Knowing When to Bow Out

Sappho Fr. 121

Since you’re a friend to us,
find a younger wife.
I won’t countenance marriage,
being older than you.

Philodemus 5.112

I loved—who hasn’t? And partied—who’s a stranger to that?
But my loss of all control, what was the cause? A god, no?
To hell with it! Grey hair is fast closing in on black ones,
Harbinger of the sober stage of life.
When it was the season to play, I played.
Now that’s over, I’m turning to more suitable concerns.

Sappho Fr. 121

ἀλλ’ ἔων φίλος ἄμμι
λέχος ἄρνυσο νεώτερον·
οὐ γὰρ τλάσομ’ ἔγω συνοί-
κην ἔοισα γεραιτέρα

Philodemus 5.112

ἠράσθην τίς δ᾽ οὐχί; κεκώμακα: τίς δ᾽ ἀμύητος
κώμων; ἀλλ᾽ ἐμάνην ἐκ τίνος; οὐχὶ θεοῦ;
ἐρρίφθω: πολιὴ γὰρ ἐπείγεται ἀντὶ μελαίνης
θρὶξ ἤδη, συνετῆς ἄγγελος ἡλικίης.
καὶ παίζειν ὅτε καιρός, ἐπαίξαμεν ἡνίκα καὶ νῦν
οὐκέτι, λωϊτέρης φροντίδος ἁψόμεθα.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

How Will I know If She Really Loves Me?

Rufinus 5.87 (from the Greek Anthology)

Melissias will not admit her love,
But her body screams like it’s on the receiving end
Of a quiver of arrows: unsteady steps,
Bouts of gasping breath,
And hollow love-struck sockets.
Now then, O Longings, in your mother’s name,
(Cytherea with the beautiful garland)
Inflame the unyielding woman
Until she cries out, “I’m burning!”

ἀρνεῖται τὸν ἔρωτα Μελισσιάς, ἀλλὰ τὸ σῶμα
κέκραγ᾽ ὡς βελέων δεξάμενον φαρέτρην,
καὶ βάσις ἀστατέουσα, καὶ ἄστατος ἄσθματος ὁρμή,
καὶ κοῖλαι βλεφάρων ἰοτυπεῖς βάσιες.
ἀλλά, Πόθοι, πρὸς μητρὸς ἐϋστεφάνου Κυθερείης,
φλέξατε τὴν ἀπιθῆ, μέχρις ἐρεῖ ‘ Φλέγομαι.’


Isn’t it strange that the speaker’s great desire is for Melissias to say aloud what he purportedly already knows? This limited ambition begs the question, what in the first place justifies his belief that she’s in love? To hear him tell it, her body gives her away: her eyes, her feet, her breathing. It’s worth noting that the speaker describes Melissias’s body not as showing how she feels but as uttering it (κράζω: to shout, scream, shriek). It’s worth noting precisely because what the speaker is now asking for is more of the same: more utterances, but this time from the mouth. 

But what’s gained by having her mouth join the chorus of signifying body parts? The idea seems to be that the mouth is uniquely subject to the will while eyes and feet, for example, are not. Speech, that is, evidences an internal reality, a second being which might well be free even after the body submits. If that’s the case, then the behavior of the eyes and feet don’t suffice as evidence of the love, undermining the speaker’s explicit claim to the contrary. In other words, it appears the speaker actually doubts the reliability of the signs his conclusion rests on. And so he’s asked for . . . more signs.  

But words, like the body, can deceive. After all, Melissias has denied what she’ll next affirm. Where then is certainty to be found? That’s the speaker’s question, and ours. Here it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s insight: at some point the demand for certainty is no longer a desire for knowledge of the object but a desire to be the object. In other words, certainty would require collapsing the third-person and first-person perspectives, such that there would be no difference between saying “I know myself” and “I know her.” And that, I suspect, is beyond the power of the gods.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

Before 78 Was the New 28

Mimnermus fr. 1

what is life, and what pleasure is there, without golden Aphrodite?
let me die when I stop caring about these things:
secret love, and gentle gifts, and the bed.
things like these are the blooms of youth –
delicious to men and women alike.

but then old age comes bounding.
always it makes a man a disfigured thing, a base thing.
ugly cares press at his soul nonstop.
when he looks on the rays of the sun, no joy.
no, instead boys hate him,
and women, they scorn him.

such are the ways god made old age a pain in the ass.

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης,
τεθναίην ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή,
οἷ᾽ ἥβης ἄνθ εα γίγνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν: ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ
γῆρας, ὅ τ᾽ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ κακὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ᾽ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν,
οὕτως ἄργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

A Routine for Managing Old Age from Cicero

Cicero, De Senectute 35-36

“Laelius and Scipio, we must resist old age and counteract its weaknesses with care. We must fight against it as we would a disease. A heath regimen must be established. We need moderate exercise and only as much food and drink as is needed to replenish our abilities but not to overcome them. And we should not attend to the body alone: but much greater service is owed to the mind and soul.

