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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:
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