Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age

Khalid Elhassan - December 19, 2023

Old age might slow us down, but it need not be a barrier to great accomplishments. Take the woman who spent her work-life as a confectioner, then became a literary icon in her nineties. Or the French infantryman who served for ninety years, and died still a soldier at age 108. Below are twenty five things about those and other historic figures who did not let old age stop them from impressive deeds.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
A monument to Cora Coralina. Wikimedia

A Confectioner, But Became a Famous Writer and Poetess in Her Old Age

It is never too late to reach the heights of success. Few illustrate that better than Brazilian poetess and writer Ana Lins dos Guimares Peixoto Bretas (1889 – 1985), better known by her pen name, Cora Coralina. She dropped out of school after third grade, and spent her working life as a small bakery confectioner to support her six children after her husband’s death. In 1965, when she was 75-years-old, she published her first book, a poetry collection. Her second book was published in 1976, at age 86. Her works languished in relative obscurity for years. Then in 1980, she gained widespread popularity after Carlos Drummond de Andrade, one of Latin America’s most distinguished literary figures, praised her poetry.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Cora Coralina. 50 e Mais

Coralina thus finally achieved fame and fortune when she was in her nineties. Her writings, especially those on women’s issues, rural poverty, and Afro-Brazilian mythology, made her one of the most relevant voices in national literature. In 1984, at age 94, she was voted the “Literary Personality of the Year” by Brazil’s Union of Writers. Her work remained popular after her death. All her books are regularly reprinted, with many having already gone past ten editions. Today, she is viewed as one of Brazil’s literary icons and most important writers. Her house became a museum, and numerous schools, museums, libraries, and cultural centers throughout the country are named after her.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Jean Thurel. Pinterest

Jean Thurel’s Old Age Was Quite Different than Most People’s Old Age

If we have the good fortune to live to be a hundred, odds are most of us would be in a nursing home. Either that, or whiling away the time in a plush living room recliner, with a blanket over our knees, waiting for the Grim Reaper to pay a by-then-overdue visit. That is because we are not Jean Thurel (1698 – 1807). Know where he was on his hundredth birthday? Soldiering in the French Army, in whose ranks he served for ninety years.

Thurel’s long life spanned three centuries. He served three different regimes, as France went from the royal Ancien regime, to a republic after the 1789 French Revolution, to an empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. He enlisted at age eighteen in the Regiment de Touraine, an infantry outfit, and stayed with it for more than seventy five years, until 1792. As seen below, he not only served in the military, but marched and fought in numerous wars, alongside fellow soldiers young enough to be his great grandchildren.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Jean Thurel, aged eighty eight. Pinterest

A Very Old Soldier

Jean Thurel served in the Regiment de Touraine from 1716 to 1792, and fought in four wars. First was the War of the Polish Succession, 1733 – 1735, in which he took a musket ball to the chest. He survived to fight again, in the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740 – 1748. Then came the Seven Years War, 1756 – 1763. In the Battle of Minden, 1759, Thurel got sliced and diced by an enemy’s saber, and took seven slashes, including six to the face and head. Then came the American Revolution, when at age eighty three, he crossed the Atlantic with the French army sent to help the Americans. He arrived in time to fight in the final major campaign and battle, which culminated with the surrender of a British army at Yorktown.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
The Medallion Des Deux Epees, which Thurel was awarded three times. Wikimedia

Nothing slowed Thurel down. At age eighty eight, his regiment was ordered to make a long march to the French coast. Due to his advanced age, he was offered the opportunity to ride in a carriage. He refused, and marched on foot with his comrades. He remained a private for his entire career – by choice. Offered promotion on numerous occasions, he declined each time. He received the Medallion Des Deux Epees (Two Swords Medal), granted to soldiers who served 24 years, an unmatched three times. In 1804, Napoleon awarded Thurel, then 106-years-old, the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award. He continued to serve in the French Army until his death in 1807, aged 108.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Betty White. K-Pics

Betty White Hit Peak Popularity When She Was Almost 100-Years-Old

Betty White was an entertainment dynamo who performed for over eighty years. A television pioneer, she was the first woman to produce a sitcom. She is perhaps best known for her Emmy-winning roles as Sue Ann Nivens in the popular and groundbreaking sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and as Rose Nylund in the even more popular sitcom, The Golden Girls. By the time she died in 2021, her career had spanned across nine decades. In that time, she won a Grammy, eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and three American Comedy Awards.

