Was their ever a people in European history where life expectancy was similar to Now? 21st century? 70+ years of age? Average or Median?

I realize conventional wisdom would inform us that modern medicine, technological convienences, better food sources, and cleaner water have all made a dramatic improvement to life expectancy in modern times. From 1700 where the average life expectancy in England was 35 years, in America it was 25 years.. to now when it's well eclipsed 70 years.


Psalm 90:10
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.


Herodotus (1.32)
Solon replied, “Croesus, you ask me about human affairs, and I know that the divine is entirely grudging and troublesome to us. 2 In a long span of time it is possible to see many things that you do not want to, and to suffer them, too. I set the limit of a man's life at seventy years; 3 these seventy years have twenty-five thousand, two hundred days, leaving out the intercalary month.


Plato, in the Laws
The guardian of the law shall not hold office longer than twenty years, and shall not be less than fifty years of age when he is elected; or if he is elected when he is sixty years of age, he shall hold office for ten years only; and upon the same principle, he must not imagine that he will be permitted to hold such an important office as that of guardian of the laws after he is seventy years of age, if he live so long.


Aristotle, (History of Animals): In the human species, the male is generative(can reproduce), at the longest, up to seventy years, and the female up to fifty; but such extended periods are rare. As a rule, the male is generative up to the age of sixty-five, and to the age of forty-five the female is capable of conception.


Tacitus: A Dialogue on Oratory
from Cicero’s death to our day is a hundred and twenty years, one man’s life-time.

Life expectancy grew world wide to 71.5 years just in 2014. Is their an example of a people in antiquity who's life expectancy was comparable to ours?

I'm looking for a population's life expectancy. I'm not looking for isolated octogenarians or centenarians from history. I'm limiting the question to Europe because they have a sufficiently long well documented history to entertain this question.

I don't question the value of vaccines. However; the first documented case of the measles was in the 9th century. Rubella in the mid 18th century, and cholera in the 19th century. There is no question that as civilizations have risen, germs and diseases have arisen also. A civilization in antiquity wouldn't have the same challenges from diseases we face in the 21st century.

"Sanitation Improvements" absolutely describes the human experience from the 1800's to 21st centuries given population levels, but it is far from clear that they would describe cultures from antiquity who did not have to contend with the same pre and post Industrial Age, population challenges.

As for child mortality, That would affect an average life expectancy comparison, not a median life expectancy comparison. It could be part of an answer.

  • Reason I ask is because the upper class lived longer. Not average, but not isolated either. – John Dee Mar 10 at 22:38
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    What part of "infant mortality was in the range of 30% to 80%" for most of recorded history before 1900 is difficult to understand? There is a reason the vaccines for measles, smallpox, tetanus, diptheria and rubella, along with improved sanitation eliminating typhus and cholera, save so many lives. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 10 at 22:57
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    I don't understand what you want. You do understand that modern techniques and medicine lengthen the average live span. And the lack of wars, please! Then you give anecdotal evidence that some people got very old. – Jos Mar 11 at 0:21
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    None of those historical quotes refer to life expectancy. They refer to how long a person could be expected to live if nothing killed them. Life expectancy is how long you can expect to live even including being killed by disease/violence/starvation/etc. – Steven Burnap Mar 11 at 4:49
  • @JMS I'm afraid you don't understand the concept of life expectance. Yes, we humans have a biological clock which triggers a process known as aging and as such whenever a human dies of old age is in a normal distribution centered about 75yo, then as today. This, however, has nothing to do with life expectancy, just as average wages has little to do with actual earnings of most of the population. When you factor the high fortunes with the beggars you end up with a number is almost meaningless except for comparations to other places and/or periods. – Rekesoft Mar 12 at 12:40


Life Expectancy has a very clear definition. It is the average number of years that a newborn can expect to leave based on current conditions.

Every pre-twentieth century society studied has shown infant mortality rates that would preclude such life expectancies. For instance, here is a study of ancient Roman tomb inscriptions that shows an infant mortality rate of almost 40%, and if calculated as it is today, gives a "life expectancy" of only 20 years. And this among people important enough to get a grave! (i.e. we're not counting slaves or exposed infants here.)

Since life Expectancy is an average, this massive infant mortality is going to skew it young. This confuses people as they often instinctually think of a life expectancy of 35 meaning that most people drop dead on their 35th birthday. But when 40% of a population dies at age zero, you can have a lot of seventy year olds running around and still have such a low life expectancy.

It should also be noted that historically speaking, it wasn't just infants who died in childbirth. Giving birth was quite dangerous for the mother, something which is clearly not taken into account in these studies of famous men. That also skews the life expectancy down dramatically.

