The Second Persian Invasion of Greece is the military expedition when the Persians, led by Xerxes, crossed from Europe into Greece and fought the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea. The Persians were soundly defeated. This is one of the most significant events in all of classical history.
These events are documented in The Histories of Herodotus. An English translation is in the public domain, and available online. Click here to read it. There is currently extreme certainty on the date of this war.
But here’s the thing: The universally-accepted date of this event IS WRONG, and I can prove it.
The Astronomical Events Recorded in Herodotus’s Histories
There are three astronomical events recorded in Herodotus’s Histories:
- The Eclipse of Thales
- The Eclipse of Cleombrotus, and
- The Eclipse of Xerxes
Based on these events recorded by Herodotus, there is presently a “very accurate” date for this war. But as I will prove by checking on these eclipses, there is a serious problem, and I’m about to pit-kick the chronology of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece into the dust-bin of bad history.
The Eclipse of Thales
The eclipse of Thales happens in the first book of Herodotus’s Histories. There was an eclipse in the middle of a battle, and the Medes and Lydians thought this meant that the gods did NOT approve of the war, and so they made peace right then and there. We can calculate this eclipse, and now we know this happened on May 28, 585 BC.
The event is described in this passage from Herodotus:
After this, seeing that Alyattes would not give up the Scythians to Cyaxares at his demand, there was war between the Lydians and the Medes for five years; each won many victories over the other, and once they fought a battle by night. They were still warring with equal success, when it chanced, at an encounter which happened during the sixth year, that during the battle the day was suddenly turned to night. Thales of Miletus had foretold this loss of daylight to the Ionians, fixing it within the year in which the change did indeed happen. So when the Lydians and Medes saw the day turned to night they ceased from fighting, and both were the more zealous to make peace. Those who reconciled them were Syennesis the Cilician and Labynetus the Babylonian; they it was who brought it about that there should be a sworn agreement and an exchange of wedlock between them: they adjudged that Alyattes should give his daughter Aryenis to Astyages, son of Cyaxares; for without a strong bond agreements will not keep their strength. These nations make sworn compacts as do the Greeks; moreover, they cut the skin of their arms and lick each other’s blood.
Yep, that’s a solar eclipse. It’s called the Eclipse of Thales because of that detail that Thales told the Ionians that it would happen.
Academic Treatment of the Eclipse of Thales
For this reason, academics have the date of this battle between the Lydians and the Medes with SCIENTIFIC precision, even though we don’t know the precise location. For example, the following comes from a journal article in 1981, which comments on this Eclipse of Thales:
Herodotus reports (1.74) that the Lydians and the Medes agreed to terms of friendship after more than five years of warfare as the result of a battle during the course of which day suddenly became night. The prodigy caused the combatants to cease hostilities and seek arbitration of their differences. Herodotus adds that Thales of Miletus had foretold this phenomenon to the Ionians, fixing for its season the very year in which it actually occurred.
Herodotus does not specifically say what caused day to become night
or exactly where the battle took place. We need not doubt, however, that his phrase refers to a solar eclipse. The usual assumption that such a battle would have taken place in disputed territory near the Halys river is reasonable; but it makes little difference where in Asia Minor we place the battle, as far as the interpretation of the eclipse is concerned. Historians have long agreed on the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 B.C. as the one to which Herodotus refers. That eclipse is the only one in our modern, mathematically constructed tables of solar eclipses, within the broad limits of relative chronology afforded by Herodotus’ narrative, that was total in the vicinity of the Halys River (or elsewhere in Asia Minor) during the normal campaigning season.’ This astronomical date is within a few weeks or months of the traditional date transmitted in our literary sources, dependent upon the second-century B.C. chronicle of Apollodorus (FGrHist 244 F 28), who synchronized the floruit of Thales with the eclipse in the Olympic-archon year that began during the summer of 585. The astronomical calculations and the literary tradition seem to confirm each other so as to yield a secure, absolute date not only for the battle but also for Thales and the beginnings of Western astronomical science. Most discussion has consequently centered not on the credibility of the tradition itself, but on the question of what methods Thales used for his prediction. (Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014) , 1981, Vol. 111 (1981), pp. 145-155)
In other words, there is an eclipse recorded in the early part of the Herodotus’s Histories, and we are very, VERY confident that it gives a solid, reliable, calculable, and scientifically verified date for the event that are described.
Reconstructing the Eclipse of Thales
The Wikipedia page for the Halys River shows us some coordinates, which are just east of Ankara, Turkey: 41° 44′ 4″ N and 35° 57′ 23″ E.
Using the open-source astronomy simulator Stellarium (which is quite accurate), I can show you a close-up view of it at that location at the time of the eclipse.
