Currently, the average American can expect to spend 20 years in retirement. That’s long enough to make significant contributions to art.
To become a Roman legionary, one needed to be male, between the ages of 17 and 45, and a citizen. One also needed to be extremely fit. Legionaries marched at grueling speeds while maintaining perfect alignment with their fellows. Ordinary pace was twenty Roman miles in five hours, and fast pace was 24 Roman miles in the same time. They did this while wearing 70-lb packs on their backs.
A legionary signed up for a 25-year tour of duty, which meant the youngest they could hypothetically retire was at age 42.
Men signed up because the Roman Legions were one of the few paths of upward mobility in the Roman world. The army was an honorable profession with steady pay and great retirement benefits. Make it to the end of your 25 years, and you’d get a land grant equal in value to twelve years’ wages.
Roman historians were not concerned with the lifestyles of the poor and irrelevant, but Roman skeletons in Britain offer tantalizing glimpses. Of the Roman skeletons unearthed at Cirencester, about half were arthritic.
Old Romans—like us—suffered from a panoply of illnesses including nerve damage, injuries that failed to heal properly, and intractable diseases like cancer. Their doctors were savvy about pain management. Ice packs and frigid water decreased swelling. Hot baths decreased muscle spasms. Doctors recommended exercise and weight loss. They prescribed good food, including protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables and grains. When things got bad, they had herbal remedies, up to and including opium.
But opium was for the end-stage sufferer. How did the typical legionary deal with the aches and pains of encroaching old age? Willow bark (aspirin’s precursor) and turmeric helped, but mostly they just worked through it.
I remember reading, long ago, about a legionary cure for joint stiffness: go out for a run. Exercise warms up the muscles, which in turn takes the stress of the joints. That sounds a lot like what one does at the beginning of a modern physical therapy session. In fact, Galen’s emphasis on diet, fitness, hygiene and preventive medicine sounds a lot like modern alternative medicine. (The bloodletting and vivisection, not so much.)
An old (2010) study showed that Americans averaged about 5100 steps a day, or just 2.5 miles of walking. That probably overstates our movement, since wearing pedometers tends to motivate us. We’re a nation of couch-potatoes, and we’re also a nation that pops pills. 55% of us take prescription medications, and we average four prescriptions apiece.
What does this have to do with painting? In our culture, painting has become the province of retirees. With the exception of undergraduate art programs, painting ateliers are populated by grey-hairs.
The good news is, we tend to live a lot longer. The bad news is, many of us live those last years badly.
For the Roman legionary, retirement didn’t mean a rest; it meant finally being able to take up farming. Roman soldiers worked their bodies hard into extreme old age.
Currently, the average American can expect to spend 20 years in retirement. That’s long enough to master painting, to make significant contributions to art. But to do that, you need to maintain your fitness. I’m not suggesting that you strap a 70-lb pack on your back, but keep moving, for art’s sake.