Eclipses in Antiquity

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All history is based on dates, well, mostly, yet the further you go back the less specific they become. Not only do you have the difficulty of securing anything remotely accurate but the modern calendar doesn’t find easy traction with the months and year cycles of ancient history.

Yet deep in the fog of antiquity we are offered a shining light in the form of eclipses, these can be dated to the hour and minute which can almost make you feel sick with detail, it’s not something any fan of ancient history is used to.

Another layer to this delicious fact pie is that eclipses can only be viewed from certain points, geographically speaking. If you are in the ‘corridor’ where the eclipse is happening then you are in luck. All that is needed to try and tie in a mention of a specific eclipse is for them to have been logged with relevant data. Step forward Nasa whose site features both lunar and solar eclipses of antiquity.

All that’s left before we look at both types is to pretend we can remember the difference between lunar and solar eclipse and sneak onto Wikipedia to ‘refresh’ our memories. Back now? Good, let’s start with the solar eclipses of note.

(all dates BCE unless indicated otherwise)

May 3rd 1375 or 5th March 1223  – Ugarit

I give you all these promises of exact dates and then the first one up has two. Well, solar eclipses occurred throughout antiquity so sometimes it’s tricky working out which specific event is being referenced. In this instance the excellent record keeping of the Mesopotamians gives us two possibilities. What causes the dispute is that the clay tablet recording the event mentions the planet Mars (read here) and this fits more snug to the date in 1223

6th June 1218Troy, death of Patroclus?

Before we start with this let’s just suspend our disbelief, or give it the next few minutes off. Whatever you think the following is great fun.

In a paper published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaometry a group of scholars argued that an eclipse occurred on the same day that Patroclus died at Troy. Book 17 features a passage (366ff) in which the two armies fight over the body of Patroclus in darkness as there was ‘neither sun nor moon’.

Using high tech software the scholars made the case that the path of the eclipse would have been over Troy and in the later afternoon; in short a possible candidate. Going further (and echoing a point made in the instance above) they were able to cite other celestial activity (in this case the position of Venus mentioned in Bk 23 226-228) as evidence.

Going one step further they even argued that the final scene as depicted on the famous Shield of Achilles was in fact a skymap of the date when Patroclus died. This date differs from the one the Nasa site has allocated for the eclipse (16th April 1177) and the reason for this is outlined below.

30th October 1207Ithaca, the death of the suitors in the Odyssey

The same team then found another eclipse, this one some 10 years or so after the death of Patroclus which was toward the end of the Trojan War. Assuming your disbelief is still outside the door then you could look to tie in this eclipse with something at the end of the Odyssey, as it took Odysseus 10 years to make it back home. In fairness it’s all outlined in this paper.

The team found a’ solar event in Bk 20 of the Odyssey (line 356) just prior to the death of the suitors. If so we may consider it the first, and possibly nastiest, trick or treat played.

The date is contested as another team argued for a rival date of 16th April 1178 . As with the first paper it’s quite detailed and certainly worth a read.

“Just remember, don’t look at the sun and you’ll be fine”

6th April 648Paros, Archilochus

Archilochus was an archaic poet who sadly only comes to us in fragments. In fairness some of these fragments are, well, interesting. I think I best leave it there.

In one of his poems he mentions the change of midday into night, with Zeus hiding the light of the dazzling sun.

There is nothing beyond hope nor abjured
Nor past belief since Olympian father Zeus
Has made night from noon by hiding the light
Of the shining sun….

It’s generally agreed that the what is being referenced here is a solar eclipse. Something which really seems to have astounded the poet. The shift to night during the day caused Archilochus to ponder what other extremes may befall mankind, including those animals which inhabit the sea swapping with those which live on land, in particular dolphins swapping the sea for hills and mountains.

The general consensus is that what is known as the Archilochus Eclipse is as the date given above. However, looking at the path below of it you can see that it passes over Athens but not Paros . Of course it’s highly probable that Archilochus travelled around the Aegean and may have witnessed the 648 BC eclipse there. 

There was an eclipse in 711 BC which did pass over Paros and arguments such as this one point out that it may have been the one witnessed by Archilochus. Of course – that’s if Archilochus witnessed it at all. Perhaps it was something he was told about? The wider problem is that we know so little about him that the eclipse was always a convenient yardstick with which to pin his life to the pre-Classical timeline.  

28th May 584Modern Turkey, Eclipse of Thales

Something to warm the heart – the Lydians and Medes prepared for battle near the Halys river (now knwon as the Kızılırmak River) and, as Herodotus duly recalls, an eclipse caused them to stop and make peace (1.73-74). According to Herodotus the eclipse was predicted by Thales, but this seems tentative at best.

However, eclipses weren’t always good news during a war, as we’ll see later.

19th May 557 – Siege of Larisa

Probably one of the more handy types of solar eclipse, the residents of Larisa (Calah and later known as Nimrod) were facing the King of Persia and the horrors of a siege. Luckily a cloud hid the sun and allowed the residents to flee in darkness (Xen.Ana. 3.4).

The Lunar eclipses

6th Feb 746 BC  Babylon

The Babylonians were fervent astrologers, and a name of one king became synonymous with this. Narbonassar came to the throne in 746 BC and not a moment too soon, his predecessor,  Nabu-suma-iskun, (or Nabu-suma-iskun to his friends, he was a king after all) had caused a fair amount of mayhem in the city. Not simply happy with large scale cruelty and demolishing homes to accommodate his growing palace, the fiend committed a heinous act when he forced a priest to eat a leek. Leeks were forbidden in the Ezida temple, so for one to be brought into it, let alone eaten by a sacred member of it was horror upon horror.

