How to Grow Old by Marcus Tullius Cicero

Book Review by Alistair Forrest

A couple of years before his violent death on the order of the Second Triumvirate, Cicero wrote a charming essay on the subject of growing old. Rogue and hypocrite he may have been in the eyes of some, but you can`t help feeling he deserved the chance to live out his old age in peace and tranquility. He was 63.

The philosopher, politician and orator wrote his treatise, Cato Maior de Senectute (Cato the Elder on Old Age), after retiring to his country estate. He chose Cato into whose mouth to put words of wisdom on old age in a fictional monologue - Cicero greatly admired the Roman senator from the previous century.

In fact, the treatise begins as a conversation between Marcus Cato as an old man and the commanders Gaius Laelius and Scipio Africanus, so is not strictly a monologue, but inevitably turns into a lecture commending the joys of old age. However, not everything is joyful for a Stoic like Cicero: gardening may be a delight but sex is overrated!

This is Cicero`s thinking: if mother nature has planned the stages of life so carefully, it`s unlikely that such a clever playwright would neglect the final act. The things enjoyed in youth are not the same for the elderly, but great pleasures can be found in learning and conveying wisdom to those willing to listen.

Grumpy old folk don`t age well. Cicero sees no room for a Victor Meldrew attitude as "older people who are reasonable, good tempered and gracious will bear aging well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every period of their lives."

If there are drawbacks to life in old age, these can be nullified by diet (healthy eating and exercise) and mental activity. It`s not hard to imagine Cicero championing salads and supplements, walking the dogs and switching off the television to read a good book. No gamer and texter he!

As for the fading of sexual urges and the lack of such engagement, Cicero`s opinion is simply "Get over it". It must be a Stoic thing, but treating this as "a glorious gift" freeing us from "youth`s most destructive failing" is a little hard to swallow. However, Cicero`s lengthy polemic on the subject concludes that a reduction of sexual appetite provides room for many substitute aspects of living that are more satisfying

One of these aspects is convivium - conversation, good company, a meal with friends. Those shallow Greeks would have called this "drinking together" but for Cicero a dinner party that starts early in the day, allowing an emphasis on conversation rather than eating and drinking, is the stuff of life. As for drinking, he quotes Xenophon`s Symposium, "a small cup filled as if with dew, cool in the summer and warmed in winter by sunshine or fire". Not binge-drinking then.

A section on farming expressing the delights of sowing seed and cultivating one`s own land reveals Cicero`s own green-fingered joy. Pursue a creative hobby like gardening with passion and live long. And don`t be a miser, for "what could be more ridiculous than for a traveller to add to his baggage at the end of a journey?"

Then there`s death, and the hereafter. Death either destroys the human soul or frees it to live forever - there is no third possibility for Cicero. So why fear death, since one will be either "not unhappy" or "happy" after the event? Some, like actors, need not remain on the stage for the applause - Cicero`s daughter Tullia died not long before he wrote Senectute.

Latin scholars will enjoy this edition as the original is on the left hand page, the translation opposite. Unfortunately, my schoolboy Latin has faded with the years so I am unable to tell you how accurate Freeman`s translation is. But one thing`s for sure, Cicero`s mind was still most lively as he entered his sixties.

About Alistair Forrest; Brought up in the Middle East, schooled in the UK, exhilarating career as a journalist and editor, now full-time author of fresh historical fiction. First novel LIBERTAS published 2009 by Quaestor2000, second novel GOLIATH 2011, third SHAMASH under way.

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