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Were There Centenarians in Ancient Times? Exploring Longevity in Antiquity

True or False:

(A) Life expectancy in ancient societies ranged between 20-35 years.

(B) Some people in ancient societies lived to their 70s and beyond.    

Surprise, surprise. Both statements are true. If you thought only (A) was true, you fell for a common misconception. That’s usually the result of a similarly common mix-up between two concepts: life expectancy and lifespan.

Life expectancy is the average number of years an individual is expected to live (often calculated from birth) [1].

Lifespan is the number of years an individual actually lives [2].

Lifespan is measured through birth certificates and similar records, while life expectancy is measured by averaging the lifespan of an entire population. That’s where the confusion about age in ancient societies comes from.

Indeed, ancient societies exhibited low life expectancy [3]. However, that doesn’t mean everyone back then died at 20-35 years old. This measure only reflects the average age of death in ancient populations, which was dominated by drastic rates of child mortality due to infections and unhygienic living conditions. In ancient Rome, for example, almost 50% of newborns didn’t survive past childhood [4].

However, many of those who did survive childhood in ancient times enjoyed fairly lengthy lifespans. Case in point, a study looked at all Greco-Roman men who are registered in the Oxford Classical Dictionary and didn’t die of violent means (murder or suicide). Think scholars and emperors like Plato and Augustus. 

The study calculated the median lifespan of all 298 men who fit the bill. It was an impressive 72 years old [5]

Although this figure is certainly non-representative of the studied societies as a whole, it does provide evidence that ancient civilizations saw their fair share of long-lived individuals.

But, did they have centenarians too?

Glad you asked. As we previously covered, centenarians are a major interest of longevity researchers for their superior lifespan and resilience.

Of course, religious lores show no shortage of individuals living over 100 years old. The high scores range from 969 years for Methuselah in Abrahamic religions to 8,400,000 years for Shreyansanatha in Jainism. 

Now, it’s challenging to verify the existence of a millionarian. But, some researchers have explored the possibility of centenarians living in ancient societies. These include Professor John R. Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division of the United Nations. 

Professor Wilmoth conducted a statistical analysis to determine the point in history when centenarians emerged. He postulated that the global population had to reach a level of about 100 million people for the first centenarian to have existed. Given certain assumptions, he accordingly estimated that centenarians emerged around 2500 BCE [6]

Interestingly, this figure lends some merit to unverified reports of potential ancient centenarians in certain civilizations. Such reports are based on mummy inscriptions, epitaphs, and king lists among other fascinating archaeological leads. 

So, how about this: we dig out our inner Indiana Jones, scour the ancient ruins, and examine the evidence for those thousand-year-old centenarians? Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory. Let’s do this!

Centenarians in Ancient Egypt 

If you’re too obsessed with the different facets of human aging (like us), you should probably check your 23andMe family tree for ancient Egyptian roots.

Ancient Egyptians were among the first to study aging. In fact, this hieroglyph 𓀗 is regarded as the world’s first visual depiction of old age. They even formulated their own antiaging remedies. A book from around 2700 BCE, titled "The Book for Transforming an Old Man into a Youth of Twenty", contains an ancient Egyptian recipe for an ointment purported to remove wrinkles [7].

Among the signs of their immense interest in aging and longevity is their belief in the “ideal lifespan” being 110 years old. As alluded to in the famous Westcar Papyrus, ancient Egyptians considered amassing this substantial lifespan a reward for a virtuous life [8].

Although most likely merely a metaphor, one could argue for the specificity of the figure 110 as a clue that ancient Egyptians witnessed individuals reaching that lifespan among them or at least thought it possible. Some apply the same argument to the prayer "Jeevema sharadah shatam" from the Vedic civilization in ancient India. That translates to "May we live a hundred autumns” [9]. Once again, the lifespan sought after is perhaps not outlandish enough to brush it off as wishful thinking. 