For these parts flicker out from old age just as a lamps unfilled with oil waver and dim. The body, moreover, grows worn out from excessive exercise, but our minds are unburdened by working out. For, the men Caecilius calls “the comic old fools” are those he means to mark out as credulous, forgetful, and discombobulated. These are not the faults of old age altogether, but of a lazy, careless, and sleepy old age. Just as petulance and lust are more often traits of young men than old ones, yet are not present in all young men but only the corruptible ones, so too is that aged foolishness which people usually call senility a mark of those who have weak minds, not of all old men.”

Resistendum, Laeli et Scipio, senectuti est eiusque vitia diligentia compensanda sunt, pugnandum tamquam contra morbum sic contra senectutem, habenda  ratio valetudinis, utendum exercitationibus modicis, tantum cibi et potionis adhibendum, ut reficiantur vires, non opprimantur. Nec vero corpori solum subveniendum est, sed menti atque animo multo magis. Nam haec quoque, nisi tamquam lumini oleum instilles, exstinguuntur senectute. Et corpora quidem exercitationum defetigatione ingravescunt, animi autem exercitando levantur. Nam quos ait Caecilius “comicos stultos senes,” hos significat credulos obliviosos dissolutos, quae vitia sunt non senectutis, sed inertis ignavae somniculosae senectutis. Ut petulantia, ut libido magis est adulescentium quam senum, nec tamen omnium adulescentium, sed non proborum, sic ista senilis stultitia, quae deliratio appellari solet, senum levium est, non omnium.

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A Few, Random Passages on Aging

Crates fr. 33, from Zenobius 3.15

“Give an aging horse shorter laps.”

ἵππῳ γηράσκοντι τὰ μείονα κύκλ᾿ ἐπίβαλλε

Martial, 4.78.9-10

“Let young men do these things in the open: Afer,
There is no more hideous a sight than an aged busybody”

haec faciant sane iuvenes: deformius, Afer,
omnino nihil est ardalione sene.

Plutarch, Table Talk III 656b-c

“Therefore, we eagerly welcomed the new-fangled arguments of young men because they did not take recourse to those obvious points of logic but had a wealth of their own attempts. However, there are matters ready and easy to understand: heaviness of the sweet wine, as Aristotle says, smashes through the stomach and there is a great deal of gas and moisture mixed together. On of these, drives through and escapes; the other naturally makes the wine weaker. But aging gives it more power as the water is separated. And the wine, though less in measure, is more forceful in strength.”

Σφόδρ᾿ οὖν ἀπεδεξάμεθα τὴν εὑρησιλογίαν τῶν νεανίσκων, ὅτι τοῖς ἐμποδὼν οὐκ ἐπιπεσόντες ἰδίων ηὐπόρησαν ἐπιχειρημάτων. ἐπεὶ τά γε πρόχειρα καὶ ῥᾴδια λαβεῖν ἥ τε βαρύτης ἐστὶ τοῦ γλεύκους, ὡς Ἀριστοτέλης φησίν, ἡ διακόπτουσα τὴν κοιλίαν, καὶ τὸ πολὺ συμμεμιγμένον πνευματῶδες καὶ ὑδατῶδες· ὧν τὸ μὲν εὐθὺς ἐκπίπτει βιαζόμενον, τὸ δὲ πέφυκε ἀμβλύτερον ποιεῖν τὸν οἶνον· παλαίωσις δ᾿ ἐπίτασιν ποιεῖ, ἐκκρινομένου τοῦ ὑδατώδους· καὶ γίγνεται μέτρῳ μὲν ἐλάττων ὁ οἶνος δυνάμει δὲ σφοδρότερος.

Historia Augusta, Tacitus 5

And then these shouts came from the senate: “Trajan came to rule as an old man too” they cried ten times. “Hadrian also came to rule as an old man,” they cried ten times. “Antoninus, too, came to power as an old man,” they cried ten times. Then they shouted ten times, “You have also read yourself: “the gray beard of a roman king! Can anyone rule better than an old man?” They asked ten times. “We are making you emperor, not soldier!” They said twenty times, “You order, let soldiers fight.” Then they yelled thirty times, “You have wisdom and a good brother.” Then they said twenty times, “Severus says the head rules, not the feet!” Then they said thirty times, “We are selecting your mind not your body.” And the added twenty times, “Tacitus Augustus, May the gods preserve you!”

