Podcast #10: Golden Years and Silver Hair: the Greek Art of Aging with Susan Matheson

Susan Matheson.
Photo credit: Jessica Smolinksi

On Episode #10 of the Peopling the Past Podcast, we are joined by Susan Matheson, the Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art at the Yale University Art Gallery and a lecturer in the Departments of Classics and the History of Art at Yale University.

Listen in, as we discuss old age and the ways in which the elderly are depicted in ancient Greek art. Notably, Susan Matheson takes us through the varying portrayals of elderly men and women and how these differences manifest across discrete media, especially vase painting and sculpture.

Interested in learning more? Check out these related articles by Susan Matheson:

Kleiner, Diana E. E., and Susan B. Matheson, eds. I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome. Exhibition catalogue, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 1996

Kleiner, Diana E. E., and Susan B. Matheson, eds. I Claudia II: Women in Roman Art and Society. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2000

Looking for a transcript of this episode? Click here.
Old Market Woman: This old woman carries a basket of vegetables and some chickens and has long been considered an old woman going to market to sell her wares. A close look shows that her garments, sandals, and wreath are elegant and expensive. She is not a peasant. She is disheveled, not in rags. Recent scholarship proposes that this may be a votive statue presented to a goddess by a respectable and wealthy dedicant who served her, and who could afford a sculpture of outstanding quality. Statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, probably a Greek original of the 3rd-2nd century B.C.
Old Market Woman: This old woman carries a basket of vegetables and some chickens and has long been considered an old woman going to market to sell her wares. A close look shows that her garments, sandals, and wreath are elegant and expensive. She is not a peasant. She is disheveled, not in rags. Recent scholarship proposes that this may be a votive statue presented to a goddess by a respectable and wealthy dedicant who served her, and who could afford a sculpture of outstanding quality. Statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, probably a Greek original of the 3rd-2nd century B.C.
Old Drunken Woman: This old woman cradles a large wine jar in her lap as she sits happily drunk on a rock. The fine quality of her garments and jewelry and of the sculpture itself suggests that she is not poor and downtrodden. She may have been a wealthy participant in a festival of Dionysos who commissioned this sculpture as an offering to the god of wine. Statue, Glyptothek, Munich, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 3rd century B.C.
Old Drunken Woman: This old woman cradles a large wine jar in her lap as she sits happily drunk on a rock. The fine quality of her garments and jewelry and of the sculpture itself suggests that she is not poor and downtrodden. She may have been a wealthy participant in a festival of Dionysos who commissioned this sculpture as an offering to the god of wine. Statue, Glyptothek, Munich, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 3rd century B.C.
Old Fisherman, Louvre: This statue is the most famous of a group of Greek sculptures from the Hellenistic period that have traditionally been called peasants but are rather a series of ambiguous and enigmatic images whose purpose and context remain uncertain. The depredations of physical decay shown in this statue of a fisherman leave no question about his age, but who commissioned the statue, and for what purpose? The unflinching realism of the signs of age evoke sympathy in most modern viewers of this sculpture and others like it that show shepherds and old women, and the pathos of their physical condition may have evoked a similar response in antiquity. Statue in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 3rd century B.C.
Old Fisherman, Louvre: This statue is the most famous of a group of Greek sculptures from the Hellenistic period that have traditionally been called peasants but are rather a series of ambiguous and enigmatic images whose purpose and context remain uncertain. The depredations of physical decay shown in this statue of a fisherman leave no question about his age, but who commissioned the statue, and for what purpose? The unflinching realism of the signs of age evoke sympathy in most modern viewers of this sculpture and others like it that show shepherds and old women, and the pathos of their physical condition may have evoked a similar response in antiquity. Statue in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 3rd century B.C.