As you can see, we’ve almost got totality for the location (which we really don’t know for sure). But regardless, that’s a pretty useful historical landmark, wouldn’t you say?
But that was more than 100 years before the Second Persian Invasion of Greece. So let’s go forward to the real eclipses at issue.
Eclipse of Cleombrotus
The next eclipse we’re going to cover is the Eclipse of Cleombrotus. Cleombrotus was a Spartan king who was building a defense against the Persian Army that was on a rampage around Athens.
Just as we have strong confidence of the date of the battle between the Medes and the Lydians because of the Eclipse of Thales, we also have some confidence in the dating of the battle of Salamis due to the event we see described. Here is the relevant passage, before we get into the commentary:
This was the counsel he gave to the ephors, who straightway took it to heart; saying no word to the envoys who were come from the cities, they bade march before dawn of day five thousand Spartans, with seven helots appointed to attend each of them; and they gave the command to Pausanias son of Cleombrotus. The leader’s place belonged of right to Pleistarchus son of Leonidas; but he was yet a boy, and Pausanias his guardian and cousin. For Cleombrotus, Pausanias’ father and Anaxandrides’ son, was no longer living; after he led away from the Isthmus the army which had built the wall, he lived but a little while ere his death. The reason of Cleombrotus’ leading his army away from the Isthmus was that while he was offering sacrifice for victory over the Persian the sun was darkened in the heavens. Pausanias chose as his colleague a man of the same family, Euryanax son of Dorieus. (Herodotus, Histories, 9.10.2-3)
Based on this, academics have confidently dated this event (and the ensuing battle of Salamis) to the autumn of 480 BC. However, as I will show you, this confidence is wrongly given.
Academic Treatment of the Eclipse of Cleombrotus
Here is an example of the type of treatment academics give to the Eclipse of Cleombrotus. This is an excerpt from a peer-reviewed journal article (published in 1976, from a lecture given in 1972):
The battle of Salamis can be dated with a high degree of certainty. Probably about the time of that battle, Cleombrotus was at the Isthmus, constructing the defences there (Hdt. 8. 71. 1). At some point while building the wall, he considered giving chase to the Persian army. When his sacrifice was answered by a solar eclipse, he took this as a bad omen and immediately returned to Lacedaemon (9. 10. 2—3). The eclipse visible to Cleombrotus could only have been that of 2 October 480 BC. (Herodotus and the Dating of the Battle of Thermopylae, The Classical Quarterly, December 1976, pp. 232-248)
However, there is a problem in this paragraph. It contains a false statement and an exaggeration.
The Problems With the Academic Treatment of the Eclipse of Cleombrotus
Now I’m going to show you the exaggeration and the false statement.
As for the exaggeration, the journal article says “his sacrifice was answered by a solar eclipse.” Now, this is technically true, but we must be precise: not all eclipses are created equal.
When the Eclipse of Thales was described, the text says “the day was suddenly turned to night.” However, in the Greek portion of Histories 9.10.2-3, it is not that strong. Instead, it says “the sun was darkened.” The Greek word for “was darkened” is ἀμαυρώθη. It means “to make dim.”
Now, is that a solar eclipse? Sure. But it seems to be described quite differently than the other one. That’s the “exaggeration” to notice in that journal article. Now, I want to recognize the absolutely false statement.
Now, here’s the false statement: “The eclipse visible to Cleombrotus could only have been that of 2 October 480 BC.” Oh really?
Note that this statement was written in 1972. I’m not going to pretend that I’m smarter than Kenneth S. Sacks of Brown University who delivered the address in 1972, but I can confidently say that I have access to better information than him.
Here’s why I can say that. In 1972, computing power was limited. At the time, the standard information set for calculating solar eclipses was the following book: Bryan Tuckerman: Planetary, Lunar and Solar Positions 601 B.C. to A.D. 1 at 5-Day and 10-Day Intervals. It’s a long story about why, but the important part is that I own it. In the explanation of the data, I was able to find that the planetary positions were calculated using 40 hours on an IBM 704 computer. The following picture is an IBM 704 computer:
In the section titled “Design, Theory, Construction, and Accuracy,” we find that the typically, the precision can be off by around one degree (1°0’0″). That’s big. Additionally, this ephemeris (a book of planetary positions) only marks the planetary, lunar, and solar positions in 10-day increments.
In contrast, I have the free open-source program Stellarium. Is it the most powerful thing out there? No. But it is good enough and it is free. But according to the user guide of Stellarium, which uses the industry-standard and open-source VSOP87 data on planetary positions, this free program is accurate up to one arc second (0°0’01”) over a span of about 10,000 years. To put that in perspective, if one arc second is an inch, then one degree is 100 yards.
