notion of “Widerspiegelung” (cf. p.150) between social reality, on the one hand, and literature and art, on the other. Faced with the specific problem of old women on stage played by male actors in a play by a male author, Brandt is forced to concede that at least the details of this mirroring are far from clear (p.69).

Beginning the next chapter on “The World of Images” (II.5) constituted by classical art, he admits that it is even more crucial to address the similar question concerning the limits between representational art and everyday life. This time the authority invoked to settle the question is Tonio Hölscher, who locates the homology at the level of “Wertvorstellungen” (representation of values), avoiding the naive notion of images as mirrors of life. Aged persons painted on vases are often involved in the upbringing and education of the young: they are teachers, παιδαγωγοί, and nurses; a second type of old woman is the old hetaera. The same applies to sculpture, with poets and philosophers normally represented as old men, anonymous nurses and mirror-holding women (i.e. hetaerae) as old women, while funerary reliefs move our gaze from the margins of society to the focal institution of οἶκος.

In the Hellenistic age (III.1) the vistas broaden and opportunities for success are multiplied and “open to every forceful personality, young or old” (p.91). Old age becomes an object of medical scrutiny and philosophical reflection in essays by several authors entitled specifically “On old age”. At the same time, the new emphasis on the “concrete individual” is also evident in literary and artistic representations of old age. Theophrastus, Hellenistic lyric (i.e. epigrams by Philodemus and Meleager) and bucolic poetry (but not Callimachus’ epyllion Hekale) are discussed in this chapter as a mixture of the old (lament on the physical decadence of old age) and the new (genre-scenes with fishermen, farmers and old hags), while New Comedy is treated separately in chapter III.2 because of the genre’s special significance in the cultural life of the Hellenistic world and the Roman Republic. The same ambivalence that characterized previous literary representations of old age (e.g. p.21 on Homeric epic and p.61 on Sophoclean tragedy) is also found to be characteristic of the Hellenistic literary production, redoubling old consumers’ (i.e. readers’) plaisir : there are both characters they can identify with and characters to laugh at. One wishes that Brandt had marked this continuity more clearly, since this is one of the declared aims of the book (p.12 “die reichen Gedanken und mannigfaltigen Ansichten … in strukturierter … Auswahl vorzustellen”).

The last section of ch.III offers an overview of Hellenistic representations of old age in art (i.e. sculpture), which are characterized by variety, realism and delight in the detail. Brandt again remarks on correspondences between art and literature (e.g. p.107 the old fisherman and p.111 the old wet-nurse) as well as the role of genre and eventual context of the artwork in the artists’ choice between realistic and ideal representation of old age.

Chapter IV (The Roman Republic) opens with a section (IV.1) presenting the evidence for the elders’ domination in early republican politics. Common beliefs about the etymology and the origins of the senate, Livian passages implying that the old formed a distinct and considerable group within the senate, as well as three well-known exempla virtutis active in ripe old age (L. Quinctius Cincinnatus, M. Furius Camillus and Ap. Claudius Caecus) are invoked to prove that as late as the first century B.C.E old age combined with political and military services to the state as well as respectable ancestry (made visible by means of the imagines maiorum) invested someone with authority. The next section (IV.2) is a well-judged discussion of Cicero’s treatise on old age as a work written by an old man presenting the views of an exemplary old Roman (Cato), who resembles the author not only in his conservative values but also in his career as a homo novus. The reader interested in the modern reception of de senectute, however, will regret the absence of reference here to Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of Cicero in her own essay on old age despite the fact that it is included in the bibliography and cited in endnote 426.

The next section (IV.3) discusses the representation of old men (esp. the figure of the senex amator) and women in republican comedy in the antipodes of Cicero’s idealism. The latter, however, is reflected in the republican portraits examined in section IV.4. (Old) women and lower-class Romans are represented only on funerary reliefs, which constitute a private form of art and need not mirror accurately the mentality and value-system of the dominant senatorial elite (p.150) and could be closer to reality. This reality is the ostensible subject of the brief final section of chapter IV. It turns out, however, that it is more about the scarcity of the sources and their natural exclusion of those who spent their old age in misery, giving thus the impression that the republican period was an unqualified golden age of gerontocracy.

The brevity of IV.5 is counterbalanced by the expansiveness of section V.1 on the social conditions of old age in the imperial period. Now local differentiation between the various parts of the Empire is added to the overall scarcity of the sources, making the work of summarizing the situation an even more hazardous affair. Starting from the bottom of the social ladder, Brandt insists that even old slaves could not be simply dumped, while both slaves and freedmen were obliged to take care not only of their own elderly relations but also of their masters’ and ex-masters’ kin respectively. The propertied classes could also count on the services of slaves employed especially to entertain people of old age. Elderly widows were obviously among those who needed this kind of care most and could afford it. The second half of this very informative chapter presents the evidence concerning the legal rights and status of old people, which become even more important now that people no longer feel bound by traditional morals. Finally, Pliny’s letter 3.1 is quoted at length and supplemented with references to the historians in order to illustrate the view that advanced age no longer commands respect and immunity from criticism by itself: the individual has to earn these for him-/herself.