Portrait of Homer: No one knows what Homer looked like – tradition dates him centuries before the first portraits of individuals were created. Literary sources said he was blind, and some portraits show his eyes closed. All show him as an elder. Old age as a characteristic of poets and philosophers was virtually universal in the Hellenistic period when this fictional portrait was first carved. Portrait in the British Museum, London, 1805,7-3.85, Roman version of a Greek original of the 2nd-1st century B.C.
Portrait of Homer: No one knows what Homer looked like – tradition dates him centuries before the first portraits of individuals were created. Literary sources said he was blind, and some portraits show his eyes closed. All show him as an elder. Old age as a characteristic of poets and philosophers was virtually universal in the Hellenistic period when this fictional portrait was first carved. Portrait in the British Museum, London, 1805,7-3.85, Roman version of a Greek original of the 2nd-1st century B.C.
Portrait of Hesiod, from Herculaneum: This portrait has been identified as one of a number of writers and thinkers who were famous in the Hellenistic period, but consensus seems now to suggest the poet Hesiod. The consistency with which Hellenistic sculptors portrayed such luminaries as old reflects an intense level of respect at this time for elderly thinkers who renounced the world of politics and riches for the life of the mind. Portraits like this suggest that it was not an easy path. Portrait in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, ca. 200 B.C.
Portrait of Hesiod, from Herculaneum: This portrait has been identified as one of a number of writers and thinkers who were famous in the Hellenistic period, but consensus seems now to suggest the poet Hesiod. The consistency with which Hellenistic sculptors portrayed such luminaries as old reflects an intense level of respect at this time for elderly thinkers who renounced the world of politics and riches for the life of the mind. Portraits like this suggest that it was not an easy path. Portrait in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, ca. 200 B.C.
Portrait of Cicero: Cicero was renowned as a politician and orator in the late Roman Republic. He wrote a treatise on old age (De Senectute) that emphasized its positive aspects, especially stressing the life of the mind. It is still read by medical students and gerontologists today. Portrait in the Museo Capitolino, Rome, 1st century B.C.
Portrait of Cicero: Cicero was renowned as a politician and orator in the late Roman Republic. He wrote a treatise on old age (De Senectute) that emphasized its positive aspects, especially stressing the life of the mind. It is still read by medical students and gerontologists today. Portrait in the Museo Capitolino, Rome, 1st century B.C.
Portrait of an old Roman Man: There is no question about the advanced age of this man. He covers his head with his cloak in a gesture of reverence that suggests he might be participating in a religious festival. Portrait in the Museo Chiaramonti, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, 1st century B.C.
Portrait of an old Roman Man: There is no question about the advanced age of this man. He covers his head with his cloak in a gesture of reverence that suggests he might be participating in a religious festival. Portrait in the Museo Chiaramonti, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, 1st century B.C.
Portrait of an old Roman Woman: Sunken cheeks, sagging flesh, and thinning hair confirm the age of this old woman. Her fashionable coiffure shows that she had no intention of abandoning her sense of style. Portrait in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. 1st century B.C.
Portrait of an old Roman Woman: Sunken cheeks, sagging flesh, and thinning hair confirm the age of this old woman. Her fashionable coiffure shows that she had no intention of abandoning her sense of style. Portrait in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. 1st century B.C.
Grave stele showing an Old Man Mourning a Young Man, probably his Son: Greek grave stelai of the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C often show families with several generations including grandparents. The classical style of Greek art at this time minimized the representation of emotion that was seen later in Hellenistic art, but there are still signs of age in these figures of the elderly. This relief combines them: long hair and straggly beard, furrowed brow, hunched posture, a walking stick, and the hand held to the chin in a typical mourning gesture. Relief sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, ca. 360-330 B.C.
Grave stele showing an Old Man Mourning a Young Man, probably his Son: Greek grave stelai of the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C often show families with several generations including grandparents. The classical style of Greek art at this time minimized the representation of emotion that was seen later in Hellenistic art, but there are still signs of age in these figures of the elderly. This relief combines them: long hair and straggly beard, furrowed brow, hunched posture, a walking stick, and the hand held to the chin in a typical mourning gesture. Relief sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, ca. 360-330 B.C.
Old Nurse Holding a Baby: Old women remained mostly at home and were occupied with domestic tasks, especially the care of children. This small terracotta figurine shows an old woman holding a baby. The elderly nurse is hunched over with age, but at the same time her pose envelops the baby in a safe sheltered embrace. Both elderly relatives and enslaved nurses took care of Greek children, and close bonds of affection often formed. Terracotta figurine in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ca. 325-300 B.C.
Old Nurse Holding a Baby: Old women remained mostly at home and were occupied with domestic tasks, especially the care of children. This small terracotta figurine shows an old woman holding a baby. The elderly nurse is hunched over with age, but at the same time her pose envelops the baby in a safe sheltered embrace. Both elderly relatives and enslaved nurses took care of Greek children, and close bonds of affection often formed. Terracotta figurine in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ca. 325-300 B.C. 
Statuette of an old man offering grapes to a girl.

