Skip to Content

Ancient and modern

As the Romans knew, eternal life is hopeless without eternal youth

14 March 2019

9:00 AM

14 March 2019

9:00 AM

A research professor has pointed out that lengthening human lifespan threatens to turn us into living zombies unless we can cure dementia. That would have come as no revelation to the ancients.

They were well aware of the cognitive decline that set in at old age: but who did not want to be old? This provided an easy theme for the Roman satirist Juvenal. In his tenth satire (c. ad 120), known as ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ after Samuel Johnson’s imitation (1749), he mocked the false hopes raised by (among other things) a long life. The physical consequences were bad enough: wrinkled, baggy face, trembling limbs and voice, bald head, toothless gums, a limp and lifeless penis, no taste for food or wine, loss of hearing, dodgy shoulders and hips, failing sight. But worst of all, loss of mental faculties and all memory for names and faces. And even if a person did retain his mind, he had no option but to attend the funeral of those younger than him — children, wife, brother, sister — all the time complaining he had lived too long! Juvenal’s conclusion? Famously, if you must pray for something, pray for mens sana in corpore sano, fearlessness in the face of death, an ability to endure sorrow, proof against anger and a craving for nothing. And if you want a tranquil life, pray to be good.


But were you to live for ever, Greek myth cast a cold eye on the shuddering reality. The goddess Eos had given her mortal lover Tithonus eternal life, but had forgotten to give him eternal youth. When his hair became grey, she left his bed, though still cared for him. But when ‘loathsome old age overtook him, leaving him helpless, this seemed the best plan: she laid him in his room and simply closed the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly away, all strength gone.’ No wonder Pliny the Elder (d. ad 79) commented that Nature gave us no greater blessing than short life, since those wracked with serious mental and physical decline could scarcely be described as ‘living’.

Over to you, professor.

Peter Jones’s Memento Mori: What the Romans can Tell Us about Old Age and Death is published now.


Show comments
Close