Memento Mori: What the Romans can tell us about Old Age and Death
Peter Jones
Atlantic Books
224pp
Hardback, £12.99

Today, with life expectancies generally on the rise, death, the great inevitability, seems further and further off, and old age is a considerably more protracted affair. Here, to remind us of our own mortality and what lies ahead, are the long-dead Romans as presented by Peter Jones, writer of popular Classics books, such as Learn Latin and Learn Ancient Greek as well as the 'Ancient and Modern' column in the Spectator. 'All the problems associated with old age that so transfix us today were dealt with two millennia ago,' writes Jones. So who better to turn to for ancient black pearls of wisdom than the Romans?

Tackling a morbid subject with a touch of wit, Memento Mori brings together comments from great Roman writers such Pliny, Plautus, Cicero, Quintilian and Seneca, as well as looking at some touching epitaphs. As the Romans were greatly indebted to the Greeks (Cicero's dialogue On Old Age, for instance, responds to part of Plato's Republic), Hellenic views on death and old age are also taken into account.

Aristotle is a particularly fruitful source as he characterises the young, the old, and those in between. His markedly critical view is that the elderly are cowardly, cynical and small-minded. A lifetime of experience, according to Aristotle, makes one distrustful and uncertain. Yet, it is precisely these years of experience that many others value in the elderly. As Cicero comments: '... the inexperience of youth requires the practical wisdom of age to strengthen and direct it'.

It would be unwise to adhere too closely to some Roman writers. For example, Cicero tells us: 'If a small child dies, the loss must be borne calmly; if a baby in a cradle, one must not even lament'. Not all Romans were quite so severe though and, as the book points out, funerary inscriptions lament the loss of children who died as young as nine days.

Even for the elite who survived into mature adulthood, there was the risk of war, and upsetting those in power, which could result in death. Jones uses ancient accounts to relate some of the most notable cases. During the Civil War, Cato the Younger opted for suicide rather than pleading to the victorious Caesar. He spent an evening reading about the immortality of the soul and Socrates' death in Plato's Phaedo before stabbing himself.

Petronius and Seneca both killed themselves on the orders of Nero. Petronius did so in style; after cutting his veins, he bound them again and enjoyed dinner and light-hearted poetry with his friends while his life ebbed away. In his will he gave a final flourish, by outlining Nero's sexual proclivities and naming his lovers, both male and female. Later Nero, too, killed himself, but, as historians relate, with much less dignity and only with the help of his private secretary.

Despite its grim subject matter covering gory suicides, executions and death in the arena, this book turns out to be an enjoyable, engaging and educational book that makes ancient attitudes on mortality accessible to us all.

Lucia Marchini

 

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