A common howler among my weaker students is the delightful Rome had a high mortality rate. I think I know what they mean: more people died young. The mortality rate, then as now, was 100 per cent. The Greek myth of Endymion, granted immortality but not eternal youth, would have made the concept unwelcome to those who knew of it.
|Bust of an Old Man|
More people died young. For Roman citizens, especially in the Republic, death in a military context would have been a good possibility for males, while childbirth and post partum disease would have cut a swathe through the young female population as it did well into the twentieth century and still does in poor countries. Women are too important to be a footnote here and need to be dealt with in their own blog piece, to follow.
Many diseases we face today are those of old age. When people died younger, they died of different things. Diseases of human degeneration hardly existed. We do read of certain individuals dying of cancer – the emperor Constantius III had what may have been bowel cancer over several months in AD421. He was 51. The empress Theodora also died of cancer at the age of 48 (Victor of Tonnena, Chronicle s.a.548). As Cancer Research UK has often commented, 75% of cancer cases are in people over sixty, and if very few people made it to sixty in antiquity, we should expect the incidence to be lower anyway.
Most ancient societies found a role for those (mainly men) who didn’t die young. The Roman Senate emerges in the semi-legendary period following the expulsion of the kings (Regifugium). Consuls of the Roman Revolution, Lucius Junius Brutus and Titus Lucretius Tricipitinus had grown-up children. It is given that the rape of the latter’s daughter, Lucretia, provoked the rebellion, while the sons of Brutus, as in the famous modern painting, were executed for fighting alongside the ex-king. So the Consuls were probably in their forties or fifties.
The Latin word Senatus derives from senex/ senis ‘Old Man’; for a modern reader, learning that you could be considered an old man at just forty is sobering. But even in the supposedly stable period of the High Republic, Titus Flamininus was elected consul directly from quaestor at the age of thirty. Since men were not considered fully adult until twenty five, this was rapid and shown how narrow a window Roman males had for advancement – not below 25, over at 60.
|Bust of an Old Man (looking remarkably like Iggy Pop)|
We have few statistics for lifespan in antiquity; social order differences, whether you lived mostly in the city or on a country estate, occupation, all would make for major differences. Even the life of a slave could range from those working as field hands on Roman latifundia (nasty, brutish and short) to the high-status slave of a rich owner (probably living longer and better fed than a free person of the social underclass at Rome depending on bread doles in the Subura).
As Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence point out, we know more about the life stages of slime moulds than we do of people in antiquity (Growing Up and Growing Old in the Roman Empire, 2001). As humans have not changed genetically since long before the Roman period, the lifespan of people should be identical to what it was in (say) 1750, before we started inhaling coal smoke on a large scale. And in general it is. However, antiquity had few cures for childhood disease and frequent famines.
When we get inscriptions on tombstones and other monuments in the ‘pagan’ era, there is a lot of precision given much of the time, with dates and precise ages provided, not just years and months, but also days and hours of life. However, Christians scorned precise ages. ‘He was about fifty’ is the Christian style, designed to suggest that such things don’t matter, because, hey, the world’s going to end very soon. Early Christian millennial thinking is however undermined because the concept of any kind of monument is contrary to it.
Roman culture, backed up in some instances by law, specifies the age of sixty for old age. Men aged sixty and above weren’t eligible for military service or jury duty; while that may have been welcome, they also lost the right to vote in elections under the Republic. There was a saying ‘Sixty over the bridge’, the bridge being the passage through the voting booths on the Campus Martius. Once the empire was established, few things were voted on anyway and the Campus Martius was built over.
Senators aged sixty were no longer obliged to attend the Senate, and the same rule applied for decurions and their local curia in the various cities of the empire. That age seems to have been adopted as a norm across the empire.
|Full length statue of an Old Man|
We have two major Roman texts on old age: Cicero De Senectute (On Old Age), a work from the middle of the first century BC, and the Letters to Lucilius of Seneca, some 110 years later.
