May 28, 585BC Battle of the eclipse

Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated. 

On this day in 585BC, ancient precursors of the Iranian and Turkish people squared off for battle, along the banks of the River Halys in Asia minor.  They were the Indo-Iranian Medes inhabiting the west and north-west of modern Iran, and the Indo-European Lydians inhabiting the west of modern Turkey.  The two sides had been at war for 15 years

Sometime during the battle, the sky began to darken.  It wasn’t long before the sun was obliterated, altogether.   Stunned and terrified, the armies ceased fighting and laid down their weapons.Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the mathematician and astronomer Thales of Miletus predicted the eclipse in a year when the Medians and the Lydians were at war.    The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated.

Interestingly, this is believed to be the first solar eclipse to be successfully predicted.

It wasn’t the first recorded eclipse of the sun, just the first to be foretold. Two Chinese astrologers lost their heads back in the 22nd or 23rd century BC, for failing to predict one.  Clay tablets from the Babylonian period record an eclipse in Ugarit in 1375 BC. Other records report solar eclipses which “turned day into night” in 1063 and 763 BC.

Eclipse of ThalesPredicting a solar eclipse isn’t the same as predicting an eclipse of the moon.  The calculations are far more difficult. When the moon passes through the shadow of the sun, the event can be seen over half the planet, the total eclipse phase lasting over an hour. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon occupies only a narrow path.  The total eclipse phase at any given point, lasts only about 7½ minutes.

The method used by Thales to make his prediction is unknown. There is no record of the ancient Greeks predicting any further eclipses. It’s possible that he borrowed his methods from Egyptian astrologers, using their techniques of land measurement (geo-metry in Greek), later codified by Euclid and loved by 8th graders, the world over.unnamed-2Be that as it may, for the first time in history a full eclipse of the sun had been predicted beforehand.  The Battle of Halys marked the first time in history, that a war was ended when day turned to night.  Aylattes, King of Lydia and Cyaxares, King of the Medes, put down their weapons and declared a truce and their armies, followed suit.  With help from the kings of Cilicia and Babylon, the two sides negotiated a more permanent treaty.

To seal the bargain, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis married Cyaxares’ son Astyages.  The Halys River, now known as the River Kızılırmak, was to become the border between the two peoples.

December 5, 63BC The Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic. In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate. He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Following the overthrow of the  Monarchy in 509BC, the Rome of antiquity governed itself, as a Republic. The government was headed by two consuls, annually elected by the citizens and advised by a Senate. The Republic operated on a separation of powers principle, with checks and balances and a strong aversion to the concentration of power. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

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A series of civil wars and other events took place during the first century BC, ending the republican period and leaving in its wake an Imperium, best remembered for its conga line of dictators.

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Lucius Sergius Catilina

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator during this period, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic. In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate. He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Catilina’s second wife, the formidable Aurelia Orestilla, reputedly murdered the Senator’s grown son, for objecting to the match.  The American political commentator and Rutgers professor Leonard A. Cole once said “You are not responsible for what your friends do, but you will be judged by the company you keep“. Seems about right, to me.

The first of two conspiracies bearing his name began in 65BC. Catilina was supposed to have conspired to murder a number of Senators on their entering office, and making himself, Consul. He may or may not have been involved at this stage, but he certainly would be for the second.

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H/T zbrushcentral.com for this astonishing representation, of the second wife of Catilina

In 63BC, Catilina and a group of heavily indebted aristocrats concocted a plan with a number of disaffected veterans, to overthrow the Republic. On the night of October 18, Crassus brought letters to Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero warning of the plot. Cicero read the letters in the Senate the following day, later giving a series of four speeches: the Catiline Orations, considered by many to be his best political oratory.

In his last speech, delivered in the Temple of Concordia on December 5, 63BC, Cicero established a basis for other speakers to take up the cause. As Consul, Cicero was not allowed to voice an opinion on the execution of conspirators, but this speech laid the groundwork for others to do so, primarily Cato the Younger.

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The actual Senate debates are lost to history, leaving only Cicero’s four orations, but there was considerable resistance in the Senate to executing the conspirators. They were, after all, fellow aristocrats.

Armed forces of the conspirators were ambushed at the Milvian Bridge, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber River. The rest were executed by the end of December. Cicero’s actions had saved the Republic. For now.

history-catalineAt one point during this period, then-Senator Julius Caesar stepped to the rostrum to have his say. He was handed a paper and, reading it, stuck the note in his toga and resumed his speech. Cato, Caesar’s implacable foe, stood in the senate and demanded that Caesar read the note. It’s nothing, replied the future emperor, but Cato thought he had caught the hated Caesar red handed. “I demand you read that note”, he said, or words to that effect. He wouldn’t let it go.

Finally, Caesar relented. With an actor’s timing, he pulled out the note and read it to a hushed senate.  It turned out to be a love letter, a graphic one, wherein Servilia Caepionis described in detail what she wanted to do with Caesar when she got him alone. As if the scene wasn’t bad enough, Servilia just happened to be Cato’s half-sister.

Here’s where the story becomes very interesting. Caesar was a well-known lady’s man. By the time of his assassination, the Emperor had carried on with Servilia Caepionis, for years. Servilia had a son, called Marcus Brutus. He was 41 on the 15th of March, 44BC. The “Ides of March”. Caesar was 56. The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “And you, Brutus?” But that’s not what he said. Those words were put in his mouth 1,643 years later, by William Shakespeare.

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Ciaran Hinds plays Julius Caesar in the series Rome

Eyewitness accounts to Caesar’s last words are lost to history, but more contemporary sources recorded his dying words to be “Kai su, Teknon?” In Greek, it means “And you, my child?”

It seems unlikely that Brutus murdered his own father on the Ides of March.  The dates don’t seem to work out. Still, it makes you wonder…

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