I'm assuming the average life expectancy of a Roman did not change very much between 500 BC - 500 AD (?), as there was probably no significant progress in medical knowledge or nutrition. Do historians have accurate estimations/sources, how old a Roman got? I don't mean soldiers, who of course had a much shorter average life expectancy than non-soldiers. I assume, if a child managed to survive typical childhood diseases, the chance to reach the normal average life expectancy increased. Rome needed many young men for successful expansion, did they manage to decrease mortality rate of children?
Can anyone quote some numbers here, showing the mortality rate for children and adults(men/women/soldiers)? Apart from average age, how old got the oldest humans at that time?
The oldest human could still live to be over 100 just as they do today. This was of course much rarer. Here's some data from the University of Texas on the matter. Infant Mortality by that page was 31.9% considerably worse than even the worst of the world 60 years ago. This was skewed by infanticide and such.
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Mortality, in demographic usage, the frequency of death in a population.
In general, the risk of death at any given age is less for females than for males, except during the childbearing years (in economically developed societies females have a lower mortality even during those years). The risk of death for both sexes is high immediately after birth, diminishing during childhood and reaching a minimum at 10 to 12 years of age. The risk then rises again, until at late ages it surpasses that of the first year of life. The expectation of life at birth is the most efficient index of the general level of mortality of a population. In ancient Greece and Rome the average life expectancy was about 28 years in the early 21st century life expectancy averaged about 78 years in most industrialized countries. In countries with a high rate of HIV infection, however, the average life expectancy was as low as 33 years.
Old Age in Ancient Rome
Old age is a topical subject in today’s society. At present, the aged (those over 60 for women and 65 for men) comprise approximately 20% of the total population and this figure is likely to keep on rising. The ageing of society is becoming a major social problem. The old are non-productive and are seen as a strain on resources, from pension rights to medical care. The concern with old age in our contemporary society has also led to a curiosity concerning how other societies dealt with old age and the ageing process, which kindled my interest in the experience of old age in ancient Rome.
One of the first questions to consider, when researching old age in another society, is what was actually meant by old age. For instance, how old was ‘old’ in ancient Rome? This is, however, a difficult question to answer, as the definition of old age can be seen to have been flexible. The ancient sources are by no means clear what they mean by old. One way of determining the onset of old age is to consider the different systems of age division, commonly referred to as ‘Life-cycle tables’ or ‘Ages of Life’. These divisions promote the notion that human life is comprised of a series of phases, from birth to old age. These tables show that what was considered old varied, but from about the 1st century BC, the age of 60 or 65 was frequently mentioned as the threshold of old age, which is not dissimilar to the present time.
This may seem surprising on learning that, according to modern demographers, the average life-expectancy in Rome was around the age of 25. This figure is, however, very misleading, mainly because of a very high rate of infant and child mortality. It is estimated that as many as 50% of children may have died before the age of ten. Life expectancy increased dramatically for those who survived the early danger years and the total span of life appears to have been not significantly different than today. But there is a difference in the number of old people. As I mentioned earlier, today, in Britain, the aged represent circa 20% of the total population and this figure is rising rapidly. In Rome this figure is likely to have been between 6 and 8%, which is comparable to that of the UK in the mid to late 19th century.
The so-called ‘Ages of Life’ were not merely theoretical they were partly based on social conditions and cultural factors. Here too, the age of 60, or sometimes 65, is significant. At this age, for instance, one could be exempted from jury service and obligatory attendance at the senate. Some other duties, however, lasted for life, such as, for instance, the civil munera, certain public and other duties for the community every Roman had to perform. These duties consisted of financial and personal obligations. For physical duties, and only in exceptional circumstances, exemptions were granted at the age of 70, but there were no exemptions from those duties requiring mental application. The Romans made use of their elderly and had faith in their wisdom and experience, a subject I will return to later.
But in everyday life what was seen as old was not always related to calendar age and was often based on changes in physical appearance, weakness of the body, mental deterioration and perceived changes in behaviour. Wrinkles, grey hair or baldness, loss of teeth, the trembling of limbs, quavering voices, forgetfulness and loss of wit were often associated with old age. People suffering from these conditions, or disabilities, were seen as old, even if their calendar age did not confirm this. This is, perhaps, not so remarkable. More interesting, I think, are the alleged changes in behavioural and mental characteristics in old age. As in contemporary society, the Romans too were concerned with whether personality changed over the course of life - due, perhaps, to physical, social and cultural influences - or whether innate temperament plays a more important part.
The Romans believed that each individual would pass through several phases of life each phase of life was given distinct physical, mental, and behavioral characteristics. Horace, for instance, in a poem characterizing the ‘Ages of Man’, depicted four stages of life: the child, the youth, the man and the old man, each with distinct and unique characteristics conditioned by their physical state. The characteristics of the old, whose bodies were feeble, were the most negative of the four. He wrote:
Many ills encompass an old man, whether
Because he seeks gain, and then miserably holds aloof from
His store and fears to use it, because, in all that he does, he
Lacks fire and courage, is dilatory and slow to form hopes, is
Sluggish and greedy of a longer life, peevish, surly, given to
Praising the days he spent as a boy, and to reproving and condemning the young
The old, therefore, were portrayed as avaricious, cowardly, quarrelsome and irritable, and they always complained about the younger generation. Times have not changed much, the old were, in fact, depicted as real Victor Meldrews. Attacks on the personality of the old were found in a variety of different texts, from philosophical writings to comedy. Plautus, for instance, depicted several irritable and cantankerous old men. The characters in comedy were hugely exaggerated, as they were meant to entertain, but for this to work these fictional men must have had their counterpart in real life.
