Roman Style Aging Part I

This past weekend I found myself engrossed in a book titled, Experiencing Old Age In Ancient Rome, written by Karen Cokayne. It was interesting to read that in antiquity, scientific and medical texts considered changes in one’s physical appearance, such as wrinkles, grey hair, and baldness, due to a deficiency of heat that was brought on by cooling and drying of age. The author writes that Galen, a physician from the second century AD believed that grey hair was the result of an undernourishment caused by deficiency of heat. Galen believed that men tended to go bald on top first, because that was the driest part of the head. Likewise, the wrinkling of the skin was compared to the withering of the planet. “Seneca too likened the human constitution to those of plants: soft and moist when young, hard and dry in maturity.” Further writings about old age indicate that changes in appearance were considered inevitable, but the way in which the changes were experienced would ultimately be shaped by society.

Ms. Cokayne writes that in western societies, younger people are admired for their strength and youthful spirit and appearance; and so many spend money on preserving that youthful appearance. However, in ancient Rome there were two attitudes towards aging, the one saw it as an age of wisdom, which therefore commanded respect, while the other saw it in a negative light with emphasis on physical decline, inviting ridicule and disdain. The author further describes how physical appearance was not important in moralistic and philosophical writings, because those people were interested in character most of all. However, “In the science of physiognomy though, a person’s true character was derived from his appearance by comparing him to an animal or races whose moral nature was believed to be known.” Things that illuminated character were facial features and expressions. Someone old who had lost the look of a lion for example—who no longer looked broad and strong with a full head of hair—was now considered to be in a deteriorated state. The elderly always looked bad in this context.

Today, the author says, images of age are still symbolically charged. She mentions a study conducted by Featherstone and Hepworth on the images of aging, where they showed that youth is credited not only with beauty but also with energy, moral fortitude and optimism, while old age is seen as ugly and usually associated with idleness, degeneration and moral failure. Yikes!

I will expand on this in my next blog.

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