The Power Of An Eclipse: The Story Of The Eclipse Of Thales
The solar eclipse of August 2017, was historic in that a record number of people flocked to the path of totality to witness the amazing event. The eclipse of May, 585 BC, was also historic, but for a different reason. This celestial event, which came to be known as the Eclipse of Thales, marked an important time when the sun and moon were instrumental in ending a war.
An Epic War
By the year 585 BC, the Lydians, people from Lydia in what is now Turkey, and the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, had been at war for nearly six years. Both sides were evenly matched and, although each side won important battles, the war itself seemed to be at a stalemate, with neither side showing any signs of giving up. It seemed as though the fighting could go on indefinitely.
The Sky Darkens
The soldiers were engaged in battle on May 28, 585 BC, the sky suddenly turned dark. The entire battlefield and the surrounding countryside were plunged into darkness. The men on both sides of the front line were frightened and surprised. They stood in shock during the duration of the eclipse, which lasted only a few minutes. When the moon moved from in front of the Sun and the daylight returned to the land, the scared soldiers threw down their weapons and declared an end to the fighting. A truce soon followed.
The Written Account Came a Century Later
The story of how the war between the Lydians and the Medes came to an end first appeared in writing almost a hundred years after the eclipse halted the battle. It was written by the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus. In this account, we find an intriguing reference to Thales of Miletus, an ancient philosopher, who may have predicted the eclipse. Herodotus wrote, “Thales of Miletus had foretold this loss of daylight to the Ionians, fixing it within the year in which the change did indeed happen.” Did Thales of Miletus really predict the eclipse that ended the Lydian-Medes war?
Who was Thales?
Long before Socrates and Plato, there was Thales of Miletus. Considered the forerunner of a modern scientist, Thales was unusual for his time in that he used scientific observation and hypotheses to explain natural phenomenon instead of relying on myths and attributing unknown occurrences to the mythical gods of ancient Greece. He was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. He even pioneered the concept of trading options. He developed geometry theorems and wowed his contemporaries by being able to calculate the distances of ships at sea and the height of the Pyramids of Egypt by using geometry. He was a brilliant man who was ahead of his time, but did he predict the coming of the 585 BC eclipse?
Modern astronomers have been able to calculate backward to determine that the eclipse that caused the truce between the Lydians and the Medes took place on May 28, 585 BC. The path of totality for this eclipse extended from Nicaragua in Central America, across the Atlantic Ocean, and through France, Italy, and Turkey. The battlefield in present-day Turkey where the Lydians and Medes armies were engaged in battle would have been on the path of totality. Miletus, the home of Thales, was just outside the path of totality, but close enough for the eclipse to be a memorable event.
Casting Doubts on Thales of Miletus
Historians and astronomers are not so quick to credit Thales of Miletus with accurately predicting the 585 BC eclipse, as Herodotus claimed he did. Although he was a scientist, Thales did not have the scientific instruments needed to calculate an eclipse. In fact, Thales believed, like all of his contemporaries, that the Earth was flat. It is also intriguing that Herodotus said Thales predicted the eclipse to the correct year, but not date. Astronomy is an exact science. If a person is able to predict a solar eclipse at all, they would be able to conclude the exact date, not merely the year.
Did Thales Just Get Lucky?
The current belief is that Thales simply got really lucky in his prediction of the eclipse of 585 BC. He may have acquired ancient knowledge from Babylonian astronomers and based his calculation on those. He may have analyzed the Saros cycle, a complex cycle of reoccurring eclipses. His calculations could have been no more than educated guesses – this could account for his prediction that the eclipse would fall within a year, rather than pinpointing an exact date. Then, when the eclipse did occur, Thales claimed his prediction came true.
Was Herodotus’s Story Fictitious?
Thales of Miletus was a popular guy. He dazzled the Greek citizens with his mathematical tricks that, to them, seemed like magic. He understood some basic scientific principles and was able to use them – along with the keen sense of observation – to make educated guesses that may have appeared to be magical predictions to the less educated. Thales was legendary in his time. It could be, as some historians contend, that Herodotus’s account of the prediction of the 585 BC eclipse was based on hearsay and hero worship stories that were attributed to Thales of Miletus. Whether Thales did or didn’t accurately predict the eclipse will remain a subject for debate. What is certain is that the celestial event was frightening and astonishing enough to end years of fighting between the Lydians and the Medes.