The personalities of the old were, however, not always seen as negative. As I mentioned before, Horace’s pessimistic picture of the mental characteristics of the old was based on physical frailty and weakness of the body. But not everyone in antiquity believed that intellectual and physical decline went necessarily hand in hand. Old age was also seen as a period when accumulated experience could bring increased wisdom and good judgement. Cicero wrote: ‘for there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that’ (Tusculanae disputationes 1.39.94 cf De Senectute 6.17). Many Christian writers expressed similar feelings. For Clement of Alexandria (2nd c. AD), for instance, judgements attained maturity with time. He believed that the vigour of long experience gave strength and confidence to old age. Writing poetically, he saw the ‘hoary head as the blossom of experience, (Paedagogus 3).
But, and this was frequently emphasized, wisdom did not come automatically to the old ‘Wisdom comes haphazard to no man’, said Seneca (Epistles 76.6). Not all old men were therefore wise men. Wisdom had to be worked at - by hard work, study and especially by virtuous living. The old were expected to act with moderation and dignity, at all times. The old had to be an example to the young, as it was thought the young learned by example. This was ingrained in Roman society. A proverb found in Publilius Syrus, 1st century BC (Sententiae 590W) proclaims: ‘When seniors blunder, juniors learn but ill’. It was made abundantly clear: flamboyance and extravagant behaviour should only belong to youth.
Rome had, traditionally, faith in their aged and believed that society should make practical use of the experience and wisdom of the old. They were seen as teachers and counsellors. This goes back as far as early Rome: Livy (1.9) described how Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, in his organization of society, had created a body of hundred older senators, senes, capable of ensuring continuity of policy. The old, therefore, still had a public role to play. Cicero wrote, for example:
‘The old…should have their physical labours reduced their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavour too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state’ (De Officiis 1.33.123 De Senectute 5.15ff).
Moralists, such as Cicero, believed it was the old man’s duty to be useful to society an ideology echoed by Plutarch in his treatise on old age. (An Seni Respublica Gerenda Sit, which roughly translates as: Should an old man still have a role to play in public life?.)
There is no shortage of practical examples of aged statesmen, even generals - especially under the Republic. These men were illustrious figures: heroes, to be held up as examples to the younger generation. One of the traditional heroes was Appius Claudius, 4th century BC, who lived until extreme old age. He was an influential figure: scholar, statesmen, jurist, poet and orator. He became blind in old age (perhaps through cataracts), but Cicero emphasized that neither age nor blindness interfered with his private or public duties (Tusculanae disputationes. 5.112). He was respected and his advice was taken seriously - even when he was old. For instance: when the Romans were defeated in the war with Macedonia in 280 BC, the senate proposed to accept a peace treaty. Appius Claudius was furious when he heard of this proposal - Romans did not surrender. Old and blind, he had himself carried into the senate house by his sons and sons-in-law. He was, by then, well into his eighties. After this dramatic entrance, Appius, in a passionate speech, addressed the senators and told them to block the peace proposals. The old man’s speech became famous and was still circulated in Cicero’s days circa three centuries later. We are told by Plutarch, that the senators, out of respect for the man and his age, kept a respectful silence. They took heed of his wisdom and the peace proposal was blocked. This incident shows that, in real life, Rome produced some feisty old men, both confident and courageous. The behaviour of Appius Claudius is a contradiction to Horace’s portrayal of the old, which suggests that attitude to old age in ancient Rome was complex and at times ambiguous.
Traditionally, the waging of war was seen as more suited to the young and vigorous. Those between 46 and 60 years of age were seen as seniors and were likely to be called up in emergencies only (Gellius Attic Nights 10.28). But in times of need, Rome did make use of her experienced aged generals - even those in their 60s or 70s. Many practical examples can be found. One example should suffice. Aemilius Paullus, at the age of 64, personally led his troops when he conquered Pydna in 168 BC, thereby ending the Third Macedonian War. From Livy (44.41.1) we learn he put up with the vigours and hardships of war and battle as well as his young soldiers. After his victory, he returned to the senate and was appointed to the prestigious post of censor at the age of 68 (in 164 BC). He was still augur at the time of his death, aged 72.
But, it was more usual for the old to advise war, while the young waged it - as phrased by Ovid (Fasti 6.88). An example can be found in the defeat of Hannibal during the second Punic war, 3rd century BC. It was the young and bold Scipio - aged 31, later known as Scipio Africanus - who travelled to Africa and physically defeated Hannibal. But it was commonly accepted that the experience and prudence of Fabius Maximus - general, consul and twice dictator, aged about 72 - whose cautious planning made this victory possible.
Under the Empire, individual senators could not achieve the same eminence as under the Republic, but, nevertheless, some examples can be cited of old men, sometimes even octogenarians, who held important public posts. Many of these men were in advisory positions, such as the members of the consilium principis. This was a body of leading senators and equestrians, with the emperor at its head. The council controlled the finances, the army and the foreign policy. Of interest is one of Juvenal’s satires, in which he presents us with 11 members of Domitian’s consilium, several of them extremely old men, who were called to an emergency meeting, because the emperor wanted advice on how to cook an enormous turbot which had been presented to him (Satire 4). Juvenal’s satire emphasized the notorious fickleness of the emperor Domitian - and showed that even old and respected statesmen were at the beck and call of his fancy - but we also learn that some men of very advanced old age were still part of his advisory team. One of these was the elderly Vibius Crispus, aged 80.
