Eclipse occurred 28 May 585 BC

The eclipse of Thales was a solar eclipse that was, according to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, accurately predicted by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus. If Herodotus' account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence. Many historians believe that the predicted eclipse was the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC.[1][2] How exactly Thales predicted the eclipse remains uncertain; some scholars assert the eclipse was never predicted at all.[3][4][5] Others have argued for different dates,[6] but only the eclipse of May 585 BC matches the conditions of visibility necessary to explain the historical event.[7]

According to Herodotus, the appearance of the eclipse was interpreted as an omen, and interrupted a battle in a long-standing war between the Medes and the Lydians. American writer Isaac Asimov described this battle as the earliest historical event whose date is known with precision to the day, and called the prediction "the birth of science".[8]

The eclipse

The eclipse peaked over the Atlantic Ocean at 37°54′N 46°12′W / 37.9°N 46.2°W / 37.9; -46.2 (Battle of Halys eclipse peak) and the umbral path reached south-western Anatolia in the evening hours. The Halys River, the presumed site of the battle mentioned by Herodotus, is just within the error margin for ΔT provided.[2]

Herodotus' account

Herodotus' The Histories 1.73–74 states that a war started in that period between the Medes and the Lydians.

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.[9]

Thales' prediction

While doubt has been cast on the truth of the story, there are other accounts of it besides that of Herodotus. Diogenes Laërtius says that Xenophanes, who lived in the same century as Thales, was impressed with the prediction, and he also gives additional testimonies from the pre-Socratics Democritus and Heraclitus.[6]

Cicero mentions that Thales was the first man to successfully predict a solar eclipse during the reign of Astyages, the last king of the Median empire.[10] Pliny the Elder mentions as well that Thales had predicted a solar eclipse during the reign of Alyattes of Lydia.[11]

At the time of Thales' purported prediction it was not yet known that eclipses were caused by the Moon coming between the Earth and the Sun, a fact that would not be discovered until over a century later by either Anaxagoras or Empedocles.[12]

If the account is true, it has been suggested that Thales would have had to calculate the timing of any eclipse by recognizing patterns in the periodicities of eclipses.[6]

It has been postulated that Thales may have used the Saros cycle in his determination, or that he may have had some knowledge of Babylonian astronomy. However, Babylonians were far from being able to predict the local conditions of solar eclipses at that point, which makes this hypothesis highly unlikely.[4][13] At the time, there was no known cycle that could be reliably used to predict an eclipse for a given location and, therefore, any accurate prediction would have been down to luck.[5][6]

See also


  1. ^ This date is based on the proleptic Julian calendar, which does not include a "year zero"; astronomically the year is -584.
  2. ^ a b "Eclipse path map from NASA". NASA. Archived from the original on 18 January 2006.
  3. ^ Martin, Thomas-Henri (1864). "Sur quelques prédictions d'éclipses mentionnées par des auteurs anciens". Revue Archéologique. ix: 170–199. JSTOR 41734368.
  4. ^ a b Neugebauer, Otto (1969). The Exact Sciences in Antiquity. Dover Publications. p. 142. ISBN 978-0-4862-2332-2.
  5. ^ a b Querejeta, M. (2011). "On the Eclipse of Thales, Cycles and Probabilities". Culture and Cosmos. 15: 5–. arXiv:1307.2095. Bibcode:2013arXiv1307.2095Q. doi:10.46472/CC.0115.0203.
  6. ^ a b c d Panchenko, D. (2004). "Thales's Prediction of a Solar Eclipse". Journal for the History of Astronomy. 25 (4): 275–. Bibcode:1994JHA....25..275P. doi:10.1177/002182869402500402. S2CID 118329282.
  7. ^ Stephenson, F. Richard; Fatoohi, Louay J. (1997). "Thales's Prediction of a Solar Eclipse". Journal for the History of Astronomy. 28 (4): 279. Bibcode:1997JHA....28..279S. doi:10.1177/002182869702800401. S2CID 118345852.
  8. ^ "Happy Birthday to Science", by Tom Mandel, at the Chicago Sun-Times (archived at HighBeam Research); published 28 May 1990; retrieved 11 April 2014
  9. ^ The Histories. Herodotus.
  10. ^ Cicero: De divinatione 1,49 (online)
  11. ^ Pliny the Elder: Naturalis historia 2,9 (53) (online)
  12. ^ Westfall, John; Sheehan, William (2014). Celestial Shadows: Eclipses, Transits, and Occultations. Springer. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-4939-1535-4.
  13. ^ Frost, Natasha (8 August 2017). "Was the First Eclipse Prediction an Act of Genius, a Brilliant Mistake, or Dumb Luck?". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 5 August 2019.