Total eclipse of the sun, Chita, Russia, 1997.

A War Ending Phenomenon: Total Solar Eclipse Occurring on August 21 in the US

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When a total solar eclipse occurred just over 2,600 years ago, on May 28, 585 BC, the sight of it is believed to have been the main reason for the end of the battle between the Medes and the Lydians. This year’s anniversary of the strange phenomenon, comes in a year that Americans are getting ready to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the same extraordinary astronomical event that will conquer the skies of their country on August 21.

As reports , on August 21, people across the United States will see the sun disappear behind the moon, turning daylight into twilight, causing the temperature drop rapidly and revealing massive streams of light streaking through the sky around the silhouette of the moon. On that day, America will fall under the path of a total solar eclipse. 

Geometry of a Total Solar Eclipse

Geometry of a Total Solar Eclipse ( Public Domain )

If you are fortunate enough to be able to observe the event, remember that looking directly at the sun, even when it is partially covered by the moon, can cause serious damage or even blindness to your eyes. So make sure not to look at the partial solar eclipse without proper eye protection!

What Happened When the Same Astronomical Event Occurred in Antiquity?

According to The Histories of Herodotus , Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus was the one who precisely predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC. According to Herodotus, the appearance of the eclipse was received as a divine sign and stopped a decisive battle of a long-standing war between the Medes and the Lydians. Once the rare astronomical event occurred, both sides immediately stopped the conflicts and agreed to make peace. Herodotus mentions in his Histories:

“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 favor 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.”

Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. The Louvre Palace, Paris ( CC BY 3.0 )

In this way, the rare astronomical event of a solar eclipse - which was seen as a sign from the gods – is viewed to have effectively ended the war between the Lydians and the Medes.

Alternative Theory Suggests Otherwise

An alternative theory regarding the date of the battle, however, suggests that Herodotus could possibly have reported historical events that he did not attend personally and thus the solar eclipse story is a misinterpretation of his text. An alternative interpretation of Herodotus’s account of the event claims that it could be explained by a lunar eclipse occurring right before moonrise at dusk.

Geometry of a Lunar Eclipse

Geometry of a Lunar Eclipse ( Public Domain )

According to this theory, the two fighting sides could have planned their battle to take place under a full moon, and thus it would have been quite shocking for them to witness dusk fall all of a sudden as an occluded moon rose. What’s more important though is that if this theory is correct, the battle's date would not have been 585 BC – the date given by Pliny based on the date of a solar eclipse – but more likely 3 September of 609 BC or 4 July of 587 BC, the two dates when such dusk-time lunar eclipses did occur.

Top image: Total eclipse of the sun, Chita, Russia, 1997. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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