In this essay, I will consolidate on what social group Cicero refers to in this quote and understand why he has aimed it at this proportion of people and discuss whether he has ulterior motives for writing this other than just to inform. I will then consider later life in the Roman world from different aspects of their society and refer to Cicero’s claim while examining different experiences of old age to determine whether it has any use in understand the experience of old age in general, whether the Roman people conformed to Cicero’s ideology of old age on a regular, day-to-day basis. I will look at the perspectives of; elite males, women, and elderly slaves. I will investigate whether the ‘classical’ Roman ideology of respecting and looking after the elders was upheld and assess the quality of life for elder slaves was respected in later life, or did the realities of day-to-day life result in the disregard of old aged slaves.
Cicero speaks about his views and opinions on growing old and ideals of growing old and how to maintain respect and dignity while entering the vulnerability of later life. However, in terms of understanding the experiences of later life as a whole, Cicero’s extract can be viewed as not particularly useful. Cicero’s extract is intended for his, “dear Atticus”1, a close friend of Cicero’s, who like Cicero is an elite male, this creates an issue as it is the views of old age from an elite male intended to be read by an elite male with the similar elite ideals and opinions on later life. Cicero’s quote can be seen as referring to elite males in old age through the words that have been used; “subservient to no one”2, suggests that he could only be talking about elite, elderly males; as slaves, women etc. were all subservient to a male, according to patria potestas, the eldest male was the lord of the household and everyone within it.3 With this in consideration, I will begin to examine the later life of elite males and identify whether Cicero’s ideals of later life were realistic expectations.
Attitudes towards the elderly in ancient society were generally divided into polar opposites, much like how they were perceived in some comedic writings, such as Aristophanes wasps.4 Parkin notes that the elderly were either interpreted as the ‘garrulous old fool’ or ‘wise old councillor’.5 Pliny shares the same ideologies as that of Cicero, he respects T. Vestricius Spurinna for the way he has transitioned into later life by still stimulating himself intellectually by reading and writing as well keeping his physical body healthy with a ‘good and simple’ diet and exercise; “for by this sort of exercise, too, he combats the effects of old age”, this regiment of a strict simple way of life is suggested by Harlow as a cure for the old age which Is regarded as a kind of disease,6 it could be said that the elderly were not respected in the same regard as in Cicero’s extract but merely praised for conforming to the Roman ideology of how to behave.
Respect of elders is regarded as a ‘mythical golden age’;7 again, the attitude towards elders seems confused, swinging from one extreme to another. An example of this is the increased status of the elder elite male in magistracies, setting a minimum age limit for major magistracies, which shows how the elder elite males were regarded as wiser and respected for this. However this is contradicted with another perspective of attitudes towards elders, Valerius Maximus informs us that the etiquette (“ancient custom”) of a young man accompanying their elderly Father and waiting for him to be seated before himself being seated.8 Another example that Gardner notes is in Seneca, where a son accuses his Father of insanity merely because of the son’s ‘spoiled inheritance prospects.’9 This reveals the experience of old age may have resulted in the younger taking advantage of Roman societies perception of the elderly, to use in their favour and displace the elder in power (patria potestas) and control the ‘purse strings’.10
The evidence is mixed, and in some aspects, agrees with the ideology of Cicero, Roman society can be seen as respectful of elite elder’s intellect however they seem to be marginalised and on the outskirts of society. An example of this is in comedy writing where elderly people are a common butt of a joke. Aristophanes’ The Wasps is a good example of the elderly being taken advantage of; “I will feed him, I will give him everything that is suitable for an old man; oatmeal gruel, a cloak, soft furs, and a wench to rub his tool and his loins. But he keeps silent and will not utter a sound; that’s a bad sign.”11 This extract depicts how Bdelycleon treats his father in old age, giving him the bare minimum of what is required. Despite this not being a real-life situation, being from a comedic piece of writing, this type of writing must have found inspiration to write about these topics from societal attitudes of the elderly. Again, this is evidence that disagrees with Cicero’s claim that infers that old age was respected if they had followed Roman ideals. Elderly elite males that didn’t conform to this can be seen in the example of Domitius Tullus, described as “deformed and crippled in every limb”, and further described as unable to move out of bed or maintain his own personal hygiene and without the help of others.12 Compared to Spurinna, described as keeping himself fit with regular exercise and intellectual stimulation through reading and conversation, Tullus is described as nearly the opposite, he