Assuming a triple-digit lifespan was achievable in ancient Egypt, Pepi II Neferkare would be our likeliest candidate for an ancient Egyptian centenarian. The fifth king of the Sixth Dynasty, Pepi II reportedly ascended to the throne at six years old. And according to the Turin King List, he reigned for an awe-inspiring 94 years [10] (an official Guinness world record for longest reigning pharaoh). Do the math and there you have it: Pepi II, centenarian pharaoh. Coming up just a bit short would be Ramesses II, the third ruler of the Nineteenth Dynasty, who’s reported to have lived to his 90s [11]

Centenarians in Ancient Greece 

In the ancient Greek world, old age was often met with a certain degree of antipathy. The frailty and dependence that came with advancing years were not exactly revered. Adult children were legally obligated to care for their aging parents. During political proceedings, the elderly were sometimes even openly dismissed as "foolish" [12].

However, there were exceptions to this general attitude. In ancient Sparta, a particular governing body held significant sway: the Gerousia. Does the prefix ring any bell? It's derived from 'geron,' meaning an old man, which is the root word for terms like gerontology, geroscience, and geriatrics.

So, as you can already tell by the prefix, the Gerousia was a council where older men were majorly represented, comprising the two reigning kings and 28 elected men over the age of 60 [13]. This council serves as further evidence that long-lifers were not as rare in ancient societies as one might think.

Among them, a few may have even crossed the centenarian threshold. One such individual was Alexis, a comic poet who, according to philosopher Plutarch, lived to be 106 years old (around 375 - 275 BCE). Alexis penned 245 comedies in his lifetime and is said to have passed away on stage while being honored [14].

Another potential centenarian was the tragic poet Aristarchus of Tegea, believed to have lived to 100. Aristarchus, who is briefly mentioned in the Souda, a 10th-century encyclopedia of ancient Mediterranean civilizations, is known to have written 70 plays [15]. Not much else is known about him.

The high number of literary works produced by both Alexis and Aristarchus could be seen as a testament to their longevity. 

Centenarians in Ancient Rome

Do you know how the four-year interval, or Olympiad, between each edition of the Olympics makes each event special? Ancient Romans had a celebration that was designed to be so unique that each person could only witness it once in their lifetime. 

This was the Secular Games, a three-day festival filled with theatrical performances. The interval between each edition of these games was a staggering 100-110 years, a period known as the saeculum [16].

The saeculum was seen as a length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person, possibly marking the renewal of an entire population [17]. This is yet another hint that ancient societies believed a centenarian lifespan was within reach.

Pliny the Elder, a renowned Roman author and philosopher, provides some anecdotal evidence of centenarians in ancient Rome. In his iconic book, "The Natural History," he devoted a chapter titled "The Greatest Length of Life" to recount several centenarians of Greco-Roman times [18].

To keep it short, let's highlight two individuals from Pliny's accounts. First, we have Marcus Valerius Corvus, a consul believed to have lived 100 years from 370–270 BCE. During his career, he was elected consul six times, starting at the age of twenty-three, and was appointed dictator twice.

Next, we introduce our first woman in this article, Terentia. She was the wife of the renowned Roman orator Cicero. Pliny claimed that Terentia lived 103 years from 98 BCE – 6 CE. Terentia was not only a benefactor but also a passionate advocate for Cicero's cause, playing an instrumental role in his political life. Cicero himself wrote a similar account on old age in which he also supports the idea that Corvus lived to 100 years [19].

Longevity-Promoting Factors Among Ancient Centenarians

While it's purely speculative, it's fun to consider what factors might have contributed to the remarkable longevity of these ancient centenarians. Genetics likely played a role, but modern estimates suggest that genetics account for no more than 10% of an impact on longevity [20]. As is the case today, lifestyle and environment were likely significant contributors.

For Pepi II Neferkare, Marcus Valerius Corvus, and Terentia, their positions of wealth and power undoubtedly provided them with superior access to medical care and a life less burdened by labor. 

Alexis and Aristarchus of Tegea, on the other hand, left behind a profound body of work, suggesting that they remained intellectually engaged throughout their lives. This prolonged intellectual engagement is a potential contributor to longevity [21]. Plus, Alexis, as a comic poet, may have maintained a stress-free outlook on life, a common longevity driver among modern-day centenarians [22].