Not only that, but it isn’t giving the info in 10-day increments. By scrolling through time, I can get planetary positions in 1-second increments. I can even turn off the simulation of light speed (because remember, it takes light 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to Earth and 30 minutes to travel from Jupiter to Earth) to see how that affects things. That is the computing power of today, as opposed to the 1970s.
Using this same data (and en even better program than this free thing that I have), NASA was kind enough to crunch the numbers and create a single list of ALL solar eclipses for the past 5,000 years in this link here. They also have one for lunar eclipses, too.
This is what I am using to check the accuracy of this statement about the Eclipse of Cleombrotus.
Reconstructing the Eclipse of Cleombrotus
We read that Cleombrotus was at “the isthmus” building a wall to protect Sparta. He gives a sacrifice and the sun “was darkened.” Therefore, we have a location and a thing we’re looking for.
Sure enough, there was a partial solar eclipse on the date of 2 October 480 BC. I have taken the following screen-shot using the program Stellarium, so you can see for yourself. The location is Korinthos (Corinth), which is very close to the isthmus, and for astronomical purposes, basically the same location:
As you can see, the time is 1:33PM, the date is October 2, 480 (the lack of a year 0 makes the date of -479 actually 480 BC).
Seems good, right? Well, not so fast. The problem is that we were told this:
“The eclipse visible to Cleombrotus could only have been that of 2 October 480″
Is that true? No it is not true. When you check NASA’s five millennium cannon of solar eclipses, you see that there are several candidates around the relevant time.
But as most Americans learned through the Great American Eclipse of 2017 an eclipse for one person is not an eclipse for everyone else. A Total Solar Eclipse is only “total” if you are in the “totality,” which is the spot on earth where the sun is completely blocked. A Total Solar Eclipse for some is a normal day for others. The same moment one side of the earth is seeing a Total Solar Eclipse, the other side of the earth is sleeping because it is night.
Therefore, if we’re going to check the accuracy of the statement “The eclipse visible to Cleombrotus could only have been that of 2 October 480,” then we would need to check not only the existence of an eclipse, but what it looked like from a particular LOCATION: the isthmus of Greece.
Luckily for you, reader, I have done so. The following list shows ALL the eclipses on earth from 482 BC to 476 BC. The bolded entries below are those that were visible in some way, shape, form, or fashion:
|Date of Eclipse||Type of Eclipse||Eclipse Magnitude|
|-481, April 30||Partial||0.8385|
|-481 October 25||Annular||0.9489|
|-480 April 19||Total||1.0585|
|-480 October 13||Annular||0.9234|
|-479 April 9||Total||1.0737|
|–479 October 2||Annular||0.9324|
|-478 February 28||Partial||0.1563|
|-478 March 29||Partial||0.6240|
|-478 September 21||Partial||0.6736|
|-477 February 17||Annular||0.9451|
|-477 August 12||Total||1.0578|
|-476 February 6||Annular||0.9274|
|-476 August 1||Total||1.0627|
|-475 January 25||Annular||0.9459|
|-475 July 22||Total||1.0136|
The -479 October 2 Annular eclipse (the generally accepted Eclipse of Cleombrotus) is shown above. There is also a -477 February 17 Annular solar eclipse, which I will talk about more below.
However, let’s notice one of these eclipses that was totally ignored, the one on -467 August 1, as it was seen from Korinthos:
I admit, this one is not very impressive. One had to be in Egypt or the Sahara Desert to see it in its totality. In Greece, it was just a small dimunation of the full sun, which occurred between 1:40pm and 2:00pm. The only reason it would be noticed is if people were giving extra attention to the sky, like some religious observance or something.
But wait a minute. What did we read again? Look:
The reason of Cleombrotus’ leading his army away from the Isthmus was that while he was offering sacrifice for victory over the Persian the sun was darkened in the heavens.
Well, when offering sacrifice to the gods, this sounds exactly like the time where someone would have noticed a heavenly sign. Maybe this is a candidate.
But then again, it happens on August 1, 477 BC. That’s far too LATE, right? Didn’t we just read that the war started in 480 BC? The invasion didn’t last three years! That’s far too long!
Recalibrating Our Entire Chronology of the Persian Invasion of Greece
But then again… …the only reason we think the war happened in 480 BC is because the Battle of Salamis is dated from the eclipse visible from the isthmus on October 1, 480 BC, the same eclipse we were falsely told “could only have been that of 2 October 480 BC.”
Well, well, well. Isn’t that strange? It seems there’s an open question as to the date of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece.
The Eclipse of Xerxes
The final event we’re going to take note of in Herodotus is the Eclipse of Xerxes. It happens at a pivotal time during the Second Persian Invasion and at a grand occasion. The full army of the Persians has gathered and is ready to cross from Asia to Europe. The way that Xerxes was able to transport his enormous army across this body of water was to build an impressive pontoon bridge.
