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Ancients and Solar Eclipses


Composite of many exposures of different durations from of the total solar eclipse of 21 August 2017, Credit: European Southern Observatory: P. Horálek/Solar Wind Sherpas License details (CC BY 2.0 Deed)


In Book 2 Chapter 30 of Natural History, Pliny the elder writes of "Unusually Long Eclipses of the Sun".

"Eclipses of the sun also take place which are portentous and unusually long, such as occurred when Cæsar the Dictator was slain, and in the war against Antony, the sun remained dim for almost a whole year."
-Pliny, Natural History, 2.30

Perhaps more likely this was something other than a solar eclipse that he is describing. I will add this coin from a year or two after Julius Caesar's assassination from Mark Antony and Lepidus, shortly before they joined forces with Octavian.

Mark Antony and M Aemelius Lepidus, 43 BCE, AR Denarius (3.71g, 18mm)

Mint: Military mint traveling with Antony and Lepidus in Cisalpine Gaul

Date: Crawford dates this issue between 30-May-43 and early 42

Obv: M ANTON [IMP], lituus, capis, and raven

Rev: M LEPID IMP, simpulum, aspergillum, securis, apex

Ref: Crawford 489/2; Sydenham 1156; RSC 2


The death of Augustus brings another mention of an eclipse of the sun:

"Thus, 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. When a meeting of the senate had been appointed on account of the emperor's illness, in order that they might offer prayers, the senate-house was found closed and an owl sitting on it hooted. 4 A thunderbolt fell upon his statue that stood upon the Capitol and blotted out the first letter of the name "Caesar.""
-Cassius Dio, Roman History, 29.2-4

This also seems a stretch - as the date of the eclipse is calculated as August 17th, AD 10, about 4 years before the death of Augustus. This coin from the days before he was emperor, Octavian/Augustus as designated successor of Julius Caesar.

Roman Republican The Triumvirs. Octavian. Early 40 BC. AR Denarius (18mm,2.64g, 1h). Military mint traveling with Octavian in Italy; Q. Salvius, moneyer.

Obv: Bare head right, wearing slight beard; C • CAESAR • III • VIR • R • P • C around

Rev: Winged thunderbolt; Q • SALVIVS • I (MP) • COS • DESIG around.

Ref: Crawford 523/1a; CRI 300; Sydenham 1326b; RSC 514; RBW 1808.


and this coin again from Octavian that celebrates his connection to the deified Julius Caesar.

Roman Republican, the Triumvirs, Octavian, 36 BCE, AR denarius (17.5mm, 3.25 g, 5h), Southern or central Italian mint

Obv: IMP CAESAR DIVI F III VIR ITER R P C, bareheaded and bearded head right

Rev: COS ITER ET TER DESIG, tetrastyle temple of Divus Julius: statue of Julius Caesar as augur standing within temple; DIVO • IVL on architrave, star within pediment, figures along roof line; lit altar to left

Ref: Crawford 540/2; Sydenham 1338; RBW 1829

Note: two banker's marks to the right of Octavian's ear


The Romans had a different understanding of eclipses that we do.  Here Pliny shares some well established science:

"LXIX. Fire even by itself has a curative power. It is well established that epidemics caused by an eclipse of the sun are alleviated in many ways by the lighting of bonfires."
-Pliny, Natural History, 36.69

Although science might not back it up today, it is easy to related to the link between earthquakes and eclipses seems credible given the rare New Jersey Earthquake (Whitehouse Station 4.8) last week!

"The severest earthquakes occur in the morning and the evening, but they are frequent near dawn and in the daytime about noon. They also occur at an eclipse of the sun or moon, since then storms are lulled, but particularly when heat follows rain or rain heat."
-Pliny, Natural History, 2.82

Emperor Claudius felt the need to explain to all the real reason for eclipses as one was expected on his birthday (and that might not have ended well for him). This reveals an explanation known to the Romans that is not far from what we know today.

"Since there was to be an eclipse of the sun on his birthday, he feared that there might be some disturbance in consequence, inasmuch as some other portents had already occurred; he therefore 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.  These reasons I will now give. The moon, which revolves in its orbit (or so it is believed), either directly below it or perhaps with Mercury and Venus intervening, has a longitudinal motion, just as the sun has, and a vertical motion, as the other perhaps likewise has, but it has also a latitudinal motion such as the sun never shows under any conditions.  When, therefore, the moon gets in a direct line with the sun over our heads and passes under its blazing orb, it obscures the rays from that body that extend toward the earth. To some of the earth's inhabitants this obscuration lasts for a longer and to others for a shorter time, whereas to still others it does not occur for even the briefest moment.  For since the sun always has a light of its own, it is never deprived of it, and consequently to all those between whom and the sun the moon does not pass, so as to throw a shadow over it, it always appears entire. This, then, is what happens to the sun, and it was made public by Claudius at that time."
-Cassius Dio, Roman History 26.1

Claudius, AD 41-54, Ephesus, AR Cistophoric Tetradrachm (26-28mm, 10.72g)

Obv: TI CLAVD CAES AVG, bare head left

Rev: Frontal view of the tetrastyle temple of Diana at Ephesus on a podium of four steps, her cult statue within with fillets hanging from her wrists and a polos on her head; pediment decorated with figures, DIAN-EPHE across fields

Ref: RIC 119; RPC 2222.


My last addition to this note is this coin that seems appropriate for connecting Sun (Apollo Sun God) and Moon (Selene Moon Goddess) on one coin from the time of Domitian an A:

Roman Provincial, Domitian Æ (6.65g, 23mm, 12h) of Aegeae, Cilicia. Dated CY 135 = 88/9. Herakleon, magistrate.

Obv: Radiate head of Apollo-Phoibos (phoibos meaning shining or bright) with features of Domitian to right; laurel branch in right field

Rev: Draped bust of Artemis-Selene to left, crescent set on forehead, quiver over shoulder; ΑΙΓΕΑΙΩΝ behind, ΗΡΑΚΛΕΩΝΟϹ below, ЄΛΡ (date) in left field

Ref: RPC II 1776A (this coin specimen 3 of 3, additional coin-type added post publication); Haymann 24b.


If you are in the path of totality, consider contributing to our understanding of the sun with this SunSketcher app from NASA: https://science.nasa.gov/citizen-science/sunsketcher/.


We wish our readers safe viewing and good conditions for this uncommon event!


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