White has her own star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is in the Television Hall of Fame. In her old age, she held the record for longest television career of any female entertainer, and few if any celebrities were more beloved in America than the last surviving Golden Girl. Her upbeat and cheerful grandmotherly presence put smiles on faces, and that made her into America’s sweetheart – one whom polls frequently ranked as the country’s most popular and trusted celebrity.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Socrates. K-Pics

The Most Famous Name in Philosophy

Socrates (470 – 390 BC) is probably the best known name in philosophy. This, despite the fact that he authored no texts, and just about all that is known about is from posthumous accounts written by others. To most people, he is the old Greek philosopher who asked questions that tied people in knots, and who ended up sentenced to death by poison. From what is known about Socrates, the man was a troll. The widely accepted narrative is that he was an honest man who asked uncomfortable questions that his fellow Athenians did not like. So in his old age, they railroaded, tried and executed him. At least that is how his most famous pupil, Plato, put it. Other contemporaries saw Socrates as a guru who taught some nasty people, and filled their heads with anti-democracy views. His students then did horrible things.

Socrates did not do any of the bad things done by his worst pupils. When called upon to personally participate in evil, he went home instead. However, Socrates could be compared to modern radical imams who might not personally get their hands dirty, but whose teachings encourage others to do awful things. Socrates was a gadfly who often stopped people and asked them a series of questions that tied them up in logical knots, and made them contradict themselves – the Socratic Method. That made him unpopular. He emerged when Athens was at the height of its power – a vibrant democracy and the era’s most powerful polis, or city state. A bit like the USA of the Greek world.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Socrates’ student Critias orders the execution of a fellow oligarch. Brewminate

A Troll – or a Dangerous Menace?

Socrates questioned democracy, which pleased Athens’ snobby rich youth. He validated their view that privileged people like them had a natural right to rule. One of his students, Alcibiades, went on to betray Athens and turn it upside down and inside out in the disastrous Peloponnesian War. Socrates was not responsible for Alcibiades’ actions – the man was a dangerous live wire. However, Alcibiades exemplifies the kinds of privileged youth who liked Socrates because they thought he was “edgy”. Socrates’ street trolling annoyed Athenians, but not enough to want to kill him. Nor was the fact that he inspired and was liked by snobs make Athenians desire Socrates’ death. What tipped the scales was the rise of the Thirty Tyrants – rich Athenians who overthrew the democratic government. Their leader was Socrates’ student Critias, and their numbers included other Socrates pupils.

They installed a collaborationist regime supported by Sparta, Athens’ longtime enemy which had defeated it after a decades-long Peloponnesian War. The Thirty Tyrants’ government was a bloodthirsty oligarchy dominated by aristocrats. In its brief period of power, the regime conducted a lethal purge of democracy’s supporters, in which roughly 5% of Athenian citizens were murdered. Others had their property confiscated and were forced to flee into exile. Put in a modern context, picture if America’s 1%, led by radical devotees of Ayn Rand, carried a coup backed by China or Russia, and overthrew the US government. Then installed a radical libertarian government, and rolled rights back to the days when only the upper class got to vote. To cow the population into submission, they then sent out death squads that killed about sixteen million Americans – about 5% of the 2023 population.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David. Met Museum

Was The Execution of This Philosopher in His Old Age Justified?

