ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME
In ancient Greece and Rome dying in one’s 60's was considered natural; to die younger was seen as a harsh and unnatural fate. Old age did not automatically confer the respect and authority that some felt it deserved. In the absence of any form of state welfare or healthcare, responsibility for supporting older individuals rested with their immediate family.*
Aristotle characterized old people as overly pessimistic, distrustful, malicious, suspicious and small minded because they had been humbled by life and so their greatest hopes are raised to nothing more than staying alive.
Cicero said that old age will only be respected if it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone, and asserts control over its own to the last breath.
Medically, aging was considered inevitable as the body lost its innate heat and fluid, its life force or pneuma. While an infant’s body was warm; an older persons, like a corpse, was cold and dry. Like illness, in old age the balance of the four humors had been lost.
Humorism was a system of medicine detailing the makeup and workings of the human body that was adopted by Ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers, and the Indian Ayurved system of medicine. In Humorism, an excess or deficiency of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person directly influenced their temperament and health.
The four humors of Hippocratic medicine were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Each corresponded to four fundamental personality types: sanguine (optimistic and social), choleric (short-tempered or irritable), melancholic (analytical and quiet), and phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful). Regarding aging and illness, blood and yellow bile were lacking, and phlegm and black bile were abundant.
* This section was derived from the chapter written by Tim Parkin.
MIDDLE AGES AND RENAISSANCE
Life expectancy was low, 40 years. In times of plague and famine it was much lower. However, this was due mainly to high infant mortality. People who reached early adulthood had a fair chance of reaching the age of 60 or 70. There were also men and women who lived into their 80’s and 90’s.*
The elderly generally constituted not more than 8 percent of the population, and in some regions and periods it was not more than 5. The development of certain negative traits of character was considered part of the inevitable process of aging. Old age affected both the body and the soul.
Medieval writers distinguished between old age and extreme old age, usually denoted as senium, and attributed the mental decline only in the second stage because of the physiological changes occurring, primarily the decrease in natural heat.
The privileges accorded the elderly almost without exception took the form of exemption from certain duties and from liability to various services when someone reached the age of 60. The age exemption from public service was generally 70; payment of taxes, 60 or 70.
Elderly wage earners, both male and female, were rarely hired for life nor guaranteed a pension. Most did not make enough to save for their old age during their working years. They could not afford to retire and were obligated to continue working as long as they could. In southern Europe, where the extended family was dominant, elderly peasants did not retire but kept their status as heads of the household.
At a certain age, a peasant handed over his farm to one of his offspring by an agreement, where the latter undertook to keep and look after him until the end of his days. If the peasant had no off-spring, an agreement was made with a relative or with a non-family member.
Those who retired often entailed a diminished status. Pensions granted to private individuals, even minute ones, were scarce, and public ones, including government-administered relief in general, were almost nonexistent. The only assistance by governments took the form of tax exemptions for the poorest. Only the church created something which approached a pension scheme for retired clergy.
* This section was derived from the chapter written by Shaulamith Shahar.