Ancient Life Expectancy Wasn’t Much Different From Now

By J. Wisniewski on Thursday, July 18, 2013
“In many ways we are all sons and daughters of ancient Greece.” —Nia Vardalos

In a Nutshell

Today, it’s popularly assumed ancient persons lived short lives. Since life expectancy for the ancient world is typically quoted at around age 30, reaching old-age must have been like winning a lottery where the prize is watching all of your friends die before you. This widespread fallacy stems from the misleading statistic of life expectancy, however, due to high infant mortality rates.

The Whole Bushel

Despite the ubiquitous slavery, never-ending wars, famines, and the wholesale slaughter of human beings for sport, people—meaning anyone older than an infant or small child—expected to live to old age in the classical world.

See, life expectancy is a flawed metric for what it purports to measure, i.e. expectations. Since it’s doubtful infants expect anything other than a constant stream of milk, including their mortality rates in a simple average of mortality to determine “expectations” is misleading.

Averaging one person dying at six months and another who lives to age sixty-six means average life expectancy for that pair is age thirty-three. Ancient infant mortality rates hovered around 30%. Clearly, using just life expectancy statistics paints an inaccurate picture of ancient demography.

Ancient persons weren’t simply dropping to the ground in their thirties like mayflies. Classical literature suggests dying before one’s sixties was considered unnatural, a tragedy even. That’s because, after removing infants from the life expectancy equation, the typical lifespan has barely changed in millennia.

A typical ancient life span was thought to be one that extended into one’s sixties. That’s not far removed from current life expectancy in the U.K., a country with relatively low infant mortality rates.

Show Me The Proof

Ancient Egypt and Us: The Impact of Ancient Egypt on the Modern World
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History
A Lexical Semantic Study of the Life Cycle in Biblical Israel
Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome