Memento Mori: What The Romans Can Tell Us About Old Age & Death Is As Entertaining As It Is Educational

As the old saying goes, in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. The latter is something we have a choice of whether to pay or not and face the consequences. The former is inevitable, so we might as well do the best we can while we’re alive and look back on a life well lived. 

All of this ties into the idea of memento mori, a concept the Romans took to heart and it’s the focus of Memento Mori: What The Romans Can Tell Us About Old Age & Death by Peter Jones. 

An informative book filled with quirky and resonant themes about how to accept death with grace, Memento Mori may help change your perspective on life beyond the veil.

Explaining the Ancient Roman approach to death 

Jones starts out by setting the scene of what life was like for the Romans compared to now. Mortality rates were higher, children died young, people advanced quickly to bring prestige to their family and disease was rampant. 

All of this puts the state of death into context and there’s plenty of discussion on the life stages proposed by various thinkers such as Solon and Hippocrates. For instance, Hippocrates favoured a 7 stage life cycle that went as followed:

  • 1 – 7: Young child
  • 7 – 14: Boy
  • 14 – 21: Adolescent
  • 21 – 28: Young man
  • 28 – 35: Man
  • 35 – 42: Elder
  • 42 – 49: Old man

While this type of model might seem harsh, it emphasised the difficulty of living beyond 50 in the ancient world. 

Jones also includes arguments on the nature of youth and old age from people like Aristotle and Cicero, who both differed in their perspectives. Cicero believed it was important for the young to respect the old and the book features this passage:

“It is then, the duty of a young man to show deference to his elders and to attach himself to the best and most approved of them, so as to receive the benefit of their counsel and influence. For the inexperience of youth requires practical wisdom of age to strengthen and direct it…the old on the other hand should it seems have their physical labours reduced; their mental activities should be actually increased.

They should endeavour too by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.”

Different views of death 

In other sections of the book, Jones provides examples of figures who died well and died poorly from the Roman worldview. Good examples included Socrates, Cato The Younger, a noblewoman named Lucretia who stood up to the Roman king Tarquin the Arrogant and Epicharis, a slave who refused to reveal information about a conspiracy against Nero. 

There’s also a fascinating analysis on Ancient Roman epitaphs and how people left messages for the dead. For example, many epitaphs started with the letters DM, which stood for Dis Manibus and referred to the Underworld Spirits of the Dead. 

Where appropriate, graves were marked with the accomplishments and exploits of what the deceased did in life. This was evident in the powerful Scipio family, which included the likes of Scipio Africanus. An example of a family member’s epitaph reads as followed:

“Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus. Gnaus’ son, a courageous and wise man, whose stature perfectly matched his bravery, was aedile, consul and censor among you; he took Taurasia and Cisauna in Samnium; he subdued all Lucania and brought hostages from there.”

These types of markers also featured a elogium (a hymn of praise) and see the importance of proving you’re worthy of the family line here: 

“Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Hispanus, son of Gnaeus, praetor, curule aedile, quaestor, tribune of soldiers (twice); member of the board of Ten for Judging Lawsuits; member of the Board of Ten for Making Sacrifices. By my good conduct I heaped virtues on the virtues of my clan; I produced a family and sought to equal the exploits of my father. I upheld the praise of my ancestors, so that they are glad that I was created of their line. My honour has ennobled my stock.”

Taking the sting out of death 

Memento Mori is ultimately a book that shows the wider view of death and grief in the Roman world from the lowliest peasant to the most powerful emperor. It’s educational, entertaining and shows how the Romans found ways to take away the fear and pain of death.

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