The place where this was done was at the “Hellespont” which is the narrow straight of water that divides the Mediterranean Sea from the Black Sea. As we can see from Google Earth, it is less than a mile across at its narrowest width:
We find the “Eclipse of Xerxes” recorded in Herodotus’s Histories at Book 7.37. We read the following:
When the bridges and the work at Athos were ready, and the moles at the canal’s entrances, that were built to prevent the surf from silting up the entrances of the digged passage, and the canal itself was reported to be now perfectly made, the army then wintered, and at the beginning of spring was ready and set forth from Sardis to march to Abydos. When they had set forth, the sun left his place in the heaven and was unseen, albeit the sky was without clouds and very clear, and the day was turned into night. When Xerxes saw and took note of that, he was moved to think upon it, and asked the Magians what the vision might signify. They declared to him, that the god was showing to the Greeks the desolation of their cities; for the sun (they said) was the prophet of the Greeks, as the moon was theirs. Xerxes rejoiced exceedingly to hear that, and kept on his march.
We get the movement of the army from Sardis to Abydos. These are well-known places, at the same spot marked above:
Reconstructing the Eclipse of Xerxes
According to the Wikipedia page, Sardis is located at the coordinates of 38° 29′ 18″ N and 28° 2′ 25″ E. We can then set our position to this location, because we see that Sardis was the place where the army of Xerxes wintered before crossing the Hellespont, then we have some important details to this eclipse:
- The sun left its place in the sky and day was turned to night (a similar description as the dramatic Eclipse of Thales)
- As soon as the set forth from Sardis at 38° 29′ 18″ N and 28° 2′ 25″ E
- At the beginning of Spring
And guess what? This actually happened. That’s one of the eclipses mentioned above. Take a look:
The location is that of Sardis. This is obviously an annular solar eclipse, which would correspond to “the sun left his place in the heaven and was unseen, albeit the sky was without clouds and very clear, and the day was turned into night.” We should also note the date, which is February 17, 478 BC (because -477 is actually 478 BC, because there is no year 0 BC/AD). That is the end of winter and “the beginning of spring.”
That is the eclipse of Xerxes.
The Bad Scholarship on the Eclipse of Xerxes
But guess what? NOBODY THINKS THAT THIS ECLIPSE HAPPENED. Even though we give extreme confidence to these as the eclipse of Thales (which didn’t have a location) and the eclipse of Cleombrotus (which was falsely said “could only have been” in 480 BC).
Here is an excerpt from an article on the Eclipse of Xerxes that I bought. Let’s see what it says:
Reports of lunar and solar eclipses are of interest to students of both history and the history of science. Used with care, they can anchor significant historical events in time. Greek literature, like that of other civilizations, has its fair share of such reports. Often they motivate the actions of characters or expose aspects of belief. Sometimes they shed light on the assumptions of the writer. There are three places in the Histories of Herodotus where the author mentions darkenings of the sky (generally taken to be solar eclipses), which have narrative significance and which assist in dating the wars between the Lydians and the Medes (1.74) and between the Greeks and the
Persians (7.37 and 9.10).
The Eclipse of Xerxes (7.37), so called because it occurs as the eponymous Persian king sets out to invade Greece in 480 b.c.e., is puzzling for two main reasons. First, there appears to be confusion over its interpretation: in particular, it is not clear why Xerxes’ religious advisers, the Magi, tell him that it is a favourable omen. Second, unlike the other two reported eclipses, it did not actually occur. (Eric Glover, “The Eclipse of Xerxes in Herodotus 7.37: Lux A Non Obscurando, The Classical Quarterly , DECEMBER 2014, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 2 (DECEMBER
2014), pp. 471-492)
Wait a minute… IT DID NOT ACTUALLY OCCUR???? WE JUST SAW IT ABOVE! IT’S IN THE NASA CANON OF SOLAR ECLIPSES! So let me ask the author of this article, something:
Why Do We Dismiss the Eclipse of Xerxes?
