Dead at 60

One thing I've mentioned a few times in passing, is that the people of Ancient Greece were hungry. The population was constantly expanding, but growing food on the rocky ground was no easy matter. Personally, based on my reading, I don't think historians give this point enough emphasis. The necessity to put food in mouths drove some extraordinary customs which today we would consider very icky indeed.

Back in Archaic times, on the island of Keos, it was the custom for men when they turned 60 to kill themselves by drinking hemlock!

This appears to have been a novel means of population control. It was known as the Kean Law.

Here's a quote from Strabo:
It is reputed that there was once a law among the Keans, which appears to have ordered those who were over sixty years of age to drink hemlock, in order that the food might be sufficient for the rest. The law is mentioned by Menander, who wrote, “The law of the Keans is good, that he who is unable to live well should not live wretchedly.”
This comes from Strabo's Geography, section 10.5.6. I've quoted the Perseus edition, and reworked it a little to make it more readable.

Just how stressed and hungry does a population have to be, for something like this to become a custom?

This sort of ugliness inevitably devalues life in general. At some point which can't be dated, Athens invaded Keos. The locals were besieged and, not surprisingly, quickly ran out of food. Here's Strabo again on what happened next:
And it is said that once, when they were being besieged by the Athenians, the Keans voted, setting a definite age, that the oldest among them should be put to death, but the Athenians raised the siege.
The brilliant historical writer Mary Renault mentions this charming custom in The Praise Singer, which is about the life of the great poet Simonides. Simonides was born on Keos. Renault has the father of Simonides suffer a stroke. The father demands the cup of hemlock from his son.

The actual suicide appears to have been carried out at a community festival. The man to die would gird his head in flowers and, presumably, parade and say his farewells, before taking a cup of hemlock. (Hemlock grows naturally on Keos to this day.)

There's a fair chance that if this happened on Keos, then it occurred on other islands too. The law probably didn't need to apply to women, by the way, because the chances of a woman living to 60 were approximately zero. If somewhow a lady survived that long, I imagine the rule applied.

Things did improve. By Classical times compulsory suicide had disappeared everywhere. In fact in some places it came to be considered reprehensible. In Classical Athens a suicide was considered guilty of a crime against the state, because the dead man had deprived the state of a useful citizen. The dead citizen was "punished" by having his hand cut off and buried seperately. Plato has Socrates say at one point that a suicide is like a soldier deserting his post.

So, imagine you were a man on Keos, and 59 years old.


Matthew Delman said...

What does the fact that I immediately thought of the movie Logan's Run say about me?

This was well-rated for the ickiness factor by the way. And yet it's still fascinating.

That would make for a great story. A 59-year-old man on Keos who bucks the trend and wants to live longer. Hmm ...

Gary Corby said...

You're inside my mind. As it happens, I do have a short story, not yet published, about a man who does NOT take the hemlock.

The story's set right on the transition period when the custom was being dropped, at which point there must have been a first man to refuse.

Janet Reid said...

I'm adding this to a long list of reasons I'm glad I don't live in ancient Greece!

Trisha Leigh said...

Always fascinating, Gary. I love reading these little tidbits. I would also love to read that short! I'm going to be diving back into my own historical soon (with a few changes) and your blog really revs me up :)

Amalia Dillin said...

Yeah, I think you're right that this doesn't get the attention it should by historians. But I think it isn't something easily understandable by today's world, and that's part of why it's left in the dark.

But. How many people really lived to 60 that long ago, too? I mean, I think 60 would've been REALLY old-- and it wouldn't have just been a population control, but also maybe kept resources from being sunk into caring for the elderly who could not care for themselves? Perhaps keeping people in the fields, so to speak, rather than at home spooning broth? What do you think?

Joshua McCune said...

What percentage of the population actually made it to 60 back then? And of those who did, how many were like Dominican baseball players who lied about their age?

L. T. Host said...

I don't have much to add, other than I love learning, and thanks for teaching me something new every time you post :)

Susan at Stony River said...

I wonder if this inspired the Futurama episode where Professor Farnsworth has to turn himself in to die because of his age?

Although I admit I like the idea of the flowers and parade *before* dying, unlike the after of a funeral. Not enough to voluntarily die for it, but still...

If I were 59 on Keos, I'd get the hell out of Dodge, I tell you what. But what an inner conflict it could be, if he were caring for a disabled child there for instance, or part of some great work... could be a fascinating story!

Yvonne Osborne said...

I'm afraid we aren't that far from finding out just how hungry a population has to be for something like this to happen. Most people don't realize how precarious our food supply is. How close to the precipice Monsanto and the like have brought us with their frankenstein foods, genetic modifers and contaminating gmo seeds.

There's a story in here somewhere. Past and present.

I can't tell you how much I love reading about the Greeks. Thanks for furthering my education.

Meghan said...

People fail to understand how hungry people really were back then it's true. Grain from the Baltic was sooo important to Attica and any threat to their grain shipments was a threat to the populace...

_*rachel*_ said...

Wow. And Matthew's right--it would be a really cool story.