is frowned upon and described in an in-depth and vulgar manner it seems to accentuate his flaws and marginalise him as a bad example of how to grow old. Tullus contradicts Cicero’s and Pliny’s ideals of old age in the extract, for Tullus to be ‘manhandled’ suggests he has ‘given himself over’ and is no longer maintaining his dignity in old age, this extract being compared to the ideals of the extract in the question, could reveal the negative attitudes of elite male society or even Roman society as a whole, of an elderly man, didn’t conform to societal expectation of how the elderly should behave. Parkin argues that individuals such as Cicero and Plutarch concentrate on a ‘generic’ old person and the generic ailments that come with being old, they don’t seem to concentrate on the ‘social framework’. Parkin notes because they wrote so much about the fears and dangers of growing old that the realities of being elderly are hidden as a result.13 I think this argument is especially true in answering the central question; the Rome elite had no regard for any one other than themselves and were too self-involved to consider the experience of other aspects of Roman life.
Becoming old in the ancient world was some what of a worry for elite men, Mary Harlow explains this transition well, men went through stages where they lacked power as a youth, to middle age, gaining authority and status both in the public and the private sphere, ‘reaching the heights of his political authority, even as a youth the male was seen at his peak for physical and sexual power. Elderly life cruelly removed all these attributes from a male’s youth, leaving him powerless both physically, mentally and removed his authority in both public and private spheres, leaving him vulnerable and dependent on others.14 Parallels can be drawn between the ancient world and modern civilisation, holding on to the physical capabilities of youth and the worry of who would care for you once you’re too vulnerable to look after yourself as well as their family providing a proper funeral and ‘personal commemoration after death.15 Karen Cokayne also touches on this subject; Cokayne explains that the negative attitudes we see in these primary sources (satirising the elderly through vivid descriptions of their condition in old age) may be a reflection of their own fears of growing old (fears of old age has been touched on earlier in this paragraph).16 Pliny witnesses the suicide of his friend who suffers from gout and couldn’t take the pain that came with the deterioration in old age, as referred to by Cokayne, these negative writings may just be an expression of their fears of losing their physical strength, ‘social liabilities’ with the potential to tarnish their reputation within their reputation within their section of society or even just losing close friends.17 With reference to the central question, the Cicero extract does infer that he’s talking about the elite, and this was useful in consideration with some examples of elite males such as Spurinna, as it showed displayed the same ideals of growing old in Roman society as Cicero’s extract does. However, despite Cicero’s extract being about elite male elders, it still didn’t refer to other aspects of the elderly that didn’t conform to Roman societies way to live life as an elder. Cicero’s extract merely showcases the attitude of the highly aristocratic males without much consideration of other experiences.
Cicero’s extract can be seen as directed towards elite elderly males, looking at the experience of women in old age will help towards supporting the answer that cicero’s extract does not help to understand the general experiences of all aspects of old age in Roman society. Like some of the portrayals of the elite elderly in comedic writing, women were commonly depicted in a vulgar and discriminating tone, usually describing generic features of an elderly woman with a negative undertone. Horace attacked old women by depicting unflattering features of their body as a result of ageing; “shrivelled buttocks like that of a cow with diarrhea!”18 However, Juvenal’s Satire is a good example of this type of derogatory writing too, “Let three wrinkles make their appearance; let her skin become dry and flabby; let her teeth turn black, and her eyes lose their lustre: then will his freedman give her the order, “Pack up your traps and be off! you’ve become a nuisance; you are for ever blowing your nose; be off, and quick about it! There’s another wife coming who will not sniffle.”19 This example supports the view that the elderly were not as well respected, as it has been interpreted in Cicero’s extract. Juvenal presents a satirical piece of writing that must have had some influence on societal attitudes towards elderly women and women in general perhaps. However, in the same breath, we must keep in mind that as this is a satirical piece of writing, the negativity towards the physicalities can be seen as part of Juvenal’s ‘scathing and mordant humour’ and it must be kept in mind that this form of mockery is integral to this form of comedy.20 However, it is true that elderly women were an even more marginalised section of society than younger women, after menopause, elderly women were deemed unimportant as they were unable to perform their ‘duty’ to reproduce, therefore they were an easy target for men to stereotype them as dysfunctional members of society.21 This may be an answer for the negative attitude that contributed to these derogatory, comedic writings.
