Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Old age in Byzantine society


This paper examines the status afforded old age in the Byzantine Empire. Frequently neglected in accounts of state formation or comparative history, this Christian imperial state transformed the moral ordering of the lifecourse. In contrast to both classical Greek and Roman society, old age acquired a distinct moral authority in Byzantine society. This status was not confined to a few members of the elite as in Sparta or Rome. The economic vulnerability, physical frailty and social marginality accompanying old age conferred an equal moral claim upon society that the state actively addressed. A mix of institutionalised and individual charities created a prototype ‘welfare state’ within which provision for old age played a significant part. Despite its neglect by most social historians of old age, the Byzantine Empire is of considerable historical significance in the development of the contemporary constructions of old age. Just as the Byzantine Empire helped erode the practice of slavery that had been widespread in the ancient Greek and Roman societies, so too did it help to create a prototype welfare state in which individual enterprise was tempered by a collective sense of inclusive Christian responsibility. The consideration extended by Byzantine society, to old age, to its weakness as well as to its wisdom and authority, instituted a step change from earlier classical traditions.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Chris Gilleard, Centre for Behavioural and Social Sciences in Medicine, University College London, Wolfson Building, Riding House Street, LondonW1N 8AA. E-mail:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

J. Arnason 2000. Approaching Byzantium: identity, predicament and afterlife. Thesis Eleven, 62, 3969.

J. A. Burrow 1988. The Ages of Man. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

A. T. Crislip 2005. From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism and the Transformation of Healthcare in Late Antiquity. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

G. Dagron 1991. Holy images and likeness. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 45, 2333.

M. Finley 1984. The elderly in classical antiquity. Ageing & Society, 4, 3, 391408.

P. Horden 2005. The earliest hospitals in Byzantium, Western Europe and Islam. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 35, 3, 361–89.

A. Kazhdan 1993. State, feudal and private economy in Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 47, 83100.

A. P. Kazhdan 1998. Women at home. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 52, 117.

J. Lascaratos , C. Tsiamis , G. Lascaratos and G. Stavrianeas 2004. The roots of cosmetic medicine: hair cosmetics in Byzantine times (AD 324–1453). International Journal of Dermatology, 43, 5, 397401.

J. Lefort 1993. Rural economy and social relations in the countryside. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 47, 101–13.

G. G. Litavrin 1990. Family relations and family law in the Byzantine countryside of the eleventh century: an analysis of the prakitkon of 1073. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 44, 187–93.

H. Maguire 1989. Style and ideology in Byzantine imperial art. Gesta, 28, 217–31.

R. Morris 1976. The powerful and the poor in 10th century Byzantium: law and reality. Past and Present, 73: 327.

P. Stephenson 2004. Byzantium transformed, circa 950–1200. Medieval Encounters, 10, 185210.

A.-M. M. Talbot 1984. Old age in Byzantium. Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 77, 267–78.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 22 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 336 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th March 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.