This is an excerpt from a peer-reviewed article that supposedly explains why the Eclipse of Xerxes did not happen. It states:
Xerxes cannot have seen a solar eclipse at that time. [Footnote: This, of course, is acknowledged by all the major commentaries and a variety of solutions which I discuss below] Airy was perhaps the first to establish definitively the non-occurrence of the alleged solar eclipse. He noted that the text asserts that the Magi had said the Sun was viewed as a ‘prognosticate’ for the Greeks and the Moon for the Persians, but that this was contrary to what was known about Persian religion (worship of Ahuramazda, ‘Lord of Wisdom’) and its veneration for the Sun. Citing the example of the aforementioned lunar eclipse in Thucydides (7.50.4), where the Greeks seem terrified, he argued that the Eclipse of Xerxes was not solar but lunar. Herodotus, Airy implies, had misunderstood the eclipse report and the justification for it had become scrambled. According to the Magi, he suggested, it was really the Moon that was the predictor for the Greeks and the Sun for the Persians. (Eric Glover, “The Eclipse of Xerxes in Herodotus 7.37: Lux A Non Obscurando, The Classical Quarterly , DECEMBER 2014, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 2 (DECEMBER 2014), pp. 471-492)
According to Eric Glover, the REAL “Eclipse of Xerxes” was the one on April 19, -481 (480 BC) which was seen as a partial eclipse in Susa. The report made its way to Herodotus, who misunderstood the event. That’s his explanation.
But we also have the invocation of “Airy.” He is the origin of this claim that the Eclipse of Xerxes never happened. We can look him up, too. Here’s what he looked like in 1891:
I have found the publication that everybody references from him, so that you don’t have to. Here’s what Airy says about the Eclipse of Xerxes in Herodotus 7.37:
This account, interpreted as a record of a total eclipse of the sun, has given great trouble to chronologers, and not without reason. The only solar eclipse which it is worth while even to examine is that in the morning of the 19th of April, B.C. 481. (G. B. Airy, On the Eclipses of Agathocles, Thales, and Xerxes, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 143 (1853), pp. 179-200)
Except, as we noted, THIS IS WRONG. There are SEVERAL possible total eclipses that are worth examining, and I have examined all of them, not because I’m brilliant, but because I have the NASA five millennium canon of solar eclipses, a free and accurate and user-friendly program for investigating it myself, and WAY too much free time on my hands.
Airy is wrong. We should remember this guy was writing in 1853. Sure he is smart, but he is hand-calculating solar eclipses in the days before PCs, calculators, and even before the IBM 704. We’re not talking about commentary from 1971, which was before the modern VSOP87 planetary theory (which itself is significant). Instead, we’re talking about COMPLETELY UNRELIABLE INFORMATION.
But it continues. Here is why G.B. Airy dismisses the Eclipse of Xerxes:
Abandoning then the idea of explaining this account by a solar eclipse, I have examined into the possibility of referring it to some other phenomenon. First, I cannot doubt that there was something unusual and alarming, as the solemn consultation of the Magi by Xerxes seems to have been a matter of notoriety. Secondly, Herodotus repeatedly expresses himself doubtful on matters of detail which occurred during the movements of Xerxes on the eastern side of the Aegean sea. Thirdly, the notion that the Sun was the peculiar divinity of the Greeks and the Moon that of the Persians, is entirely opposed to all that we know of the religious idea of the Persians generally, or of Xerxes in particular. For instance, when Xerxes was preparing to cross the Hellespont, he waited for the rising of the Sun, and then addressed to the Sun his prayers for success. The Greeks however appear to have attached great importance to the appearance of the Moon, as is evident from their terror, and its calamitous consequences, at the lunar eclipse in the Syracusan war (Thucydides, book vii.). The reply of the Magi therefore, which as given by Herodotus) is, on the face of it, absurd, would seem to be much more plausible if we suppose that the information received by Herodotus was wrong in one particular, and that the observation in question was an eclipse of the moon, instead of the sun. (G. B. Airy, On the Eclipses of Agathocles, Thales, and Xerxes, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 143 (1853), pp. 179-200)
So let me explain that to you. Airy has ABANDONED the idea of explaining the INCREDIBLY SPECIFIC description of a solar eclipse, which I showed you above at the same time, place, and location that Herodotus describes.
Instead, he has “corrected” the scientific and historical data on the Eclipse of Xerxes SO THAT IT MATCHES UP WITH THE ASTROLOGICAL PREDICTION OF THE MAGI. Because, you know… …it’s magic.
I think the following gif is actual footage of G.B. Airy presenting this theory to the Royal Society of London:
The Persistence of Bad Chronology
As you can see from the peer-reviewed articles quoted above (authored by people who did not look into the astronomy), this dismissal of the Eclipse of Xerxes IS BASED ON TWISTING THE DATA TO MATCH TO A “MORE ACCURATE” MAGICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE MAGI (the court astrologers of the Persians).
I’m sorry to break this news to you, but that is how the chronology of the Second Persian Invasion was determined, right down to peer-reviewed classical journals in 2014 and Wikipedia today. Nobody has bothered to look at it again. We all just accept it as “true,” even though it is not.