Juvenal depicted Crispus as a yes-man, but he may have had no choice in order to survive. Others, such as Quintilian, portrayed Crispus as a witty and well respected old man, who appeared to have enjoyed being in the public limelight and relished its attendant social scene. He was consul for the third time at the age of 73. Three times consul was the most to which a private citizen could aspire to and few managed to achieve this. On a lower level, the town councillors, who ran Roman local government, were also frequently of an advanced old age, as this position was for life. We have examples of 80 year olds who still exercised the office (e.g. Calpurnius Piso).
Many old men appear to have enjoyed the status and authority given to them by an official post and were reluctant to relinquish this. Seneca related an amusing anecdote concerning a certain Sextus Turannius (On the brevity of life 20.3). Turannius was said to have been in his 90th year, when he was released by Caligula from the duties of prefect of the corn supply, a post he had held for 34 years. Turannius, however, did not feel ready to retire, even at the advanced age of 90! He enjoyed the public status and esteem the position gave him. Deprived of this, he decided he might as well be dead. He reputedly refused to take any food and ordered himself to be laid out on his bed to be mourned by the assembled household - as if he died already. The whole house was said to have bemoaned the enforced leisure of its old master. His tactics paid off and his accustomed work was restored to him, which suggests that extremely aged men were respected, but also, perhaps, indulged.
Many emperors ruled until they were of extreme old age. Augustus, who lived until the age of 76, remained in office right until his death and only stopped visiting the Senate on a regular basis when he was aged 74 (Dio 56.28.2-3). Emperors seldom retired, they were either killed or stayed in their posts until they died the first emperor to retire was Diocletian, 4th century AD. Some emperors were chosen when they were already old. Galba, for example, was aged about 72 when he marched on Rome - carried on a litter as he was said to be old and weak. In spite of this, his soldiers proclaimed him emperor, which was later sanctioned by the senate. So it can be seen that old men could still hold key governmental positions. They were involved in decision-making and could be powerful and influential. Age, therefore, proved no barrier to power. Ageism, discrimination against old people in the work force – which is seen to be a concern in contemporary society – was not a particular problem and an old man was not automatically written off because of his age.
For the poor to keep on working would have been an economic necessity as there were no pensions or other special pay-outs for the aged, but for the well-to-do usefulness was mainly a matter of pride. Rome’s competitive society was extremely conscious of glory and public status. Having a role to play in society provided an old man with this status, which in turn would nourish his self-confidence and self-esteem. Public distinction and worthiness had associations with dignity (dignitas), a highly desirable virtue in Roman ideology, commanding reverence and respect. For this reason, some old men were keen to promote a self-image of gravity, sobriety and virtuousness.
This is particularly evident in the old age portraits which began to appear sometime during the 1st century BC. These portraits showed a ruthless adherence to the realistic features of old age, such as wrinkles, folds of loose, flabby skin, sunken cheeks, blemishes and balding heads. Old age was emphasized, even exaggerated. It is notable that the majority of the old men appear solemn, which was indicative of the gravitas of age. A young student of mine referred to these portraits as ‘miserable old gits’, but this was not the case for the Romans. The portraits revealed how these old people wanted to be seen and the depiction of old age is deliberate. These portraits suggest worthiness and dignified behaviour. Facial expression was seen as an expression of character and these portrait busts therefore gave moral judgements. The stern and serious-looking faces, with their exaggerated wrinkles and folds, were suggestive of years of hard work and experience. These old men seem comfortable with their age. Only the old who lived up to societal expectations could expect reverence. These old men looked as if they had done their duty and had rightfully earned their status and respect.
My talk has concentrated on old men. This is because Rome was a patriarchal society and women could not take part in public life. Besides, our evidence was written almost exclusively by males, who did not concern themselves with female domestic affairs. But this did not mean that old women were without respect. Like old men, old women too still had a role to play. They often managed substantial households and looked after the moral education of their children and their grandchildren. Mothers were able to assert authority over their children throughout their lives – so even older mothers expected obedience even from their adult children. Roman society demanded respect for parents, and for age in general. So age actually increased their authority. The empress Livia, for instance, when she was in her 70s and 80s, endeavoured to use her authority over her son Tiberius, who was then in his 60s and early 70s.
Of course only the fit and able were still capable of being of use to society. Many of the old therefore made considerable efforts to keep physically and mentally fit. Cicero even thought that it was an old man’s duty (my italics) to fight old age by taking care of himself through following a regimen of health - so he could be useful to the state (de Senectute 11.35-36). It was believed that living a moderate lifestyle with regular physical and mental exercises would preserve health and delay the symptoms of ageing. Old age was not seen as an excuse to take things easy - but allowances were made for age. In old age, physical exercises should be gentle. Recommendations included walking, running, light ball playing, and - perhaps strangely to us - carriage rides and reading aloud (the latter was believed to accelerate the breathing process which in turn would purify the blood and clear out the arteries).
Mental stimulation too was recommended. As Musonius, the 1st century AD Stoic philosopher put it: ‘to relax the mind is to lose it’. In contemporary society, a great deal of research has gone into the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, and is still ongoing. Diamond, a psychologist who researched into the activities of the brain in old age, wrote ‘I found that people who use their brains don’t lose them. It is that simple’. These words seem to echo those of Musonius, writing nineteen centuries earlier!
In ancient societies great emphasis was placed on the spoken word, so to have a good memory was especially important. People with good memories were admired, it could bring prestige and status. It is therefore no wonder that special attention was given to mnemonic exercises and techniques in the ancient texts. We know from Cicero that the elder Cato exercised his memory daily - his ‘intellectual gymnastics’ he called it. For instance, he regularly read the names of the dead on tombstones and refreshed his memory by his recollection of them. He boasted that he, in his 84th year, could not only remember the names of the people who were living, but could also recall the names of their fathers and grandfathers. (This was impressive, as upper class Romans generally had three names!)