This type of post is why I read this blog--interesting, new and old, funny, creative.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks everyone for the kind words.

I wrote the short story ages ago, but it needs some revision. When it's done I'll see if someone wants it.

You're right Amalia, there was a distinct lack of compassionate social services.

No one knows how many made it to 60, but clearly there were enough that it was noticable. Keep in mind that sickly kids died in infancy, no one over-ate (to put it mildly) and everyone got lots of exercise. If you survived infancy, then by modern standards, the lifestyle was extraordinarily healthy. There's a paradox for you!

Thanks for the semi-suggestion, Meghan. You're dead right that the trade route to the Baltic was critical. I'm putting the corn laws on the to-write list!

Yamile said...

Thanks for sharing this Gary. How disturbing! It reminded me of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, in which the weak and the old were "released."

Gary Corby said...

Hi Yamile, yes, the difference being that Logan's Run and The Giver et al. are all fiction, whereas this really happened.

It is actually possible for human societies to end up in this state, and as Yvonne points out it could in theory happen again.

That fiction like the Giver can match the strange reality shows art really can accurately reflect the human condition.

Loretta Ross said...

Thanks for another fascinating post! You mentioned Socrates - that question of why suicide is considered wrong is one of the things addressed in Phaedo. In that I think Socrates says that you belong to the gods, not yourself, so suicide is a kind of theft. (See? I'm not just trying to sound smart. I really am reading it. :P Not entirely *understanding* it, but . . . *G*)

As far as the question of how many people lived to be sixty in those days, probably a lot more than we'd think. For a long time it was commonly believed that people in the old days died very young, like in their thirties or forties. New research into dating techniques in the last twenty years, though, suggests that traditional methods for determing age are unreliable and almost always err on the side of youth. There was a great documentary about this from the late '80s called The Skeletons of Spitalfields. If you ever get a chance to watch it, it's one I heartily recommend!

And, yeah, I thought of Logan's Run too. *G*

Loretta Ross said...

Oh, and P.S.

Remember, it's a woman's prerogative to lie about her age!

Gary Corby said...

It's absolutely the right of every woman to lie about her age, and in this case I'd definitely recommend it.

Interesting stuff about age dating!

Socrates was probably running a version of the party line when he said that, but with his own self-cooked rationale. By his time suicide was out of fashion. Of course, it came back with a vengeance during Roman times.

RWMG said...

From what I've read the age range probably wasn't that different to what it is today. Although we hear that the life expectancy was around 35, that doesn't mean most people died in their 30s and only a few people lived into their 40s, 50s and above. But that's based on your life expectancy at birth. What drags the figure down is the huge number of people who died in childhood. If you reached adulthood, your chances of reaching old age were probably not that different from what they are today (or at least in the early to mid 20th century) -- at least for men. Women, of course, had the dangers of childbirth to get through.

DeadlyAccurate said...

Why were the chances of women reaching 60 virtually nil? Was it that they almost always died in childbirth?

And yeah, infant mortality rates dragged the "average life expectancy" numbers down, since so many children died before they were a year old.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carla,

Women probably died on average earlier than men. Childbirth was unbelievably dangerous, and even if it didn't kill a woman outright, could leave her weakened for next time. With no contraception it happened more often too.

Robert, I'm dead sure you're right, but I've never seen anything that talks about life expectancy curves. I'd love to know what you found that explains this stuff?

RWMG said...

It's just one of those things repeatedly mentioned (drummed into me) during Ancient History classes at school.

Looking for more info, I did come across this:

It was not unusual for the polis to dictate the parameters of funerals to be conducted by private families. The regulations of several cities are extant. Our most detailed legal information comes from Athens and from cities that adopted Athenian laws. The legislation, which was attributed to Solon and continued in effect in the classical period, included the following provisions:

the prothesis ('laying out of the body') must be held indoors; the ekphora ('transporting the corpse to its place of burial') must be held before sunrise on the succeeding day, with men walking in front of the cart, and women behind; only women over the age of 60 or related to the deceased within the degree of second cousin are permitted to participate, with the latter also permitted to return to the house after the burial; women must not wear more than three himatia ('cloaks'), nor must the dead be interred in more than three; food and drink brought in the procession must not be worth more than one obol; the offering basket must not be longer than one cubit; mourners must not go out at night except in the funeral cart with a light; laceration of the flesh, singing of prepared dirges, or bewailing anyone except the person whose funeral is being held is forbidden; and visiting the tombs of non-relatives except at their funerals is forbidden.

Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece, pgs 100-101.

So women surviving beyond the age of 60 can't have been that uncommon, otherwise why not just say "women not allowed"?

RWMG said...

Here is a table showing life expectancy at different ages in Rome. It seems once you reached the age of 10 you could reasonably expect to reach your 50s and 60s. I don't suppose the figures for Greece were very different.

Gary Corby said...

Wow Robert, we can always rely on you to come up with the cool information.

So it seems in Classical times there were indeed women making it past 60.

I particularly like the life table!

dolorah said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the info.


Gary Corby said...

You're most welcome Donna!

Yamile said...

I know. There are some things in real life, that no one could make up, even for a horror story.