Lastly, while it's unclear which of our ancient centenarians might have benefited from this, a study of skeletal remains from Bronze Age Mongolia showed that a nomadic lifestyle contributed to a healthier life. This was due to the increased physical activity associated with nomadic living and the avoidance of densely populated settlements, which were likely prone to infection outbreaks and lacked sewage infrastructure [23].

Implications of this Discussion

While it sure is amusing to picture an ancient centenarian leading his army into battle or doing a standup bit in a sold-out amphitheater, the subject of today’s article serves much more than a few ‘Woahs’ and giggles. It’s a discussion with essential implications for the longevity field. Let’s circle back to the comparison between life expectancy and lifespan for a moment.

Since ancient times, life expectancy has absolutely come a long way. Today, we enjoy a global life expectancy of 73.4 years [24]. That’s more than double that of our ancestors. It’s a phenomenal achievement led by groundbreaking human genius, from the discovery of penicillin to the development of mRNA vaccines.

But, what about lifespan? If centenarians did indeed exist as long ago as ancient times, then lifespan extension has been far from dramatic throughout these past millennia. Our current ceiling as a species seems to be Madame Jeanne Calment’s verified 122-year lifespan, which has gone unchallenged for nearly three decades [25].

Some scientists might look at that incessant struggle to move the maximum lifespan needle as a reality check on dreams of super longevity and immortality. Others might see it as a motivating challenge, requiring a whole new level of genius.

Backing up that genius with AI might just do the trick.

At Rejuve Network, our Methuselah Flies project successfully extended the lifespan of a cohort of fruit flies by 4.5 times more than their peers. With the power of AI, we’re studying how to replicate these results in humans. And the best part? Rejuve Network research is decentralized. This means our projects are global collaborations, not confined to a single entity. 

So, we’ve rallied the troops — both human and AI. We’re on a warpath to conquer the borders of human lifespan. After all, we’re walking in the footsteps of legendary commanders who left their own marks on the battle for longevity.

Hopefully, they’re cheering us on from somewhere.


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[10] Goedicke, H. (1988). The Death of Pepi Ii – Neferkareʿ. Studien Zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 15, 111–121.

[11] Brand, P. (2000). The Monuments of Sety I: Epigraphic, Historical, & Art Historical Analysis. 2000 Probleme der Ägyptologie 16. Leiden: E.J. Brill. In BRILL.

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[15] Brown, A. D. (2015). Aristarchus (3), of Tegea, Greek tragic poet, mid-5th cent. BCE. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics.

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[17] Dunning, S. B. (2017). Saeculum. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics.

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[20] Ruby, J. G., Wright, K. M., Rand, K. A., Kermany, A., Noto, K., Curtis, D., Varner, N., Garrigan, D., Slinkov, D., Dorfman, I., Granka, J. M., Byrnes, J., Myres, N., & Ball, C. (2018). Estimates of the Heritability of Human Longevity Are Substantially Inflated due to Assortative Mating. Genetics, 210(3), 1109–1124.

[21] Lennartsson, C., & Silverstein, M. (2001). Does Engagement With Life Enhance Survival of Elderly People in Sweden? The Role of Social and Leisure Activities. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 56(6), S335–S342.

[22] Tafaro, L., Tombolillo, M. T., Brükner, N., Troisi, G., Cicconetti, P., Motta, M., Cardillo, E., Bennati, E., & Marigliano, V. (2009). Stress in centenarians. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 48(3), 353–355.

[23] Karstens, S., Littleton, J., Frohlich, B., Amgaluntugs, T., Pearlstein, K., & Hunt, D. (2018). A palaeopathological analysis of skeletal remains from Bronze Age Mongolia. HOMO, 69(6), 324–334.

[24] Worldometer. (2023). Life Expectancy by Country and in the World (2023).

[25] Robine, J.-M., Allard, M., Herrmann, F. R., & Jeune, B. (2019). The Real Facts Supporting Jeanne Calment as the Oldest Ever Human. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 74(Supplement_1), S13–S20.

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