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Text #21

Obsequens. "A Book of Prodigies After the 505th year of Rome"


14. Graccho M’. Iuventio coss. AUC 591/163 BC

At Capua the sun was seen at night1. In the territory of Stellate part of a flock of wethers2 was killed by lightning. At Terracina triplet boys were born. At Formiae two suns were seen during the day. The sky blazed with fire. At †Concia a man was burnt alive by a beam which was generated from a spy glass. At Gabiae it rained milk. On the Palatium many places were shaken by lightning. In the Temple of Victory a swan slipped through the hands of its captors and escaped. At Privernum a girl was born without a hand. In Cephallenia a trumpet seemed to sound in the sky. A tempestuous storm destroyed buildings and created carnage on the land. It thundered frequently. At night at Pisaurum an image of the sun shone forth. At Caere a pig was born with human hands and feet, and boys with four-feet and four-hands. In the forum of Aesum flames which came from its very mouth did not harm a bull.

  1. Was this Halley’s? If so, it was one heck of a display! On the other hand, the statement “the sky blazed with fire” could be a description of the comet. Or “At night at Pisaurum an image of the sun shone forth”. In any case, it was one heck of a passage of Halley’s! [nE]

  2. Castrated male goat.

Text #3827

Abraham Sachs, Hermann Hunger. Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia
[pp. 11--23]

163 BC

B: BM 41462 + 41941
C1: BM 41628
C2: BM 41670 + 41840 + 41915 + 42239


16 – […the co]met which previously had been seen in the east in the path of Anu in the area of Pleiades and Taurus, to the west … […]
17 – […] … and passed along in the path of Ea.
26 – [… Night of the 14th (November/December), … the sou]th and east winds blew. During the morning watch, the moon was surrounded by a halo, it billowed very much.
29 – […]… The 18th, clouds were in the sky; the sun was surrounded by a halo.

20’ – (When the point) 3° behind ξ+ Bootis culminated, [lunar eclipse …]
21’ – [… the ‘gar]ment of the sky’ was there; in its eclipse, the north wind which was set to the west side blew; in its eclipse […]

9’ – [ … in the path] of Ea in the area of Sagittarius, 1 cubit in front of Jupiter, (the comet) being 3 cubits high to the north, … […]


11 – … the cold became severe; last part of the night, overcast. The 2 [2nd (?)] (January/February), clouds were in the sky; in the morning, small hail fell, all [day …]
12 – [… the co]ld became severe.

5’ – at noon, the sun was surrounded by a halo, it billowed very much (in February/March).

Text #20

Kronk. Cometography: A Catalog of Comets. Series: Cometography. Vol. 1
[p. 8]

During the 19th century and most of the 20th century astronomers searched through published records around the world, but failed to find any trace of 1P/Halley around -163. The Chinese records are the most complete and, even though they contained numerous observations of comets seen prior to -163, there is no record around the probable date of the comet’s appearance. A possible explanation was offered by Homer H. Dubs (1938) when he noted, “Since eclipses are also not mentioned during this decade, it looks as though the recorders of phenomena deliberately refused to record eclipses or comets, for the good reign of Emperor Wen made them think that Heaven was sending no admonitions, hence they concluded that there were no ‘visitations’.”

During 1984 August F.R. Stephenson, K.K.C. Yau, and Herman Hunger unexpectedly found references to a comet on some Babylonian tablets located in the British Museum. On Babylonian cuneiform tablet BMA 41462, they found the statement, “The comet which previously had appeared in the east in the path of Anu in the area of Pleiades and Taurus, to the west…and passed along in the path of Ea.” A second Babylonian cuneiform tablet, BMA 41628, is more damaged than the first, but contains the statement, “of Ea in the region of Sagittarius, 1 cubit in front of Jupiter, 3 cubits high toward the north.”

Stephenson et al. noted the Babylonian tablets contained abbreviations for star names not used until well after -400. At the same time, they knew that none of the tablets had been found to be newer than -40. Restricting their search within the range of -400 to -40, they found that tablet BMA 41462 gave the locations of the moon, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter with respect to individual stars and constellations which indicate a date falling within the lunar month of -163 October 21 to November 19. They then examined tablet BMA 41628 and noted the positions of the moon, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn given with respect to individual stars and constellations also indicate a date within the same lunar month.

The most interesting piece of information given in the Babylonian records was that at one point the comet was situated in Sagittarius just one cubit from Jupiter. A cubit is equal to about 2.5 degrees and Stephenson et al. concluded that this restricted the comet’s date of perihelion to sometime between November 9 and 26. They also concluded that the probable discovery magnitude was about 4.

Interestingly, Al Wolters (1993) suggested this comet may have played an important role in Jewish religious history. He said the third book of the Sibylline Oracles contained the text, “But in the west a star will shine which they call ‘Cometes,’ a sign to mortals of sword, famine, and death, destruction of leaders and of great illustrious men.” Wolters said most “scholars date the bulk of the book…to the mid-second century BC” and he showed that “both the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic Empires saw the death or downfall of their rulers in the late months” of -163 and added that two additional rulers fell within the following two years.

Numerous investigations into the orbit of 1P/Halley were conducted during the 20th century. The first came in 1908, when P.H. Cowell and A.C.D. Crommelin determined a perihelion date of -162 May 20.5. The 1910 apparition provided the most precise observations of 1P/Halley up to that time and benefited the orbital investigations of later astronomers. T. Kiang (1972) used a combination of orbital mechanics and the original observations to determine the comet’s perihelion dates back to -239. With no observations available for the -163 apparition, he computed a perihelion date of -163 October 5.5 UT. Later investigations used planetary perturbations and the effects of nongravitational forces to integrate the orbit backwards. D.K. Yeomans and Kiang (1981), Werner Landgraf (1986), and G. Sitarski (1988) computed orbits with perihelion dates ranging from -163 October 23 to November 12.

Using the Yeomans-Kiang orbit given below, the Author has determined some of the particulars of this apparition. The comet reached its most northerly declination of +13.5 degrees on -163 September 3, and a maximum solar elongation of 178 degrees on September 27. The comet reached a minimum solar elongation of 6 degrees on November 24, and remained within 10 degrees of the sun for the period November 18 to November 30.

Using the rough positions noted by Stephenson et al., the Author notes that the comet was probably discovered on September 24 or 25. The comet was brightening at an average rate of about 0.3 magnitude per day at this time, which might explain why the comet was not seen earlier.

Full moon: September 4, October 3, November 2.

Text #9278

Yeomans. Comets

Analysis of Babylonian tablets in the British Museum suggests that Comet Halley was seen in the east before the lunar month beginning October 21 and in the west while in Sagittarius during the period October 21 to November 19. During this latter period, the comet passed 2.5 degrees west and 7.5 degrees north of the planet Jupiter. Its motion as computed by Yeomans and Kiang (1981) is consistent with these observations. No Chinese records of this apparition have been found.

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