Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach

By Mary Harlow; Ray Laurence | Go to book overview

9

GETTING OLD

In Western societies of the late twentieth century, the transition into the ‘third age’ has been marked most usually by retirement from work and living on a pension from the age of sixty or sixty-five. The major feature that has defined this stage of life has been the absence of work and the presence of earnings derived from physical or mental labour (see Hockey and James 1993). The Roman world did not define old age in the same way or mark it with a transition at a set age. These factors cause old age to appear different and present us with a challenge to understand this stage of life within its context, rather than with reference to modern conceptions of pensions and retirement in the West. The latter, that have defined our understanding of the old, may well disappear within the lifespan of the present generation in work—already the twenty-first century has opened with a discussion of the merits of removing the statutory retirement age in Britain. It will be interesting to see if there will be a redefinition of the characteristics of old age, as the over sixty-fives are drawn back into work. Equally, the ageism experienced in the workplace today may change in its form in the future too. Our understanding of the Roman concept of old age, unlike much of the life course, is informed by the personal voices of the elderly. This is in part caused by a fundamental feature of old age at Rome: it was a period of time in which a person had greater otium (leisure), but needed to utilise that leisure to enhance or preserve their mental faculties. This led some of the elderly to write philosophical treaties and, not surprisingly, the focus of many of these was their experience of old age. Indeed, it could be stated that the ancient experience of old age, in many ways, informed the notions of endurance that developed stoic philosophy adopted by both young and elderly.

At Rome, old age did not entirely depend on a simple measurement of chronological age of the individual, but also took account of a person’s physical and mental health. There was no retirement age as such, or system of pensions. The majority of the population presumably did not have the luxury to do anything other than to work until they dropped. The position the individual held in later life was dependent on the status, wealth and character that they held in earlier life. Only in the mythical golden age of the past were

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