Men of the Golden Age lived when Kronos/Saturn ruled the gods, i.e. before Zeus/Juppiter usurped the throne. They lived like gods, without sorrow, toil, or the symptoms of old age. They died as if overcome by sleep. They had all good things necessary for life, because the fruitful earth unforced bore fruit abundantly. They lived in ease and peace. Now they roam the earth as benevolent spirits keeping watch over the judgments of mankind.
Men of the Silver Age were less noble by far. They were foolish and could not help sinning and doing wrong to one another. They neglected the gods and their sacrifices and so Zeus was angry with them and buried them. But they have honor in death and are called blessed spirits of the underworld by men.
Men of the Bronze Age were the third generation. They were terrible and strong and sprung from ash trees. (You Iliad lovers may remember that Achilles’ defining weapon was his ash-spear). They loved war and violence, ate no bread (implying that they did not cultivate grain). Their armor was bronze, their houses and weapons were bronze. There was as yet no iron but these men destroyed each other and passed to dark Hades unnamed.
A Fourth generation was more noble and included the heroes of Troy and of Thebes. Zeus gave them a land at the end of the earth where they dwell untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed….fortunate heroes for whom the earth bears honey-sweet fruit. These have honor and glory, but not a metallic designation like the other ages. For this reason, some scholars (notably Rohde) speculate that this sequence is an interpolation, perhaps from an earlier poem.
The fifth generation is that of the present day, men of Iron who never rest from sorrow and toil by day, and from perishing by night. Zeus/Jupiter will destroy this race of men. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as before. Men will dishonor their parents as they grow old, and will carp at them with bitter words…one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favor for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease; the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him…Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in Evil, with scowling face , will go along with wretched men. Then Reverence and Righteous Indignation will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.
It is important to note that the actual metals used to classify these ages are not necessarily products of the age. For example, the end of the golden age is marked by the beginning of metal-working, by cultivation of crops, ship-building and travel by sea–in other words, by what some would call the marks of civilization. Gold, along with the envy and greed which it engenders, characterizes the later, de-based ages. In Virgil, Saturn, a native Italian god with whom Juppiter is eventually identified, is associated with the Eden-like Golden Age. Be alert for language which places a character or situation in one of these ages, and also for imagery of nature, especially trees and animals. Animism pervades Virgilian and Ovidian poetry, that is a sense that every living thing has a share of animate life and is thus due a measure of respect and honorable treatment. Notice who violates this notion, under what circumstances, and what consequences ensue.