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In Ancient Greek philosophy and astrology, the climacterics (Latin, annus climactericus, from Greek κλῖμακτηρικός) were certain purportedly critical years in a person's life, marking turning points. According to the astrologers, the person would see some very notable alterations to the body, and be at a great risk of death during these years. Authors on the subject include the following: Plato, Cicero, Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, among the ancients; as well as Argol, Maginus, and Salmasius. Augustine, Ambrose, Bede, and Boetius all countenanced the belief.

The first climacteric occurs in the seventh year of a person's life; the rest are multiples of the first, such as 21, 49, 56, and 63, the last of which was called the grand climacteric, with the dangers here being supposedly more imminent.

The belief has a great deal of antiquity on its side. Aulus Gellius says that it was borrowed from the Chaldeans; who might probably receive it from Pythagoras, whose philosophy (Pythagoreanism) was based in numbers, and who imagined an extraordinary virtue in the number 7.

These turning points were viewed as changes from one kind of life, and attitude toward life, to another in the mind of the subject: the locus classicus is Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, C204‑207, which in turn gave rise to Shakespeare's delineation of the Seven Ages of Man.

They were also viewed, logically within the framework of ancient medicine and its ties to astrology, as dangerous years from a medical standpoint. In this sense, the word has been used by medicine of more recent times; in the 16th through the 18th centuries, it often refers to the day on which a fever was thought to break (see quartan fever, quintan fever).

Marsilius Ficinus gives a foundation for the belief: he tells us that there is a year assigned for eached planet to rule over the body of man, each in his turn. Now, Saturn being the most malefic planet of all, every seventh year, which falls to his lot, becomes very dangerous; especially that of 63, since the person is already of old age.

Some hold, according to this doctrine, every seventh year to be an established climacteric; but others only allow the title to those years produced by the multiplication of the climacterical space by an odd number, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc. Others observe every ninth year as a climacteric, in which case the 81st year is the grand climacteric. Some also believed that the climacteric years are also fatal to political bodies and governments.

Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius wrote a volume under the title Annus climactericus (1685), describing the loss he sustained in the burning of his observatory, which it seems happened in his first grand climacteric. Roman historian Suetonius says, Augustus congratulated his nephew upon his having passed his first grand climacteric, of which he was very apprehensive.

The legacy of these climacteric years is still with us to some extent: the age of reason is often taken to be when a child reaches 7, and in many countries the age of full adulthood is taken as 21.

Modern Usage

In current practice, Climacteric is most often a synonym for female menopause. However, in Princeton University's online dictionary, Climacteric is defined as:

1. (n) climacteric (a period in a man's life corresponding to menopause)

2. (n) menopause, climacteric, change of life (the time in a woman's life in which the menstrual cycle ends)

The term is used for both genders by The International Menopause Society, which defines itself as "The society for the study of all aspects of the climacteric in men and women."


  • This article incorporates content from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, a publication in the public domain.
  • "Climacteric". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2nd edition. 1989.

Further reading

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