Post haec adclamationes senatus haec fuerunt: “Et Traianus ad imperium senex venit.” dixerunt decies. “Et Hadrianus ad imperium senex venit.” dixerunt decies. “Et Antoninus ad imperium senex venit.” dixerunt decies. “Et tu legisti: ‘Incanaque menta regis Romani.’” dixerunt decies. “Ecquis melius quam seneximperat?” dixerunt decies. “Imperatorem te, non militem facimus. dixerunt vicies. “Tu iube, milites pugnent.” dixerunt tricies. “Habes prudentiam et bonum fratrem.” dixerunt decies. “Severus dixit caput imperare non pedes.” dixerunt tricies. “Animum tuum, non corpus eligimus.” dixerunt vicies. “Tacite Auguste, di te servent!”


Image result for Ancient Roman old age

Varro Will Advise You From The Grave

From Varro’s On Agriculture 1.1

“If I had the time, Fundania, I would write this with more polish than what I now jot down as I am able but I know I must hurry because, as the saying goes, if a person is a bubble, an old man is even more so. Now my eightieth year urges me to collect my bags before I depart from life. This is why, since you have bought land which you and to make profitable by cultivating it well, and you have asked me how I would manage it, I am advising you what is the right thing for you to do, and not only for when I am alive myself, but also after I die. I cannot permit that the Sibyl sang only when she was alive to help men, but she also continued after she died and even for people unknown to her. We are in the habit of returning to her books publicly even after so many years when we need to learn what should be down according to some sign—just so, I cannot abide, while I still live, not doing something which might help my friends and family.”


Otium si essem consecutus, Fundania, commodius tibi haec scriberem, quae nunc, ut potero, exponam cogitans esse properandum, quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex. Annus enim octogesimus admonet me ut sarcinas conligam, antequam proficiscar e vita. Quare, quoniam emisti fundum, quem bene colendo fructuosum cum facere velis, meque ut id mihi habeam curare roges, experiar; et non solum, ut ipse quoad vivam, quid fieri oporteat ut te moneam, sed etiam post mortem. Neque patiar Sibyllam non solum cecinisse quae, dum viveret, prodessent hominibus, sed etiam quae cum perisset ipsa, et id etiam ignotissimis quoque hominibus; ad cuius libros tot annis post publice solemus redire, cum desideramus, quid faciendum sit nobis ex aliquo portento: me, ne dum vivo quidem, necessariis meis quod prosit facere.

The Curious Case of Hermogenes of Tarsus: Philostratus on the Aphastic Aging Philosopher

from Philostratus’ Lives of the Philosophers, 577

“Hermogenes, whom the Tarsians produced, had advanced to so great a reputation among the sophists by the time he was fifteen years old that even Marcus [Aurelius] the Emperor had to hear him speak. So, Marcus went to listen to him and was delighted by his discourse, though he was amazed when he spoke extemporaneously and gave him valuable gifts.

But when Hermogenes reached adulthood, he lost his abilities without the cause of any obvious affliction—and this provided those who had envied him material for mockery. They used to say that words were simply “winged”, taking this up from Homer, and that Hermogenes had shed them like feathers. And Antiochus the sophist, once when he was insulting him, said “This Hermogenes was an elder among the boys, but is a child among the old men.”

Here is an example of the speech which he once cultivated. When he was speaking before Marcus, he said, “Look, I come before you, king, a speaker lacking a teacher, an orator waiting to come of age”. He said many other things in the same satirical manner. He died at an extreme old age, but was considered one of the masses, since they held him in contempt after his skill abandoned him.”

ζ′. ῾Ερμογένης δέ, ὃν Ταρσοὶ ἤνεγκαν, πεντεκαίδεκα ἔτη γεγονὼς ἐφ’ οὕτω μέγα προὔβη τῆς τῶν σοφιστῶν δόξης, ὡς καὶ Μάρκῳ βασιλεῖ παρασχεῖν ἔρωτα ἀκροάσεως· ἐβάδιζε γοῦν ἐπὶ τὴν ἀκρόασιν αὐτοῦ ὁ Μάρκος καὶ ἥσθη μὲν διαλεγομένου, ἐθαύμαζε δὲ σχεδιάζοντος, δωρεὰς δὲ λαμπρὰς ἔδωκεν. ἐς δὲ ἄνδρας ἥκων ἀφῃρέθη τὴν ἕξιν ὑπ’ οὐδεμιᾶς φανερᾶς νόσου, ὅθεν ἀστεισμοῦ λόγον παρέδωκε τοῖς βασκάνοις, ἔφασαν γὰρ τοὺς λόγους ἀτεχνῶς καθ’ ῞Ομηρον πτερόεντας εἶναι, ἀποβεβληκέναι γὰρ αὐτοὺς τὸν ῾Ερμογένην καθάπερ πτερά. καὶ ᾿Αντίοχος δὲ ὁ σοφιστὴς ἀποσκώπτων ποτὲ ἐς αὐτὸν „οὗτος” ἔφη „῾Ερμογένης, ὁ ἐν παισὶ μὲν γέρων, ἐν δὲ γηράσκουσι παῖς.” ἡ δὲ ἰδέα τοῦ λόγου, ἣν ἐπετήδευε, τοιάδε τις ἦν· ἐπὶ γὰρ τοῦ Μάρκου διαλεγόμενος „ἰδοὺ ἥκω σοι”, ἔφη „βασιλεῦ, ῥήτωρ παιδαγωγοῦ δεόμενος, ῥήτωρ ἡλικίαν περιμένων” καὶ πλείω ἕτερα διελέχθη καὶ ὧδε βωμόλοχα. ἐτελεύτα μὲν οὖν ἐν βαθεῖ γήρᾳ, εἷς δὲ τῶν πολλῶν νομιζόμενος, κατεφρονήθη γὰρ ἀπολιπούσης αὐτὸν τῆς τέχνης.