The sense of duty and hard work (industria) was so ingrained in Roman society that retirement was a moot point. So far I have discussed old men who enjoyed staying in the public limelight, but others were quite happy to withdraw from public life and thought that old age had earned them the right to retire from official duties. They saw old age as a time they could spend on themselves. Pliny, for instance, wrote: ‘It is our duty to give up our youth and manhood to our country, but our last years are our own’ (Epistles 4.23.4). Today, old age has legal status and most western cultures have a clearly defined retirement date. Distinctions were not so clear-cut in Rome. Pliny, writing in his early 40s, said he looked forward to his own retirement, but was uncertain what the ‘proper’ retirement age would be. The Roman work ethic, with its emphasis on public responsibilities and duties, appears to have been strong, and an unduly early retirement is seen to have incurred criticism. From Seneca we learn that a man who retired pre-maturely was seen as a ‘trifler and sluggard’ (Epistles 36.2).
But even in retirement idleness and mental inactivity were frowned upon. Otium, often translated - for lack of a better word as ‘leisure time’ - was a highly charged word in the moralistic texts and was often associated with a degenerate life style. Retirement was seen as the right time for study and other learned activities. The possibility of a mental decline in ageing was not considered in these contexts. Seneca, when in his late sixties, wrote that he never spent a day in idleness he even appropriated part of the night for study (Epistles 8.1). Ideally, one should set aside a certain part of every day for improving one’s mind by reading, writing and serious conversations. Pliny gave the perfect example of this in the daily routine of his friend Spurinna, who was, at the age of 77, rightfully retired (he only withdrew from public life at the age of 74). Spurinna can be seen to have exercised both body and mind at set times of the day. He was depicted as a sprightly old man, physically and mentally still very agile. Pliny stressed that Spurinna had lost none of his intellect. We are told that his old age had brought him nothing but wisdom (Epistles 43.1.4-8). Because of this, Spurinna earned respect, even in retirement he still enjoyed status.
So was ancient Rome therefore a golden age for the old? No, not entirely, as the earlier quoted poem by Horace already showed. As I have shown an old person could have status, authority and reverence, as long as he was still useful to society and as long as societal expectations about how life should be lived were fulfilled. Only the old who were feisty and well-behaved were admired and held up as an exemplum. The weak and the decrepit were considered to be a burden - and were often viewed with contempt - while those who transgressed the rules were ridiculed. The more popular literary writings, comedy, satire and poetry, give plenty of examples. Comedy especially, has many illustrations of old men who did not live up to society’s behavioural expectations. One such character was the ‘old-man-in-love’. The old-man-in-love still saw himself as young and attractive and went out womanizing. Of course this was seen as ridiculous, love was only for the young. These old men were invariably depicted as exceedingly ugly. In contrast to the old age portraits, in this context, the features of old age were despised and caricatured. The comedy writer Plautus has, for example, a character called Demipho (in Mercator). He is described as a ‘grey-haired, knock-kneed, pot-bellied, big-mouthed, stubby sort of fellow’ (546-549). Yet, he was searching for love. Such a misbehaving old man left himself open to derision and he would have been jeered and gibed at.
Juvenal was particularly savage in his attack on old age. He devoted an entire satire, Satire 10, to the futility of the prayer for a long life - by outlining, and exaggerating, the alleged characteristics of old age, from repulsive ugliness to a variety of debilitating geriatric illnesses and the losing of one’s wits. Juvenal especially emphasized the helplessness and uselessness of the aged. The old were seen as loathsome and distasteful, not only by others but also by themselves they even lost their identity. I will give a few lines as an example:
But old men all look alike, their voices are as shaky as their limbs,
their heads without hair, their noses driveling as in childhood.
Their bread, poor wretches, has to be munched by toothless gums.
So offensive do they become to their wives, their children, themselves
That even the legacy-hunter, Cossus, turns from them in disgust.
. Besides all this, the little blood in his now chilly
frame is never warm except with fever diseases of kind
dance around him in a troop. (10.198-203, 217-218)
(According to the literary sources, legacy-hunters were morally despicable characters who bestowed attentions on the old and childless - such as presents, sick-bed attendance and so on - in order to be remembered in their wills.) In Juvenal’s satire, the physical disabilities of the elderly denoted a loss of human dignity. In his continuing lines Juvenal imputed that the old could not even feed themselves. He likened their gaping mouths to that of a swallow’s chick, waiting for the mother to fill it.
Juvenal’s fictional portrait of the old was likely to have a firm foundation in reality. Pliny, in his Letters, described the indignity suffered by the real life aged Domitius Tullus, who was so crippled and deformed in every limb that he had to have his teeth cleaned for him by his slaves: ‘a squalid and pity detail’, wrote Pliny. We are told that Tullus was often heard to complain about the humiliation of having to lick, every day, the fingers of his slaves (Ep. 8.18.9). In Juvenal’s diatribe old age was certainly not much fun. Juvenal showed that - as physical ageing with all its disadvantages was unavoidable - why pray for a long life? Juvenal was probably in his seventies when he wrote his satires. The miseries of old age he depicted were a literary topos, but I think it quite likely that Juvenal himself was irritated by the physical weakness and ailments of old age, some of which he undoubtedly experienced himself. Physical decline and uselessness was also a feature in the comedies of Plautus, which could mean that this depiction of the old was quite common. One of his characters declared (Bacchides 820-22, on handout): ‘Whom the gods hold dear dies young, with strength and sense and mind intact. If any god loved him, he should have died more than ten years ago or more than twenty. He walks a bane upon the earth: no mind, no sense, as useful as a rotten mushroom’.
