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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Quarterly
Vol. 13 (Jul.‑Oct. 1919), pp127‑128.

The text is in the public domain:
the author, John Arthur Ruskin Munro, died in 1944.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p127  Thucydides on the Third of August, 431 B.C.

Thucydides, II.28, records an eclipse of the sun in the summer of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. It can be no other than the annular eclipse of the 3rd of August, 431 B.C. He describes the phenomenon so accurately and with so many details that we can hardly doubt that he observed it himself — Τοῦ δ’ αὐτοῦ θέρους νουμηνίᾳ κατὰ σελήνην, ὥσπερ καὶ μόνον δοκεῖ εἶναι γίγνεσθαι δυνατόν, ὁ ἥλιος ἐξέλιπε μετὰ μεσημβρίαν καὶ πάλιν ἀνεπληρώθη, γενόμενος μηνοειδὴς καὶ ἀστέρων τινῶν ἐκφανέντων.

Ginzel, Spezieller Kanon der Sonnen- und Mondfinsternisse, pp24‑25, 58, 176‑177, and Karte V, gives full particulars of the eclipse. The central zone passed diagonally across the Black Sea from Odessa to Trebizond. The greatest phase attained at Athens almost exactly 10 digits (10·03) at about 5.22 P.M. true time. Every particular agrees with Thucydides's description except the degree of obscuration of the sun's disk. Ten digits are not enough to bring out stars. Eleven are the minimum required (Ginzel, p16).

Ginzel (pp176‑177) quotes two or three recent astronomers who have arrived at a bigger obscuration for Athens. Apart from Stockwell, who had his own peculiar theory of the moon's motion, Hofmann gives the biggest, 10·72 digits. But Hofmann also rejected the stars as a fabulous embellishment. Ginzel believes that the greatest phase at Athens might be screwed up to 11 digits, but not, it would seem, without some pressure on his astronomical conscience.

Sooner than compromise the sincerity of Urania or impute meretricious arts to Clio, let us first scrutinize the historical record. Thucydides does not explicitly define the station whence he observed the eclipse. To assume that he was at Athens is arbitrary. The tone and colour of his narrative of the early summer down to the departure of the Peloponnesian army from Attica certainly suggest that he was there. In the funeral oration put into the mouth of Pericles at the beginning of the winter we may catch the echoes of a personal impression. But between these two points lie three months, during which Thucydides chronicles the operations in Greece in the dry external manner of a distant spectator. (The note about Brasidas in chapter 25 is another story, a touch added on later information and prompted by interest afterwards aroused.) If Athens will not suit Thucydides' account of the eclipse, it is perfectly open to us, and only fair to him, to let his description determine his position, and place him where it will be most accurate.

 p128  This method leads us steadily towards the north and north-east, and it is precisely in that direction that we have the best reason to look for Thucydides, if he was away from Athens at that period. His associations with Thrace are attested by himself and are too familiar to need recapitulation. The eclipse of the 3rd of August, 431, would be appreciably greater in Thrace than at Athens. If Thucydides on that day was even no farther north and east than Mount Pangaeum, he would probably, I think, have seen the stars.

But Thucydides himself almost invites us to go a step farther. The next chapter, his very next words, recount how the Athenians made overtures to Nymphodorus of Abdera, appointed him their proxenos, and fetched him to Athens, wishing to win through him the alliance of Sitalces, son of Teres, king of the Odrysae, who had married his sister. Nymphodorus was not at Abdera, but at the court of Sitalces, or at all events he concludes the alliance and accepts Athenian citizenship for Sadocus, the king's son. The Athenian envoys would naturally have sought him there, or accompanied him. Thucydides' narrative implies that an understanding with Sitalces was already reached in Thrace.

That Thucydides, connected with a princely family of Thrace and influential ἐν τοῖς πρώτοις τὴν ἠπειρωτῶν, should have been employed on the mission, is an obvious suggestion, which is supported by his intimate knowledge of, and evident interest in, Sitalces and his family and his realm (II.29, 67, 95‑101, IV.101). In this particular passage alone in its context can one detect the personal accent of Thucydides through the mask of the annalist, not only in his alacrity to put his fellow countrymen right, out of his own special information, on the confusion between Teres and Tereus, which was probably used to recommend to them the alliance with Teres' son, but also in his triumphant satisfaction at the success of the mission, which enlisted in the forces of Athens, in spite of their estrangement and mutual rivalry, the two most powerful kings of the north, Sitalces and Perdiccas — οὕτω Σιτάλκης τε ὁ Τήρεω Θρᾳκῶν βασιλεὺς ξύμμαχος ἐγένετο Ἀθηναίοις καὶ Περδίκκας ὁ Ἀλεξάνδρου Μακεδόνων βασιλεύς.

The Odrysian capital is unknown, but is to be placed in the neighbourhood of Adrianople. There at any rate Thucydides would certainly have seen the stars on the afternoon of the 3rd of August, 431 B.C.

J. A. R. Munro.


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