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Ancient and modern

Why the Ancient Greeks didn’t have middle-aged spread

A different way of looking at a lifespan

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

A drug has been invented to halt what is known as middle-aged spread. But it would be so much better if there was no such thing as middle age in the first place. After all, the Greeks had no such concept: why should we?

The people one feels sorry for here are the early Sumerian kings (modern Iraq). En Men Lu Anna apparently died at 43,200. Nor was it all rosy with the biblical patriarchs. Adam made it to 930 before Methuselah, grandfather of Noah, pipped him to the record at 969, dying seven days before the Great Flood. Only then did God thoughtfully cut the natural span to 120.


But for Greeks, childbirth, disease, diet and war meant that death rates peaked at birth, early childhood and the twenties. If one made it to the thirties, one might then expect another 15 to 20 years. Relatively few got beyond that: perhaps 5 per cent made it to 60, 1 per cent to 80. As a result, middle age seems to have been squeezed out entirely.

Pythagoras set the bar pretty high, dividing life up into four stages: 0–20 childhood; 20–40 adolescence; 40–60 youth; 60–80 old age. Some Athenians reckoned age by political responsibility, making you young up to 30 and old after 60. The Roman poet Horace thought more in terms of each age’s characteristics: dumb infancy; wild, uncontrollable youth; calm adulthood, people looking for money and friends; and finally querulous old age, when physical and mental decay set in. Again, no sign of middle age anywhere.

One of Aesop’s fables, however, does hint at the notion. A man whose hair was black flecked with grey had two lovers, one old, the other young. The old one wanted him to look old as well, so she plucked out his black hairs, while the young one wanted him to look full of youthful zest and so plucked out his grey hairs. Result: he became completely bald.

So why no middle-age spread? One factor may be that the ancients did not eat as much as we do. If so, it is instructive that overeating is the compulsion this new drug is designed to suppress.


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