From Cicero to Cohen: Developmental Theories of Aging, From Antiquity to the Present

Marc E. Agronin; MD


Gerontologist. 2014;54(1):30-39. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Cicero's famous essay "On Old Age," written in ancient Rome, was one of the first detailed depictions of the challenges and opportunities posed by the aging process. Several modern developmental theories of the life cycle have echoed many of the themes of Cicero, including the existence of unfolding life stages with specific tasks and transitions. Freud's psychoanalytic theory of infantile sexuality provided a limited starting point, as well as a theoretical base for Erik Erikson's proposed eight stages of the life cycle. Unlike Freud, however, Erikson and others including Daniel Levinson, George Vaillant, and Carol Gilligan elaborated on forces in adult development that were distinct from early life experiences. Gene Cohen's theory of human potential phases took middle age as a starting point and proposed an extensive structure for late-life development based on emergent strengths including wisdom and creativity.


The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero might well be considered the first gerontologist. In his lauded essay "On Old Age" published in 44 BC, Cicero captured the dialectal views of aging as perceived in ancient Rome (Cicero, 44 BC/1951). One the one hand, he extols our potential as we age: "The arms best adapted to old age," he wrote, "are the attainment and practice of the virtues; if cultivated at every period of life these produce wonderful fruits when you reach old age" (Cicero, 44 BC/1951, p. 130). On the other hand, he warns of a predictable limit to this process: "Old age is the final act of life, as of a drama, and we ought to leave when the play grows wearisome, especially if we have had our fill" (Cicero, 44 BC/1951, p. 158). Cicero is praising an old age, which "is respectable as long as it asserts itself, maintains it rights, is subservient to no one" (Cicero, 44 BC/1951, p. 140). Once this striving reaches an endpoint, whether imposed by nature or self, the "weariness of life brings a season ripe for death" (Cicero, 44 BC/1951, p. 154).

Cicero is no doubt appealing here to the sentiments of the Greek and Roman era philosophy of Stoicism in which the ideal life was guided by reason and virtue and thus dependent on the integrity of the mind. Seneca, one of its greatest proponents, hinted at the futility of aging once dementia set in; "I shall make my exit," he declared, "not because of the actual pain, but because it's like to prove a bar to everything that makes life worthwhile" (Seneca, 1932). According to Minois (1989), this Stoicist perspective on the mental failures of old age may have been behind a rash of suicides among older Romans in the first and second centuries AD. Cicero nods to Stoicism without embracing it entirely, however. At a time when the average life span in Rome was likely in the late 20s, he portrays an attainable old age for some patricians (but for few plebians, no doubt) that echoes many themes of modern-day developmental theorists. For example, he speaks of stages of life, which have their own tasks, writing: "Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; to each is allotted its appropriate quality, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the impetuosity of youth, the sobriety of middle life, and the ripeness of age all have something of nature's yield which must be garnered in its own season" (Cicero, 44 BC/1951, pp. 138–139). He also discusses the importance of cultivating a sense of integrity in the final years, which is based on life review or on some other process of reckoning: "When the end comes what has passed has flowed away, and all that is left is what you have achieved by virtue and good deeds" (Cicero, 44 BC/1951, p. 152).