My two examples came from satire and comedy, but we do have examples from real life, which show that the old themselves found the physical deterioration of old age cumbersome and trying, as can be learned, for instance, from the correspondence between the orator Fronto and his pupil, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century AD. It can be seen that about a quarter of Fronto’s extant letters deal with his own personal physical sufferings. Fronto must have suffered from arthritis, as he regularly began a letter with complaints about pains in his knees, neck, groin, elbows, arms, feet, ankles and so on. To many modern readers, Fronto appears to have been a bit of a hypochondriac, but it is clear that he found the physical disabilities of old age hard to bear.
So in conclusion: Old age is a complex event, now and in antiquity. It can be established that Rome’s view on old age was ambivalent and that two polarized attitudes can be found. These positive and negative polarizations were highly dependent on the biologically inevitable physical and mental deterioration in ageing, which made an enormous impact on the elderly themselves and on society around them. The literary sources especially show us that there was not much sympathy for the weak and the decrepit. They were often marginalized, as they no longer contributed to society. The old themselves too found it hard to cope with the decline of physical health and frequently bemoaned their geriatric illnesses. For some old people, therefore, old age must have been a burden.
On the positive side, the old were believed to be knowledgeable, capable of good judgement and their experience was seen as beneficial to society. These were not mere idealistic ideologies. There are many concrete examples of old people who still played an active part in the organization of society. These physically, and especially mentally fit, and able men were admired and commanded respect. For these men old age was not seen as onerous. In the words of two such old Romans themselves, old age could ‘not only not be burdensome, but even happy’ (Cicero’s words in De Senectute 23.85) and ‘a time of bloom’, the words of Seneca (Epistles 26.3). How the old are treated is a cultural phenomenon, but my research has shown that attitude towards old age was also influenced by the old themselves, and was dependent on their personal health and constitution and especially their attitude to life.
Many ills encompass an old man, whether
Because he seeks gain, and then miserably holds aloof from
His store and fears to use it, because, in all that he does, he
Lacks fire and courage, is dilatory and slow to form hopes, is
Sluggish and greedy of a longer life, peevish, surly, given to
Praising the days he spent as a boy, and to reproving and condemning
Horace. Ars Poetica 169-174
…for there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though
age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that.
Cicero. Tusculanae disputationes 1.39.94
The old… should have their physical labours reduced their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavour too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.
Cicero. De officiis 1.33.123 cf De Senectute 5.15ff
But old men all look alike, their voices are as shaky as their limbs,
Their heads without hair, their noses driveling as in childhood.
Their bread, poor wretches, has to be munched by toothless gums.
So offensive do they become to their wives, their children, themselves
That even the legacy-hunter, Cossus, turns from them in disgust".
… Besides all this, the little blood in his now chilly
frame is never warm except with fever diseases of kind
dance around him in a troop…
Juvenal. Sat. 10.198-203, 217-218
Whom the gods hold dear dies young, with strength and sense and mind intact. If any god loved him, he should have died more than ten years ago or more than twenty. He walks a bane upon the earth: no mind, no sense, as useful as a rotten mushroom.
Cicero. De Senectute (Loeb editition) Plutarch. An Seni Respublica Gerenda Sit (Should an old man still have a role in public life), Moralia 789 Seneca. Epistles 12 (Loeb edition)
Cokayne, Karen. Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome. (Routledge, 2003).
Parkin, Tim, Old Age in the Roman World. (Johns Hopkins UP, 2003).
e.g. Ovid. Metamorphoses 15.199-214 (senex, from the age of 60) Philo. De opificio mundi 36.105 (old age from 56) Ptolemy. Tetrabiblos 410.206-207 (age 56-68) Augustine. De diversis quaestionibus 1.58.2 (age 60) Isidore of Seville. Etymoliae (age 70).
Suder, W. ‘On age qualification in Roman imperial literature’, Classical Bulletin 55, 1978:5-9.
Eyben, E. ‘Roman notes on the course of life’, Ancient Society 4, 1973:213-38.
On physiognomy: (the science of determining character from physical features):
Gleason, M. Making Men. Sophists and Self-representation in Ancient Rome. (Princeton NJ, 1995).
The life expectancy myth, and why many ancient humans lived long healthy lives
It is not uncommon to hear talk about how lucky we are to live in this age of scientific and medical advancement where antibiotics and vaccinations keep us living longer, while our poor ancient ancestors were lucky to live past the age of 35. Well this is not quite true. At best, it oversimplifies a complex issue, and at worst it is a blatant misrepresentation of statistics. Did ancient humans really just drop dead as they were entering their prime, or did some live long enough to see a wrinkle on their face?
According to historical mortality levels from the Encyclopaedia of Population (2003), average life expectancy for prehistoric humans was estimated at just 20 – 35 years in Sweden in the 1750s it was 36 years it hit 48 years by the 1900s in the USA and in 2007 in Japan, average life expectancy was 83 years. It would appear that as time went on, conditions improved and so did the length of people’s lives. But it is not so simple.
What is commonly known as ‘average life expectancy’ is technically ‘life expectancy at birth’. In other words, it is the average number of years that a newborn baby can expect to live in a given society at a given time. But life expectancy at birth is an unhelpful statistic if the goal is to compare the health and longevity of adults. That is because a major determinant of life expectancy at birth is the child mortality rate which, in our ancient past, was extremely high, and this skews the life expectancy rate dramatically downward.
The early years from infancy through to about 15 was perilous, due to risks posed by disease, injuries, and accidents. But those who survived this hazardous period of life could well make it into old age.