In contrast to the idea that the Eclipse of Xerxes did not happen, I’ll just direct you to the NASA five-millennium canon of solar eclipses and, in a single picture, correct our chronology of the Greek and Persian wars:
The Reason for the Magi’s Prediction
Now, I have plenty of beef with the interpretation of Airy and others on the eclipse of Xerxes, but we shouldn’t ignore the part that they get right: This particular interpretation of the Magi of a solar eclipse is absolutely bonkers based on everything we know about ancient astrology.
But even though Airy tries to make sense of this by reinterpreting a SOLAR eclipse as a LUNAR eclipse, there is a better explanation. All we have to do is look at the story that Herodotus tells us. The account of the Eclipse of Xerxes is in Histories 7.37. But look at what we read just before this in book 7, chapter 33-35:
After this he prepared to march to Abydos; and meanwhile his men were bridging the Hellespont from Asia to Europe. On the Chersonese, which is by the Hellespont, there is between the town of Sestus and Madytus a broad headland running out into the sea over against Abydos . . . Beginning then from Abydos they whose business it was made bridges across to that headland, the Phoenicians one of flaxen cables, and the Egyptians the second, which was of papyrus. From Abydos to the opposite shore it is a distance of seven furlongs. But no sooner had the strait been bridged than a great storm swept down and brake and scattered all that work. . . .When Xerxes heard of that, he was very angry, and gave command that the Hellespont be scourged with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea; nay, I have heard ere now that he sent branders with the rest to brand the Hellespont. This is certain, that he charged them while they scourged to utter words outlandish and presumptuous: “Thou bitter water,” they should say, “our master thus punishes thee, because thou didst him wrong albeit he had done thee none. Yea, Xerxes the king will pass over thee, whether thou wilt or no; it is but just that no man offers thee sacrifice, for thou art a turbid and briny river.” Thus he commanded that the sea should be punished, and that they who had been overseers of the bridging of the Hellespont should be beheaded. (Herodotus, Histories, 7.32-35)
Now, the old language in this passage might hide the RIDICULOUS nature of what is happening here. They are making a bridge to cross the Hellespont, as we described before. But a storm destroys the bridge. And Xerxes is so mad at THE OCEAN because it delayed his plans for invasion, we find that Xerxes orders the following to be done:
- Three hundred lashes of a whip be inflicted ON THE OCEAN.
- A pair of fetters (chains and handcuffs) be dropped IN THE OCEAN.
- The punishment of branding was inflicted ON THE OCEAN.
- While the lashes were being given, he ordered the ones who were doing it to say “You nasty water! Xerxes is punishing you because he didn’t do anything wrong to you, but you did something wrong to him! Well, guess what, you stupid sea? Xerxes is going to pass over you, anyway! Whether you like it or not! And guess what else? Nobody is going to offer any sacrifices to you, because you ain’t even a real ocean! You’re just a stupid and clumsy half-breed of a river!”
- And of course, he also beheaded those who were in charge of the bridge.
Oh, but that’s not all that’s in play here! We also need to understand how the Magi figure into this picture. Guess whose advice STARTED the whole affair of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece? Read it yourself:
After this Xerxes, being now intent on the expedition, saw yet a third vision in his sleep, which the Magians interpreted to have regard to the whole earth and to signify that all men should be his slaves. This was the vision: Xerxes thought that he was crowned with an olive bough, the shoots of which spread over the whole earth, and presently the crown vanished from off his head where it was set. This the Magians interpreted; and of the Persians who had been assembled, every man forthwith rode away to his own governorship and there used all zeal to fulfil the king’s behest, each desiring to receive the promised gifts; and thus it was that Xerxes dealt with the mustering of his army, searching out every part of the continent.
THAT is the context of Xerxes coming to the Magi to tell him what the solar eclipse means. So let’s just take a moment and reflect. Don’t rely on complicated historical chronology. Put aside the specifics of ancient eastern astrology and divination. Notice that a big heavenly omen occurred, and the Magi/Magians — the advisers on such heavenly omens such as this AND the ones who got Xerxes and the Persian empire into this entire Greek invasion mess to begin with — are ASKED TO INTERPRET what it means.
Let’s look at how this might have gone down:
Xerxes: The Sun has left its place in the sky. So tell me, what does this mean?
“Well…. um…. that’s a solar eclipse… and it means…. uh… well, the moon is um…. it’s uh… eclipsing the sun, and um…. well, the moon represents the Persians and the Sun represents the Greeks, and um… it means we’re going to eclipse the Greeks. Yep. That’s what it means. I think… um… WE ALL THINK that you should just keep doing your thing, your highness.
That’s how I read it, and it seems downright obvious.
