May 11, 2016, by Nikki Rollason

Long-lived monarchs, ancient and modern

In light of the Queen’s recent 90th birthday, Nicholas Wilshere discusses long-lived monarchs ancient and modern.

April 21st marked the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, an event which prompted royal reporters to make comparisons with other long-lived and long-reigning rulers, and to point out that she is both the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch, outdoing the previous record-holders George III and Victoria. Meanwhile Wikipedia, with its customary love of such details, provides full lists of monarchs sorted by longevity and length of reign.

In the ancient world, too, people were interested in keeping records of those who reached notable ages, in particular such well-known figures as philosophers, literary authors, and monarchs. I’m currently working on a translation of one list written in Greek, the Macrobioi (‘Long-Lived Men’), which may or may not be by the 2nd-century AD author Lucian: the biggest section of this list covers kings.

I say ‘kings’ advisedly, since this whole list of notably-old celebrities features not a single woman, even though women tend to live longer than men. As Tim Parkin writes in his book on Old Age in the Roman World (p.45), ‘this is a reflection of a male world, not necessarily of higher female mortality at younger ages’. In other words, if this ancient author were to return and update the list, he’d probably be surprised to find that Britain’s two oldest monarchs were both queens, and might not even include them.

However, ancient readers would not have been too surprised if they did find a British monarch among the long-lived. Lucian Boia points out that ancient theories about the health effects of climate (which are prominent in the mind of the author of the Macrobioi) created an assumption that people who lived on the edges of the known world were by nature more hardy folk, who didn’t even begin to show signs of ageing until they had reached the kinds of age that would qualify them for inclusion on the list. Indeed, the author of the Macrobioi explicitly says that he hopes it will redress the balance from the periphery to the centre, as ‘a noteworthy refutation of those who try to slander the climate’ of Italy!

So, despite our modern interest in the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, we can at least be pleased that a nonagenarian Queen is a good advertisement for the benefits of the British weather.

Image: Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome, who ‘is said to have lived most ruggedly past ninety years’, according to the Macrobioi (image published by Guillaume Rouillé (1518?-1589) “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum,” via Wikimedia Commons)

*This post originally stated that the Queen’s birthday was on 22nd April. It is, of course, on the 21st.

Posted in AnniversariesbodiesGreek literatureListsLucian