Gilbert and Sullivan have an aria in Patience when Lady Jane presents the pathos of a woman growing old: ‘Silvered is the raven hair…’ There are more details of the ageing female body, and apparently the first audiences felt uncomfortable: if it was a comic song, it seemed less than well judged. But the melody is so beautiful that it was sung in later years with different words.

This was mild compared with Juvenal’s punishing and obscene description of what it can be like to be an old man (Satires X.188-245). Why, he asks, are people misguided enough to pray for longevity?

Cicero’s ex-wife Terentia apparently lived to be 103, but we know no more than that bare fact from Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia VII.49), who has clearly got it from Valerius Maximus; and we have no statistics to indicate how unusual this was. Those two writers give a list of people who lived long—some to be over 100—and it does seem that quite a few senators reached an advanced age, and so did their wives.

Recently we had to correct, tactfully, what our young pupils were told at a nearby museum—that in Roman times it was unusual to see anyone over the age of 40. This is of course based on a misunderstanding of statistics, and the same error is sometimes found in popular history books.

Life expectancy at birth, we had to explain to our students, means what it says, and the estimate is greatly shortened by immediate postnatal deaths and the diseases, especially malaria, that carried off so many people in adolescence (see post on the Paludes Pomptinae.)

If people were robust enough to survive the dangers attendant at birth and the diseases afflicting young adults, then they had a good chance of living to a ripe age. There were plenty of old people to be seen in the Roman empire, though not as many as in modern Europe.

Of interest:

Next post: Acoustics.

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