Although Socrates’ students led the Thirty Tyrants, he refused to get his own hands dirty in their reign of terror. In one narrative, he was ordered to help roundup and execute some people. Instead, he heeded the dictate of his conscience and went home. Laudable as that was, to many Athenians it was not enough. When a revolt eventually overthrew the Thirty Tyrants and restored democracy, Socrates had a target on his back. Picture if Americans revolted and overthrew a radical libertarian regime of Ayn Rand devotees that had slaughtered sixteen million of their fellow citizens, and restored democracy. If Ayn Rand was still alive, even if she had not personally killed anybody, she would not fare well.

That was the context in which Socrates was viewed by many Athenians after the Thirty Tyrants’ regime. To many, he had fueled the rich snobs’ sense of entitlement, and fed their resentment of jumped up commoners with a say in government. That inspired them to commit treason and cooperate with a foreign enemy to overthrow the government and slaughter said commoners. Seen from that perspective, that the Athenians afforded Socrates a fair and open trial in which he got to defend himself, unlike those slaughtered by his Thirty Tyrant acolytes, demonstrated remarkable restraint. They could have simply dragged the old philosopher out of his house, and tore him limb from limb with their bare hands soon as democracy was restored.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Quintus Fabius Maximus. K-Pics

The Old Warrior Who Saved Ancient Rome

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (circa 280 – 203 BC) was a Roman statesman and general. He became famous for his cautious tactics and strategies against the Carthaginian general Hannibal. They earned Fabius the nickname Cunctator (the Delayer), saved Rome after a series of massive defeats, and gave it time to recover and gird itself for a difficult war. Hannibal had led an army into Italy at the start of the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), dealt Rome major defeats, and threatened its hold on Italy, as Rome’s allies joined him or declared neutrality.

At the time, Fabius was an old man in his sixties – over the hill back then. He had been elected Consul in 233 and 228 BC, as well as Censor – a highly prestigious position – in 230 BC. Faced with a dire emergency, the Romans appointed him dictator for six months. He realized that Rome had no general at the time, not even himself, who was Hannibal’s equal as a battlefield commander. So he adopted an attrition strategy that came to be known as “Fabian”. He shadowed the Carthaginian, and refused to fight pitched battles. He gradually whittled the enemy’s strength with scorched earth tactics, coupled with attacks against his supplies and isolated detachments.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
The destruction of the Roman army at the Battle of Cannae. Pinterest

Fabius to the Rescue – Again

Quintus Fabius Maximus’ delay tactics stabilized the situation. However, they upset many Romans, who began to call Fabius Cunctator, or “Delayer”. It was intended as an insult, but in light of how things turned out, it became a badge of honor. When Fabius’ six-month-term as dictator expired, his countrymen amassed 87,000 men, the biggest Roman army to date, and marched off to crush Hannibal. He was eager to let them try. At the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal lured the eager Romans into a double envelopment, and destroyed them.

Of the 87,000 Romans who took to the field, only 10,000 escaped. The rest were slaughtered or captured. There were no more snide comments and sneers about old man Fabius’ caution, and Cunctator became an honorific instead of an insult. Fabius was elected consul three more times before his death in 203 BC, and his Fabian strategy became the official one followed by Rome for the remainder of the war in Italy. The overall war was finally won in 201 BC. Fabius did not live to see the victory, but he laid the groundwork that led up to it.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
A young Princess Elizabeth. K-Pics

An Old Queen’s Wartime Contributions as a Young Princess

Queen Elizabeth II was old for as long as most of us remember. She was young, once upon a time. Elizabeth was thirteen-years-old when World War II began. Like many British children, the then-princess was evacuated to the countryside to avoid the risk of German aerial attacks. To be sure, she was not just like any other child: she was evacuated to a palace. Still, she was separated from her family and loved ones, and felt it keenly. In 1940, she spoke about that in her first public address on BBC’s Children’s Hour, as part of an effort to boost morale. She involved herself in other public service activities as the war progressed, until she ended up in the military. Britain was not self-sufficient in foodstuff and other raw materials, and had long relied on imports to feed her population and supply her industries.

