Friday, June 12, 2020

The Roman viewpoint on old age

We ought to consider not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but another thing also must be taken into the account, that if a man should live longer, it is quite uncertain whether the understanding will still continue sufficient for the comprehension of things, and retain the power of contemplation which strives to acquire the knowledge of the divine and the human.  Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations.  Book 3.

Image:  Bronze Male Portrait from the House of the Citharist in Pompeii 1st century CE.  Portraits of aged Romans showed a ruthless adherence to the realistic features of old age, such as wrinkles, folds of loose, flabby skin, sunken cheeks, blemishes and balding heads. Old age was emphasized, even exaggerated. It is notable that the majority of the old men appear solemn, which was indicative of the gravitas of age.  The portraits revealed how these old people wanted to be seen and the depiction of old age is deliberate. These portraits suggest worthiness and dignified behaviour. Facial expression was seen as an expression of character and these portrait busts therefore gave moral judgements. The stern and serious-looking faces, with their exaggerated wrinkles and folds, were suggestive of years of hard work and experience. These old men seem comfortable with their age. Only the old who lived up to societal expectations could expect reverence. These old men looked as if they had done their duty and had rightfully earned their status and respect.

Rome’s competitive society was extremely conscious of glory and public status. Having a role to play in society provided an old man with this status, which in turn would nourish his self-confidence and self-esteem. Public distinction and worthiness had associations with dignity (dignitas), a highly desirable virtue in Roman ideology, commanding reverence and respect. For this reason, some old men were keen to promote a self-image of gravity, sobriety and virtuousness. - This is a brief quote from an excellent article on old age in Rome by Dr. Karen Cokayne of the University of Reading. I found it quite comprehensive with fascinating anecdotes.

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