The Obviously Incorrect Interpretation of the Magi
In fact, it’s not like Herodotus is even ignorant of how ridiculous the interpretation is, because immediately afterwards, we see how random people on the Persian side saw it as a terrible omen:
As he led his army away, Pythius the Lydian, being affrighted by the heavenly vision and encouraged by the gifts that he had received, came to Xerxes and said, “Sire, I have a boon to ask that I desire of you, easy for you to grant and precious for me to receive.” Xerxes, supposing that Pythius would demand anything rather than what he did verily ask, answered that he would grant the boon, and bade him declare what he desired. Thereupon Pythius took courage and said: “Sire, I have five sons, and all of them are constrained to march with you against Hellas. I pray you, O king! take pity on me that am so old, and release one of my sons, even the eldest, from service, that he may take care of me and my possessions; take the four others with you, and may you return back with all your design accomplished.”
Xerxes was very angry, and thus replied: “Villain, you see me myself marching against Hellas, and taking with me my sons and brothers and kinsfolk and friends; and do you, my slave — who should have followed me with all your household and your very wife — speak to me of your son? Then be well assured of this, that a man’s spirit dwells in his ears; when it hears good words it fills the whole body with delight, but when it hears the contrary thereto it swells with anger. At that time when you did me good service and promised more, you will never boast that you outdid your king in the matter of benefits; and now that you have turned aside to the way of shamelessness, you shall receive a lesser requital than you merit. You and four of your sons are saved by your hospitality; but you shall be mulcted in the life of that one whom you most desire to keep.” With that reply, he straightway bade those who were charged to do the like to find the eldest of Pythius’ sons and cut him asunder [in other words, cut him in half], then having so done to set the one half of his body on the right hand of the road and the other on the left, that the army might pass this way between them. (Herodotus, Histories 7.38-39)
The point of the story that EVERYBODY understands — assuming you are not a Victorian academic egg-head who doesn’t let human emotion affect a “scientific” understanding of history — is that the Magi’s prediction IS WRONG and IS SUPPOSED TO BE SEEN AS WRONG.
The point of the story is to communicate the moral point about Xerxes’s blindness to the communications of the gods. The point is NOT to communicate the “accurate” astrological interpretation of the Eclipse of Xerxes. How are we so stupid not to notice this?
The generally accepted year of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece — 480 BC — is WRONG. The correct date is 478 BC, because contrary to all of the non-astronomically minded historians who don’t check the sources, the Eclipse of Xerxes DID HAPPEN.
The Second Persian Invasion of Greece is two years later than we’ve been led to believe, and the mistake came in three parts:
- From an 1853 miscalculation of “possible” eclipses of Cleombrotus,
- An 1853 misreading the story of Herodotus and bending the precise observation of an OBVIOUS total solar eclipse to fit the OBVIOUSLY corrupted astrological interpretation of the Magi,
- Nobody (except for me) going back to check on that fact.
Therefore, we can understand several things about the date of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece.
- The Army of Xerxes marched from Sardis to Abydos (where the pontoon bridge was constructed) on February 17, 478 BC.
- The battle of Salamis does not correspond to the eclipse on October 2, 480 BC, but instead corresponds to the eclipse on August 1, 477 BC.
- Therefore, rather than spanning from the spring of 480 BC to the autumn of 479 BC, the war spans from the spring of 478 BC to the autumn of 477 BC.
As I have stated many times on this blog, this little discovery is just a side-quest. I found it because I was looking up all the references to the “Magi” who are mentioned in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. I found the corrected version of this astronomical event, which was pretty easy to find, because the real task was the OTHER astronomical event in Matthew’s gospel: the Magi’s Star — both the Star in the East and the Star of Bethlehem.
To make a long story short, I found it, I know exactly what it is, and I know exactly what caused the Magi to come to Jerusalem (Spoiler alert: it’s astrology). These events (much like solar eclipses) also give some VERY SPECIFIC chronological points to make sense of the entire narrative. If you want to see some of the stuff I’ve published on the subject so far, I can point you to a few other things I’ve written:
- The Unrecognized Fact that Joseph is from Bethlehem, not Nazareth
- How the Census of Quirinius Really Worked
- The Massacre of the Innocents in Recorded History
- Why Joseph was afraid of Archelaus (and what happened to the Shepherds after the angelic visit of Luke 2).
- How the Magi were specifically predicted in Isaiah, but nobody noticed.
If the explanation above impressed you, and if you are able to help me get my research published in a peer reviewed journal, please shoot me an email at mrcalebjones at gmail dot com. Unfortunately, I’ve found that if you don’t have academic letters after your name, nobody will read your paper or take you seriously. Hopefully, I can make more noise in things like this and finally get some help on this one.
9 Comments Add yours
This portion is absolutely fascinating!
