Eclipses of the Sun and Moon are often quite spectacular, and in ancient and medieval times they were frequently recorded as portents—usually of disaster. Hence, it is not surprising that many of these events are mentioned in history and literature as well as in astronomical writings.
Well over 1,000 individual eclipse records are extant from various parts of the ancient and medieval world. Most known ancient observations of these phenomena originate from only three countries: China, Babylonia, and Greece. No eclipse records appear to have survived from ancient Egypt or India, for example. Whereas virtually all Babylonian accounts are confined to astronomical treatises, those from China and Greece are found in historical and literary works as well. As yet, no eclipse report before
800 BCE can be definitely dated; the earliest reliable observation is from Assyria and dates from June 15, 763 BCE. Commencing only a few decades later, numerous Babylonian and Chinese observations are preserved. Eclipses are occasionally noted in surviving European writings from the Dark Ages (for instance, in the works of the 5th-century bishop Hydatius and the 8th-century theologian
Babylonian clay tablet giving a detailed description of the total solar eclipse of April 15,136 BCE. The tablet is a goal-year text, a type that lists astronomical data of predictive use for an assigned group of years. F. Richard Stephenson and historian Saint Bede the Venerable). However, during this period only the Chinese continued to observe and report such events on a regular basis. Chinese records in the traditional style continued almost uninterrupted to modern times.
Many eclipses were carefully recorded by the astronomers of Baghdad and Cairo between about 800 and 1000 CE. Also, after about 800 CE, both European and Arabic annalists began to include in their chronicles accounts of eclipses and other remarkable celestial phenomena. Some of these chronicles continued until the 16th century and even later, although the peak period was between about 1100 and 1400. Around 1450, European astronomers commenced making fairly accurate measurements of the time of day or night when eclipses occurred, and this pursuit spread rapidly following the invention of the telescope. This discussion is confined to eclipse observations made in the pre-telescopic period.
The present-day value of ancient and medieval records of eclipses falls into two main categories: (1) chronological, depending mainly on the connection between an eclipse and a significant historical event, and (2) astronomical, especially the study of long-term variations in the length of the mean solar day.
The Sun is usually so brilliant that the casual observer is liable to overlook those eclipses in which less than about 80 percent of the solar disk is obscured. Only when a substantial proportion of the Sun is covered by the Moon does the loss of daylight become noticeable.
Hence, it is rare to find references to small partial eclipses in literary and historical works. At various times, astronomers in Babylonia, China, and the Arab lands systematically reported eclipses of small magnitude, but their vigilance was assisted by their ability to make approximate predictions. They thus knew roughly when to scrutinize the Sun. Arab astronomers sometimes viewed the Sun by reflection in water to diminish its brightness when watching for eclipses. The Roman philosopher and writer Seneca (c. 4 BCE-65 CE), on the other hand, recounts that, in his time, pitch was employed for this purpose. It is not known, however, whether such artificial aids were used regularly.
When the Moon covers a large proportion of the Sun, the sky becomes appreciably darker, and stars may appear. On those rare occasions when the whole of the Sun is obscured, the sudden occurrence of intense darkness, accompanied by a pronounced fall in temperature, may leave a profound impression on eyewitnesses. Total or near-total eclipses of the Sun are of special chronological importance. On average, they occur so infrequently at any particular location that if the date of such an event can be established by historical means to within a decade or two, it may well prove possible to fix an exact date by astronomical calculation.
The Moon even when full is much dimmer than the Sun, and lunar eclipses of quite small magnitude are thus fairly readily visible to the unaided eye. Both partial and total obscurations are recorded in history with roughly comparable frequency. As total eclipses of the Moon occur rather often (every two or three years on average at a given place), they are of less chronological importance than their solar counterparts. There are, however, several notable exceptions, as is discussed below.
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