You can also see that this is very obviously the case in that when infant mortality was dramatically reduced, the population exploded, doubling roughly every 40 years. There was no instance of that sort of explosive growth in any prior historical time, therefore, there was never a time prior with post 19th century life expectancies.

Determining the actual life expectancy of an ancient civilization is hard. One common method is to look at the bones found in the cemeteries of these societies and use medical knowledge to estimate age at death. This itself can be tricky, and often they ignore children, coming up with a separate life expectancy at age 15, which ignores infant/child mortality. Wikipedia has a good summary of this, including for ancient Greece, and for that civilization estimates that a 15 year old has a life expectancy of "37–41". I.e the average person who made it to adulthood would die in their fifties. For reference, the average American has a life expectancy of 61 years at 15.

So even if you completely ignore infant/child mortality, the modern world still exceeds a "healthy" ancient culture by two decades in life expectancy.

  • It's a little confusing to read "None of those historical quotes refer to life expectancy. They refer to how long a person could be expected to live if nothing killed them." 1. What's the proper term for the concept in quotes? 2. What was the difference between life-expectancy from birth and life-expectancy from age 18? (Even today 90yo have a higher chance to go 100 than 70yo going 80. So, might be average, median absolute numbers, distribution of max-age more closely to what OP actually (if not mislead entirely) wants to know? – LangLangC Mar 11 at 9:18
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    I'll try to clean up the answer if I get time, but Life Expectancy has a particular meaning, which is the average age of death for people at a certain age at a certain time. (Most commonly at age zero.) The OP seems to be asking for the average age of death when most important causes of death are factored out. I don't think there's a word for that. It might be interesting to ask about the "general health" of different societies, but that's not what the explicit question asks. – Steven Burnap Mar 12 at 3:03
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    If the OP is interested in something other than life expectancy (median age at death?) the question should be changed. Note, however, with the typical U shaped death curve, the median is apt to be near the average. – Steven Burnap Mar 12 at 13:57

So this study doesn't say all people men women children slaves and all classes of people lived to comparable ages ( 70+ ). It says all men who they could identify, 83 of them, with high confidence of dates of birth and death had median and average ages of 70+ years.

The length of life and eugeria in classical Greece

Contrary to the commonly held belief that in antiquity and as late as 1700 A.D. normal lifespan was about 35 years, there are indications that the ancient Greeks lived longer. In a study of all men of renown, living in the 5th and 4th century in Greece, we identified 83 whose date of birth and death have been recorded with certainty. Their mean ± SD and median lengths of life were found to be 71.3±13.4 and 70 years, respectively. Although this cohort cannot be considered as representative of the general population, it is however indicative of a long length of life in classical Greece. Good living conditions and a mild climate at the time of intellectual and artistic excellence, the use of slaves for hard work, an animated social life in which the aged actively participated and, not least of all, the respect that aged people were accorded by the younger, all favored a longer length of life and eugeria (happy aging) or eulongevity in classical Greece.

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    Actually, it doesn't say "all men who they could identify", it says "all men of renown". It's also states explicitly that "this cohort cannot be considered as representative of the general population". In fact, the analysis of the skeletal remains from investigations of the burial crypt at Spitalfields suggests that we have been under-estimating age-at-death for skeletal remains, but we have no real way of gauging by how much. – sempaiscuba Mar 11 at 1:54
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    Life expectancy is a bucket-shaped curve. The death rate is very high at birth, plunges to a minimum around ten years old, slowly rises to about forty, then rises dramatically. So someone who survives to twenty has a fairly high chance of making it to 70 if they are not exposed to violence, disease or starvation, even in a society where the overall life expectancy is very low. If half the population dies under a year of age and the rest live to seventy, the overall life expectancy is 35 years old. – Steven Burnap Mar 11 at 4:52
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    That "study" is a blatant example of survivorship bias It's pretty hard to get yourself written up in a document that is saved for 2000 years if you die at 13. – Steven Burnap Mar 11 at 4:59
  • @Steven Burnap - Labashi-Marduk, Antiochius V, Ptolemy XIII, Caesarion, Julia Drusilla (daughter of Caligula), Brittanicus, etc. See Battarius for someone recorded for activities as a child, with no record of their death. Still, it is true that it was and is rare to become famous as a child. – MAGolding Mar 11 at 18:43
  • @MAGolding Yeah, and not one of those people lived past 25. (Except, as you say, Battarius) – Steven Burnap Mar 12 at 2:55

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