Longevity In The Ancient World

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Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. From the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii. AD 50–79.
Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. From the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii. AD 50–79.

There is little firm information about the collective lives of those who lived in the first centuries BC and the first centuries AD, but the conjecture is that the average life span was about 35 years. The 35-40 average life span of people in the Western world held true through the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance until the 19th and 20th centuries when modern medicine and its life-preserving discoveries began in earnest. For thousands of years, life was uncertain but it was pretty certain the normal person would not live past 40 years. Ambitious or talented young men, or young men like Herod the Great’s 19-year-old son Archelaus who inherited kingdoms, were forced to grow up quickly because by age 20 their life was already half over. Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC reigned over his father’s kingdom and commanded the army that would conquer the known world when he was 20. Charlemagne ruled most of western Europe in the 700’s AD when he was 26. Genghis Khan in the 1100’s began building the army that would conquer Asia when he was 20. Chaucer the Father of English Literature wrote his first major work, the Book Of Duchess, in the 14th century when he was 25. Shakespeare wrote his first play when he was 26 in 1590. “Time’s winged chariot” was always drawing “near” to young men and women for millennia.—Sandra Sweeny Silver

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