Ancient and modern

The ancients knew they couldn’t turn back time

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

The singer Cher, now 75, has announced that, because she refuses to appear old, she is not going to allow her hair to go grey. But the ancient view was that there was nothing inherently wrong with old age, as long as one prepared for it, accepted it and respected it for what it was, limitations and all.

As Cicero pointed out, ‘each stage of life has its place in the nature of things, for harvesting in its time’. So, he went on, the child is weak, the young man self-assertive, becoming authoritative in his middle years and mature in old age. Each stage made different demands. Not to acknowledge that was to ask for trouble.


One of Aesop’s fables put an amusing spin on the point. A man whose hair was black but flecked with grey had two lovers, one old, the other young. The old one wanted him to look old as well, so she plucked out his black hairs, while the young one wanted him to look full of youthful zest and so plucked out his grey hairs. Result: he became completely bald.

The emperor Augustus made fun of his daughter Julia on the matter. As her hair started to go grey prematurely, she privately told her hairdressers to pluck the grey hairs out. One day Augustus unexpectedly turned up as the ornatrices were at work and saw grey hairs all over the place.

Tactfully he chatted about other topics, but later asked Julia if she would rather go grey than bald. She said she would prefer to go grey — at which point Augustus asked why, then, her hairdressers were trying so hard to ensure the alternative. (Her scandalous private life led him eventually to exile her.)

In a poignant epigram Plato (not the philosopher) imagined Lais, whose extraordinary beauty had ‘mocked the whole of Greek womanhood and brought lovers swarming around her door’, finally hanging up her mirror and dedicating it to Aphrodite, because ‘Just as I have no wish to look on myself as I am, so I am unable to look on myself as once I was’. The world of appearance yields to the sad reality — or to welcome self-knowledge?

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