Ciceronian Eclipse

In my part of the country, everyone is very excited about today’s total solar eclipse. To mark the day, here’s a passage from the first book of Cicero’s Republic (1.25). The speaker is Scipio.

And a similar story is told of an event in that great war in which the Athenians and Lacedaemonians contended so fiercely. For when the sun was suddenly obscured and darkness reigned, and the Athenians were overwhelmed with the greatest terror, Pericles, who was then supreme among his countrymen in influence, eloquence, and wisdom, is said to have communicated to his fellow-citizens the information he had received from Anaxagoras, whose pupil he had been—that this phenomenon occurs at fixed periods and by inevitable law, whenever the moon passes entirely beneath the orb of the sun, and that therefore, though it does not happen at every new moon, it cannot happen except at certain periods of the new moon. When he had discussed the subject and given the explanation of the phenomenon, the people were freed of their fears. For at that time it was a strange and unfamiliar idea that the sun was regularly eclipsed by the interposition of the moon—a fact which Thales of Miletus is said to have been the first to observe. But later even our own Ennius was not ignorant of it, for he wrote that, in about the three hundred and fiftieth year after Rome was founded:

In the month of June—the day was then the fifth—

The moon and night obscured the shining sun.

And now so much exact knowledge in regard to this matter has been gained that, by the use of the date recorded by Ennius and in the Great Annals, the dates of previous eclipses of the sun have been reckoned, all the way back to that which occurred on July fifth in the reign of Romulus. For even though, during the darkness of that eclipse, Nature carried Romulus away to man’s inevitable end, yet the story is that it was his merit that caused his translation to heaven.

Trans. Clinton W. Keyes.


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