Enemy action reduced British supplies. Between that and the military’s needs, there were shortages, and many food items were rationed. To supplement rations, the authorities encouraged people to grow as much food as possible in their gardens and any other small plots of land suitable for agriculture. Even the royal family was subject to rationing. Princess Elizabeth avidly participated in what came to be known as the “Dig for Victory” drive. In 1943, she was photographed as she tended her allotted plot of land at Windsor Castle. As a royal, and heiress to the British throne, the princess was designated honorary colonel of the Grenadier Guards regiment. At age sixteen, she performed her first military inspection at a Windsor Castle parade. She was not content to simply inspect troops.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Princess Elizabeth as a second subaltern, during her training in 1945. Imperial War Museums

When Queen Elizabeth Served in Uniform in WWII

Princess Elizabeth wanted to serve in uniform. In WWII, Britain made extensive use of women, and unmarried women under age thirty had to either work in the fields or factories, or serve in the military. Women manufactured weapons and munitions, and served in Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), a female branch of the British Army. Princess Elizabeth did her bit. Many dramatic narratives describe how she drove ambulances in the Blitz, as German bombs fell upon London. They are great stories, and it would have been awesome if they were true. Alas, they are not. Elizabeth was still a child, only fourteen-years-old during the Blitz, and thus too young to serve.

However, when she turned eighteen in 1944, she joined the ATS, the British Army’s female auxiliary branch. Her father, King George VI, made sure she received no special rank or privileges. She was duly commissioned as a subaltern, later promoted to junior commander – the equivalent of a captain. She began to train as a mechanic in March, 1945, just a few weeks before WWII ended in Europe. At the Mechanical Transport Training Section in Camberley, Surrey, she learned how to drive and maintain army ambulances and other vehicles. The press dubbed her “The Princess Mechanic”. Germany surrendered on May 8th, 1945, before she saw any action. London and the rest of the country erupted into victory celebrations, and Princess Elizabeth, dressed in her ATS uniform, slipped incognito into the crowd with her sister to enjoy the festivities.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Princess Elizabeth, left, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day. K-Pics

Princess Elizabeth Lived to Such a Ripe Old Age That She Became History’s Longest Serving Queen

In her old age, Queen Elizabeth recalled the end-of-war celebrations: “We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves… I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and reliefI remember we were terrified of being recognized so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes“. As Queen, Elizabeth II held multiple records. She was the world’s longest reigning current monarch, and also the oldest and longest-serving current head of state. Elizabeth was also the longest-lived and longest-serving monarch in British history, and the longest-serving queen in history. She got close to Louis XIV’s record as longest-reigning monarch of a major state – a record she would have broken had she lived until 2024.

Her long reign, which began in 1952, witnessed major changes. Not least among them was the completion of the decolonization and dissolution of the British Empire, once history’s largest. Her reign also saw major constitutional changes in the UK, such as the devolution of statutory powers from the Parliament in Westminster to Scotland, Wales, Northern Island, and London. At the time of her death at a ripe old age, she was queen and head of state not only of the United Kingdom, but also of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as eleven other countries that became independent after she was crowned: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Statue of Cincinnatus. Cincinnati Enquirer

The Old Guard Roman

Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus (519 – 430 BC) was one of the Roman Republic’s most admired figures. He was elected Rome’s consul in 460 BC, and twice appointed dictator, in 458 and 439 BC. Cincinnatus became legendary for his selfless devotion to the Republic during crises. He assumed power when thrust upon him to deal with grave problems, then surrendered it when the crises ended. Cincinnatus was a conservative patrician and a capable general who opposed the plebeians’ demands for a greater share of power. He lost that fight.

