Memento mori – Peter Jones looks at how the Ancients viewed Old Age and Death
Twenty-five years ago, seventy eight-year old Lilian turned up at the first Latin and ancient Greek summer school in Durham. Why have you come, the local press asked? She replied ‘I’ve heard that ancient Greek is paradise and I decided I’d like to experience it before it’s too late’.
For Lilian, it was clearly important to make the most of life while she could. The great 5th C BC ancient Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Massagetae, a tribe inhabiting modern Kazakhstan, took a different view. Death was indeed a concern:
When a man is very old, all his relatives give a party and include him in a general sacrifice of cattle. Then they boil the flesh and eat it. This they consider to be the best sort of death. It is held a great misfortune not to live long enough to be sacrificed like this.
So length of life was, for them, the critical issue, though we are not told what they meant by ‘very old’.
In AD 14 the emperor Augustus was on his death-bed. He asked those gathered round him to applaud him for playing well his part in the comedy of life. Now that was the Roman way. The philosopher Seneca, adviser to the later Roman emperor Nero, put it like this:
Like a story, the important thing about life is how it is played out. It doesn’t matter where you stop. Stop wherever you want to, but just attach a good ending.
And that was the point. One was putting on a show for the whole of one’s life, and one’s death was just as important a part of it. However good a play, its ending could ruin it. So with a man. He should ‘be his own audience’ (Seneca) and make sure he lived up, and died up, to the part he had chosen. Socrates’ death was constantly held up as a model: no surprise, then, that the Pompey-supporting Cato the Younger, facing capture by Caesar, read the Phaedo three times before committing suicide. Caesar, naturally, was furious that he had not been allowed to pardon him. Plutarch commented:
In fact, if Cato could have endured to be saved by Caesar, it would not have seemed to him that he had disgraced his own name so much as embellished Caesar’s.
The showman Nero provided an example of how not to do it. Hiding miserably in his villa four miles from Rome, at one moment he would beg Sporus, the young man he tried to ‘transition’ into a woman (and whom he ‘married’), to begin to lament and wail (a wifely duty), at another invite someone else to commit suicide too, to set him an example. He needed the help of a secretary to stab himself in the throat. Not very artificiosus.
Otherwise lowest of the low, gladiators were often thought to provide models of how to die. Cicero enlarged on the topic as follows:
Gladiators who are either desperate men or barbarians, — what do they endure! When prostrate with wounds, they want to find out what the audience, their masters, require of them. If their audience is not satisfied, they are ready to lie down and die. What even moderate gladiator ever groaned, or changed his expression, or showed himself a coward, as he stood in combat, or even as he fell? Or what one of them, once fallen, refused to offer his neck, once the order was given?
When Cicero was murdered in 43 BC, it is arguable that he showed a similar gladiatorial heroism: leaning out of the carriage in which he was trying to get away, he voluntarily offered his neck to the killers with the words:
Come here, soldier. What you’re doing is quite improper, but at least you can make certain that you cut my head off properly.
In fact one could argue that all these people were lucky to be alive in the first place. Merely cutting the umbilical cord with an unsterile object led to bacterial meningitis and death within a week. So what can we say about Roman demography? Epitaphs provide little help, rarely mentioning women and (even less) children. But by noting that ancient societies were stable, even if they knew nothing about hygiene or disease (who did until the late 19th century?), and making a best guess from all available sources, scholars conclude that the average age at death was about 25. They then use modern life tables to draw up a survival chart on that assumption.
At the following ages, the following from a cohort of 100 male births would be alive:
at age 1 – 65
at age 5 – 50
at age 10 – 48
at age 20 – 43
at age 30 – 36
at age 40 – 30
at age 50 – 21
at age 60 – 13
at age 70 – 5-6
So at birth you had a one in two chance of reaching five, a one in five chance of reaching fifty, a one in eight chance of reaching sixty and a one in twenty chance of seventy; but it is noticeable that if you survived to five, you were over the worst and might even lead a long life. Juvenal wondered whether it was worth it.
In his analysis of the vanity of human wishes (Satire 10), Juvenal inveighed against the stupidity of praying for a long life. What did it bring? An unrecognizably wrinkled, baggy, hideous face, limbs and voice all trembling, bald head, runny nose and toothless gums—just like a baby. Even the keenest legacy hunter (a popular life-choice in Rome) would be revolted. No taste for food or wine; a limp and lifeless penis. And deaf as a post, so no point in listening to song or visiting the theatre. More illness and ailments than one could shake a stick at—dodgy shoulder, pelvis and hip; failing sight; needing to be fed, mouth gaping like a nestling.
But worst of all was the loss of mental faculties: no memory for names or faces; leaving no legacy to the family but all to a wheedling prostitute; and even if an old man did retain his mind, he had no option but to attend the funeral of those younger than him— children, wife, brother, sister. And all the time complaining that he had lived too long!
