Old age is part of the cultural construct, like childhood or sexuality. Life expectancy in ancient times was different from what it is today. There were many ancient Greeks who remained energetic and productive in old age. The list is quite impressive and many of them achieved greatness in their later years. The fact that these individuals lived long lives gives an insight about old age in Greece—there was nothing to be ashamed of in being old.
Popular Greeks Who Led a Long Life
Epimenides of Crete was a famous seer and prophet, who allegedly lived for 157 years. If age is considered the main criterion, Epimenides was at the top of the list. Another popular Greek who lived for over a hundred years is the rhetorician Gorgias, who lived to be 108. There is also the great tragic poet Sophocles, who wrote his last play, entitled Oedipus at Colonus, a play incidentally very much about old age, when he was 90. Euripides, who was slightly younger than Sophocles, wrote his two last plays, The Bacchae and The Iphigeneia at Aulis, at about the age of 80. Plato finished The Laws shortly before his death at the age of 81. The rhetorician Isocrates wrote one of his most impressive treatises, The Panathenaicus the year before he died at the age of 98. It is believed that three of the so-called Seven Wise Men of Greece—Thales of Miletus, often seen as the father of western philosophy; Pittacus of Mytilene, who said, “Even the gods cannot strive against necessity”; and the Athenian lawgiver Solon—are said to have reached 100.
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Longevity Was Regarded as a Sign of Wisdom and Intelligence in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greeks believed that there was nothing to be ashamed of in being old. In fact, longevity was viewed as a sign of wisdom and exceptional intelligence, and they took considerable pride in their age. One of the main reasons for this was the fewer number of elderly people in ancient Greece. Being elderly was like belonging to a very exclusive club. If one walked down the streets in ancient cities of Greece, Rome, Egypt, or any other place, one would see very few elderly people compared with today. To put it more accurately, there would have been far fewer elderly people, since people aged and so looked older much more rapidly in ancient times, as is true today in countries where people lead much tougher lives than in the West.
In the U.S. and the U.K., more than 15 percent of the population is currently aged over 65, and that figure is set to rise. In Japan, it’s already at 25 percent and by 2030 it’s expected to rise to 30 percent. Life expectancy today is about 80 for females and 75 for males in some countries. In ancient times and in the Middle Ages, a much smaller percentage of people survived into their fifties, let alone their sixties, seventies, or eighties than they do today.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Studies About Life Expectancy
One of the main reasons why more people survive today into old age is because there is less risk of mortality in infancy and early adolescence. It is seen that infancy and early adolescence took a very high toll on all pre-industrial populations, including ancient Greece. Two researchers, Coale and Demeny, investigated modern pre-industrial societies and created a model for life expectancy. According to their model, those who reached the age of 10 had a good chance of living another 37.5 years, whereas those who attained 60 could look forward to another 10.4 years. A problem inherent in the study of old age in ancient times is that the Greeks rarely recorded a person’s age at death on their gravestone. The Romans did record a person’s age, but that evidence is highly unreliable. Tim Parkin, who has investigated the subject in detail, describes the evidence as “all but useless” because there was a predisposition to exaggerate age by “age-rounding”. Therefore, age at death is more commonly recorded in pentads and decades such as 35, 40, 45, 50, etc. that did not give the exact age of an individual. The tendency was always to round up.
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The Secret of Surviving into Old Age in Ancient Times
Moses Finley, one of the greatest ancient historians of the last century, believed that the secret to a long life came down chiefly to the kind of wine that one drank. He noted that the Romans used a preservative in their wine resembling syrup known as sapa. They prepared it by simmering freshly pressed grape juice that contains the seeds and the stem of the grapes over a fire in leaden vessels. As a consequence, they were systematically poisoning themselves. This practice also, incidentally, would have led to a decrease in their fertility. The Greeks, on the other hand, used a harmless resin additive as a preservative. It is found in present-day as well in the drink called Restina. This led Finley to conclude that the Greeks lived longer than the Romans. It is an interesting theory, based on alcohol, but there is no evidence to bear it out. According to a treatise falsely attributed to the satirist Lucian entitled The Long-Lived Ones, the factors that contribute to a long life include climate, diet, occupation, physical fitness, and mental alertness. This shows that longevity is not exclusively dependent on good food and drink but is also affected by other factors.
Common Questions about Life Expectancy in Ancient Times
Ancient Greeks believed that there was nothing to be ashamed of in being old. In fact, longevity was viewed as a sign of wisdom and exceptional intelligence and took considerable pride in their age.
One of the main reasons why more people survive today into old age is because there is less risk of mortality in infancy and early adolescence.
Moses Finley, one of the greatest ancient historians of the last century, believed that the secret to a long life came down chiefly to the kind of wine that one drank.