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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Old Age in Rome - Truth in Statues

Boxer at Rest at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Covid-19 is forcing us to look at old age more closely, even to consider the value of an older human life as the virus ravages the elderly. And so it might be helpful to examine the attitude towards old age of other ages and cultures as well--in the case of this blog, that of the ancient Romans.

Cicero (106-43 BCE), from the Capitoline
Museums in Rome. Bust 1st century CE.
An image of Cicero is the lead photo
for the site: The Geopolitics of Dignity.

Much has been written about old age in ancient Rome, based primarily on writings of the classic authors of the epoch - Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, Plautus. The general conclusion is that, perhaps as today, the attitude was one of ambivalence. The weak and decrepit were often marginalized, because they were seen as not contributing to society. And Romans had a strong work ethic, and a commitment to their society. 

On the other hand, the old were valued as having gained knowledge, being good moral models for the young, and as still useful in society, some holding important positions into their 80s.

The average life expectancy of ancient Romans was much shorter than in the Western world today--around 25. This is distorted, however, by half of children dying before 10. And 7-8% of the population lived beyond 60 or 65. Although that is less than half of the percentage of Americans today living beyond 65, it's still a significant group.

This image from The Getty accompanies
an article on hair loss in ancient Rome.
25 BC - 10 CE
Most surprising is Romans' willingness--even desire--to portray old age accurately, complete with balding heads (photo at left), wrinkles, flabby skin, sunken cheeks, and blemishes. We get these depictions from statues, the faces of which are usually solemn, indicating the gravitas of old age. These physical markers of old age are considered to be signs of one's having contributed to society, having put in years of hard work and having gained experience--in a word, dignity.

Boxer at the Getty, 2015. Date of sculpture from
330-50 BCE.
We first saw the dramatic effects of this kind of portraiture in the spectacular sculpture, "Boxer at Rest." It's a Greek sculpture, valued by the Romans, and found only in the 1880s near the Quirinale. You can see it now in the national museum at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, near the train station. The statue shows the boxer's scarred and bruised face and broken nose. We saw the "Boxer" a few years ago when it had been recently restored--in a room in the seat of the Italian Senate, Palazzo Madama, as I recall. It was alone in the room, and we were alone with it, all the better to feel its power. We saw him again in 2015 at The Getty Center, which managed to borrow the statue for its blockbuster Roman statuary exhibit that year. The photo at the top is by Carole Raddato on Wiki commons.

from the Vatican Museums;
1st half of 1st century BCE.

The bust at left is from the Vatican Museums and illustrates "Verism" - the hyper-realism valued by the Romans, according to some scholars. 

Photo of bust - cast from the original
bronze -  in Wiki commons.
See By Daderot - Own work, CC0,

At right, from the Naples museum, Lucius Caecilius lucundus. He's not bald; his hair is etched into the bronze bust. But, as others have pointed out, he's a "Verism" example - or "warts and all," which the Romans preferred. He was a Pompeian banker, born 14 AD, died about age 62.

Women who reached old age also were viewed from two perspectives: as useful and authoritative matrons or as grotesque - especially, in the latter case, old prostitutes.

It's not as easy to find statutes of women in old age as it is as of men. Perhaps women were not generally subject to the "verism" of male portraits. I didn't find any in Rome--a hunt left for a future visit.
"Bust of a Flavian Matron" - Toledo (Ohio) Museum
of Art.  1st-2nd century CE

The bust at right is considered a rare portrait of an older woman. And, according to the museum's notes, the hairstyle is that of a younger woman.

Below is the statue of a clearly old woman - from The Met. It's a 1st Century CE copy of an earlier Greek sculpture. The museum notes the range of subject matter for sculptures was expanded to include figures on the fringe of society. This sculpture is known as the Old Market Woman, but it is probably, per the museum notes, an aged courtesan on her way to a Dionysian festival.
Old market woman or aged courtesan? 14-68 CE.

For more information on the treatment of old age in ancient Rome, see these two articles, both titled "Old Age in Ancient Rome":


The illustrations in this post - and decisions on how to illustrate these points - are from my own research.


1 comment:

andhollis said...

I enjoyed this article in particular (and links, thank you) and look forward to your further research on those wrinkly matrons.