Things got worse when his son killed a plebeian and fled Rome. Cincinnatus’ opponents held him accountable and impoverished him with a huge fine. His possessions were reduced to a small farm, and he was reduced to manual labor in his old age, forced to toil in his fields with his own hands. However, a military emergency in 458 BC led to his appointment as dictator – a constitutional office of absolute power to which Romans appointed a leader during crises for a six month period.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Cincinnatus plowing his field, when a delegation arrives to inform him that he had been appointed dictator. K-Pics

An Old Dictator

When a delegation arrived to let Cincinnatus know that he had been appointed dictator, they found the old man toiling in his farm. He set aside the plow, took up the sword, and led the Romans to a swift victory. He then resigned the dictatorship and went back to working his small farm. Cincinnatus was appointed dictator again in 439 BC when Rome was threatened with an internal conspiracy. He quelled the plot, laid down his power as soon as the crisis was over, and returned to his farm.

Cincinnatus went down as one of the most revered figures of the Roman Republic. He became an exemplar of civic virtue, modesty, and inspirational leadership. George Washington consciously sought to model his career after that of Cincinnatus. That resonated with contemporaries in the Age of the Enlightenment, who knew their Roman history well. When America’s first president voluntarily laid down his power at the end of his second term and went into retirement, he was praised as a modern Cincinnatus.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Benjamin Franklin in France. Kanopy

Benjamin Franklin, the Old Babe Magnet

Thomas Jefferson usually gets the most cred as the Founding Fathers’ main Enlightenment figure. However, Benjamin Franklin has him beat. Franklin was an accomplished writer, publisher, printer, postmaster, politician, political theorist, diplomat, statesman, and scientist. He was also an inventor who came up with the lightening rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove. To top it off, Franklin’s face ended up on a higher denomination bill than that of the Man From Monticello. Less known about Franklin is that he was a babe magnet in his old age, who stormed French society and set its ladies’ heart aflutter.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Benjamin Franklin was a babe magnet, well into his old age. New York Post

Franklin took full advantage of his appeal to French ladies. While his numerous affairs are tame by today’s standards, he was considered an all out libertine by the staid standards of the Founding Fathers. Franklin was particularly fond of older women. In a letter to a young man, he advised him to opt for an old woman if he was inclined to engage in adultery. Included in his reason were: “when Women cease to be handsome, they study to do be good“. They are more discrete, and: “Lastly They are so grateful!!

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Hugh Latimer. National Galleries of Scotland

The Protestant Bishop Who Angered a Catholic Queen

Hugh Latimer (circa 1487 – 1555) was an English Protestant bishop, burned at the stake in old age by Queen Mary. King Henry VIII had taken England out of the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from Mary’s mother. He established the Church of England, and appointed himself its head. However, he kept many doctrines and practices of Catholicism. Hugh Latimer had graduated from Cambridge University, and was elected a fellow of its Clare College in 1510.

Latimer became a Catholic priest in 1515, but switched to Protestantism in 1524. He became a zealous advocate of his new faith. He gained renown as a Protestant preacher, and was appointed a bishop by Henry VIII in his newly formed Church of England. However, Latimer resigned in protest when the king refused to adopt Protestant reforms. Henry was succeeded by his underage son, Edward VI, who was more staunchly Protestant, and England became decidedly more anti-Catholic. Latimer regained royal favor, was appointed court preacher, and became the young king’s chaplain.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
An old Hugh Latimer on the way to the stake. Davenant Institute

An Old Martyr

Unfortunately for Hugh Latimer and England’s Protestants, Edward VI died young and without issue. He was succeeded by his sister Mary, a staunch Catholic who viewed Protestants as heretics. She was determined to restore England to Catholicism. Mary ordered that prominent Protestants such as Latimer be imprisoned and tried for heresy. Latimer, along with fellow bishop Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was tried in Oxford in 1555. When he refused to renounce his faith, he was convicted of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

Latimer was chained to the stake alongside Ridley. When the flames were lit, Ridley cried out in anguish. Latimer sought to comfort him even as he himself was being consumed by fire. The old bishop told his colleague: “be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.” It could be argued that the candle still burns. Queen Mary’s efforts to restore Catholicism failed. When she died in 1558, she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, and England has been Protestant ever since.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Pythagoras. Pinterest

An Old Math Cult Leader

Pythagoras (circa 570 BC – circa 495 BC) is famous for his mathematical theorems. To the ancient Greeks, however, he was better known along the lines of “that murderous philosopher who founded a religious cult“. Indeed, “weird” barely scratches the surface when it comes to Pythagoras. To contemporaries, he was a mystic, as well as a murderer who believed in reincarnation and claimed the abilities to divine the future and talk to animals. Pythagoras was a vegetarian, but there was one plant he would not touch: beans. He equated beans consumption to cannibalism, and thought that to eat them was akin to devouring one’s parents. A tall and handsome fellow with plenty of charisma, he left his birthplace of Samos at age eighteen, to travel and expand his education.

