Ancient Greece, with its illustrious history, vast philosophical landscape, and diverse societal norms, offers rich insights into its treatment and views on elderly care. While present-day society often gauges the development of a nation by its health and elderly care system, understanding these dynamics in ancient Greece reveals much about its socio-cultural evolution.
Historically, every society has developed norms and regulations to ensure the well-being of its older members. In ancient Greece, the emphasis on family structures was paramount:
- In Delphi, for instance, anyone who failed to look after his parents was liable to be put in jail
- In Athens those who neglected their parents or grandparents were deprived of their citizen rights
Family Obligations to the Elderly
Ancient Greece perceived the care for the elderly, known as “geroboskia,” as a profound moral duty. Anchoring this duty were laws that firmly bound adult children, especially sons, to care for their aging parents. This obligation encompassed the provision of essential needs like shelter, nourishment, medical care, and even intimate assistance like hygiene.
Daughters and daughters-in-law also played a role. Households were often multi-generational.
While affluent families could afford the luxury of slaves to support elderly care, less privileged households required more direct, often hands-on, involvement from family members.
State’s Role in Elderly Care
Unlike many modern societies, the state in ancient Greece did not establish public homes or facilities for the elderly. Exceptions existed for the aged parents of warriors who fell in battle or for women who bore a child posthumously. Such unique circumstances garnered limited state assistance, emphasizing the dominant role family played in elderly care.
Esteem for the Elderly in Sparta
The Spartans, often hailed for their conservative disposition, revered their elderly population. It was commonplace for younger Spartans to give up their seats or make way for the aged on streets. Moreover, the Gerousia, a council comprising elders over sixty, including the reigning kings, played a significant role in Spartan governance.
Athenian Views on Aging
On the opposite end, Athenians, especially by the late fifth century B.C., were more dismissive of their elderly. Mockery and a lack of deference became evident. However, it is essential to note that Athenian legal strictures were equally stringent, if not more so, in ensuring children catered to their elderly parents. Any negligence on this front could lead to the stripping of citizen rights.
Elderly Participation and Representation in Literature
Ancient Greek literature and mythology often portrayed the elderly in multifarious lights.
Wisdom and Reverence
Many myths and literary works celebrated elders for their wisdom, presenting them as revered priests or insightful advisors. Such narratives underscored the value of experience and the wisdom of age.
Challenges and Stereotypes
Conversely, a slew of narratives, especially from the realm of comedy, painted the elderly as frail, verbose, and occasionally, burdensome. Such stereotypes extended to both genders, with elderly women often depicted with a certain derisiveness regarding their sexuality.
The Declining Esteem in Later Eras
The idealization of youth, especially in 5th century Athens, began to overshadow the respect traditionally accorded to the elderly. Consequently, this era witnessed a shift in societal attitudes, with an increasing number of myths romanticizing the eternal youth of gods, juxtaposed against the challenges of human aging.
Philosophers and the Elderly
While medical professionals in ancient Greece largely overlooked the elderly, the philosophical community held a keen interest. As many philosophers lived into advanced age, they often deliberated on the mental aspects of aging. Cicero’s work, the ‘De Senectute,’ rooted deeply in Greek philosophy, remains a testament to this interest.
Quick facts for elderly care in ancient Greece:
- In ancient Greece, caring for elderly parents was considered a sacred duty of adult children. This concept was called “geroboskia”.
- Harsh penalties like imprisonment, fines, or loss of citizen rights existed for those who neglected their elderly parents.
- There were no public facilities for the aged. Elders remained in the home and relied on family for care.
- Having adult children, especially sons, provided the main safety net as there was no public assistance.
- Wealthy families could use slaves to assist with caregiving tasks. Poorer families provided more direct care.
- Disabilities and mental decline in elders were poorly understood.
- Lack of public assistance meant poverty and disability could lead to elder neglect and suffering.
- Reverence for elders varied between Greek city-states and eras. It was stronger in Sparta than Athens. Sparta saw elders as wise while Athens mocked them. Literature and art often depict elderly as burdensome, chatty, and sharing endless stories.