Making his own choice of the best time to have been alive, Edward Gibbon, author of “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776-89), didn’t have much doubt. “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” This was the second century AD, when Rome’s “five good emperors”, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, brought a peace and stability that western Europe would—in Gibbon’s view—never see again. But maybe it was an easier question then. Gibbon was white, smart and male. He could walk from the right end of one hierarchical society into another without a tremor. Nor was he sacrificing much technology to do so. Barring gunpowder and the printing press, his world and Hadrian’s were close enough to let Gibbon swap breeches for a toga and barely notice the difference. For us, the question needs a little more thought.

Anyone who dislikes pain, prefers their operations under anaesthetic, and has no wish to die of smallpox, might well choose to live now. We can balance that by awarding ourselves perpetual good health, but it’s harder to level the playing field when it comes to gender.


Award ourselves perpetual good health? Wy not award ourselves immortality while we’re at it? If you’re going to take this question at all seriously, you need to face the facts: few properly informed and properly rational persons who enjoy the benefits of modern health care and nutrition — leaving aside electronic communication and other goodies that folks can have varying opinions about — would willingly return to any time that lacked those blessings. If my family and I had lived even twenty-five years earlier than we do, my wife and I would never have been able to have a child and my wife would be dead. And many millions of people are in the same boat. If you’re going to ask “When was the best time to live?” you don’t get to just factor out essential considerations.