Pythagoras eventually established a religious sect whose adherents viewed him as a god. Their faith revolved around numbers. Pythagoras preached that math was holy, and that numbers were sacred. In his old age, Pythagoras set up shop in Croton, whose people were forced to deal with the weird philosopher and his followers. The Pythagoreans crossed the line when they tried to force ordinary citizens to follow Pythagoras’ beliefs. Specifically, they tried to ban beans and meat. Croton’s citizens got violent, went after the Pythagoreans, killed many of them, and forced the rest to flee. The survivors tried to regroup and carry on elsewhere. However, they never achieved as much prominence or power as they had secured in Croton, and the cult soon faded away. As to Pythagoras, he fled for his life with angry pursuers hot on his heels, and his flight took him to a field of beans.rational numbers that can be expressed as fractions. Then Hippasus demonstrated the existence of irrational numbers.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
A Spartan phalanx. Johnny Shumate

The Old Spartan

War is a young man’s game, but like Jean Thurel, above, King Agesilaus II of Sparta (circa 442 – 358 BC) was an exception to the rule. A warrior to the literal end, he ended his days as a mercenary in Egypt, where he fought and led men into combat well into old age, in his eighties. Agesilaus was one of the longest-serving kings in Sparta’s history. Thanks to his friendship with the historian Xenophon, his reign is among the better documented ones from antiquity. He commanded his kingdom’s military throughout most of the period of Spartan supremacy in Greece from 404 to 370 BC. He was a great tactician, and embodied Sparta’s aggressive spirit. Too aggressive, as it turned out: his military skills were undermined by diplomatic deficiencies that ultimately proved harmful to Sparta.

Agesilaus was not a great monarch. Indeed, Sparta, once the ancient Greek world’s dominant power, went into terminal decline on his watch. However, whatever his shortcomings that contributed to that decline, lack of effort and energy were not among them. Agesilaus was born into the Eurypontid family, one of Sparta’s two royal lineages, circa 442 BC. He was the second son of King Archidamus II (reigned 477 – 426 BC), and the younger brother of King Agis II (reigned 426 – 400 BC). In the normal course of things, Agis II would have been succeeded by his son Leotychidas. Unfortunately for Leotychidas, he was considered to be a bastard: the biological son of the Athenian adventurer Alcibiades, who had spent time in Sparta as an exile, before he fled after he was caught in bed with Agis II’s wife.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
Spartan defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. Pinterest

A Disputed Succession

Agesilaus argued that he should succeed to the throne, because Leotychidas was a bastard. His nephew argued that Agesilaus should not be crowned because he had been born lame, and there was an old Spartan prophecy that warned against a lame king. Agesilaus’ supporters deflected that with an argument that the prophecy wasn’t meant literally, but figuratively. The “lame” king, as they put it, was the bastard, not the physically lamed one. That was good enough for most Spartans, who crowned Agesilaus as king. In light of how things turned out, they probably regretted their failure to take the prophecy at face value and reject the literally lame king, rather than go for fancy explanations. Agesilaus’ biggest problem is that although he was a brave warrior, he sucked at diplomacy.

