May 282020

The eclipse of Thales was a solar eclipse that was, according to Histories of Herodotus, accurately predicted by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus. If Herodotus’ account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence. Many historians believe that the predicted eclipse was the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE. How exactly Thales predicted the eclipse remains uncertain; some scholars assert the eclipse was never predicted at all. Others have argued for different dates, but only the eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE matches the conditions of visibility necessary to explain the historical event. I have mentioned this eclipse before but in that post I was more interested in eclipses in general as ways of dating ancient events.

Herodotus’ Histories 1.73-74 states that a war started in the period between the Medes and the Lydians. There were two reasons for the war: the two sides had clashing interests in Anatolia, but also there was a motive of vengeance: some Scythian hunters employed by the Medes who once returned empty-handed were insulted by king Cyaxares. In revenge the hunters slaughtered one of his sons and served him to the Medes. The hunters then fled to Sardis, the capital of the Lydians. When Cyaxares asked for the Scythians to be returned to him, Alyattes refused to hand them over; in response, the Medes invaded.

Afterwards, on the refusal of Alyattes to give up his suppliants when Cyaxares sent to demand them of him, war broke out between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favor of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on. [Histories 1:74]

As part of the terms of the peace agreement, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis was married to Cyaxares’ son Astyages, and the Halys River (now known as the Kızılırmak River) was declared to be the border of the two warring nations.

An alternate hypothesis regarding the date of the battle argues that Herodotus was carelessly recounting events that he did not personally witness, and that the solar eclipse story is a misinterpretation of his text. According to this view, what happened could have been a lunar eclipse right before moonrise, at dusk. If the warriors had planned their battle activities expecting a full moon as in the previous few days, it would have been quite a shock to have dusk fall suddenly as an occluded moon rose. If this hypothesis is correct, the battle’s date would be not 585 BCE (date given by Pliny based on the date of solar eclipse), but possibly 3 September 609 BCE or 4 July 587 BCE, dates when such dusk-time lunar eclipses did occur. Generally speaking, I find this argument unconvincing. It is hard to confuse lunar and solar eclipses, and their effects on armies would have been radically different.

While doubt has been cast on the truth of the story, there are other accounts of it besides that of Herodotus. Diogenes Laërtius says that Xenophanes, who lived in the same century as Thales, was impressed with the prediction, and he also gives additional testimonies from the pre-Socratics, Democritus and Heraclitus. At the time of Thales’ purported prediction it was not yet known that eclipses were caused by the Moon coming between the Earth and the Sun, a fact that would not be discovered until over a century later by either Anaxagoras or Empedocles.

If the account is true, it has been suggested that Thales would have had to calculate the timing of any eclipse by recognizing patterns in the periodicities of eclipses. It has been postulated that Thales may have used the Saros cycle in his determination, or that he may have had some knowledge of Babylonian astronomy. However, Babylonians were far from being able to predict the local conditions of solar eclipses at that point, which makes this hypothesis highly unlikely. In fact, there is no known cycle that can be reliably used to predict an eclipse for a given location and, therefore, any accurate prediction would have been pure luck.

The eclipse peaked over the Atlantic Ocean at 37.9°N 46.2°W and the umbral path reached south-western Anatolia in the evening hours, and the Halys River is just within the error margin for delta-T provided.

On the whole, I do not think that emulating the Scythians’ dish of serving up the king’s son on a platter would be a suitable way to celebrate the day, but there are alternatives.  One is mare’s milk cheese.  The Scythians were noted for this cheese by Herodotus:

Now the Scythians blind all their slaves, because of the milk they drink; and this is how they get it: taking tubes of bone very much like flutes, they insert these into the genitalia of the mares and blow into them, some blowing while others milk. According to them, their reason for doing this is that blowing makes the mare’s veins swell and her udder drop. When done milking, they pour the milk into deep wooden buckets, and make their slaves stand around the buckets and shake the milk; they draw off what stands on the surface and value this most; what lies at the bottom is less valued. This is why the Scythians blind all prisoners whom they take: for they do not cultivate the soil, but are nomads.

