May 31, 2008

The length of life in classical Greece

Hormones (Athens). 2008 Jan-Mar;7(1):82-3.

The length of life and eugeria in classical Greece.

Batrinos ML.

Contrary to the commonly held belief that in antiquity and as late as 1700 A.D. normal lifespan was about 35 years, there are indications that the ancient Greeks lived longer. In a study of all men of renown, living in the 5th and 4th century in Greece, we identified 83 whose date of birth and death have been recorded with certainty. Their mean +/- SD and median lengths of life were found to be 71.3+/-13.4 and 70 years, respectively. Although this cohort cannot be considered as representative of the general population, it is however indicative of a long length of life in classical Greece. Good living conditions and a mild climate at the time of intellectual and artistic excellence, the use of slaves for hard work, an animated social life in which the aged actively participated and, not least of all, the respect that aged people were accorded by the younger, all favored a longer length of life and eugeria (happy aging) or eulongevity in classical Greece.



Maju said...

Hmmm. Looks like not much represenative of the real people. To begin with they already remove slaves, and implictly women too. It obviously also excludes infant mortality and probably there is not a single individual of the low classes among all the mentioned.

The only thing that the brief article really says is that (mostly upper class) men who already had reached adulthood and were notable enough to be recorded in detail had an apparent life expectancy of some 71.3 years.

The real life expectancy for male citizens (including peasants and other commoners) could well be 40 or 50 years and we would not know from these sources. The life expectancy of slaves was with all likehood much lower, and they made up a very large faction of classical Greece's population - and they were humans too.

Other sources I read in my school years estimated the life expectancy of Roman slaves in c. 20 years. This does not mean that a handful could not reach elderly age but certainly it was not something to be expected.

While the situation of citizens and other free people was surely much better the dates obtained from a handful of famous patrician males gives us no or little clues on life expectancy, specially as almost nobody under 30 was going to be notable at all.

Certainly Alexander was but he is not in that review, as there is no single dot showing deaths under the age of 45.

On the other hand, I think it's somewhat relevant to dispel the popular misconception that some seem to have that basically states that, if age expectancy was of c. 35 years, nobody could reach the 70s much less the venerable age of 110. This is certainly not true, not for classical Greece, not for the Paleolithic.

But the odds still were there that you would probably die young (and therefore not be mentioned in the books at all).

silylene said...

"Certainly Alexander was but he is not in that review, as there is no single dot showing deaths under the age of 45. "

Alexander should not be within the group defined as 'classical Greece', and that was why he was excluded. First, he was a Macedonian, and second he did not live within not within the 'classical' time period.

Maju said...

I imagined that kind of logic but he was the first famous ancient Greek I could figure living less than 45 years (many less actually) so that's why I mentioned him.

Also his lifetime, his quasi-mythical reign more precisely, is actually the divide between Classical and Hellenistic Greece, so he could well have been included as well.

Besides, I guess there is no particular reason to believe that the social conditions in Classical and Hellenistic (and even early Roman) Greece would be much different.

I also don't see why being Macedonian would be an obstacle to be included among "classical Greeks" certainly (and I'm not the kind of people that uses the funny acronym FYROM, if you know what I mean).

Unknown said...


By your...."rational" Macedonians were not Greeks?
Because their customs, their language, their script, their religion and even their political system WERE PURE GREEK!
And you know something, their Ethos, Moral and especially their political system IT WAS MORE GREEK THAN THE SOUTHERN CITIES-STATES' ONE!!!
Because it was closer to the Mycenaean and the proto-Greek system and it lacked the influence of the Anatolian and Levantine civilizations!
The vocabulary of Macedonians, the rivernames, citynames, etc. are pure Greek and they lack the non-Indoeuropean words that we find in southern Greece ending in -ssos, -ttos, -nthos, etc.
Finally the ancient Greeks DID NOT allow foreigners to participate in the Olympic Games.
It was forbidden by the penalty of death!!!
Macedonians participated in those games as the rest of the Greeks did and won a lot of victories especially in the chariot racing.
Philip the Second, Alexander's father, had won the first place in the chariot racing himself!!!

terryt said...

I agree with Maju's earlier comments. I don't think the opening statement in the article should be "the commonly held belief that ... normal lifespan was about 35 years". Isn't it that average lifespan was about 35 years? Average lifespan is influenced hugely by infant death. You can still get very many long-lived individuals in a society but still have a low average life expectancy.