When he took the throne in 400 BC, Sparta was at the height of its power, and was Ancient Greece’s dominant power. For decades, Agesilaus fought a series of wars against rival Greek states. He won many battles, but failed to contain the steady rise of Thebes, which emerged as Sparta’s most dangerous foe. Eventually, in 371 BC, Thebes handed Sparta a massive defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. The Thebans followed that up with invasions of the Spartan heartland that reduced Sparta to a second rate power. Agesilaus was game to the end, however. Well into old age, he kept up the fight and tried to regain Sparta’s position as Greece’s dominant power. Sparta needed money, so in 360 BC, when he was already more than eighty years old, Agesilaus hired himself out as a mercenary to fight for Pharaoh Tachos of Egypt.

Geriatric Glory: Historic Figures Who Did Amazing Things In Their Old Age
An old King Agesilaus II, center, in the service of Pharaoh Nectanebis, 361 BC. Hutchinson’s History of the Nations

Old, But Still a Warrior

Agesilaus gathered a band of Greek mercenaries, and sailed across the Mediterranean to Egypt. When he got there, however, the locals found it difficult to reconcile the frail old man before them with the fierce Spartan monarch who had reportedly fought in countless campaigns and battles. Pharaoh Tachos in particular was unimpressed, and insulted Agesilaus when he failed to give him a significant command in his army. He instead consigned the aged monarch to command the mercenaries he had brought with him. The old Spartan did not flinch at the insults, but he neither forgot nor forgave. Soon thereafter, Pharaoh Tachos’ cousin Nectanebis launched a coup to seize Egypt’s throne. After the slights and poor treatment he had received, Agesilaus had little sympathy for Tachos, so he backed the pharaoh’s cousin.

Tachos fled Egypt, but before Nectanebis could secure power, a new rival popped up from nowhere, and besieged him and Agesilaus in a fortified city. Hope seemed lost for Nectanebis, who was severely outnumbered by his rival’s forces. However, the wily old Spartan warrior had a few tricks up his sleeve. Agesilaus ordered a night attack concentrated against a gap in the besieger’s trenches, that routed and put them to flight. He followed that up with a series of brilliant maneuvers to corner the survivors between two canals, where they were slaughtered by heavily armed Greek hoplite mercenaries. Soon thereafter, Agesilaus decided to return to Sparta, and the new pharaoh rewarded him handsomely for his efforts on his behalf. However, the eighty four year old king did not survive the journey home, and died en route while his ships were anchored off the Libyan coast.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

92 Moose FM, February 28th, 2014 – Betty White Is Older Than Sliced Bread! That & Other Fun ‘Time Facts’

Bond, Jennie – Elizabeth: 80 Glorious Years (2006)

Brazilian Poetry – Cora Coralina: Biography and Poems

Cassius Dio – Roman History, Book LXV, Vespasian

Classical Wisdom – The Cult of Pythagoras

Cracked – 5 Impressive Achievements by People Who Were Old as Dirt

Daily Beast – From Communing With Animals to Obsessive Bean Hatred, Pythagoras Was One Weird Dude

Encyclopedia Britannica – Agesilaus II

Encyclopedia Britannica – Thirty Tyrants

Everdell, William – The End of Kings: A History of Republic and Republicans (2000)

First Things, a Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, No. 284, 2018, p. 33+ – Latimer and Ridley are Forgotten: Peter Hitchens Recovers a Protestant Understanding of England’s Martyrs

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1 – 7: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

Historian’s Hut – King Agesilaus II of Sparta Commanded a Mercenary Company in Egypt When He Was 84 Years Old

History Collection – Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About the Ancient World

History Extra – Jean Thurel: The Oldest Soldier in History?

Lamb, Harold – Hannibal: One Man Against Rome (1958)

Livius – Agesilaus II

Livy – History of Rome, Book 3

Livy – The War With Hannibal

Morrison, Donald R. – The Cambridge Companion to Socrates: Socrates and Democratic Athens (2010)

National WWII Museum – A Princess at War: Queen Elizabeth II During World War II

Owlcation – The Oldest Soldier

Plutarch – The Parallel Lives: The Life of Agesilaus

Swarthmore College, History 41 – Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress

Time Magazine, July 7th, 2015 – How Sliced Bread Became ‘The Greatest Thing’