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FORVM`s Classical Numismatics Discussion Board  |  Numismatic and History Discussions  |  History and Archeology (Moderator: David Atherton)  |  Topic: Life Expectancy in Ancient Rome 0 Members and 2 Guests are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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« on: June 26, 2012, 08:42:34 am »

I think an oft forgotten backdrop to many ancient sources and one of the main concepts it is vital to appreciate if you are to understand the mindset of historical figures, is the life expectancy of those in the ancient world. I have an interest in studies regarding historical demography and life expectancy and after reading the attached study I thought it deserved its own thread.

It is notoriously difficult to get reliable statistics regarding lifespan across ancient societies but through primary and secondary sources, gravestones, osteoarchaeology, we can piece together an estimate of ancient life expectancy.

Firstly, a shocking figure that many of you may have come across before is that of infant mortality.

In Ancient Rome a broad estimate not accounting for gender/socio-economical differences gives the Infant Mortality rate of 319/1000. Basically, a 1/3 of newborns did not live to adulthood!

To put this into context the worst infant mortality in the world today is in Angola, Africa at 180/1000.

This would have resulted in a society with a surplus of short lived children but a constant shortage of adults. 32% of the population were 10 and under, over twice the figure in Italy today.

A baby that made it through their first year may be expected to live until the age of 34.

The key barrier at which many parents may have breathed secret sighs of relief is the age of 5. A child that lived healthily through its first 5 years may optimistically be expected to live to the age of 48.

At any one time just 4.7% of the population would be 65 and over – compared to 20.2% in Italy today.


 



The study can be seen here - http://www.utexas.edu/depts/classics/documents/Life.html

I would love to hear people's expertise on the matter and anyone's ideas on how these shocking stats would have contributed to the ancient mindset.
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wileyc
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« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2012, 10:32:18 am »

Interesting topic, I have casually collected and read issues and development of Byzantine medicine, and the progress of hospitals. As this was norm, through ancient time I would then think they knew no other reality hence did not think it other than as normal life. I presume it accounts for early marriage, childbearing, and other activities we relate to a older age.

It is sobering that minor issues such as pneumonia and other infectious diseases would account for such mortatility and morbidity. Things that are treated now on a comfortable out patient basis.

CW
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mwilson603
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« Reply #2 on: June 26, 2012, 11:05:50 am »


It is sobering that minor issues such as pneumonia and other infectious diseases would account for such mortatility and morbidity. Things that are treated now on a comfortable out patient basis.

CW

Yeah, until bacterial drug resistance reaches a point where we can start to encounter the same issues that our ancient forebears found  Sad
(Wow, I sound depressed don't I? Smiley )
regards
Mark
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Andrew McCabe
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« Reply #3 on: June 26, 2012, 01:24:27 pm »

It doesn't sound so shocking to me. Those who reached the age of 10 or 20, i.e. once past the usual childhood diseases, could expect to reach over 50. That's not bad at all. Compare Scotland today, where the life expectancy is 60 for men and 62 for women;
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Statistics/Browse/Health/TrendLifeExpectancy
virtually all the difference could be accounted for by war and by sudden illnesses such as typhoid. Avoid these causes, and it would seem that a healthy teenager could expect to live as long or longer than a typical Scot (and probably much longer than a typical Russian).

Furthermore I would presume it to be much better in richer families who had an abundance of clean water and clean food; perhaps an upper class teenager might expect to live out his four-score-years-and-ten, barring a bout of pneumonia.

The whole methodology is really suspect anyway - averaging the ages of a child who dies at 4 and an old woman who dies at 64 of course gives an average age of 34. But once you survive the childhood illnesses, you are more likely to live to 64 than to 34 .... so it is really nonsense to cite "34" as some sort of meaningful average. Basically it seems that the Romans lived just as long or longer as we do today, when you remove sudden illnesses and childhood illnesses from the sums.

I attach some relevant nutritional images from 2012, including a famous Scottish delicacy that has surely enriched the world's cuisine. These may go some way to explain why the Roman's actually lived quite long lives. They were lucky enough not to conquer Scotland.

http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(04)17589-2/fulltext
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Robert_Brenchley
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« Reply #4 on: June 26, 2012, 03:13:47 pm »

My wife's from Sierra Leone, which used to have the highest infant mortality and shortest life expectancy anywhere. It didn't reach those levels that I know of - it was impossible to get figures during the civil war as it was just too dangerous - but every family lost children. It's a little better now, and hopefuly getting there now they're actually gaining from the diamond wealth. It's in our own history as well, not that far back; my great great grandfather was the youngest of thirteen, and the only surviving boy.
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Robert Brenchley

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« Reply #5 on: June 26, 2012, 04:35:39 pm »

As can be seen often in history, being a member of the upper classes didn't guarantee you immunity from the stalking dangers of infanthood, especially in periods of plague.

Famously, Marcus Aurelius and Faustina had 13 children, only 5 of which outlived their father.
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*Alex
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« Reply #6 on: June 27, 2012, 07:30:40 am »

I attach some relevant nutritional images from 2012, including a famous Scottish delicacy that has surely enriched the world's cuisine. These may go some way to explain why the Roman's actually lived quite long lives. They were lucky enough not to conquer Scotland.

Thumbs Up

I have never actually eaten one. I eat healthily and confine myself to deep fried pizza or deep fried haggis.  Grin

Alex.
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benito
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« Reply #7 on: June 27, 2012, 07:57:02 am »

Ahhh  Haggis. Only the view makes your mouth water. Interesting ceremony though.
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labienus
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« Reply #8 on: June 27, 2012, 08:04:06 am »

Made with the remains of Cumberland the butcher ?
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« Reply #9 on: June 27, 2012, 09:01:39 am »

In modern times the UN measures population 15 and under and not 10 and under so comparable statics are hard to get. 

