Written in the stars: 7 celestial events that may have changed history

With a total solar eclipse set to cross American skies, Guy de la Bédoyère describes seven celestial events that may have changed the course of history, from the comet that carried William the Conqueror to victory in 1066 to the eclipse that helped Lawrence of Arabia defeat the Ottomans…

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale now

This 13th-century miniature from a manuscript of the Cambrai Apocalypse shows John the Evangelist (thought to be the author of the Gospel of John) looking on as a number of calamities befall Earth: an earthquake rocks the land, the sun turns black, the moon red, and kings take refuge in caves. Through the centuries, people have associated celestial events with Armageddon – a fact reflected in the political turmoil that struck England in 1652. (© Getty Images)
 

1 A match made in heaven


How a solar eclipse of 585 BC persuaded two belligerent kingdoms to make love not war

For the first known example of 
a celestial event changing the course of history, we must head to the sixth century BC when King Cyaxares, ruler of an ancient Iranian people known as the Medes, allowed nomad Scythians to settle in his kingdom. In return for Cyaxares’ hospitality, the Scythians trained Median boys in archery. But then the relationship 
turned sour.

One day Cyaxares hurled abuse at the Scythians for going out hunting and coming home with nothing. In revenge the Scythians killed one of their trainees, chopped him up, cooked him and fed the meat to Cyaxares, pretending it was one of their hunting kills. Before Cyaxares got wind of their ruse, the Scythians had fled to the court of King Alyattes of Lydia at Sardis (western Turkey). 

Unsurprisingly Cyaxares 
was enraged by the Scythians’ antics, but Alyattes refused to send his visitors back. War raged between Lydia and Media for the next six years, with neither side able to gain the upper hand. Finally, during one battle, so the Greek historian Herodotus tells us, “day was suddenly turned into night”. 
So horrified by this were the combatants, they gave up the fight and settled for peace, which was guaranteed by Alyattes’ daughter marrying Cyaxares’ son. 

Remarkably, Herodotus reports that Thales of Miletus had predicted the event, which we now know took place on 28 May 585 BC – the first recorded prediction of a solar eclipse. The eclipse passed right through southern Europe and across modern Turkey into Iraq.

 

2 Fear of the dark


A Persian army made hay when the sun vanished in 557 BC

A mere 28 years after an eclipse brought an end to the Lydia–Media war, the course of ancient history was once again shaped by a celestial phenomenon. 

Our source for this is Xenophon, a Greek philosopher-historian, who in 401 BC accompanied the army of Cyrus the Younger on an expedition to take the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes. En route they came across a deserted city called Larissa on the banks of the river Tigris, somewhere in modern Iraq. 

Xenophon explains that Larissa had once been a well-fortified stronghold, its 100ft-high clay brick walls sitting on a 20ft-stone base with a six-mile perimeter. It had certainly proved too formidable for a Persian army 200 years earlier. Back then the Persians had repeatedly tried – and failed – to break the Larissans’ resistance. But then the heavens had intervened. Xenophon reports that “a cloud covered up the sun and hid it from sight”. This had so unsettled the Larissans that they promptly abandoned their city, some taking refuge on a pyramid nearby, and leaving Larissa defenceless before the Persians. 

The track of the total eclipse of 19 May 557 BC passed right through southern Syria and Iraq. This must have been the event that so spooked the Larissans that they were prepared to give up a city 
that had for so long stood fast against their enemies.


A relief depicts a group of Lydians, whose compatriots lay down their weapons after witnessing a solar eclipse. (© Alamy)

 

3 The gospel truth?


An eclipse may offer us a clue
 as to the date of Jesus’s death

One of the most important events in Christian tradition is the crucifixion of Jesus. But the New Testament is frustratingly short on historical detail. The crucifixion took place during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37). But when exactly? 

The Gospel of St Luke tells us that John the Baptist began his teaching in the 15th year of Tiberius, which must be c29 AD. Later, Luke tells us that, at the time of the crucifixion, “there was a darkness over all the Earth” which lasted from the sixth to the ninth hour, also mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. 

Luke goes on to specify that “the sun was darkened”. That sounds like an eclipse – and there was one. It took place on 24 November AD 29 and passed through Syria and Iraq. It wasn’t total in Judaea, but it would have been very nearly so.

Coincidence? Perhaps. It certainly complicates the chronology, because if Luke was referring to the eclipse of November AD 29 when describing the crucifixion, he was leaving less than a year for John 
to complete his teaching and Jesus to perform his ministry. Perhaps Matthew, Mark and Luke were 
using their memory of the eclipse of AD 29 to add symbolism to their accounts.

 

4 Halley’s conquest


A comet in 1066 spelled doom for the English (at least that’s what the Normans would have us believe)

The trouble with treating a celestial phenomenon as an omen is the question of who the omen is meant for, and whether it is a good or bad one. The most reliable answers generally come afterwards. 