Grandfathers were important figures in Greek families, as we know from ancient literary sources and inscriptions on grave stelai. This rare late archaic Greek sculpture shows an old, white-haired and partly bald man offering fruit to a small girl. Significant amounts of pigment are preserved on both figures, reminding us that most Greek sculpture was originally painted. Here close looking reveals details of the elegant textiles used to make the elder’s clothing. Such details confirm his status as the grandfather. Terracotta group sculpture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston inv. no. 97.350, ca. 500-475 B.C.
Statuette of an old man offering grapes to a girl, MFA 97.350, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Grandfathers were important figures in Greek families, as we know from ancient literary sources and inscriptions on grave stelai. This rare late archaic Greek sculpture shows an old, white-haired and partly bald man offering fruit to a small girl. Significant amounts of pigment are preserved on both figures, reminding us that most Greek sculpture was originally painted. Here close looking reveals details of the elegant textiles used to make the elder’s clothing. Such details confirm his status as the grandfather. Terracotta group sculpture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston inv. no. 97.350, ca. 500-475 B.C.
Priam, detail from a Ransom of Hektor scene from a krater by the Black Fury Painter: This fragment from a large krater made in the South Italian vase-painting workshops in Apulia, shows the suppliant Priam at the feet of Achilles, pleading for the return of the body of Hector, his deceased son. The old Trojan king’s deep sorrow is conveyed in his facial wrinkles and expression and echoed in the way in which his body curls in on itself in grief. His elaborate Persian-style dress contrasts vividly with his primal sorrow. Fragment of a krater in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 4th century B.C.
Priam, detail from a Ransom of Hektor scene from a krater by the Black Fury Painter: This fragment from a large krater made in the South Italian vase-painting workshops in Apulia, shows the suppliant Priam at the feet of Achilles, pleading for the return of the body of Hector, his deceased son. The old Trojan king’s deep sorrow is conveyed in his facial wrinkles and expression and echoed in the way in which his body curls in on itself in grief. His elaborate Persian-style dress contrasts vividly with his primal sorrow. Fragment of a krater in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 4th century B.C.
Red-figure Skyphos by the Brygos Painter: The Brygos Painter illustrates the Ransom of Hector, and he shows the Trojan king as a stately figure, with his entourage bearing gifts, who approaches the Greek hero to try to persuade him with words. The Brygos Painter’s Priam has a slightly open mouth and seems to be speaking. This is closer to the scene as presented in Book 24 of the Iliad, in which Priam evokes the pathos of old age that Achilles should feel with regard to his own aged father. Priam argues that Achilles should respect the same pathos as it is felt by Hektor’s father. The anger of Achilles is appeased and he takes mercy on Priam, relinquishing the body. Words of wisdom spoken by old men have won the day. This image is a drawing of the red-figure version on the Brygos Painter’s skyphos in Vienna as shown in the Furtwängler drawing dated 1924.
Red-figure Skyphos by the Brygos Painter: The Brygos Painter illustrates the Ransom of Hector, and he shows the Trojan king as a stately figure, with his entourage bearing gifts, who approaches the Greek hero to try to persuade him with words. The Brygos Painter’s Priam has a slightly open mouth and seems to be speaking. This is closer to the scene as presented in Book 24 of the Iliad, in which Priam evokes the pathos of old age that Achilles should feel with regard to his own aged father. Priam argues that Achilles should respect the same pathos as it is felt by Hektor’s father. The anger of Achilles is appeased and he takes mercy on Priam, relinquishing the body. Words of wisdom spoken by old men have won the day. This image is a drawing of the red-figure version on the Brygos Painter’s skyphos in Vienna as shown in the Furtwängler drawing dated 1924.
Additional Resources Related to this Podcast

Bloomer, W. Martin, ed. A Companion to Ancient Education. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2015

Cokayne, Karen. Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 2003

D’Ambra, Eve. Roman Women. New York: Cambridge University Press 2007

Dillon, Sheila. Ancient Greek Portrait Sculpture: Contexts, Subjects, and Style. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Dixon, Suzanne. The Roman Family. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992

Falkner, Thomas M., and Judith de Luce, eds. Old Age in Greek and Latin Literature. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989

Fantham, Elaine, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymell Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. A. Shapiro, Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

Hart, Mary Louise, ed. The Art of Ancient Greek Theater. Exhibition catalogue Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010

James, Sharon L., and Sheila Dillon, eds. A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2015 

Kaltsas, Nikolaos, and Alan Shapiro, eds. Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens. Exhibition catalogue New York: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 2008

Pollitt, J.J. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Representations and Realities. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997

Reeder, Ellen D., Pandora: Women in Classical Greece Exhibition catalogue, Baltimore: Walters Art Museum and Princeton University Press, 1995

Taplin, Oliver. Pots & Plays: Interactions between Tragedy and Greek Vase-painting of the Fourth Century B.C. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007

Thane, Pat, ed. A History of Old Age. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005

Woodford, Susan, The Trojan War in Ancient Art. Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1993

Zanker, Paul. The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity, translated by H. Alan Shapiro. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995

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