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  • Super-Centenarians in the Roman Empire September 23, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Beachcombing knew that life expectancy in the Roman Empire stood at between twenty and thirty years of age – a figure dragged down, of course, by appalling infant mortality. So he was particularly fascinated to come across this passage in Pliny the Elder.

    In addition there are the experiences of the last census, held within the last four years [74 AD] by the Emperors Caesar Vespasian, father and son, as Censors. Nor is it necessary to ransack all the records: we will only produce cases from the middle region between the Apennines and the Po. Three persons declared 120 years at Parma and one at Brescello; two at Parma 125; one man at Piacenza and one woman at Faenza 130; Lucius Terentius son of Marcus at Bologna 135; Marcus Aponius 140 and Tertulla 137 at Rimino. In the hills this side of Piacenza is the township of Veleia, where six declared 110 years, four 120, one (Marcus Mucius Felix, son of Marcus, of the Galerian tribe) 150. And, not to delay with further instances in a matter of admitted fact, the census registered in the eighth region of Italy 54 persons of 100 years of age, 14 of 110, 2 of 125, 4 of 130, the same number of 135 or 137 and 3 of 140. [NH 7, 49]

    It sounds like Pliny spent a long day in the census room at the Roman archives running his plump finger up and down the inked numerals and screaming at his slave dozing in the corner.

    Now Jeanne Calment (obit 1997 – Beachcombing is tempted to write ‘after her time’ but that would be facetious) is remembered as the oldest documented senior in world history. Born in 1875 – the years of the revanche – Jeanne was able to recall that Vincent Van Gough had shopped in her uncle’s shop.

    But a mere 122? Her diet of a kilo of chocolate a week and olive oil on everything clearly was not up to the rancid garum of Pliny’s Romans.

    How reliable are these Roman figures? Well the census in question will have been made in good faith. Whether it was answered in good faith is, of course, though another question. Yes, each respondent took an oath and was expected to give age, residence, name of father or patron and a valuation of their property. But given the teeth of the Imperium a Roman Beachcombing would have crossed his fingers and lied about everything, especially how much he had paid for his villa and his Syrian dancing girls.

    As to these excessive ages the most comfortable explanation is that we have frequent cases of confused memory and a culture where modern obsessions with birthdays and age was quite unlike our own. Note how many round numbers there are – possibly Pliny rounding up and down, a telling act in itself.

    But if true what lives they would have led! Marcus Aponius, for example, would have been born in 66 BC when Roman armies were devastating Asia Minor. He would have been eleven when the news arrived that the legionaries had done the impossible and crossed to mythical Britain. He would have been twenty two when Caesar was stabbed to death in Rome. He would have been thirty three when Augustus made himself the first Roman Emperor and the news came that Mark Anthony and Cleopatra had chosen suicide over dishonour. He would have been a mere whippersnapper at 80 when Augustus finally kicked the bucket. He would have been over a hundred when mad, bad and sensuous Caligula became Emperor…. And a hundred and thirty odd in the year of the Four Emperors when Rome almost tore himself apart.

    Oh what stories he would have told!

    Or perhaps not…

    Beachcombing has always been struck by the fact that super-centenarians tend not to remember the ‘big’ events but rather stick to the minutiae of their own lives – the birth of a child, the death of a husband, the sale of a house, being short-changed by the green-grocer… Forget honey and vitamin pills, this is probably why they live so long. Certainly, Beachcombing suspects that when he is celebrating 140 it will be first kisses and Mrs B announcing a pregnancy that will stand out, while exploding skyscrapers and invasions and counter-invasions in the Middle East fade deservedly into the ether.

