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Old Age in Ancient Rome

Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence look at what it meant to become a senior citizen in ancient Rome, and how this early model has a bearing on our attitudes towards ageing today.

Rome held an empire stretching across one-sixth of the surface of the globe, with a population of some 60 million - an achievement equalled by the Chinese empire in the east and only surpassed by Russia and the United States in the nineteenth century. Its capital, Rome, was the first ever metropolis, containing one million people and an urban culture that included architectural achievements unsurpassed until the modern period. This picture of an almost modern nation masks another of massive inequality, alongside sickness and disease that have not been experienced in the West for generations. Life expectancy at birth was short: on average roughly twenty-five to thirty years, with 50 per cent of those born not passing the age of ten. In other words, the demographic regime was not unlike that experienced in countries today such as Botswana through the causes of AIDS, international debt, poverty and inequality - a far cry from the modern Western world where average life expectancy becomes ever-higher and runs well into the seventies. A key question for understanding Rome is  how society viewed those few people who survived into old age and experienced a life-span not unlike our own today.

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