Drawing upon archaeological records, we can indeed see evidence of this. The "Old Man of La Chapelle", for example, is the name given to the remains of a Neanderthal who lived 56,000 years ago, found buried in the limestone bedrock of a small cave near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. Scientists estimate that he had reached old age by the time he died, as bone had re-grown along the gums where he had lost several teeth, perhaps decades before. He lacked so many teeth in fact that scientists suspect he needed his food ground down before he was able to eat it. The old man's skeleton indicates that he also suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis.
Facial reconstruction from the skull of ‘The Old Man of La Chapelle’. Photo source .
If we look again at the estimated maximum life expectancy for prehistoric humans, which is 35 years, we can see that this does not mean that the average person living at this time died at the age of 35. Rather, it means that for every child that died in infancy, another person might have lived to be 70. The life expectancy statistic is, therefore, a deeply flawed way to think about the quality of life of our ancient ancestors.
So is modern society more beneficial for health and longevity than, say, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle? To help gain an answer to this question, scientists have compared the life span of adults in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes (excluding the infant mortality rate). It was found that once infant mortality rates were removed, life span was calculated to between 70 and 80 years, the same rate as that found in contemporary industrialised societies. The difference is that, in the latter, most individuals survive childhood (Kanazawa, 2008).
It is certainly true that improvements in food availability, hygiene, nursing care, medical treatments, and cultural innovations have resulted in far fewer deaths caused by external injuries, infections, and epidemics, but on the other hand, we face a global cancer crisis that our ancient ancestors never had to contend with on such a scale. Are we just replacing one form of death with another?
A summary of major causes of death over time. S. Horiuchi, in United NaEons, Health and Mortality: Issues of Global Concern, 1999
Archaeologists and anthropologists face a real challenge in trying to unravel reliable information about the age structure of ancient populations, largely due to the lack of a sufficient number ancient samples, as well as the difficulties in determining exact age. Nevertheless, we can safely say that our ancient ancestors were not dropping dead at 35, and some would have even been blessed with long and healthy lives.
Human lifespans have not been constant for the last 2000 years
Few things are worse than a skeptic sloppy about checking his facts. For example, the “Bad Science” feature of LiveScience claims that we’re not getting any older these days:
That’s a fair criticism – “life expectancy at birth” is indeed a misleading statistic if your goal is to compare the health of adults. But then the column starts criticizing perfectly true statements in other reports, and in the end goes completely off the rails:
Syllogistically speaking, Socrates didn’t die of natural causes, therefore the Greeks had lifespans the same as ours. Or something.
Well, it’s just not true. You can see for yourself easily with a little reading. For example, a free article (PDF) by John Bongaarts and Griffith Feeney reviews the concepts and provides convenient summary figures of mortality rates by age in the U.S. for 1950 and 1995. Age-specific mortality rates have declined across the adult lifespan. A smaller fraction of adults die at 20, at 30, at 40, at 50, and so on across the lifespan. As a result, we live longer on average. Reductions in juvenile and infant mortality also contribute to increased life expectancy at birth, but the same trend is evident if we consider life expectancy at 15, 20, 30, or even 80. We live longer now than in the past.
What about 2000 years ago? In addition to its Socrates reference, the “Bad Science” column cites:
The column later describes the statement as “completely wrong”.
The age structure of ancient populations is a matter of great interest within anthropology and archaeology. Some think we can draw many conclusions from skeletal samples others are more cautious in their application of models to the past. But there’s no doubt that Romans, Egyptians, and Greeks were dropping dead at age 30, 40, 50 and 60 – at much higher age-specific mortality rates than today. Estimating the overall age profile is difficult and requires models. But testing the “Bad Science” assertion is much easier – if human lifespan had really not changed in 2000 years, then 35-year-olds shouldn’t have left their skeletons very often in the Roman catacombs. Unfortunately (for them), we find those 35-year-old bodies. A rough estimate (gleaned from tomb inscriptions that give ages) is that half of Romans who lived to age 15 – and therefore escaped juvenile mortality – were dead before age 45.
That leaves us with one remaining issue – the maximum lifespan. This statistic really hasn’t changed very much in the last 50 years – the oldest-living humans in 1960 were between 110 and 115 that’s how old the record-holders are today. Only a handful of people have, to our knowledge, ever lived longer.
So in this respect, it may seem reasonable to say that the human lifespan has been fairly constant. But I would challenge even that assertion. For one thing, the maximum lifespan just isn’t very relevant to the population. Only a tiny fraction of people today survive to age 100. That maximum lifespan may tell us something about human biological systems, but what really matters to demography are age-specific mortality rates across adulthood – the full range of times when most people die.
More important, we don’t have a clue what the maximum lifespan may have been 200, 500, or 2000 years ago. Such a tiny fraction of people make it above age 100 today that we could hardly expect to find any of them at all from skeletal samples. Nor can we expect accurate ages from historical records – Methuseleh, anyone? It seems reasonable to say that the maximum lifespan, at some point in human history, was increased by sedentism, nursing care, stable food availability, and other cultural innovations. With higher infant, juvenile, and adult mortality, even those with perfect genes would be a lot less likely to get the chance to live to extreme ages. But in skeletal terms, at least, the hypothesis may not be testable.
In every way we can measure, human lifespans are longer today than in the immediate past, and longer today than they were 2000 years ago. Infant and juvenile mortality do make a difference – especially if we use “life expectancy at birth” as the statistic – but age-specific mortality rates in adults really have reduced substantially.
UPDATE (2009/08/25): Dienekes points to a study of “men of renown” in classical Greece, which found a median length of life of 70 years. He notes that living to advanced ages of 80 or even 90 was not unheard of in antiquity.
