Eclipses of the Sun and Moon in Thucydides' History

Stewart Flory

In Chapter 23.3 of Book One Thucydides includes harmless solar eclipses in his catalogue of the devastations of the Peloponnesian war. He fails to mention, however, a lunar eclipse that did contribute to the Athenian disaster at Syracuse (7.50.4). The historian’s omission of this lunar eclipse at 23.3 has seemed to some (starting with Ullrich, 1846) a clue to the composition of Thucydides’ book. Thucydides omits the Syracusan lunar eclipse of 413 B.C., the argument goes, because at the time he is writing 1.23.3 it has not yet occurred. Perhaps he is writing these chapters shortly after the Peace of Nikias (421 B.C.), in the belief that the Peloponnesian war is over. But search for such “early” or “late” passages in Thucydides has come to be unfashionable, what some see as a tedious and ultimately futile scholarly exercise. Dover and Andrewes (Gomme V), in fact, do not list 1.23.3 as an early passage, and Gomme himself, ad loc. (1956), passes over the problem in silence. Are they right, or what difference does it make? The present paper argues that newly refined astronomical data allow us profitably to revisit Thucydides’ accounts of both solar and lunar eclipses. This paper argues that 1.23 is definitely an early passage and that it reveals the new, “postmodernist” Thucydides—in his conscious and passionate striving for effect—willing to indulge in incontestable exaggerations and even hints at paranormal aspects of the war, even before its unexpected and dire outcome. In Thucydides’ problematical account of eclipses, in short, we get a glimpse of his state of mind at an early and significant moment in the composition of his unfinished History.

Stephenson and Louay, in a brief note (Historia 50 [2001] 245-53), have unwittingly shed new light on our problem. Unaware of the relevance of the eclipse passages to the composition controversy, these astronomers generally confirm Thucydides’ accounts as “reliable” (253). They show, however, that scientific advances now enable us to calculate, far more accurately than hitherto, the time, duration, inclination, and degree of obscuration of ancient eclipses. Thus, in passing, we learn from Stephenson and Louay a few details that Thucydides gets slightly but significantly (and, it is argued here, deliberately) wrong. First, the frequency of solar eclipses during the Peloponnesian war was not “much greater” (1.23.3) than any previous period but roughly equivalent to that of the previous fifty years. Second, the most remarkable solar eclipse Thucydides mentions (2.28.1, 431 B.C.) could not have created sufficient darkness for “stars” to become visible, as the historian says. In any case, only one “star,” the planet Venus, would have been visible even in areas of annular eclipse (which did not include Athens). Though lunar are far more common than solar eclipses and visible to half of the planet, the moon has always had a more numinous influence on human affairs than the sun (and in fact solar eclipses are often hard to observe, and small ones pass unnoticed). So Thucydides’ failure to note the Syracusan eclipse early on in his history is doubly remarkable. And Thucydides’ Syracusan lunar eclipse was indeed remarkable. In this complete obscuration, the moon likely turned red and may have vanished utterly for a few minutes (249), leading the superstitious Nikias to delay retreat for “thrice nine days” (7.50.4), with disastrous results to the Athenian expeditionary force, as Thucydides so memorably describes them.

How could Thucydides have failed to remember the significance of the Sicilian lunar eclipse if he wrote 1.23.3 after 413 B.C.? The poetic and oracular “thrice-nine” recalls the language of 5.26.3-4 (an indubitably “late” passage) where Thucydides tells us, with his typical disdain for superstition, that the prophecy that the war would last “thrice nine years” was the “only one” to come true.

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