However, in most of the Sahel and Great Lakes regions of Africa the 15 and under population is 45% - 49% which must be close to the Roman 32% for 10 and under.   

Of course as was pointed out even these areas have much lower infant mortality than Rome so you would have had many more births and many more child deaths than these regions today. 

This must have meant that a far higher percentage of women were pregnant at any given time.  The wealthy might have been able to stay in seclusion but most would have had to have been out and about in daily life.

It is very interesting therefore that pregnant women are not really a feature of Roman art in any manner.

Interestingly the number of old people is not too far off the structure of most of the World today.  While OECD countries have a 65 and over in the 15% - 22% range the world average is just above 8% and 95 countries today have lower than the Roman 4.7% for 65 and over (mostly Africa, Middle East, Central Asia and Carribean). 

So interestingly you have the children of a central African town or village but the old people of Egypt, Jordan and Malaysia. 

Overall India is one of the closer demographic parallels.  Other observers have noted that India may also be one of the closest modern parallels for the wealth distribution in ancient Rome too.

Shawn
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« Reply #10 on: June 27, 2012, 09:39:34 am »

This must have meant that a far higher percentage of women were pregnant at any given time. It is very interesting therefore that pregnant women are not really a feature of Roman art in any manner.

Great reply, Shawn.

Now you mention it, in all my museum visits and time spent looking at ancient art, I cannot recall any pieces that celebrate the process of pregnancy as you say.

Perhaps, due to the infant mortality rate and dangers of childbirth, the connotations were far less positive than today. Pregnancy and childbirth were probably seen more as a necessary evil, a risk that had to be taken in the ancient world.

On the same subect, I wonder if there are any estimated figures available for maternal deaths in childbirth.
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« Reply #11 on: June 28, 2012, 03:57:46 am »

You might be right that pregnancy was seen as a necessary evil by that time but I find it interesting how it was universally recongized as something sacred across the neolithic cultures of Europe and the Middle East - hence all the idols.  In fact this goes back into the paleolithic era.  (I.e. the Venus of Willendorf from Austria circa 24,000 - 22,000 BC).  Then such iconography ends with "civilized man" - Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome all seem to neglect pregnancy in art.

Roman literature gives a hint at how horribly high maternal mortality must have been.  Not sure if that is covered by the article.  The worst today are Mozambique, Malawi, the CAR and Eritrea at 1000-1100/100,000 or a shocking 1%.  I suspect Rome was as bad.

Shawn



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« Reply #12 on: June 28, 2012, 05:46:13 pm »

I think an oft forgotten backdrop to many ancient sources and one of the main concepts it is vital to appreciate if you are to understand the mindset of historical figures, is the life expectancy of those in the ancient world...  I would love to hear people's expertise on the matter and anyone's ideas on how these shocking stats would have contributed to the ancient mindset.

I'm no expert, but I always find it interesting to attempt to place oneself in the mindset of the ancient, using parallels with modern life.  The psychology of the ancient, and the sociology and culture of the masses must have been under heavy influence of frequent death and unknown danger (ie, "mysterious" diseases), which were always lurking about.  One's own mortality must have been more frequently on the mind, forcing one to put regular faith in the gods, and make routine ritualistic offerings to forestall the constant reminder of the inevitable.  And the apparently random causes of death and survival via disease probably led to much rationalizing of the favor or disfavor of the gods to explain the fortune or misfortune of individuals.  Even a daily meal of meat would more likely involve one in the intimate death of the animal, where the best way to keep the meat fresh before consumption was to keep it alive.  War was another facet of life, although only touching a minor portion of the population, where one came face to face with their enemy, and saw grizzly death and agony first hand... It is only when mentally strolling down this path of what must have been the general life of the ancient, that it becomes less shocking to understand some disturbing (in a modern sense) social and cultural aspects of ancient life, such as the gladiatorial combats in front of thrill seeking crowds...

Whereas today, at least in modern societies, much of death is sanitized out of long stretches of our lives.  Modern science and medicine has done much to reduce the mortality rate, and push death at arms length, leaving the individual to put more faith in science than in God.  The consumption of meat is even sanitized, thanks to refrigeration.  The graphic slaughter of farm animals is far removed from our sight and minds when in the meat department, picking among the neatly wrapped beef and chicken.  War is also sanitized, what with missiles that can travel thousands of miles, removing the combatants from the personal horror and devastation that war brings.  Even our modern day version of gladiatorial combat (aka NASCAR) is sanitized, a sport where there is a small, but still very real chance of the participant dying in front of a crowd seeking excitement...

The ability to draw the parallels between modern and ancient life seem to show that the psyche of the human mind apparently hasn't changed much, but obviously modern life, science, industry, and communication have changed how the psyche manifests itself, in addition to changing some portions of the psyche to be more or less prominent...
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« Reply #13 on: June 29, 2012, 12:52:11 pm »

Thanks for your very insightful thoughts on the matter JLTrent. Rather than add to the eloquent ideas you put forward, all of which I agree with, I would like to recommend a wonderful book - Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome by Donald G Kyle.

It deals of course with Gladiatorial spectacles but moreso with the many varied ways in which Death was a constant presence in the lives of the ancients, be it through sacrifices, murder, warfare, plague and so on.
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JLTrent
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« Reply #14 on: July 02, 2012, 06:51:17 pm »

I would like to recommend a wonderful book - Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome by Donald G Kyle.

Never ceases to amaze me that if one can think of it, more than likely, someone's studied it in depth!  Thanks for the recommendation.  Will be ordering it from Amazon...
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