So, famously, Juvenal concluded that if you must pray for something, make it a mens sana in corpore sano, fearlessness in the face of death, an ability to endure sorrow, proof against anger, and a craving for nothing. No wonder Pliny the Elder commented that Nature gave us no greater blessing than short life, since people who were wracked with serious mental and physical decline could scarcely be described as ‘living’.
Cicero, of course, wrote at length about the problem of old age in his dialogue—though more of a monologue—de senectute. He put his words into the mouth of that grand old Roman Cato the Elder. Cato laid out the charge against old age under four headings:
- It calls us away from active work;
- It weakens the body;
- It deprives us of almost all pleasures; and
- It is not far from death.
In the rest of the dialogue, he faced up to these charges one by one. His conclusions can be read every day in in the Health or Lifestyle sections of every organ on the planet:
- Start young: the foundations of a good old age are laid in youth
- Be wary of putting too much store by material and physical pleasures
- Have a sense of purpose at every stage of life
- Keep working, especially on things that have always interested you
- Keep the brain alert: read, write and think
- Exercise the memory
- Keep learning new things
- Maintain regular conversation with friends
- Offer the experience of age to the young
- Enjoy moderate exercise, food and drink
- Stay as independent as you can
- Accept your limitations and relax into being old
- Acknowledge that it is a good thing that death awaits you
But before the grim reaper knocks and you hand in the dinner pail, it is probably a good idea to think about the epitaph. Flavius Agricola sounded a sporting type:
Flavius Agricola is my name. Yes, I’m the one you see reclining here, just as I used to once at dinner, for all the years of life which Fate granted me, taking good care of myself. And I was never short of wine. Flavia Primitiva, my darling wife passed away before me. Chaste worshipper of Isis, attentive to my needs; and graced with every beauty. Thirty happy years we lived together. As a consolation, she left me the fruit of her body, our son Aurelius Primitivus, to tend my tomb with dutiful affection. Friends who read this: my advice is—mix the wine, tie wreaths round your heads and drink. Don’t refuse sex with beautiful girls. After death, earth and ash consume everything else.
Because the dead were buried outside the city, roads were lined with tombstones—the Appian Way still is—and therefore attracted the attention of passers-by. Epitaphs often urged them to pay attention, or expressed thanks for their doing so. It was a way of engaging their sympathy and perhaps encouraging people to remember them:
→If mud or dust is perhaps slowing you down, traveller,
Or heat and thirst are holding you up, read this.
→Guest, it’s gratifying of you to halt at this resting place:
May you be successful and healthy, and sleep without a care.
Some were philosophical, expressing hopes for the future:
→While I lived I taught what life and death was;
As a result I understand the eternal joys of the soul.
By contrast, a very common refrain on epitaphs expressed a doubt about the possibility of life after death:
If there are Spirits of the Dead, may the earth lie light upon you.
And then there were those sentiments that expressed no hope of immortality at all:
Here lie the bones of Pompeia, eldest daughter.
Fortune pledges things to many,
Guarantees them not to any.
Live for each day, live for the hours,
Since nothing is for always yours.
This one put it very simply:
Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo
I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.
Because no texts dealt authoritatively on the matter, is clear that beliefs about death were up to you. For the atomist Lucretius (1st C BC), who came up with 29 proofs of the mortality of the soul, from atoms we came and to atoms we returned, and that was that. In fact the elite in general had little time for popular belief in ghosts of the dead haunting the earth or an afterlife of suffering. Cicero thought such beliefs irrational, and joked about human reactions to death: ‘It is foolish to tear one’s hair in grief: grief is rarely lessened by baldness’. Seneca concluded that we should try to die as happily as we tried to live, and that meant dying gladly, i.e. not pointlessly fighting the inevitable, for that would merely make the experience miserable: ‘there is only one chain that binds us to life, and that is the love of life’.
For us, where reality is much better when it is virtual, and doctors bid fare to make us live forever, death seems an outrageous intrusion in a world that we seem to be able to manipulate at will. But for Romans, the world of nature was all they knew. There was nothing virtual or synthetic about it. It was all too real. They took the Ecclesiastical view:
1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
This was the world as the Romans understood it—eternal, unchanging and unchangeable, of polar extremes, but in complete accord with Nature, with a time for everything, including dying. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius (2nd C AD) put it this way:
How trivial life is: yesterday a drop of semen, today a mummy or ashes. Spend therefore these fleeting moments as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life.
Dr Peter Jones MBE is a co-founder of Classics for All and a regular columnist (‘Ancient and Modern’) in The Spectator. His list of academic publications is extensive: his most recent volume is Memento Mori: What the Romans Can Tell Us about Old Age and Death (published by Atlantic books (2018)).