Oh, but the elderly are so morose and anxious and cranky and stubborn. It turns out they’re misers too. … but we can at least sympathise: old men think that they are ignored, hated and laughed at; what’s more, every hurt is horrible for a frail body.    Cicero

Yes, grumpy old men go back to ancient times. But so does sympathy for the trials of old age and appreciation of its strengths. These are themes in Tom Payne’s book The Ancient Art of Growing Old, which looks at how the Greeks and Romans regarded old age. 

It’s a slight volume, written informally, with touches of humour, and a wide awareness of the period. Payne knows we can’t directly apply their words to ourselves, but believes we can learn from the calm and even hopeful way they deal with similar issues to our own.

Bothers besiege old men, either because
they look for things they fear to use once found,
or else conduct themselves timidly, coldly,
skimp on long hopes, stay still but crave long lives,
are stubborn, testy, praising time they spent
when they were lads, chiders and scolds of youth.  Horace

Greek and Roman societies had a much small proportion of elderly people than we do. It’s estimatedGrumpy some 6 – 8 % of the population lived beyond 60, and maybe 3 % beyond 80. Yet the problems and questions they struggled with are very recognisable. Seneca’s reflections on suicide, for example, cover arguments similar to those on assisted dying today. We feel we know Horace’s old men ‘praising time they spent when they were lads’ and scolding the youth of today.

There are plenty of quotes, and brief commentary on particular themes. For example, Payne shows how the prospect of an elderly woman with desires filled ancient men (the writers are all men) with horror. He notes that ‘The prurience around the subject of an elderly woman’s passion has stuck stubbornly since ancient times’. Libidinous, bald old men get mocked to a much lesser extent.

Sex is one of the areas in which the ancients were harshest about old age, and yet we seldom come closer to their attitudes towards the elderly than when we’re thinking about sex.

The final section of the book is Payne’s translation of Cicero’s essay on old age. Cicero argues that we don’t say a helmsman contributes nothing to sailing if he is sitting quietly in the stern holding the tiller while others are climbing masts, running across decks or manning pumps. ‘He doesn’t do what young people do, but really he’s doing things that are much bigger and better’.

Old age isn’t languid and inactive, but always busy, ‘always doing something … coming up with the kind of thing for which it was striving in an earlier part of life.’ Payne comments that ‘the ideas we have in our youth can be fertile and numerous enough to give us projects into our old age.’

And that is encouraging. Perhaps we don’t do it in exactly the way we once imagined, but we can fulfil our youthful dreams in old age. We can aspire. We can carry on being and becoming the person we really want to be.

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