Roman Style Aging Part II

Last time I shared a few ideas about aging from a book written by Karen Cokayne and titled, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome. In this blog I want to share more interesting information about how aging was portrayed in comedy writing during that specific era.

In satirical writings from that period of time, wrinkles and other physical characteristics associated with aging were viewed with absolute repugnance. Cruelty in those days was by no means a foreign concept, and so the main target or focus of comedy was the old man whose physical appearance was deemed ugly, and inspired the types of comments that society found exceptionally entertaining. If the subject of everyone’s cruel focus, namely the old man, then happened to be associated with a younger love interest—it would become an open invitation for further ridicule and abuse. In that instance, the audience was well versed in using derogatory expressions towards the old man: “the old man in-love,” “grey haired,” “pot bellied,” “knock kneed,” “decrepit shape,” “damnable shape,” “flabby,” “sallow complexioned etc.” Cokayne suggests that this type of commonly used terminology proved that there was a serious disregard for the elderly, which had a universal appeal and therefore could be used as entertainment for the masses. The way in which the audience would mock the old man’s relationship with a young maiden reminds me of how my late grandmother Gertrude would react when I’d take her to see a Woody Allen film. Her dislike of Woody stemmed from the fact that he was much too old for romantic involvement with any of his leading ladies. It absolutely disgusted her. She would wince and look away from the screen when Woody would kiss his leading lady. I was always amused by her reaction.

In Juvenal’s satirical writings, here is what he thought of the old man: “Look first at your face, you’ll see an ugly and shapeless caricature of its former self; your skin has become a scaly hide, you’re all chap fallen, the wrinkles scorned down your cheeks now make you resemble nothing so much as some elderly female baboon in darkest Africa. Young men are all individuals: A will have better looks or brains than B, while B will beat A on muscle but old men all look alike, all share the same bald pate . . .”

To be fair to Juvenal’s intentions, his writing must be read in the right context. As cruel as he was towards the old man, he was actually trying to shed light on the absurdity of wanting to live long, because longevity and immortality were topics of great fascination in those days. Anyone trying to act young in that respect was viewed as nothing but an old fool. Furthermore, so many other writings reveal that wrinkles and grey hair were seen as sexually unattractive, so much so that some men in pursuit of their young appearance would be made fun of for dying their hair or plucking their grey hair, or even using a wig to hide their bald spot. For some reason today, the use of a hairpiece is something that still carries with it a similar negative connotation. We’ve all noticed the man wearing a toupee, or the one with a hair transplant, and we’ve all said something about it.

I may complain about today’s society and the heavy concentration that is placed on a youthful appearance; however we’re not the first ones to be guilty of this weird practice. Greek culture was self absorbed in youthful appearances, there was much emphasis made on youth and physical beauty, which is also demonstrated in their sculptures. For the most part, Romans felt the same; however, as opposed to Greeks, the Romans also saw a different and more positive side to aging, believe it or not. They understood the beauty of old age, and in many cases even recognized its benefits. This is said to be the case with regard to portrait busts, which appeared during the first century BC, also known as Veristic Portraits. These portraits were more realistic, and didn’t neglect to show wrinkles, blemishes, or saggy skin. The author suggests that people who posed for those busts actually wanted to be depicted in this realistic fashion, because they adhered to a different philosophy of life, and were people of very high self-esteem.

When reading this chapter it made me reflect upon society today, particularly in terms of what has really changed during the centuries of our evolution and enlightenment. Do we not feature the most beautiful people on the cover of magazines? The use of Photoshop is proof positive that we continuously adhere to an even higher, or rather, impossible standard of beauty. Plenty of times I’ve heard vain actors complain about HD filming that reveals their blemishes, as though TV and film were nothing more than vehicles to help promote their looks, with no other entertainment value whatsoever. How about the club culture where only the good looking people are allowed in? What about all the creams and treatments for erasing wrinkles, and plastic surgery to lift, and stretch, as well as completely change any part of your body that you deem unattractive or old.

My hope is that I am never swayed by popular ideas of youth and beauty—not the way they are now—and that wrinkles and dimples of all sorts never affect my mood or confidence. I hope that I can be more like those who modeled for the Veristic Portraits, who had a healthy and realistic attitude towards life, with high self-esteem regardless of their age, and regardless of what anybody else thought of them.

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