Monday, October 24, 2011


Retirement Planning

Utrecht, Archaeological Institute, inventory number Arch. 160 (grave stele from Smyrna, 2nd century A.D.):

On top of the stele is an image of an old man sitting down. In his left hand he holds a staff, which is resting on what seems to be a skull. Here is the Greek text, from Georg Kaibel, Epigrammata Graeca ex lapidibus conlecta (Berlin: Reimer, 1878), p. 115, number 303:
Ἄνθρωπος τοῦτ' ἐστί· τίς εἶ βλέπε καὶ τὸ μένον σε·
  εἰκόνα τήνδ' ἐσορῶν σὸν τὸ τέλος λόγισαι,
καὶ βιότῳ χρῆσαι μήθ' ὡς ἰς αἰῶνας ἔχων ζῆν,
μήθ' ὡς ὠκύμορος, ἵνα γηράσαντά σε πολλοί
  μαστίξωσι λόγοις θλειβόμενον πενίῃ.
My translation:
This is a man; see who you are and what awaits you;
looking at this image consider your end,
and use your possessions neither as going to live forever
nor as going to die early, with the result so that when you're old many
will assail you with words as being oppressed by poverty.
The first two verses are simple to understand. The train of thought in the last three verses is somewhat convoluted, but the underlying meaning seems to be as follows:
If you thought you were to live forever, you might spare your possessions so they would last a long time; if you thought you would die young, you might squander your possessions. In the latter case, if in fact you didn't die young, many would criticize you in your penurious old age, because you had nothing left for your support.
This is the interpretation of Louis Robert, "Hellenica, XXVIII: Sur une épitaphe chrétienne de Phrygie. ΒΛΕΠΕ," Revue de Philologie, 3e ser., 18 (1944) 53-56 (at 55) = his Opera Minora Selecta III (1969) 1419-1422 (at 1421), who cites (n. 5) the following parallel from the Greek Anthology (10.26, attributed to Lucian, tr. W.R. Paton):
Enjoy thy possessions as if about to die, and use thy goods sparingly as if about to live. That man is wise who understands both these commandments, and hath applied a measure both to thrift and unthrift.

Ὡς τεθνηξόμενος τῶν σῶν ἀγαθῶν ἀπόλαυε,
  ὡς δὲ βιωσόμενος φείδεο σῶν κτεάνων.
ἔστι δ῾ ἀνὴρ σοφὸς οὗτος, ὃς ἄμφω ταῦτα νοήσας
  φειδοῖ καὶ δαπάνῃ μέτρον ἐφηρμόσατο.
To the bibliography on this stele by Josef Stauber, Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten, Bd. I: Die Westküste Kleinasiens von Knidos bis Ilion (Stuttgart; B.G. Teubner, 1998), p. 545, add Katherine M.D. Dunbabin, "Sic Erimus Cuncti ... The Skeleton in Graeco-Roman Art," Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 101 (1986) 185-255 (at 242 ff.).

Update: See More on Retirement Planning.

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