No disagreement here – some people did live that long. The point is that the population had higher mortality than today (although classical Greece might well place favorably compared to some present high-mortality populations).
“Men of renown” generally have to get to a certain age (say, 30) before they’re worth renowning. Early adult mortality isn’t figured in.
Dienekes refers to Psalm 90:10 and other sources referring to the length of life. Saying “the length of life is 70” is basically saying that you know old 70-year-olds, not that any given individual had a high chance of living to 70. Even so, today it’s formulaic to say the length of life is 100.
We still don’t have a clue as to the maximum lifespan in classical times – attestations of the ages of extreme individuals may be correct, but we have no way now of establishing their reliability. Ramesses the Great lived into his 90th year, and it’s by no means impossible that some in the classical Mediterranean lived to be over 100 (Dienekes mentions some attested ages in that range, Isocrates at 98 seems especially credible). I don’t think the null hypothesis of identical maximum is testable given all the complications, but we may point out that there are presently people older than 110 years living in many countries.
Updated: August 25, 2009
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7 Getting an Education
As with many societies, education in ancient Rome was mostly available to the rich. Rough estimates placed literacy levels at around 20 percent, although it varied based on time period.
During most of the Roman Republic, education remained an informal practice involving parents passing down knowledge to their children. However, after the conquest of Greece in 146 B.C., the Greek education system started spreading through the empire. Romans started placing more importance on education, and tutors became more accessible as many of them were slaves.
Children typically went to school when they turned seven. Their teacher was called a litterator who taught reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and perhaps some Greek. At age 12 or 13, children who could afford an advanced education would go to a &ldquogrammar school&rdquo, taught by a grammaticus. Here they moved past the practical knowledge needed for everyday life and began studying arts and poetry. The highest levels of education involved learning rhetoric by studying the works of great orators such as Cicero and Quintilian.
Childhood Life Expectancy
Until the 19th century, only half of children survived to adulthood, with the majority of those deaths happening before the age of five. Therefore, there’s a lot of single digits in the mix for every child with an age of zero, someone gets to live until 70 and still end up with an average of 35.
And there’s lots and lots of zeros.
Human babies are ridiculously fragile creatures. They have poor immune systems, are so weak they can’t hold their head up for several weeks, and can’t move around for several months. They have zero common sense. It takes years for a human to reach a level of maturity where he has a chance of surviving on his own, unlike animals, which generally reach such a level in weeks or months.
Honestly, I have no idea how any of us survive.
Babies don’t die like they used to because of modern medicine and sanitation, both of which are largely 19th and 20th century developments. We consider the existence of these things as normal, so we think of the elderly as being the fragile ones, because luckily most of us won’t die until we are elderly.
Childhood was the biggest threat to survival. For women, childbirth continued to be a substantial threat. I don’t know specific maternal mortality rates in history, but in Afghanistan today one in eight mothers die as a complication of pregnancy or childbirth.
One in eight. That might actually be even worse than the middle ages. I don’t know. What I do know is Afghanistan is an awful place to live and pretty much always has been. Give me the middle ages. At least it has cathedrals.
Family was an important part of Ancient Roman culture and society. Much of Roman law was written around protecting the basic structure of the family. The family you belonged to had a lot to do with your place in Roman society and whether you were considered a patrician or a plebeian.
The "familia" in Rome included more than just the basic family of father, mother, and children. It also included all the people who were part of the household such as the slaves, servants, clients, and freedmen. As a result, some families in Rome grew quite large. The emperor's family often included thousands of members.
The legal head of the family was the father or "paterfamilias." He was the oldest living male in the household. The paterfamilias had legal authority over the other members of the household. He decided who his children would marry and issued punishment for any family member that disobeyed him. In early Rome, he could even have family members put to death, but this rarely actually happened.
Powerful Roman Families
The ancestry of a family was very important to the Romans. Each family was part of a larger group called a "gens" that shared the same ancestor. The oldest and most powerful Roman families were members of a gens called "patricians." Being born into a patrician family assured a person a high status in Roman society.
The paterfamilias generally had the final say over who his children would marry. Many marriages between the elite families of Rome were arranged based on politics. Unlike many ancient civilizations, Roman men only married one woman at a time. Divorce, however, was fairly common and could be initiated by either the husband or the wife.
Children were generally loved and taken care of in Roman families. Boys were especially important because they would carry on the family name. When a child was born, it was placed on the ground by the midwife. It was only accepted into the family if the father picked it up. Otherwise, the child would be put outside to die of exposure. Sometimes abandoned infants would be rescued by other families and raised as slaves.
Slaves were also a part of the Roman family that owned them. Even slaves that had earned or purchased their freedom, called freedmen, were generally still considered a part of the family.
Old age in ancient Egypt
People in ancient Egypt did not grow very old. Very high infant death rates due to high risks of infections resulted in an average age at death of 19 years. However those who survived childhood had a life expectancy of 30 years for women* and 34 years for men. Most ancient Egyptians were unlikely to live beyond 40 years of age and, for example, King Tutankhamun died at the age of about 18 years. This can be compared to today’s life expectancy of 83 years for women and 79 years for men in the UK. Nowadays we routinely collect mortality data making it easy to estimate life expectancy but how do we find out about life expectancy of ancient Egyptians?
Human remains in the form of skeletal remains and mummified bodies (that would be wealthier Egyptians) are primary sources used to calculate age and life-expectancy. There are few written and visual sources that refer to age. Occasionally the age at death can be found as an inscription part of the mummy label attached to the bodies but many bodies to which the labels were attached have not survived or not been recorded. Secondary evidence of ageing includes legal documents where they sometimes have referred to the person as ‘aged’.
