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Text #1629

Pliny. Natural History. Series: Natural History. Vol. 1
[Plin. Nat. 2.9. Translated by H. Rackham. Harvard University Press. 1967. (10 Vols.) p. 203]

The original discovery [causes of eclipses and how to predict them] was made in Greece by Thales of Miletus, who in the fourth year of the 48th Olympiad foretold the eclipse of the sun that occurred in the reign of Alyattes, in the 107th year after the foundation of Rome. After their time the courses of both stars [sun, moon, nE] for 600 years were prophesied by Hipparchus…

Text #9042

Lydus). On Celestial Signs (De Ostentis) (no source type set)

This is said to have been foreknown by the Greeks by Thales of Miletus in the forty-ninth Olympiad, in the hundred and seventieth year after Rome’s founding, but among the Romans by Sulpicius Gallus one day before the defeat of Perseus of Macedonia and when Vespasianus the Caesar reigned both luminaries happened to experience this in fifteen days.

Text #1630

"Eclipse of Thales", in Wikipedia.

The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus accurately predicted a solar eclipse, according to The Histories of Herodotus. If Herodotus’s account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence. Many historians believe that the predicted eclipse was the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC.1 How exactly Thales predicted the eclipse remains uncertain; some historians claim the eclipse was never predicted at all. Others have argued for different dates.2

According to Herodotus, the appearance of the eclipse was interpreted as an omen, and interrupted a battle in a long-standing war between the Medes and the Lydians. The fighting immediately stopped, and they agreed to a truce. Because astronomers can calculate the dates of historical eclipses, Isaac Asimov described this battle as the earliest historical event whose date is known with precision to the day.

Herodotus states that a war started in the period between the Medes and the Lydians. There were two reasons for the war; the two sides’ clashing interests in Anatolia, but also there was a motive of revenge. Some Scythian hunters employed by the Medes who once returned empty-handed were insulted by King Cyaxares. In revenge the hunters slaughtered one of his sons and served him to the Medes. The hunters then fled to Sardis, the capital of the Lydians. When Cyaxares asked for the Scythians to be returned to him, Alyattes II refused to hand them over; in response, the Medes invaded:

Afterwards, on the refusal of Alyattes to give up his suppliants when Cyaxares sent to demand them of him, war broke out between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favour of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on.3

As part of the terms of the peace agreement, Alyattes’s daughter Aryenis was married to Cyaxares’s son Astyages, and the Halys River (now known as the Kızılırmak River) was declared to be the border of the two warring nations.’’

An alternative theory regarding the date of the battle suggests that Herodotus was recounting carelessly events that he did not witness personally and furthermore the solar eclipse story is a misinterpretation of his text. According to this view, what happened could have been a lunar eclipse right before moonrise, at dusk. If the warriors had planned their battle activities expecting a full moon as in the previous few days, it would have been quite a shock to have dusk fall suddenly as an occluded moon rose. If this theory is correct, the battle’s date would be not 585 BC (date given by Pliny based on date of solar eclipse), but possibly 3 Sept 609 BC or 4 July 587 BC, dates when such dusk-time lunar eclipses did occur.4

  1. This date is based on the proleptic Julian calendar, which does not include a “year zero”; astronomically the year is -584.

  2. Stephenson, F. Richard, and Louay J. Fatoohi. “Thale’s Prediction of a Solar Eclipse.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 28 (1997): 279

  3. Herodotus’s The Histories 1.73-74, translated by Robin Waterfield, (1998). New York: Oxford University Press.

  4. Thomas D. Worthen, “Herodotus’s Report on Thales’s Eclipse,” Electronic Antiquity vol. 3.7 (May 1997), and Thomas De Voe Worthen, “The Eclipse of 585 BCE

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