In one extraordinary record, an elderly slave comments on the disproportionate attitudes towards adultery between men and women; “Goodness, women live under a hard law – and it’s so much more unfair than for men.”22 This extract gives an insight, unlike any other, into the opinions of misogynistic attitudes of Roman society. Although this is one woman’s account, it allows us to ultimately understand the frustration of an elderly woman in an unequal society and possibly shows the effect on how the marginalisation of her from society, through writings such as Juvenal’s, could have affected her experience of old age. However, Harlow brings up an important point that later life surely can’t have been all doom and gloom there were some pleasures to later life, as I have noted, such as the case of Spurinna.23 Mary Harlow notes that Pliny praised Ummidia, like Spurrina, for how she conducted herself in later life. Raising her grandson, single-handedly, to a standard of ‘personal austerity’. This is an example of a wealthy woman that had a satisfying later life, playing draughts in her leisure time. Pliny approved of her will, leaving her money to her grandsons and granddaughters.24 Women who were wives or mothers were held in high esteem if, like males, they had followed the ideals of roman society and not acted dishonourably, this can be translated to the word ‘materfamilias’.25 Examples like Ummidia contradict that of Cicero’s extract, as it shows that old age could be respectable in other aspects of Roman society, not just from the perspective of the elite male. This example provides an experience of later life without conforming to the ideals in Cicero’s extract. As I explained earlier in the essay, elderly women were a marginalised section of society due to being unable to serve their ‘purpose’ and ‘duty’ as women to reproduce, therefore rendering them redundant to society. As a result of this, if women didn’t have any children or family to look after them they normally would turn to brothels to work as madams.26 Cokayne’s argues that because elderly women were so isolated from society, men used this as a scapegoat to accuse elderly women of being ‘witchlike figures.’27 This is yet another negative experience of old age that does not conform to Cicero’s extract, this experience doesn’t include elite males, but women un-respected because they were unable to follow the ideals of how to behave as an elderly woman in Roman society. In terms of Cicero’s extract, it isn’t useful in providing the experience of women in later life as an elite male wrote it for an elite male and so it is restricted to an elite males outlook on how elderly life should be conducted.
