Was Homer Poetically Describing A Solar Eclipse? 3 Ancient Eclipses That May Have Changed Humanity Forever

Solar eclipses haven't always been just a fun spectacle; they've turned the tide of wars and influenced the decisions of kings.

ANKARA, TURKIYE - OCTOBER 25: A view of partial solar eclipse in Ankara, Turkiye on October 25, 2022...
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The Great North American Eclipse on April 8 probably won’t turn the tide of any wars, but other eclipses have.

History is full of stories of celestial events shaping the course of wars and political struggles. Over the millennia, people have taken comets, supernovae, lunar eclipses, and solar eclipses as omens about everything from the birth and death of kings to the outcome of battles — many of which have changed the course of history. Here’s a look at three great solar eclipses from ancient history: one that led an emperor astray, one that ended a war, and one that made a cameo in a familiar epic tale.

EPIC: The Eclipse, 1178 BCE

“The Sun is blotted out of heaven, and a blighting gloom is over all the land,” intoned the prophet Theoclymenus, just days before the long-lost king returned to Ithaca. After returning home, Odysseus slaughtered all 108 of the men who had taken up residence in Theoclymenus’ palace and campaigned to marry his queen. It was a dramatic end to the (literally) epic story, The Oydssey.

The Greek poet Homer recorded The Oydssey, the long poem following Odysseus’s misadventures on the way home from the Trojan War, sometime between 750 and 650 BCE. However, the poem referenced many real historical events; a coalition of Greek kingdoms did besiege, and eventually burn, the city-state of Troy, on the Turkish coast, sometime between 1194 and 1184 BCE.

And a 2008 study suggests that Theoclymenus’s prophecy of doom to the 108 suitors may have referred to a real eclipse that darkened the skies over the Ionian Islands in April 1178.

Researchers Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo O. Magnasco scoured the last few chapters of The Odyssey for veiled references to astronomical events, from phases of the Moon to Mercury’s path across the sky (they assumed the messenger god Hermes’ travels in the story were connected to the actual motion of the planet Mercury, which is either a huge stretch or a stroke of brilliance, or both). Then they compared actual astronomical events around the end of the Trojan War — a broad swath of time from 1250 to 1115 BCE.

Just as astronomers today can predict future eclipses — because we know how the Earth and Moon move relative to the Sun — they can also calculate the dates of eclipses in the past and predict where they would have been visible. And one month matched up: April 1178 BCE.

The study drew lots of skepticism, but Baikouzis and Magnasco weren’t the first to suggest that Homer was poetically describing an actual eclipse.

Let’s All Just Go Home, 585 BCE

The war between the Medes and the Lydians had ground on for more than five years by the time the two armies met somewhere near the Halys River in what is now central Turkey. Neither side had gained much ground in all those years of fighting. At the same time, neither side was willing to just call it a draw.

Just as the battle was nearing its bloody climax, the afternoon Sun disappeared, plunging the battlefield into darkness. Immediately, both sides found something to agree on: All their fighting had angered the gods, and it was time to make peace.

Right then and there, the two empires agreed that the Halys River made a good border between them (when the war began, the Lydians ruled the western end of modern-day Turkey, while the Medes’ empire stretched from modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, across northern Iran, and into eastern Turkey, so nothing much had changed, except that the two kings agreed to stop being angry at each other’s perceived insults). One king’s daughter married another king’s son to finalize the deal.

More than a century later, in 430 BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote it all down. A couple of millennia after that, astronomers calculated the precise date of the eclipse: May 28, 585 BCE. That raised some questions about Herodotus’s account (which wasn’t very surprising; Herodotus was an excellent storyteller but a dubious historian).

Herodotus wasn’t specific about the date of the Battle of the Eclipse, but he was fairly specific about when some of the key players — like Cyaxares, king of the Medes — died. Based on Herodotus, Cyaxares should have died around 595 BCE, a decade before the battle.

So what actually happened? Herodotus may have confused a solar eclipse with a lunar eclipse that happened right around dusk. Ancient armies occasionally fought by the light of the full Moon, and watching the Moon disappear just after sunset could have provoked emergency peace talks. It’s also possible that Herodotus got the dates of Cyaxares’ reign wrong, or that he got the battle mixed up with a different battle.

The mystery endures, as does the legend.

Xerxes Makes a Bad Call, 480 BCE

A few decades after the Battle of the Eclipse, an upstart named Cyrus revolted against the Median Empire, won, and founded the Achaemenid Empire. His grandson, Xerxes (who you might remember as the bad guy in 300), eventually decided to invade Greece, as one does. In the spring of 480 BCE, Xerxes (and presumably anyone else on the eastern end of the Mediterranean who happened to look up) saw the Sun vanish and the daytime sky go dark.

And he took that as a good sign.

Like every proper ancient king, Xerxes employed a team of people whose entire job it was to interpret omens for him. Xerxes’ team happened to be Zoroastrian priests, and in hindsight, one has to suspect them of simply telling the king what he wanted to hear. In 480 BCE, the priests told Xerxes that the Moon predicted Persia’s fortunes, but the Sun predicted the fortunes of the Greek city-states. The disappearing Sun was a warning that the Greeks were about to face destruction.

In the summer of 480 BCE, Xerxes defeated the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians who guarded the narrow mountain pass at Therompylae. A few weeks later, he sacked and burned most of Athens and captured several other Greek cities. Things were looking pretty good for Xerxes.

A few weeks after burning Athens, Xerxes’s enormous navy met the Greek fleet in the narrow stretch of water between mainland Greece and the island of Salamis, not far from burned-out Athens. By the end of the day, Xerxes no longer had a navy, and his army was fleeing east. Sadly, there’s no word on the fate of the priests who told him everything would be fine.

But there’s a problem with this story, too: No solar eclipse would have been visible in the eastern Mediterranean just before Xerxes invaded Greece. Despite the historical account, we’re left to speculate what Xerxes and his priests actually saw.

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