On Aging, On Friendship: Cicero’s De Senectute

Martha C. Nussbaum

Ego, etsi nihil habeo quod ad te scribam, scribo tamen quia tecum loqui videor.

Even if I have nothing to write to you about, I’m writing anyway, because it makes me feel as if I’m talking to you.

(Letter from Cicero to Atticus in May 45 BC, when Cicero was 61 and Atticus 64; Att. 12.53)


I don’t rank-order my favorite Classical texts, but one that is especially dear to me is Cicero’s De Senectute (On Aging).[1] It is important for what it says about aging, but also for what it says about friendship.

Friendship is hugely important as people age. Its presence challenges, comforts, and enlivens. Its absence can make daily life seem barren and poor. The death or decline of friends is a major source of late-life depression. So it’s not surprising that Cicero’s treatise, which I consider the best philosophical work on aging in the Western tradition,[2] is centrally concerned with friendship, and is written in close connection to his work De Amicitia (On Friendship).

Written within a year of one another,[3] both works are dedicated to his close friend Atticus. Moreover, he links them: “As in that other book, an aging man myself, I wrote to another aging man about aging, so in this book, with the greatest friendliness I have written to a friend about friendship” (De Amicitia 5). Since the Latin is carefully contrived, it’s worth quoting: Sed ut tum ad senem senex de senectute, sic hoc libro ad amicum amicissimus scripsi de amicitia. The Latin word senex covers people of a wide range of ages, including Cicero and Atticus, but also includes the dialogue’s protagonist Cato, who is 84. That is why I translate the term as “aging” rather than “aged”, and the title of the work as On Aging rather than On Old Age.

Bust of Cicero, reproduced from the original of the 1st cent. AD in the Capitoline Museums of The Vatican (Archaeological Museum of the University of Munster, Germany).

The two dialogues are linked not just by their common addressee. They are also dramatically linked. On Aging is set in the Rome of 150 BC, when its main character, Cato the Elder, is 83, and one year before his death. The conversation is provoked by questions from two young men, then in their thirties: Scipio and Laelius, both well-known historical figures and famously close friends. On Friendship, set later, in around 129 BC, shows this same Laelius in his role as the dialogue’s main character, mourning the recent death of his dear friend Scipio. Provoked by two young relatives, he describes the benefits of friendship. Cicero (born in 106) immediately points out that one of these young characters, as an aging man much later in life, in fact taught Cicero law and became a much-admired mentor. So, in several ways, the dramatic choices link the two works to one another, as well as to Cicero’s own life; they give further emphasis to the themes of aging and friendship.

Cicero introduces On Aging, then, with a direct address to his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus – but in a poetic quotation that contains an intimate inside joke. He cites a passage from the Annales (Annals) of the famous poet Ennius in which a character named Titus (a praenomen shared with Atticus) is addressed by a friend: “O Titus, if I could help you and relieve the anxiety that now sears you and sticks in your heart, what will be the reward?” (O Tite, si quid ego adiuvero, curamve levasso / quae nunc te coquit et versat in pectore fixa / ecquid erit praemi?, 337–9 Skutsch). It’s the sort of poetic joking the two friends often engage in when teasing one another. The joke also refers to the work’s announced aim: to distract Atticus from anxiety. But that stated aim is itself an intimate joke, for in fact it is always the other way round in their friendship: it is the emotionally volatile Cicero who needs the friendly concern of the calmer Atticus to distract him from his cares.

The lavishly illuminated translation into French of Cicero’s De Senectute by Laurent de Premierfait (National Library of the Netherlands, The Hauge, KB, 128 C 3, 28v and 29r, c.1490).

Cicero is well aware of this: he immediately acknowledges that Atticus (an Epicurean who seems to have practiced the detachment from fear, anger, and greed that he preached) would surely not be upset about aging, nor need the amusement of Cicero’s philosophical text to distract him from those cares. On the other hand, Atticus must be at least somewhat upset by the events that upset everyone in the year 45 BC – the ascendancy of Julius Caesar, and thus the impending demise of the Roman Republic. Well, maybe or maybe not, and Cicero knows this too: for Atticus is one of the few prominent wealthy Romans who sailed through these bad times unaligned, liked by all, hated by none – while Cicero will be assassinated by the henchmen of Marc Antony in 43 for his own part in the unfolding events of the time.

Consider, then, the type of friendly intimacy, teasing, and self-mockery revealed in this elaborate joke. It goes to the heart of my concern: for it reveals a type of closeness based on complementarity, long-time knowledge of difference, and sheer daily familiarity that Cicero’s two philosophical works ignore or even deny. If we investigate the two works, though, against the background of the friendship of Cicero and Atticus, which is so amply chronicled in the surviving corpus of letters, we find that Cicero’s official and philosophical arguments omit much about friendship and aging that his letters reveal. If friendship matters for aging, as it surely does, we need, then, to ponder the whole texture of a real friendship, not just Cicero’s philosophical schema, however admirable it is.

The beginning of Cicero’s Letters to Atticus in the early-15th-century manuscript once owned by Giovanni Aurispa (The Bodleian, Oxford, MS Lat. class. 7, 50v).

I love the arguments of Cicero’s On Aging, in which Cato cogently rebuts a variety of false charges commonly made against the aging:

    1. Aging people are inactive and don’t contribute much.
    2. Aging people have lost their physical strength.
    3. Aging people can no longer enjoy bodily pleasures (especially eating, drinking, and sex).
    4. Aging people are closing in on death, which is horrible.
Roman bust of the 1st cent. BC, often identified as Cato the Elder (Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany).

Cato’s arguments are wonderful, and well worth reading in full. However, the whole story about Cicero’s view of aging can only be told, I suggest, by turning also to his letters to Atticus. There we see the huge importance of complementarity, humor, and mutual support during the aging process – in short, friendship in practice.

Cato says that aging is in many ways superior to what precedes it because of the quality of the talk it contains. But he doesn’t make good on that promise; Cicero’s letters do. Aging is bound to contain tragedy. It is not, however, bound to contain comedy, or understanding, or love. What supplies all of these is friendship.

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at Chicago University. She is also an Associate in the Classics Department, the Divinity School, and the Political Science Department. She has particular interests in Greco-Roman philosophy, political philosophy, existentialism, feminism, and ethics, including animal rights. She is currently working on a book about Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

The image at the top of this article depicts the young Scipio and Laelius listening to Cato the Elder, illustrating Laurent de Premierfait’s French translation of Cicero’s De Senectute (British Library, London, Harley 4917, 4r, c.1470).


1 I write about this work both in my book Aging Thoughtfully, with Saul Levmore (Oxford UP, 2017) and in my contribution to the new Cambridge Companion to Cicero’s Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 2022).
2 This is damning with faint praise, since there is almost nothing else, but in any case it is a very fascinating work.
3 De Senectute came first, by the internal evidence of the prefaces, and was probably written in 45; De Amicitia was written in 44, and is thus among Cicero’s last works. He died in 43, assassinated.