Herodotus Histories 4:2

The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the 5th century BCE or the beginning of the 4th) compares the physiological process whereby a bad humor is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese by the Scythians:

If the man is not purged, as the humor is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Mare’s milk is fairly commonly available in central Asia (even in supermarkets) and I was offered it several times when I was in Kyrgyzstan 2 years ago.  Kyrgyz nomads are also known for making cheese from mare’s milk although the process is a bit tricky because the milk will not coagulate using cow rennet.  You can use camel rennet and maybe yak rennet also.  But there are other processes that can be employed as well, as in the above quote.  I doubt you will find mare’s milk cheese outside of central Asia, but give it a try.  It is a little reminiscent of goat’s milk cheese.  If not, maybe you can find mare’s milk.  It is normally called kumis (Russian term).

May 282014


On this date in 585 BCE there was a total solar eclipse. According to NASA, the eclipse peaked over the Atlantic Ocean at 37.9°N 46.2°W and the umbral path reached south-western Anatolia in the evening hours. This eclipse is significant for two reasons. First, the eclipse was accurately predicted by the Greek philosopher and mathematician Thales of Miletus. This report, which comes from The Histories of Herodotus is disputed because it is not clear how Thales could have done so, although he was an excellent mathematician. If it is true this is the earliest case in history of an eclipse being predicted. Second, according to Herodotus, the appearance of the eclipse was interpreted as an omen, and interrupted a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. The fighting immediately stopped, and they agreed to a truce. Because astronomers can calculate the dates of historical eclipses, the date of the battle is known with precision – a rarity in the ancient world.

Historical eclipses are a very valuable resource for historians, in that they allow a few historical events to be dated precisely, from which other dates and ancient calendars may be deduced. A solar eclipse of June 15, 763 BCE mentioned in an Assyrian text is important for the chronology of the Ancient Mideast, for example.

The method of using eclipses to date historical events does have problems, however. An eclipse recorded by Herodotus before Xerxes departed for his expedition against Greece – traditionally dated to 480 BCE – was matched by John Russell Hind to an annular eclipse of the Sun at Sardis on February 17, 478 BC. However, there was also a partial eclipse that was visible from Persia on October 2, 480 BCE. So, which eclipse was it?


Chinese records of eclipses begin at around 720 BCE. The 4th century BCE astronomer Shi Shen described the prediction of eclipses by using the relative positions of the Moon and Sun. In the Western hemisphere, there are few reliable records of eclipses before 800 CE, until the advent of Arab and monastic observations in the early medieval period. The first recorded observation of the sun’s corona (visible during a total eclipse) was made in Constantinople in 968 CE.

Thales of Miletus is also known for another prediction associated with the sun and weather. One story recounts that he bought all the olive presses in Miletus after predicting the weather and a good harvest for a particular year. In another version of the same story, Aristotle explains that Thales reserved presses ahead of time at a discount only to rent them out at a high price when demand peaked, following his predictions of a particularly good harvest. This first version of the story would constitute the first creation and use of futures, whereas the second version would be the first creation and use of options.

So, it should be olive oil today. I use olive oil in a myriad ways. I always use it as the oil of choice when sautéing at the start of a soup or stew, like most Argentinos it is the only dressing I use for a salad, and nothing is better to start a meal than a little dish of olive oil for dipping crusty bread. For a recipe of the day I suggest pasta with olive oil and garlic. It’s such a simple and quick dish. It can be on the table in 20 minutes or less. The dish pictured below took less time than it took me to write out the recipe.


I won’t bother with exact quantities. You should be able to figure it out. Get your pasta cooking in salted boiling water. Then add a generous quantity of olive oil to a wide deep skillet. Add a good quantity of minced garlic (about two cloves per person), and heat the oil gently over slow heat. On no account let the garlic change color. All you are trying to do is flavor the oil and slightly cook the garlic so that it is not quite as sharp as the raw deal. Heat the oil during the cooking of the pasta, then drain the pasta and dump it wholesale into the oil and garlic. Swirl around so that the pasta is evenly coated and serve immediately with some crusty bread (to mop up the remaining oil on your plate), and a green salad drizzled with olive oil.