“Now, here’s the false statement: “The eclipse visible to Cleombrotus could only have been that of 2 October 480 BC.” Oh really?
Note that this statement was written in 1972. I’m not going to pretend that I’m smarter than Kenneth S. Sacks of Brown University who delivered the address in 1972, but I can confidently say that I have access to better information than him.
Here’s why I can say that. In 1972, computing power was limited. At the time, the standard information set for calculating solar eclipses was the following book: Bryan Tuckerman: Planetary, Lunar and Solar Positions 601 B.C. to A.D. 1 at 5-Day and 10-Day Intervals. It’s a long story about why, but the important part is that I own it. In the explanation of the data, I was able to find that the planetary positions were calculated using 40 hours on an IBM 704 computer. The following picture is an IBM 704 computer: In the section titled “Design, Theory, Construction, and Accuracy,” we find that the typically, the precision can be off by around one degree (1°0’0″). That’s big. Additionally, this ephemeris (a book of planetary positions) only marks the planetary, lunar, and solar positions in 10-day increments.
In contrast, I have the free open-source program Stellarium. Is it the most powerful thing out there? No. But it is good enough and it is free. But according to the user guide of Stellarium, which uses the industry-standard and open-source VSOP87 data on planetary positions, this free program is accurate up to one arc second (0°0’01”) over a span of about 10,000 years. To put that in perspective, if one arc second is an inch, then one degree is 100 yards.”
From: The Spirited Nature Reply-To: The Spirited Nature Date: Thursday, November 26, 2020 at 4:28 PM To: “email@example.com” Subject: [New post] The Date of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece is Wrong
The Jones posted: ” The Second Persian Invasion of Greece is the military expedition when the Persians, led by Xerxes, crossed from Europe into Greece and fought the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea. The Persians were soundly defeated. This is one of the most si”
I’m glad you think so. I thought it was boring technical stuff that was necessary for the point.
The most interesting part of the post for me are the gifs and memes. Lol.
I have never studied this before, but I find it very intriguing. In reading the account about Cleombrotus, it appears to me that the eclipse he saw is the same eclipse that Xerxes saw. The account is giving a side note about why Cleombrotus is not leading the army (because he died after returning because he decided not to attack the Persians because of the eclipse). It is not giving a timeframe for this battle. If this is the case, then one need only look for one total eclipse around Sardis to date the second Persian invasion of Greece.
Using Stellarium, this occurred midday (as stated in the account of Cleombrotus) on April 30th, -462 (463 BC) which would be after winter in the spring, after the Persians would have left Sardis.
Well, exuberance got the best of me, there. It does appear that the eclipse seen by Cleombrotus does not date this battle, however, Cleombrotus led his army back from the isthmus where they were building the wall after the fall of Athens (which it says Xerxes beseiged Athens 4 months after leaving Sardis +/-). So the eclipse seen by Cleombrotus would not be the same as that of Xerxes, but would have occurred probably within a year. Thoughts?
The current idea is that the “Eclipse of Xerxes” is either a complete fabrication or a “mix up” with another eclipse at a different date. This seems VERY unlikely to me, as Herodotus wrote this work within his own lifetime and would have gotten called on that BS at the time by people who were alive to remember things.
Second, I TOTALLY AGREE that two eclipses should have happened, and I think THEY DID happen. The first was on February 17, 478 BC (-477 in NASA dating). The second happened on August 1, 477 BC (-476 in NASA dating). The second one was a total eclipse, but only as viewed from Egypt. It also would have been difficult to randomly notice. However, we are explicitly told that “the sun was darkened” AFTER OFFERING SACRIFICE. That’s a time that Cleombrotus would have been LOOKING for signs from heaven.
I think Cleombrotus was going to join the Athenians when he was first summoned by them, but after the sacrifice decided “Nope. Bad idea. I’m out.” So he went home and VERY soon thereafter died. I think his death may have caused some confusion and religious debate about his interpretation of this small and barely visible eclipse of August 1, 477 BC. After all, we are given details about the debate in Sparta about whether to join in the battle at Plataea. I really think this because we see (after the Spartans are reluctantly convinced to go to battle at Platea, due to the danger of Athens cooperating with Persia) the Spartan army offers sacrifices TWICE before and during their March to Attica.
In other words, they are nervous that they might be on the “wrong side” of the heavenly signs.
Additionally, this fits in with a theme we see from the Histories: Xerxes in his hubris repeatedly ignores the signs of the heavens and the omens telling him to refrain from invading (just read book 7 to see the crazy crap that befalls him as he tries to March). And he is punished for it.
In contrast, the Greeks are SUPER adept and eager to inquire with the gods about whether their actions are well-advised or ill-advised by the gods. And they are rewarded for it.