Halley’s Comet returns every 75–76 years. But it wasn’t until 1705 that the English astronomer Edmond Halley realised that, since a comet had been regularly reported at that interval, it must be the same one. One of those occasions was in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle announcing that, around Easter time, “a portent such as men had never seen was seen in the heavens”. Visible for a week, it was described by some as the “long-haired star”. 

According to the Bayeux tapestry, this long-haired star spelled bad news for poor Harold II. As his compatriots look up at the comet with wonder, the English king 
is portrayed being warned 
by a figure, presumably an astrologer, that the comet 
is an omen of doom.

William I, on the other hand, regarded it as a positive portent – though that, of course, was in retrospect. A few scenes later, the future Conqueror is shown building his armada, buoyed 
up with celestially inspired confidence.


Halley’s Comet races across the sky, as depicted in the Bayeux tapestry. Within months, Harold II would be dead. (© Getty)
 

5 Drowning in bad luck


An eclipse in 1133 took the blame for a string of calamities to strike 12th-century England

Henry I’s death on 1 December 1135 was a challenging time for England. His son William had been drowned in the White Ship disaster of 1120. His first wife was already dead, and his second, Adeliza, whom he had married in 1121, had borne him no children. 

Henry was left only with his daughter Matilda, the Holy Roman Empress. Surely she could bring the royal family a little luck? Well, no, actually. The baronry and the church were appalled by the prospect of a woman ruling England in her own right, and their disaffection crystallised in the figure of Henry’s nephew Stephen 
of Blois who, following Henry’s death in 1135, seized the English throne. What followed was 19 years of civil war, a period of turbulence that’s now remembered as the Anarchy.

So what was the cause of this ill fortune? According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, you needed to look no further than the celestial event that, it says, occurred four months earlier, on 2 August 1135, when “the light of the day was eclipsed” as Henry sailed to France. There was indeed an eclipse on 2 August, passing over northern Britain and central Europe – but in 1133! Perhaps the 1133 eclipse was just too good a story for the Chronicle to miss. Or maybe, by the time the Chronicle was written down, the two events had been unconsciously conflated.


An 18th-century painting of a solar and lunar eclipse described in the New Testament. (© AKG-Images)
 

6 England cowers before the apocalypse


As the sun disappeared over England in 1652, during the volatile political climate after the Civil War, people feared the end of the world

In 1652 England was still coming to terms with Oliver Cromwell’s victory over the royalists in the Civil War. On 8 April, by our reckoning, Monday 29 March by theirs (England still being on the Julian calendar, then behind the corrected Gregorian date by about 10 days), a total solar eclipse passed through the north-east Atlantic. 
It crossed Ireland, Wales, north-western England and Scotland, just scraping the north-west coast of Scandinavia. It’s rare for Britain to be virtually the only land crossed by an eclipse. In London, almost the whole solar disc was obscured. 

The eclipse had been “much threatened by astrologers”, according to the diarist John Evelyn. Apocalyptic tracts were circulated ominously, warning of the impending “Black Monday”, which would be “the precursor of great calamities and mischiefs”. These same tracts likened the probable fallout to the “horrid calamities” that befell the Jews after the crucifixion, when another eclipse was said to have occurred. 

Fifth Monarchists – a group of violent Puritans who would seek to overthrow the government – believed the Second Coming of the Messiah was imminent. Despite efforts to reassure congregations, the state of national agitation was so great that the country ground to a standstill that day. “Hardly any would work,” noted Evelyn, and many hid in their houses all day.

 

7 Arabs strike from the shadows


Lawrence of Arabia used a lunar eclipse to devastating effect in the war with the Ottomans

Lunar eclipses, when the Earth casts its shadow across the full moon, have a whole different level of potency to their solar equivalents. More frequent and more widely visible, the sight of a blood-red moon in the dead of night can have a powerful effect. 

In July 1917, during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman empire, Lawrence of Arabia was making his way across the desert towards the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba with his Arab army. He had to fight his way past two outpost defences first. On 4 July they came to the first outpost, called Kethira. The Arabs were fearful, believing the full moon would compromise their chances of a night attack. Lawrence, armed with his diary, reassured them “for a while there should be no moon”. 

He was right. Lawrence knew that a lunar eclipse was due, and when it appeared on cue (on the night of 4/5 July 1917), it terrified and distracted the Turks, who were now “firing rifles and clanging copper pots to rescue the threatened satellite”. Kethira duly fell, and Lawrence’s celebrated attack on Aqaba followed on 6 July.   

 

Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and writer. 
His books include Praetorian: The Rise and Fall 
of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard (Yale, 2017) and 
The Real Lives of Roman Britain (Yale, 2016) 

You can listen to Melvyn Bragg 
and guests discuss comets in 
the Radio 4 series In Our Time at bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pw38n

Read the September 
issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine (on sale now), which features advice on how to get 
great eclipse photos. 
skyatnightmagazine.com

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