Friday, 20 March 2015

Eclipsing the Romans

The morning of the 20th March 2015 saw the moon pass over the sun and the very north of Europe experience a solar eclipse. As a celestial event, even to our modern scientific brains it is still something to be marvelled at, as the sunlight slowly dims and an ethereal twilight takes hold, the world is quieted to an Elysium dusk.

Ancient History Blog Eclipses
Solar Eclipses
But what would a Roman mind make of the dimming of the sun? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the event of an eclipse was taken to be the sign of a portentous event. So portentous in fact that they show up in the ancient sources with remarkable frequency.

Towards the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Principate, over a time of roughly eighty years, three solar eclipses are recorded as having occurred at ominous moments. The death of Caesar, the death of Augustus and also the co-incidence of a solar eclipse on Claudius's birthday.


Pliny in his Natural History wrote on all aspects of geology, geography, nature and history before his death in AD 79 while trying to rescue people from the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When discussing the heavens and the stars, Pliny also wrote on the phenomenon of eclipses, Giving two examples, one that occurred after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and an eclipse that lasted for almost a whole year during the war between Anthony and Octavian (Augustus).

"Eclipses of the sun also take place which are portentous and unusually long"

Blogs about Ancient History
Solar Eclipses in Ancient Rome
The two events follow Pliny's guidelines of eclipses happening during monumental and fated moments of history. The murder of Julius Caesar threw the Roman world into civil war, while the war between Anthony and Octavian saw the last two factions in a long, bloody, continuous civil war fighting for final supremacy.


In many ways it is difficult to write about any subject on Roman history without mention the great Caesar Augustus in some way. In direct "control" of Rome for forty years the legend of his life is filled with portents, omens and premonitions.

Shortly before his death in AD 14, Cassius Dio tells us that there were several portents of Augustus's coming fate, one of which was,

"the sun suffered a total eclipse and most of the sky seemed to be on fire; glowing embers appeared to be falling from it and blood-red comets were seen"

Augustus "saved" the Republic from its unending cycle of bloodshed and civil war. The peace he brought to the Roman people and her Empire meant that his passing could only be marked by the greatest of portents, the dimming of heavens lights.

Ancient History Rome Blog
Bronze Head of Claudius from the British Museum

The solar eclipse that occurred during the reign of Claudius is significant for different reasons. The predicted eclipse was to take place on the Emperor's birthday, a rare and portentous event. Knowing that eclipses were seen as portents of misfortune and ill omens, Claudius in an attempt to forestall any unrest,

"issued a proclamation in which he stated not only the fact that there was to be an eclipse, 
and when, and for how long, but also the reasons for which this was bound to happen"

Cassius Dio then gives the explanation for the reasons for eclipses that Claudius issued in his proclamation. This solar eclipse is significant for two reasons. One, Roman astronomers were able to accurately predict the day a solar eclipse would occur to the day. Two, the Emperor understanding a scientific reasoning for the events attempted to educate his people to stop any unrest among his people. 

Celestial events are common throughout Roman history, significant comets trailing blazing tails over the sky, strongly shining stars and eclipses. Eclipses, dimming the light of sol and putting ominous shadow over the world. A grey Elysium dusk. 

Thanks for Reading


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