Cicero’s work is phrased as a conversation among Cato the Elder, Laelius and Scipio (son of Africanus). Cato praises influence as a benefit of old age, since the Senate called members to speak in order of their age, so those who were oldest spoke first (De Senectute 18).
|Marcus Tullius Cicero; contemporary bust|
Physical decay is acknowledged as an issue in a speech given to Cato:
But, the critics say, old men are morose, troubled, fretful, and hard to please; and, if we inquire, we shall find that some of them are misers, too. However, these are faults of character, not of age. Yet moroseness and the other faults mentioned have some excuse, not a really sufficient one, but such as it may seem possible to allow, in that old men imagine themselves ignored, despised, and mocked at; and besides, when the body is weak, the lightest blow gives pain. (Cicero De Senectute 18.65).
But this is a philosophical tract, dedicated to Cicero’s friend Atticus. It doesn’t pretend to be read as reality.
Seneca writes more tellingly:
Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years. I visited lately my country-place, and protested against the money which was spent on the tumble-down building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not due to his own carelessness; "he was doing everything possible, but the house was old." And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling? I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen in the bailiff's presence. "It is clear," I cried, "that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shrivelled; the boles are so rough and unkempt! This would not happen, if someone loosened the earth at their feet, and watered them." The bailiff swore by my protecting deity that "he was doing everything possible, and never relaxed his efforts, but those trees were old." Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself, I had seen them in their first leaf.
Then I turned to the door and asked: "Who is that broken-down dotard? You have done well to place him at the entrance; for he is outward bound. Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man's dead? But the slave said: "Don't you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave." "The man is clean crazy," I remarked. "Has my pet slave become a little boy again? But it is quite possible; his teeth are just dropping out." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca Letters to Lucilius 12)
|Seneca; probably contemporary|
He returns to the physical impairments of age in another letter:
Nevertheless, I offer thanks to myself, with you as witness; for I feel that age has done no damage to my mind, though I feel its effects on my constitution. Only my vices, and the outward aids to these vices, have reached senility; my mind is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body. It has laid aside the greater part of its load. It is alert; it takes issue with me on the subject of old age; it declares that old age is its time of bloom. (Lucius Annaeus Seneca Letters to Lucilius 26)
Seneca died at his own hand aged 68, at the instigation of Nero. It is quite likely that he would have lived in to greater old age without that impetus. Again, this is philosophy to console someone in old age.
Similar sentiments can be read in one of Plutarch’s Moralia essays:
For granted that nature seeks in every way pleasure and enjoyment, old men are physically incapacitated for all pleasures except a few necessary ones, and not only as Euripides says, but their appetites also for food and drink are for the most part blunted and toothless, so that they can, if I may say so, hardly whet and sharpen them. They ought to prepare for themselves pleasures in the mind, not ignoble and illiberal ones like that of Simonides, who said to those who reproached him for his avarice that, since old age had deprived him of all other pleasures, he was comforting his declining years with the only one left, the pleasure of gain. (Plutarch ‘Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs’ 5).
This is of course an entirely aristocratic view, and of the 100 million souls in the Roman Empire, only a couple of thousand ever had the wealth to contemplate the merits of old age. Most were working till they dropped.
How many people in the empire had read the works of Cicero, Seneca or Plutarch? Probably very few indeed. It would be generous to say one per cent; only a tiny number had the leisure time (otium) to do so. Probably a larger number had read the Sayings of Publius Syrus, a popular work because it comprised simple maxims written or compiled by a first century BC Syrian author, known and admired by Julius Caesar. Here’s a selection:
1. As men, we are all equal in the presence of death.
55. He has existed only, not lived, who lacks wisdom in old age
68. What greater evil could you wish a miser than long life?
105. A death that ends the ills of life is a blessing.
158. He who longs for death confesses that life is a failure.
324. Man’s life is a loan, not a gift.
566. There is no more shameful sight than an old man commending life.
1087. Man’s life is short and therefore an honourable death is his immortality.
There are maxims ranging from the profound to the frankly bizarre, and while they offer cracker barrel philosophy, they were more likely to be known to ordinary people than ever the works of the greats.
This is also a male view. The worth of women dropped once they had passed childbearing age. The wergilds of Dark Age women reflected that, so it may be the case that they were following common imperial practice. The life course of women is better the subject of its own blog piece.