BMCR 2003.09.49

Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History

, Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 495. $55.00.

By working with literary and demographical sources, Parkin (P.) attempts to clarify what defined “old” to the Romans, how the elderly were portrayed in Roman literature, and what life may really have been like for the elderly. He also draws on Greek sources for comparison with Roman sources. The text itself is organized into nine chapters which are grouped in four larger parts (pp. 1-276), followed by three appendices of charts and supporting text (pp. 277-308), detailed notes (pp. 309-438), and an extensive bibliography (pp. 439-495).

Part I “Uncovering Aging Romans” explores what “old” meant to the Romans and attempts to establish some sense of the age demographics in Roman society. In Chapter 1, “Roman Definitions and Statements of Age” P. offers a number of examples which demonstrate that the Greeks and Romans had no agreed-upon number which constituted the beginning of old age. The Roman vocabulary used to refer to males and females — puer, puella, iuvenis, adulescens, virgo, senex, anus — are general terms without any specific age attached to them. In epitaphs, one source of information about age, there appears to have been a practice of rounding ages to the nearest five, in part because these numbers were easier to carve on tombstones.

In Chapter 2 “The Demography of Old Age,” P. sets out to determine how much of the Roman population constituted “the elderly.” He uses 60 “as the minimum age to qualify as ‘old,’ without wishing to suggest that this is what the ancient writers always or necessarily ever meant when they mentioned old age” (p. 36). P. begins with evidence from epitaphs in Roman Africa, which record a high percentage (29.71%) of people over the age of 70 and 3.21% living to more than 100 years of age. He, however, rejects the value of these epitaphs as reliable evidence for the age demographics of the region, arguing instead that they more accurately reveal “biases both in the statements of age and in the custom of commemoration of different age-groups in different places” (p. 37), because no place could support a standard of living that would result in such long lives. Based on his analysis of evidence from other areas, P. offers a model for the Roman world in the first century A.D. in which 6-8% of the population was age 60 or older. P. concludes the chapter with a discussion about how much of a role grandparents may have played in the lives of their grandchildren.

Chapter Three, “Old Age and the Romans: Images and Attitudes,” surveys the ways the Greek and Roman authors describe the elderly. Not surprisingly, the literature reveals a range from some works which praise the wise old man and woman to many more which emphasize the physical infirmities of the disgusting old man and old woman. P. notes that a series of poems in praise of old women is unusual, but unfortunately he does not delve into what they say. The primary picture that appears shows old age as a time that was tolerated at best, a miserable experience at worst.

Part II, “Old Age in Public Life,” opens with Chapter 4, “Rules of Old Age in the Roman Empire.” In this chapter, P. explains that rules aimed more at establishing minimums for official purposes — such as making legal transactions (25), serving in the army (17), the age at which a man was not usually called for military service (46), and the minimum ages for the cursus honorum — than established age limits. P. concludes that the majority of the power in the Senate lay in the hands of those in the 40-50 age range rather than with those in their 60s and argues that the Senate was probably never a “body of white-haired elder statesmen” (p. 101), because once a senator reached age 60 or 65, he was no longer compelled to attend senate meetings. Older senators do appear to have played a greater role as proconsuls and in the imperial period as amici principis, special advisors to the emperor. One clear maximum age limit comes with regard to munera personalia (public service required in the form of physical labor, working on public roads, or in the form of monetary payment, tutorships, and curatorships): a man over the age of 70 (his 70th year has to have been completed) is exempt from munera personalia. Another appears in the laws concerning decurions: no one over 55 could be called to serve as a decurion against his will, but he could serve if he chose to do so.

Chapter 5, “Rules of Age in Roman Egypt,” shows that the age of exemption for politike leitourgia was 70, but exemptions could be given to those over 65. In the first century A.D. those aged 62 and over were exempt from the poll tax, although in the third century the age of exemption appears to have been raised to 65. Because Roman Egypt had a highly developed bureaucracy, individuals living there were more likely to be able to determine their exact ages.

In “The Realities of Rules of Age: Proofs of Age,” P. explores the means by which an individual’s age was determined for official purposes. Birth registrations (begun by Augustus), the census (last taken in Italy in 73/74 AD applications for maior status (at 25), and registers of Roman citizenship (in the provinces) could all document a person’s age. Of these, only the census was obligatory. Ultimately a person’s age was based on what he or she said it was and how old he or she acted.

Part III “Old Age in Private Life” focuses on age and family life. Chapter Seven, “Old Age, Marriage, and Sexuality” begins with a discussion of Augustus’ marriage legislation, which affected men between the ages of 25 and 60 and women between the ages of 20 and 50. The upper limit coincided with the beliefs about men’s and women’s fertility: since a marriage was supposed to be arranged for the purpose of having legitimate children, both parties, especially the women, needed to be of child-bearing age. The upper limit was more flexible for men, since men older than 60 could and did marry younger wives and could produce children.

“Aging and the Roman Family,” compares Greek and Roman notions about what children owe to their aging parents. In both cultures there was the expectation that children would care for their elderly parents in reciprocity for the care they had received from them as children. In Athens a statute from the period of Solon states that a son must care for his parents or be deprived of his citizenship. In Egypt some parents handed over their possessions to their children in exchange for a promise of care and provision for their own old age. In Rome no law compelled children to support their parents, but cases appear to have tested the issue and put the responsibility on the children when the parents were clearly in need and the children had the means to support them. P. raises questions about the treatment of older slaves, citing Cato the Elder’s recommendation that they be sold or freed when they were not longer useful. Who then provided for them? The freeborn may have tried to save money to support their old age (hence the old miser in new comedy), but others may have had to beg or depend on the grain dole. P. then turns to the problems of senility for the elderly and their families. If a pater familias suffered from dementia, a son could request to be appointed his curator, but the son would still be in patria potestas. Although the elderly may well have become dependent on their children and even somewhat subject to them, P. suggests that such situations did not necessarily last for long.

Part IV, “Putting Older People in Their Place,” contains the Chapter Nine “The Marginality of Old Age” and a brief conclusion, “Final Remarks.” The final chapter begins with an examination of the liminal role of the elderly: older men, and especially older women, remain in families, but they lack functions within society. Their liminality is further reflected in the fact that medical texts do not specifically address the ills of the elderly. Yet P. suggests that as marginal figures the elderly and women were presumed to be more in tune with the gods than those at the center of Roman society (a point I am not ready to concede in the face of the augurs, the pontifex maximus, the flamens, the various other priests, and the clear centrality of the young/middle aged elite male in Roman religious practice). P. then surveys the practices of non-Roman cultures with regard to their elderly. In particular, P. points to a number of cultures who execute their elderly to demonstrate the difference between these and the practices of the Romans.

In “Final Remarks” P. emphasizes the lack of an age-class system in Rome and the fact that, unlike modern times, there was not formally-recognized period of “retirement” in the Roman world, especially for the working poor. Old age, therefore, was not looked to as a time of relaxation and fun after a lifetime of work; old age, rather, was to be endured, not enjoyed.

Overall, this work serves as a solid introduction to the lives of elderly men. Women are mentioned, but they do not received detailed attention, even though Cornelia, Terentia, Livia, Antonia the Younger, Domitia Longina, Junia Tertia, and Helena are all believed to have lived into their 70s and beyond (Terentia to 103). Certainly this is a small number of women, but including some information about the realities or representations of their old age would have offered a more complete picture, even if of only elite women’s lives.

That said, P.’s work demonstrates just how much classicists tend to forget about the lives of the Romans after they have served their generalships and consulships or given birth to their children.