    Beachcombing hopes to return to this theme for a memorable book by Phlegon of Tralles: however he is always interested in questions of longevity in any period especially when long lives coincide with interesting events. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    1 Oct 2010: Judith Weingarten wrote in with this fascinating email that took Beachcombing to parts of Babylonia he had never previously visited. ‘Because we are all so Graeco-Roman-focused, one of the most certain centenarians is always forgotten: Shumuadanq, mother of Narbonidus, Neo-Babylonian king (555-539 BCE). We have her own written testimony in ANET p. 331 (available on-line), and, yes, she lived in interesting times: During the time from Ashurbanipal, the king of Assyria, in whose rule I was born: 21 years under Ashurbanipal, 4 years under Ashur-etillu-ilani, his son, 21 years under Nabupolassar, 43 years under Nebuchadnezzar, 2 years under Ewil-Merodach, 4 years under Neriglassar, in total 95 years (i) Sin, the king of the gods, did what he never did before, gave to me what he had not given to anybody else; Sin the king of the gods, chose me and made my name famous in the world by adding many days and years of full mental capacity to the normal span of life and thus kept me alive — from the time of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, to the 6th year of Nabonidus, king of Babylon, the son of my womb, for 104 happy years… (ii) Postscript added: In the ninth year of Nabonidus, king of Babylon, she died a natural death…. Thus, a well-attested 107-8 years old.’ Judith has, by the way, a fascinating blog that ‘one fine morning’ Beachcombing will look forward to exploring exhaustively.

    1st Nov 2010: Arthur wrote in to point Beachcombing towards the deserts: ‘You may want to check out some of the Egyptian monks.  Antony I think is fairly safely credited with 105 years, and Shenute of the White Monastery I recall is well documented at 115.  I gather that, if the desert didn’t kill you in the beginning, you could last a long, long time.’ Beachcombing cut his historical teeth with monkly sources and knows how unreliable these can be. However, he’ll be checking the White Monastery especially. Then Rick from the Anomalist wrote in with Li Ching-Yun who allegedly died aged 256 in 1933: Beachcombing’s head spins. He’ll certainly be visiting Li Ching-Yun on a future occasion. Thanks Arthur and Rick!

    16 Sept 2011: Diana writes in ‘This article reminded me of those Georgians in the USSR who claimed extreme longevity due to a diet of yogurt. It turned out that they had been dodging the draft 50 years earlier by using birth certificates of older brothers, cousins or even fathers or grandfathers. Some of them had lied about their age for so long they may have even believed it themselves. I wonder if some kind of similar mixup could happen in Roman censuses, they weren’t known for being really creative with names, there was a lot of repetition and younger children even got stuck with names that sound like the mother was just exhausted “OK, we’ll just call him “the Fifth one” (Quintus). The most recent examples I have seen of this in the U.S. is young men using brother/cousins/ etc birth certificates to compete in sports that they were ineligible for, both too young and too old! But I  am sure it’s going on in matters of immigration and other reasons as well. Another area of mix-up that is sort of related is geneaology. I think the records are too foggy for most of the family trees to be terribly reliable. My husband happens to have an illness that is transmitted genetically so the topic comes up a lot and I am frequently astonished by the claims of people in the support group : “Well I traced my ancestors back to the thirteenth century” or “My family is 100% <insert nationality>” (“and I’m SURE that’s where we inherited this from” !!).  Here in the U.S people often had last names altered intentionally (they wanted to sound more mainstream), accidentally (they weren’t very literate and somewhere in the paperwork someone misspelled the family name – phonetically for instance) and forcefully (sometimes immigration officials translated, truncated or just randomly changed names). Not to mention those just looking for a clean slate. So that is one layer of confusion. But there are so many others that are possible – adopted children, children passed off as the husband’s but fathered by someone else, children of a young unwed mother were often passed off as a younger sibling – all was not revealed in the old days. In my own family, there is a written account by my great-grandmother who found a little boy of about 4 years of age at the docks put on a boat by himself that no one had come to claim. She took him home and they raised him as “English Johnny” based on his accent. He did not know his last name, I think the story goes that when he grew up he reversed it and called himself Johnny English. At the turn of the 20th century you could pretty much call yourself anything, identification was not very strict. Then when you get back to Europe, there is so much forcible transport of people as slaves, religious migrations, merchants and shipping, as well as armies marching up and down, that I cannot see how anyone can convincingly say they are “pure” this or that. I’m sure no one is writing in the family bibles “father unknown, mother was raped by soldiers“. Thanks for this very thoughtful piece Diana!