Sep 122013


Today is the date customarily assigned to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. The Battle of Marathon was a decisive battle in the first wave of the Greco-Persian wars. It was fought between the citizens of Athens (aided by Plataea), and a Persian force commanded by Datis and Artaphernes. The battle was the culmination of the first attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The Greek army decisively defeated the more numerous Persians, marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars.  I am going to give a little background to provide context, but mostly I want to talk about the story of the runner Pheidippides and how this story became the founding legend of the Olympic marathon race.  Chances are that if you have heard anything about Pheidippides (I learnt about him from my 6th grade reader), it isn’t true.  No matter, it’s a good story.

The Battle of Marathon was the culmination of an attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The first Persian invasion was a response to Greek involvement in the Ionian Revolt, when Athens and nearby Eretria had sent a force to support the cities of Ionia (across the Aegean Sea in what is now Turkey), in their attempt to overthrow Persian rule. The Athenians and Eretrians had succeeded in capturing and burning Sardis, but were then forced to retreat with heavy losses. In response to this raid, the Persian king Darius I swore to burn down Athens and Eretria.  From the map below you can see what Greece was up against.  The Persian Empire (in brown) was vast and extremely powerful, and Greece (in green) was a tiny region bordering the empire, divided into fractious city states.  Athens was a fledgling democracy at the time, overshadowed by Sparta but starting to flex its muscles.


Once the Ionian revolt was finally crushed by the Persian victory at the Battle of Lade, Darius began his plan to conquer Greece. In 490 BCE, he sent a naval task force under Datis and Artaphernes across the Aegean, to subjugate the Cyclades, and then to make punitive attacks on Athens and Eretria. Reaching Euboea in mid-summer after a successful campaign in the Aegean, the Persians proceeded to besiege and capture Eretria. The Persian force then sailed for Attica, landing in the bay near the town of Marathon. The Athenians, joined by a small force from Plataea, marched to Marathon, and succeeded in blocking the two exits from the plain of Marathon. Stalemate ensued for five days, before the Athenians (for reasons that are not completely clear) decided to attack the Persians. The Persians outnumbered the Greeks nearly three to one, but despite the numerical advantage of the Persians, the Greek hoplites (citizen-soldiers) proved devastatingly effective against the more lightly armed Persian infantry, routing the wings before turning in on the center of the Persian line.


The date of the battle is not really clear because of rather confusing methods of dating used at the time.  Herodotus, described the battle in detail in Book IV of The Histories, and is our best surviving source of information.  He was writing several decades later (he was not even born at the time), but it is reasonably certain that he used contemporary accounts, no longer extant.  Herodotus mentions a date in the lunisolar calendar, of which each Greek city-state used a variant. Astronomical computation allows us to derive an absolute date in the proleptic Julian calendar which is often used by historians as the chronological frame. Philipp August Böckh in 1855 concluded that the battle took place on September 12, 490 BCE in the Julian calendar, and this is the conventionally accepted date.  But his dating relies on a key festival that occurred at the same time in Sparta, and it is possible that the Spartan calendar was one month ahead of that of Athens. In that case the battle took place on August 12, 490 BCE.

According to Herodotus, an Athenian runner named Pheidippides was sent to run from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance before the battle. He ran a distance of over 225 kilometers (140 miles), arriving in Sparta the day after he left. Here is the original:

Before they left the city, the Athenian generals sent off a message to Sparta. The messenger was an Athenian named Pheidippides, a professional long-distance runner. According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides’ story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection.

On the occasion of which I speak – when Pheidippides, that is, was sent on his mission by the Athenian commanders and said that he saw Pan – he reached Sparta the day after he left Athens and delivered his message to the Spartan government. “Men of Sparta” (the message ran), “the Athenians ask you to help them, and not to stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and subdued by a foreign invader; for even now Eretria has been enslaved, and Greece is the weaker by the loss of one fine city.” The Spartans, though moved by the appeal, and willing to send help to Athens, were unable to send it promptly because they did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full. So they waited for the full moon, and meanwhile Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, guided the Persians to Marathon.


