MEMENTO MORI: What the Romans can tell us about Old Age and Death

Peter Jones

Atlantic Books (2018) 212pp h/b £12.99 (ISBN 9781786494801)

Memento Mori is another in J.’s series of compendium accounts of various aspects of the classical world (see for example Eureka or Veni Vidi Vici). Here he takes on attitudes to ageing and death. Thus there are sections on statistics (half the population was under 20), the generation gap, retirement, violent death, standard death and burial arrangements.

Readers of a certain age may recall the widely syndicated illustrated quarter page in Sunday newspapers entitled ‘Ripley—Believe it or not’ which depicted a series of bizarre or striking facts, aimed at both serious information and popular appeal. J.’s choice of presentation is remarkably similar (absent the illustrations)—short, pithy gobbets of information largely self-standing and self-explanatory. Inevitably, apart from the epigraphy, much of the material is drawn from the (mainly Roman) literary elite, who had a vested interest in the opinion of posterity.

Overall an initial reaction might be to note how similar most of the material is to standard Western European attitudes (Montaigne, Shakespeare, Swift or Lord Chesterfield). Many English gravestones carry lines as quirky as the Roman epitaphs. Dio Chrystostom’s description of his retirement could be readily matched today by a retired Berkshire lawyer active in the Wokingham U3A.

J. argues, however, that such similarities have begun to change over the past thirty years. The Roman acceptance of old age and death as natural phenomena which had to be accepted as such is being replaced by an interventionist philosophy which seeks permanently to ameliorate the effects of ageing and even significantly to delay the onset of death. This turns these processes into objects of fear rather than reluctant acceptance. He strongly implies that the Roman approach is the healthier.

Many readers should enjoy and profit from this canter over the killing grounds.

Roger Barnes

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