Xenophon, Apology of Socrates 1.5-7: This Philosopher is Ready to Die.

“Do you really find it shocking if it seems better to the god that I die now? Don’t you know that before today I would never agree that any man has lived better than I have? This is the greatest pleasure, to know that my entire life has been lived righteously and justly. For this reason I have regarded myself well and I have found that those who know me feel the same way. Now, if this age were to proceed, I know that I would have to pay the price of old age: that my vision would be worse, my hearing weaker and I would be poor at learning and, worse, more forgetful of the things I have learned. If I sense myself becoming worse and I fault myself for it, how would I be able to live well? Perhaps, as an act of kindness, the god is granting that I end my life not just at the right age, but also in the easiest manner.”

῏Η θαυμαστὸν νομίζεις εἰ καὶ τῷ θεῷ δοκεῖ ἐμὲ βέλτιον εἶναι ἤδη τελευτᾶν; οὐκ οἶσθα ὅτι μέχρι μὲν τοῦδε οὐδενὶ ἀνθρώπων ὑφείμην βέλτιον ἐμοῦ βεβιωκέναι; ὅπερ γὰρ ἥδιστόν ἐστιν, ᾔδειν ὁσίως μοι καὶ δικαίως ἅπαντα τὸν βίον βεβιωμένον• ὥστε ἰσχυρῶς ἀγάμενος ἐμαυτὸν ταὐτὰ ηὕρισκον καὶ τοὺς ἐμοὶ συγγιγνομένους γιγνώσκοντας περὶ ἐμοῦ. νῦν δὲ εἰ ἔτι προβήσεται ἡ ἡλικία, οἶδ’ ὅτι ἀνάγκη ἔσται τὰ τοῦ γήρως ἐπιτελεῖσθαι καὶ ὁρᾶν τε χεῖρον καὶ ἀκούειν ἧττον καὶ δυσμαθέστερον εἶναι καὶ ὧν ἔμαθον ἐπιλησμονέστερον. ἂν δὲ αἰσθάνωμαι χείρων γιγνόμενος καὶ καταμέμφωμαι ἐμαυτόν, πῶς ἄν, εἰπεῖν, ἐγὼ ἔτι ἂν ἡδέως βιοτεύοιμι; ἴσως δέ τοι, φάναι αὐτόν, καὶ ὁ θεὸς δι’ εὐμένειαν προξενεῖ μοι οὐ μόνον τὸ ἐν καιρῷ τῆς ἡλικίας καταλῦσαι τὸν βίον, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ᾗ ῥᾷστα.

Given the content of this speech, I am not quite sure Xenophon is doing Socrates many favors…But, perhaps Socrates was really ready to die.

Philodemus and Mimnermus Get old and Throw Down (Anth. 5.112; Mimn. fr 1)

“I was in love—who wasn’t? I partied. Who didn’t?
But what made me crazy? Was it a god?
Let him go. For now in place of my dark hair
I am growing gray, announcing the age of ‘knowing better’.
When it was the time to play, we played. Now the time is done,
We will reach for more elevated thought.”

᾿Ηράσθην• τίς δ’ οὐχί; κεκώμακα• τίς δ’ ἀμύητος
κώμων; ἀλλ’ ἐμάνην• ἐκ τίνος; οὐχὶ θεοῦ;
ἐρρίφθω• πολιὴ γὰρ ἐπείγεται ἀντὶ μελαίνης
θρὶξ ἤδη, συνετῆς ἄγγελος ἡλικίης.
καὶ παίζειν ὅτε καιρός, ἐπαίξαμεν• ἡνίκα καιρὸς
οὐκέτι, λωιτέρης φροντίδος ἁψόμεθα.

Perhaps Philodemos is trying to argue against the wisdom of Mimnermus (fr. 1):

“What is life? What enjoyment is there without golden Aphrodite?
May I die when these things no longer interest me…”

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς ᾿Αφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,