Part of the significance of the story lies in the Athenian belief that the encounter of Pheidippides with Pan was a good omen meaning that Pan would fight on their side.  Apart from his other powers, Pan had the capacity to induce irrational, overwhelming fear in people, from which we get the word “panic.”

Then, following the battle, the Athenian army marched the roughly 40 km (25 miles) back to Athens at a very high pace (considering the quantity of armor, and the fatigue after the battle), in order to head off the Persian force sailing around Cape Sounion. They arrived back in the late afternoon, in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens, thus completing the Athenian victory.

Later, in popular imagination, these two events became confused with each other, leading to a legendary, but inaccurate, version of events. This legend has Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens after the battle, to announce the Greek victory with the word “???????????” (“We were victorious!”), whereupon he promptly died of exhaustion. Most accounts incorrectly attribute this story to Herodotus; actually, the story first appears in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens in the 1st century CE, who is quoting from a lost work of Heracleides of Pontus, giving the runner’s name as either Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE) gives the same story but names the runner Philippides (not Pheidippides).


It seems likely that in the 500 years between Herodotus’ time and Plutarch’s, the story of Pheidippides running to Sparta had become muddled with that of the Battle of Marathon (particularly the story of the Athenian forces making the march from Marathon to Athens in order to intercept the Persian ships headed there), and some fanciful writer had created the story of the run from Marathon to Athens because of the mix up.

In 1879, Robert Browning wrote the poem Pheidippides. The composite story in Browning’s poem of Pheidippides running to Sparta and back, fighting in the battle, then running to Athens to proclaim the victory, became part of late 19th century popular culture and was accepted as an historic fact. That’s the story I read in the 6th grade. When the idea of a modern Olympics was shaping up at the end of the 19th century, the initiators and organizers were looking for a great popularizing event that would recall the ancient glory of Greece. The idea of holding a ‘marathon race’ came from Michel Bréal and the idea was heavily supported by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, as well as the Greeks. This race would echo the legendary version of events, with the competitors actually running from Marathon to Athens. On April 10, 1896, Spiridon Louis of Greece won the first Olympic marathon in a time of 2:58:50.  The event was so popular that it quickly caught on, becoming a fixture at the Olympic games, with major cities subsequently staging their own annual events. The distance eventually became fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195 km, though for the first years it was variable, being around 25 miles (40 km)—the approximate distance from Marathon to Athens.

1896 Olympic marathon

1896 Olympic marathon

To celebrate Athens and Marathon I have chosen a reconstructed ancient Athenian recipe for lentil soup.  I chose it in large part because I am a huge fan of lentil soup, and it seems as if the basic recipe has probably not changed all that much in 2500 years.  This is hardly surprising given the nature of the soup.  The recipe here is adapted from Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti who used a combination of detective work from classic authors and later Roman cookbooks to piece things together.  This recipe, rather fancifully, is attributed to the philosopher Zeno of Citium. It is really quite standard except for the addition of ground coriander and honey whose proportions can be adjusted to taste. It does, however, lack the modern use of a ham bone or similar, but more often than not I make a meatless version.  I have also seen ancient recipes using cilantro and fresh mint.  I do not doubt that if we ate lentil soup in an ancient Athenian home or military mess it would be instantly recognizable as a flavor we know. It would have been common army food because of the ease of storage and transportation of lentils.


Zeno’s Lentil Soup


1 lb (500g) lentils
8 cups beef broth
1 large leek coarsely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp honey
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
coriander seeds, ground


Rinse the lentils thoroughly and put them into a pot with the broth to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one hour.

At the end of the hour, skim the top, add the vegetables, and simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes.

If the soup seems too watery, pass some of the lentils through a sieve, or use an immersion blender on a small portion. Add the vinegar and honey.

Pour into serving bowls and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil per serving.

Guests may add ground coriander seeds, salt, and pepper to taste.

Serves 4-6