Section V.2 is dedicated to the cult of culture (“Bildungskult”), the single most important trend in the portrait production of the Imperial age, with the consequent emphasis on the positive characteristics of old age, such as wisdom and experience. Brandt argues in favour of its re-evaluation within the wider cultural context of reviving the golden age of classical Greek art and literature, resulting in the domination of idealism in artistic representations of the elderly too. Art (pp.197-208) and literature (pp.176-196) are examined together, yet separately, in the third section of ch. V, the longest in the entire book. The inclusion of Catullus in this (rather than in the previous) chapter naturally calls for an explanation: he was a forerunner of classical lyric, maintains Brandt, referring to the authority of D. Gall in Metzlers Lexikon antiker Autoren. The authors presented also include Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, Vergil, Martial, Juvenal, Tacitus, Seneca and Plutarch, including long quotations in authoritative German translations — a rule throughout the book for ancient texts, even in the endnotes.2 Like the latter part on artistic representation of old age in portraits and on sarcophagi, this discussion of the literary evidence is little more than a concatenation of the most important relevant passages of each author.

Discussing late antiquity in ch.VI, Brandt focuses once again on the affinities with the previous age in order to counterbalance the older emphasis of scholarship on crisis and dramatic changes as characteristics of the period between 284 and 565 C.E. This does not mean that he turns away from the troubles that marked it. He admits that wars and invasions worsened the living conditions of the elderly but prefers to present this as the amplification of an existent situation rather than as an abrupt change, emphasizing at the same time the fact that poverty and hardship were not inescapable for old people; the upper classes continued to enjoy a relaxing bath and massage in the Thermae as well as all the pleasures of otiose life. The Christian authors’ agenda is held responsible for the impression that late antiquity saw a critical increase in the number of helpless widows, while the trend for asceticism among the young is presented as an important factor for the deterioration of old persons’ living conditions. For, in this period too, only prosperous progeny can guarantee a good old age, as neither the state nor the Church could contribute substantially to this end.

Undoubtedly, the rise of Christianity is a crucial factor in the social life of late antiquity and naturally deserved the separate section (VI.2) on its influence on attitudes towards old age. Considering longevity as a sign of divine grace, the newly established Christian Church valued the services of old men as priests and bishops, as well as of old women as deaconesses. Hardship is turned into a major opportunity to achieve the good life even in old age through asceticism, while organized monastic life gives old people the chance to use their wisdom and experience to the advantage of the community and themselves as they enjoy the services of the younger members in exchange. The section closes with references to the early fathers’ writings on old age and the new ideal of the puer senex, the mature old person with childlike innocence.

Artistic representations of old age in late antiquity, discussed in VI.3, continue the classical tradition of the “Intellektuellenikonographie” (p.230), adding a colour of special dignity and grandeur, particularly when the old men happen to be the Apostles (Peter and Paul in particular); in ecclesiastical art there is no room for realistic portraits of old people, and this is largely true of sarcophagus reliefs too. This trend for idealism and effacement of the traditional signs of old age is even stronger in the portraits of old women. The chapter closes with several more literary references and quotations from Boethius and Maximianus.

Being a student of ancient literature rather than history and art, I do not feel entitled to assess Brandt’s use of non-literary evidence. However, I would like to make two comments. First, it is characteristic of Brandt’s commendable effort to bridge the study of art and literature that he unfailingly discusses portraits of poets and philosophers as old men, illustrated plentifully. I regret only that this thread does not appear to be well integrated in the overall argument of the book. At times I had the impression that this was the essay out of which the book sprang, as the author admits in the Prologue (p.9). Second, although this appears to be general and acceptable practice in art-historical books, I do not find satisfactory references to works of art which do not include the inventory number of the museum. Crosschecking Brandt’s illustrations with the recently published Catalogue of the Sculptures of the National Museum by N. Kaltsas3 I came across a significant divergence in the dating of illustration 62 (140 according to Brandt, if this is indeed his own dating, and first half of third century according to Kaltsas). On the whole, photographs are of high quality, while editing seems to have gone amiss only on p.64: read χορός instead of χόρος in line 5 and konflikte instead of konflike in line 7.

All in all, a very useful, if not consistently interesting, summary of the relevant ancient evidence and the growing secondary literature on literary and artistic representations of old age in all languages, despite a tendency to promote German scholarship and a rather conservative theoretical framework.


1. Zeitkritik in der Spätantike, Munich: Verlag C.H.Beck, 1988; Das Ende der Antike, Munich: Verlag C.H.Beck, 2001.

2. The only exception appears to be a Latin quotation on p.212, which is preceded by translation.

3. N. Kaltsas, Ethniko arxaiologiko mouseio. Ta glupta. Katalogos, ekdoseis kapon: Athens 2001, no.706 p.334.