In ancient Egypt elders were defined as older adults who were no longer able to contribute labour. Egyptian writings indicate a social norm of respecting older people, but there was no special position in society for the elderly. Older adults were seen as venerable advisers, which is reflected in Instruction of Ptahhotep. This literary work provides both a positive and the dramatised negative aspects of growing old. Very briefly, in Instruction of Ptahhotep, the king, who is old, is requested to retire and consents to this request but he also observes that the young need the old, for “none can be born wise”. Another example is a small number of documents which refer to a ‘wise woman’ who could assist in supernatural ways with unsolved cases although it is unclear if she was any special age.
Although estimated life expectancy was just over 30 years, it’s hard to say whether a 30-year-old person in ancient Egypt had wrinkles similar to many older people today. However we do know that ancient Egyptians were as concerned about their appearance as we are. Youthfulness was the idealised norm, representing eternity. Manuscripts for good health include recommendations such as remove grey hairs and cosmetic prescriptions for face and skin. This is the reason nearly all persons are depicted as young adults and could explain why there is little art showing older adults. However for those interested in getting a closer look of an older adult in ancient Egypt there is a head of an old man (UC 16452) in black granite (pictured) at the Petrie Museum.
*Women often had numerous children and these successive pregnancies could be fatal. Even after giving birth successfully, women could still die from complications such as puerperal fever. Such deaths were not prevented until the 20th century when standards of hygiene during childbirth were improved.
Find out more about old age in ancient Egypt here.
10 Responses to “Old age in ancient Egypt”
Hi Ann, I wonder where you get such precise statistics on mortality? From what era do these come? Old Kingdom? New Kingdom? Late Period? Ptolemaic period? Our estimates of the age of the death of Tutankhamun are likely to be reasonably accurate because aging of younger mummies is not so terribly inaccurate as it is in older people. There is no real method for determining age over 50, and estimates on remains of people in middle age can be 10-20 years out. I posted something on Facebook too, so apologise if you have received several messages.
Hi Dylan, Thank you for your comment. Average age of death and life expectancy at birth are based on research on 257 skeletons from 1700-1550 BC by Winkler and Wilfing. I think your comment is important and I agree these numbers should be interpreted with caution. Thank you for pointing this out.
Reference: Eike-Meinrad Winkler & Harald Wilfing (1991) Tell el-Dab’a 6, Anthropologische Untersuchungen an den Skelettresten der Kampagnen 1966-69, 1975-80, 1985/ Vienna
[…] is possible we are just having a hard time detecting the tumors, but also the short life expectancy of the ancient Egyptians is also likely a huge factor. Those who survived childhood in ancient Egypt had a life expectancy […]
[…] of his ancestors. Truly this family was divinely blessed! After all, 110 was considered an extremely blessed old age for Egyptians (longevity later ascribed to Joseph, Genesis […]
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[…] Lucky to be here and now – You probably also don’t give much thought to your great luck to be living in an industrialized nation in the 21st century. Instead, you could have been born in a developing country, where the child mortality rates are 27 times higher. Or you could have been born 3000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where only one in three babies survived and the average life span was about 30 to 35 years. […]
What was the life expectancy of an ancient Roman child and adult? - History
After learning about where the Romans lived and what hobbies they enjoyed, you might be wondering what roles the men, women, and children played in ancient Rome.
The men were the masters of the house and the family. During the day, they worked outside of the home. Rich men had roles very different from the poor men of Rome. If you had been a rich man, you would have begun your day by putting on your toga and eating a breakfast of bread, cheese, honey, and water. Before leaving for town, you would pray at the household shrine. The rich man would then begin his work, which might include writing letters to other Romans, seeing clients, and going to the forum to meet other businessmen. After a light lunch, you might take a nap, get a haircut, and finish your work for the day. In the late afternoon, all of the Roman men went to the public bathes, then home to enjoy a dinner with friends.
Poorer men were craftsmen, shopkeepers, or farmers. If you had been a poor man in ancient Rome, you would have started the day at first light. Since you could not afford to buy much food, you would eat only bread for breakfast. The rest of the day included working at the workshop or in the fields. After dinner, poor men would go to sleep so they would be ready to wake up early and work the next day.
Unlike men, women were expected to stay at home every day so they could complete the chores around the house and watch the children while their husbands were at work. Very few women were allowed to hold jobs such as being a teacher or doctor.
Women with wealthy husbands lived differently from those with poor husbands. For example, if you had been a wealthy woman in Rome, you would have usually spent a day planning a dinner party to take place when your husband got home. These women began the day with prayers at the household shrine, then ordered their slaves to begin dinner, fix your hair, makeup, and clothes to look beautiful, and clean the house while you relaxed. When your husband returned from work, you would begin greeting and entertaining the guests of the dinner party. Poor women in Rome, on the other hand, woke up at the same time as their husbands and worked in the house or fields all day. Usually poor women had to complete a great deal of work since they did not have the money to pay for the help of slaves. Women were not nearly as respected as men in ancient Rome.
Children of wealthy families in ancient Rome usually started school when they were seven years old. Boys stayed at school longer than girls and learned different things. For example, girls who went to school learned how to spin, weave, cook, and clean so they would be able to care for a house when they were married. Girls of poor families learned all of these things at home since they could not afford to go to school. Almost all boys, except for those of very poor families went to school to learn how to read, write in Latin and Greek, do math, and make speeches. These skills were necessary for boys who wished to get a job in the government.
When girls were 14 years old, their fathers planned a marriage for them. When they married the man chosen by their father, the girls left their house to live with their new husband and his family. Boys were not allowed to marry until they were 15 years old. At this time, they were also allowed to vote and get a job.