A perspective that is the polar opposite to that of elite males (discussed earlier in this essay) is that of elderly slaves. There’s scares evidence on the elderly and even less so on the aspect of their later lives. However, there is some evidence that is relevant to understanding experiences of later life in Roman society. With consideration of the Cicero extract, elderly slaves would not fit into his ideal of a respectable elderly man; a slave had been forced to give over himself as a whole and was no longer regarded as a person but as an article of property. Nor did a slave retain any rights or ownership of a family. Therefore exploring this perspective of old age will be useful as it moves away from the aged elite males, that the majority of literary sources discussed, and will hopefully give more of an insight into a wider view of experiences in the Roman world. Elderly slaves can be seen as less valuable as a direct result of being old in age, Wiedemann notes that, like children under the age of 8, elderly slaves over the age of 60 had a maximum value of 15,000 denarii for men and 10,000 for women.28 This evidence shows that because of the low value, this must mean that they were less sought after and therefore their experience in old age was presumably not a good one as they would possibly view as a disposable commodity because of how cheap they were worth. However, evidence shows that ex-slaves could have been treated well, in Pliny writes how an ex-slave is given a ‘present’ of one hundred thousand sesterces.29 Despite Wiedemann arguing that because the girl’s name wasn’t mentioned it shows there’s still an awareness of her status as a slave,30 however I disagree and believe that it was of sentimental value and the landowner’s intentions to reward the slave were genuine. This example also displays the potential of a master-slave bond that may form over time, especially for older slaves perhaps, however, Cato’s ‘admonition’ of elderly slaves to be sold,31 the motives of this may be ‘sanctimonious musings’,32which may offer an insight into the question in hand, Cicero’s extract could be interpreted in the same way as Cato, two elite males that are only concerned about their own social class and this is why Cicero aims his thoughts on old age so specifically on his own social section of society. Fernes argues that slaves were looked after within their families with the right family links and concentration of pietas,33 however I believe that there undoubtedly had to be some form of family unit between slaves, however the attitude and prejudice against slaves, despite legislation established by Claudius, Wiedemann quotes Cassius Dio’s report; “many people didn’t bother to give their slaves any treatments when they were sick, and even threw them out of the house, he decreed that any who survived after being treated this way should be free”. This can be interpreted as the prejudiced view of the elite male however, Wiedemann does note that even non-elites would have owned slaves and that to get rid of a slave may have been as a result of a resource or financial issue.
In conclusion, as I’ve showcased in this essay, there are many experiences and perspectives of older age that aren’t considered within the viewpoint seen in the Cicero extract. The realities of old age are significantly neglected in the sources created by elite males themselves that were most probably be intended to be read by the same social class of person who shares the same ideals of how to conduct yourself as an elderly citizen. The complete disregard for any other experience of old age not in their own social class or gender shows the extent to which the Cicero extract is when considering any experience of old age. Even the reality of the elderly elite male is tarnished by the aristocratic ideals of growing old that shroud the majority of the sources on this topic.
1 Cic. Sen. 11.38
2 Cic. Sen. 11.38
3 Suzanne Dixon, The Roman family (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). P.158
4 Aristoph. Wasps
5 Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (London, Johns Hopkins University, 2003). P.58, 239
6 Mary, Harlow, Growing up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2002). P.122
7 Mary, Harlow, Growing up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2002). P.117
8 Mary, Harlow, Growing up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2002). p.121
9 Jane F. Gardner, Being a roman citizen (London: Routledge, 2002). P.172
10Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (London, Johns Hopkins University, 2003). P.212
11 Aristoph. Wasps 729
12 Pliny, letters 8.18
13 Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (London, Johns Hopkins University, 2003). P.89
14 Mary Harlow, Growing up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2002). P.118
15 Suzanne Dixon, The Roman family (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). p. 156
16Karen Cokayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2003). P.56
17 Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (London, Johns Hopkins University, 2003). P.75
18 Horace epode 8
19 Juvenal (sat.6)
20 Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (London, Johns Hopkins University, 2003). P.81
21 Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (London, Johns Hopkins University, 2003). P.86
22 Mercator 817-29
23 Mary Harlow, Growing up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2002). P.131
24 Mary Harlow, Growing up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2002). P.129
25 Karen Cokayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2003). P.134
26 Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (London, Johns Hopkins University, 2003). P.86
27 Karen Cokayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2003). P.152
28 ‘Servi Senes: The Role of Old Slaves at Rome’ Polis 8: 275-93. Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, U. von (1983) p. 286
29 Pliny letters 6.3
30 ‘Servi Senes: The Role of Old Slaves at Rome’ Polis 8: 275-93. Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, U. von (1983) p.285
31 agr. 2.7
32 Samuel L. Fernes, ‘Old age and the family life of Roman slaves’, Classical Association Conference, University of Bristol, April 2015. p.8
33 Samuel L. Fernes, ‘Old age and the family life of Roman slaves’, Classical Association Conference, University of Bristol, April 2015. p.9