By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
Studies have shown that people in ancient times did not survive old age. According to many historians, people in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and other areas hardly lived for more than 50 or 60 years. Factors, such as physical fitness, climate, diet, occupation, and mental alertness played an important part in a person’s life expectancy. However, these were not the only factors that affected a person’s longevity in ancient times.
Social and Economic Status
One’s social and economic status deeply affect one’s life expectancy, and this was true for ancient Greeks as well. In ancient Greece, one was more likely to attain a ripe old age if one was wealthy and led an inactive life. So, it does not come as a surprise that most of the ancient Greeks who led long lives were philosophers and poets, whose lives did not involve strenuous activities. Wealthy people, no doubt had a better diet than an average person and were well looked after. It would also be true that they possessed good genes. Along with a good social and economic standing, one also needed to be psychologically resilient. To reach old age, one would probably have faced psychological challenges more than an average person does today.
Learn more about being a sick or disabled Greek.
Material Circumstances of The Ordinary Elderly in Ancient Greece
In ancient Athens, the only people who received state support in old age were the parents of sons who had died in war and women who had given birth to a son after their husband had died. A man could earn a modest income from jury service, but this occupation was available to anyone over the age of 29. This proved to be a challenge as it could hardly have provided a livelihood for all the elderly men living in Athens. The state did not have homes for old people, which made their situation more difficult. Athenian law, however, did make some provision for the elderly by stipulating that their son or sons were legally bound to look after both his/their parents in old age. If the sons failed to do so, they were debarred from ever holding public office. They were also required to look after grandparents and great-grandparents if they happened to be alive. However, if parents failed to teach their sons a basic skill or had made them become a prostitute, the sons would be released from this solemn and binding obligation. Therefore, the best insurance policy against old age in ancient Athens was to have sons, who would look after their parents in old age.
Adoption as a Means of Surviving Old Age
A childless couple was not an uncommon occurrence in ancient Greece. However, it did cause problems for those who have did not have children. Trusting a slave to look after you was a foolish notion. Therefore, the best course of action was to adopt. One could adopt a son at any age. In fact, many people preferred to adopt a man of mature years, someone with a sense of responsibility and someone trustworthy. Adoption in the Greek world was, to a large extent, based on the principle of mutual self-interest. As an adoptive parent, one was guaranteed from one’s adopted son’s attention and care in one’s declining years, as well as a decent funeral, and hopefully, regular visits to one’s grave. It was beneficial for the adopted son as well. As an adopted son, he would inherit his adoptive father’s entire fortune. This was possible because in Athens, parents, adoptive or otherwise, were required by law to leave their whole estate to their son or sons. On the other hand, if a man did not have an estate to pass on, then his chances of adopting a son were pretty slim. In fact, the plight of the elderly becomes grimmer as one moves down the social and economic hierarchy. Hardly anyone volunteered to be the adopted son of a man who had little or nothing to bequeath.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Plight of Elderly Women in Ancient Greece
Similar to an elderly father, an elderly woman was entitled to support from her son or sons. If, moreover, a woman was well-to-do and became widowed, she would very likely return to her original family. She would be entitled to take her dowry with her, so she would not be destitute. If, however, women did not have any dowry to reclaim or any sons to support them, they would be in an extremely precarious situation because they would not be allowed to adopt a son once their husband died. In such cases, women may have had to go out to work. The lawgiver Solon enacted that women over the age of 60 were permitted to act as mourners at the funerals of those to whom they were not closely related. They probably earned a pittance for their services. Other ageing and aged women served as midwives, a fairly lucrative profession in a society with such a high level of infant mortality. As for elderly unmarried women who had nothing to fall back on, they would just carry on working. Eventually, there comes a time for everyone when they are no longer capable of work. In that case, if they did not have a single living relative they could depend on, there was no alternative but to become a beggar.
Learn more about being a Greek woman.
The Concept of Retirement
Although there were upper age limits for men who took on certain official roles, the concept of retirement was foreign to the ancient world. During the reign of Alexander the Great, service in the citizen militias of Greece did not end until a man reached the age of 60. Up until his fifties, a man would serve as a reservist—on call if the city came under attack. The Athenian statesman Pericles held the office of General when he died from the plague at 66. The only record of a retiree in ancient Greece was of Laertes, Odysseus’ father, in the Odyssey, who has ceded to his son both the headship of the family and the kingship of the island.
Most of the ordinary elderly people in ancient Greece probably worked till they died. They did not get the required help from the local physician either. The science of gerontology had no equivalent in the ancient world. The Hippocratic corpus—the corpus of medical writings ascribed to the physician Hippocrates—contains only a scattering of observations about the physical effects of old age and virtually nothing about how to tend the elderly. This was no doubt due to professional helplessness in the face of the degenerative process brought on by old age. Compared to present times, surviving old age in ancient times was definitely a challenge, especially in ancient Greece. Wealth and family played significant roles in one’s life and determined one’s journey into old age. Without support from one’s family, especially sons, the elderly people of ancient Greece faced various challenges in their old age and their situation usually became very pitiable.
Common Questions about Elderly People in Ancient Greece
In ancient Athens, the only people who received state support in old age were the parents of sons who had died in war and women who had given birth to a son after their husband had died.
Athenian law made some provision for the elderly by stipulating that their son or sons were legally bound to look after both his/their parents in old age. If the sons failed to do so, they were debarred from ever holding public office.
As an adoptive parent, one was guaranteed from one’s adopted son’s attention and care in one’s declining years, as well as a decent funeral, and hopefully, regular visits to one’s grave.
During the reign of Alexander the Great, service in the citizen militias of Greece did not end until a man reached the age of 60. Up until his fifties, a man would serve as a reservist—on call if the city came under attack.