A leek, truly the root of all evil

Lunar eclipses were normally portents of misfortune, but the new king was keen to initiate a high standard of record keeping. These came to be known as the Astronomical Diaries and further developed the understanding of astronomy, the precious data allowing the saros cycle to be calculated. Whether Narbonassar ever ate a leek was sadly never recorded.

9th October 425 BC 

Cleon featured in a number of Aristophanes’ surviving plays whilst he was alive and even after he died in battle – and never portrayed favourably. A somewhat divisive figure who would fall into the modern term ‘hawk’ and a term which bridges both our times, demagogue. The one saving grace for him is that he walked the walk, managing to capture Spartans at Sphacteria and not afraid to leave the safety of Athens, in fact he died in 422 at Amphipolis whilst on campaign.

His connection to an eclipse is perhaps the most tenuous, Aristophanes uses the metaphor of an oil lamp in Clouds (585) and this refers to a lunar eclipse prior to Cleon’s election as a general. This was written after his rise and death so it retrospectively uses the eclipse as being warning to the populace which wasn’t heeded.

28th August 413 BC –  Syracuse
As a student I always felt for Nicias, here was a man who was the antithesis to the likes of Cleon and indeed Alcibiades. In a less macabre setting the pairing of the two on campaign might have fallen into the cliché sitcom pairing of two completely opposite figures. Nicias did not want to go to Sicily and his main input doomed it.

With the force needing a quick naval exit a lunar eclipse occurred and Nicias, being very superstitious, consulted the priests. The answer was for them to wait a month, which damned the whole expedition. Now the only option was overland and for many this resulted in death or capture of the entire force.

Latomia dei Cappuccini quarry – it had a grisly past as the prison for many captured on the Sicilian Expedition

20th September 330 BC Gaugemala
One of Alexander’s famous victories is famous for Darius fleeing from the battlefield with Alexander coming within a spear length of getting to the Persian king. The inability of the Darius to stand and fight is left in the shadow of Alexander’s praise in both his personal valour and daring tactics. Yet Darius’ mental fragility might have been set by the previous night’s lunar eclipse. As mentioned earlier these were seen by Babylonians (and later Persians) as very negative. The Astronomical Diaries feature reports sent to Kings and senior figures detailing the omens which were bound to astronomical observations.

The one referring to this date was written in hindsight, but it alludes to panic in the Persian camp. This is understandable and in contrast Alexander saw the eclipse as a good omen. Darius saw it as wholly negative and perhaps when Alexander led that cavalry charge at the Persian centre the following day, Darius was still thinking of it. And just perhaps it meant he wavered that bit sooner.

21st June 168 BC  – Pydna, Perseus’ eclipse

Another eclipse and another battle, this time at the Battle of Pydna which saw a Roman force facing Macedon and their king, Perseus. The night prior to the battle a full lunar eclipse occurred, Plutarch reports that this was read as an eclipse of the king (29.16) and Livy agrees (44.37). He also adds that Gallus, a general in the camp, understood that there would be an eclipse and pre-warned the Roman troops so to prevent it causing any alarm.

The Macedonian troops behaved as perhaps their Roman counterparts may have done, making noises at the moon until it came back all the while highly unnerved by its disappearance. Whether this had much of an effect in the following day’s battle is tricky to ascertain. The initial charge of the Macedonian phalanx proved irresistible, until the ground became too uneven, opening up the formation and allowing the legionaries to get past the spear wall. The Romans soon took the day.

5th November 128 BC
Carneades exemplified the more eccentric tendency of philosophers, not concerned with cutting his hair or nails he must have cut quite the figure when he landed in Rome at the head of a deputation in 155 BC. His reception was mixed, the first day he gave a well received speech on Roman justice and the next day countered his own argument. This was too much for Cato who urged the Senate to send him back home.

He died in 129 BC and Dio Laertius records a lunar eclipse following his death.

23rd March 4 BC or 29th December 1 BC
The death of Herod is contentious even without the religious context as it’s directly linked to the birth of Christ. The accepted date is 4 BC but other options, including the 1 BC have been proposed.  I’m happy to leave this one to the experts. In either case the eclipse happened just prior to his death.

27th September AD 14 Pannonia

Anyone familiar with Tacitus will remember the mutinies which befell the Roman Empire in AD14, apparently instigated by the change in Emperor. To help quell one of the rebellions Tiberius sent his son, Drusus, to Pannonia and the Emperor’s son was to use a lunar eclipse to help save the day.

According to Tacitus’ Annals (1.16ff) the mood was turning ugly and the situation was only saved by a lunar eclipse which caused the soldiers some concern. Worried that it represented their situation the troops made as much noise to tempt the moon back and is somewhat reminiscent of the response of the Macedonian troops under Perseus.

Needless to say the moon returned, however, cloud then covered it – causing even greater concern amongst the troops. Drusus was quick to capitalise and sent his officers out to unnerve the rebels. By morning the taste for rebellion was bitter and the legionaries were quick to return to the standard way of things and handed the ringleaders over.

In stark contrast Germanicus is backed by his men to become Emperor and his family (including young Caligula) are idolised. It through Germanicus’ charisma and gravitas that the tide turns, rather than a mere eclipse. It’s a none too subtle message, the lunar eclipse is treated as a symptom of the foolish (linked both to the revolting legionaries and to Drusus). The raising on-high of Germanicus is very useful in a narrative context as it serves to contrast those around him, in particular those associated with his downfall



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