Ancient Hebrew religious literature contained an ambiguous vision of old age. It commanded the young to honor their parents and respect the old for their wisdom, yet it also described the old as "apelike ... and childlike," loathed by their children and household (Isenberg, p. 149). Despite the special place Jewish biblical culture reserved for the old, the ancient Hebrews acknowledged that not all old people would be wise, nor would all children support their elders in time of need. The Book of Job specifically challenges the view that old age brings wisdom and asks why God grants long life to the wicked. Later rabbinic law translated the Biblical injunction to honor one's parents as requiring children to provide care, a task that belonged primarily to women.
Greco-Roman literature on old age shares three common themes: the "relationship between wisdom and age; the social and political authority of the elderly; and the care of the aged" (Falkner and de Luce, pp. 4—5). While the Greeks of the classical era generally portrayed old people more harshly than did the Romans, they also viewed old age as one of life's great mysteries. Plato considered virtue a possibility, rather than a necessary by-product, of old age. Aristotle saw middle age as the peak of human life and considered old men unfit for political office. Weakness and poor judgment rendered them objects of pity or scorn.
Greek representations of old age also revealed practical worries. In ancient Greece, a son's coming of age did not absolve him of legally enforced filial duties. Greek drama emphasized that every hero's death deprived his father of threpteria, or support in old age. "Sons formed the only pension plan available to the elderly" (Falkner and de Luce, p. 15). While care of older family members also fell to Roman children, the absolute power of the Roman paterfamilias, who retained authority over his children as long as he lived, intensified the fires of intergenerational conflict (Bertman). Roman comedy, which openly flaunted rules of respect for elders, mercilessly portrayed old men as weak fools or aging lovers as objects of ridicule.
The evidence on attitudes toward and conditions of older women in Greco-Roman antiquity is scanty yet suggestive. Greek idealization of young men and emphasis on female fertility weighed against cultural appreciation for older women. Yet, postmenopausal women of substance may have experienced unusual freedom in a male-dominated, hierarchical society. Despite the literary contempt that older Roman women received, those with the necessary resources and relations apparently achieved a measure of personal freedom after the constraints of spousal roles and motherhood were removed (Falkner and de Luce). Roman custom accorded respect and authority to aging women and expected sons to support their older mothers (Banner). Even prior to menopause, Roman women did not experience the same exclusion from education or power that Greek women suffered.
The ancients divided the cycle of human life into ages or stages, each corresponding to a generation, each possessing its own set of natural characteristics. Aristotle formalized this threefold division in the Rhetoric. Hippocrates' four physiologically determined ages was the most common scheme until the late Middle Ages, when Ptolemy's astrologically based system of seven ages was translated into the vernacular and eventually immortalized by Shakespeare's cynical Jaques:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. (As You Like It, Act II, vii)
In De Senectute (On Old Age), Cicero identified the philosophical bedrock beneath these ages-of-life schemes, that is, the belief that despite the diversity of size, appearance, ability, and behavior that characterizes the different stages, the human life span constitutes a single natural order. "Life's racecourse is fixed," he wrote, "nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its appropriate quality" (cited in Burrow, p. 1).
Ancient writers such as Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, and Cicero also sought to explain the nature and causes of aging. Associating old age with "dryness" and "coldness," they saw aging as a process of diminution of vital heat or fluids.
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