Of course, some lifetimes witness more change than others. Below are five of the more fascinating, reliably recorded lifespans in history.
5. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) — Russian composer
When he was eight years old, Igor Stravinsky attended one of the earliest performances of “The Sleeping Beauty,” a ballet by the great composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who was still alive. (Tchaikovsky died in 1893.) That young boy, who was so inspired by Tchaikovsky’s work that he went on to become an accomplished composer himself (most notably with “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring“), ultimately outlived — wait for it — The Beatles! They broke up about a year before his death.
From the symphonies and overtures of Tchaikovsky through the pop and rock of the Beatles. Amazing.
One of the oldest people of the ancient world, Terentia bankrolled her more famous husband. Cicero, a statesman and famed orator of ancient Rome, married Terentia in 79 BC, a marriage of convenience to further his political ambitions. Though we know a great deal more of him than her, it is Terentia who knew more of the ancient world. During her lifetime:
- Julius Caesar grew from a toddler, to a general, to a consul, to a dictator, to a bloody heap on the Forum floor. She still had 50 years to go.
- In her middle-age, Mark Antony and Cleopatra were born, fell in love, ruled Egypt, and committed suicide.
- When she was 68, Egypt turned from sovereign state to part of the Roman Republic. That ended over 3000 years of pharaonic rule in Egypt. In other words, the first pharaohs were more ancient to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us. Terentia was alive for the end of that run.
- When she was 71, Rome converted from Republic to Empire. Its first emperor was Augustus Caesar, grandnephew of Julius Caesar, who was born when Terentia was 35.
- About 45 years after Caesar’s death, 30 years after Cleopatra’s death, and when Emperor Augustus was an old man in his final years, Terentia was still around when a boy was born in a Bethlehem manger after his parents were turned away from an inn.
3. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) — British statesman
He was born in a Victorian, horse-and-buggy world and died squarely in modernity. In between, he experienced the total revolution of warfare. Consider that when he was born, battles were still largely won by cannons and cavalry. It was not until he was 29 that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. He was already 40 and highly ranked at the beginning of World War I (1914-1918), where planes, submarines, automatic weapons, and poisoned gas dominated warfare. During the conflict, he helped develop the tank.
In 1945, when Churchill was 71, the young man who grew up in the era of the cavalry charge began to live in the era of nuclear weapons. Then, just 44 years after Orville and Wilbur’s propellered Wright Flyer flew 120 feet, Chuck Yeager flew an X-1 jet through the sound barrier. Churchill was still around. Ten years later, the Soviet Union launched a satellite into space. Churchill was still around. Four years after that, the Soviets and Americans each sent a man into space. Churchill was still around. Then, in November 1964, two months before Churchill’s death, the Americans launched Mariner 4 to Mars, millions of miles away, so it could take some pictures of the red planet.
And he grew up in a horse-and-buggy world. Amazing.
2. Michelangelo (1475-1564) — Italian artist
The greatest artist of all time did not lack for inspiration in the events around him. Consider:
- When he was born, North and South America were unknown to Europeans. When Michelangelo was 17, Christopher Columbus found them. By the time Michelangelo died, we were drawing our first world maps. (Interestingly, the oldest Western city in the modern United States — St. Augustine, Florida — was founded in the year after Michelangelo’s death.)
- When he was 10, England’s War of the Roses (1455-1485) ended. Its victor, Henry VII, started the famed Tudor Dynasty‘s reign over the country. By the time of Michelangelo’s death, the Tudor Dynasty was on its last monarch, Queen Elizabeth.
- When he was 24, he finished the “Pietà.” Four years later, the “David.” (Which is just crazy.) In between, Europe welcomed home the first people to sail to India and back, the Portuguese found Brazil, the first African slaves were delivered to the Americas, and Leonardo da Vinci started the Mona Lisa.
- From 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. In those years and five years on either end, Columbus died, smallpox wiped out the Taino tribe, Henry VIII became King of England, Machievelli publishes “The Prince,” Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to see the eastern Pacific Ocean, and Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation. Michelangelo still had another 45 years left in him.
- In the next 25 of those years, da Vinci died; Magellan‘s expedition became the first to circumnavigate the globe; Cortes conquered the Aztecs in Mexico; Henry VIII got married six times, beheaded one-third of his wives, started the Anglican Church, and died; Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in South America; the Catholic Reformation began; and Nicolaus Copernicus blew everyone’s mind by declaring the earth was not the center of the universe. And Michelangelo still had 20 years left!
- Finally, consider that he was born a few months before the death of Paolo Uccello, a Late Gothic artist and progenitor of the Italian Renaissance, who was born in 1397. Three days before Michelangelo died, countryman Galileo Galilei was born. Galileo went on to revolutionize science (and will soon make PPFA’s Top 30 list) before dying in 1642. Thus, Michelangelo briefly shared the same peninsula with one Italian who was alive in the Middle Ages and another who flourished in the modern world nearly 250 years later.
1. Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) — French oldest person ever
Even Michelangelo’s paintbrush couldn’t capture the life of Jeanne Calment. She was born one year after Winston Churchill, so his above entry also applies to her, but now consider that she lived another 32 years after his death. Here are ten incredible facts about the lifespan of history’s oldest person:
- Since most of PPFA’s readers are American, here’s an American frame of reference: she was born during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the famed Civil War general. She died during the presidency of — wait for it again — Bill Clinton. (Second term, no less!)
- She lived during three of the four presidential assassinations: James Garfield was killed when she was 6, William McKinley when she was 26, and John F. Kennedy when she was 88.
- She lived in Arles, France, where, as a teenager, she met Vincent van Gogh. When the town celebrated the 100-year anniversary of his stay there, she was still alive and interviewed about her experiences. Again, someone who met Vincent Van Gogh was still alive in the 1990s.
- Alive in the mid-1990s, she could have emailed friends about what life was like in the mid-1880s, when sending Morse Code through telegraphy was still the most modern mode of communication.
- In 1990, she could have gone to the movie theater to see Back to the Future Part III. The bulk of the plot sees Doc and Marty have their time-traveling adventures in the American “old west” of 1885. At 10 years old, Jeanne Calment was alive in 1885.
- She was 28 when the Wright Brothers took flight for 40 yards, 52 when a young Charles Lindbergh piloted the Spirit of St. Louis for 33 hours to become the first to fly across the Atlantic, and 121 when the Concorde flew passengers from New York to London in under three hours.
- If she had wanted to cross the Atlantic as a child, Calment would have needed to board a ship for over a week.
- Sadly, she survived her daughter, who died at 36 from pneumonia, by 63 years. Calment then raised her grandson, who was 8 at his mother’s death. She then outlived him as well, leaving her without family for the last 34 years of her life.
- In 1965, at 90 years old and without heirs, she agreed to sell her home. The agreement between her and the 47-year-old buyer was that she could stay while he paid her 2,500 francs ($381) per month until she died, then it would be his. When he died 30 years later, he had paid her 140,000 francs and still wasn’t able to move in.
- I was born in 1983 and would love to reach the 22nd century. If I were to die in its first year, I still wouldn’t have lived as long as Jeanne Calment.
Now that is amazing.
Live long enough, dear PPFA reader, and you can someday be on this list. So much has changed in your lifetime already! What will the next decade bring? Or the next century!
See you in the 2100s.