5, Herodotus , The Battle of the Eclipse

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The Battle of the Eclipse - Lydian / Persian soldiers on horseback

Herodotus - The Battle of the Eclipse

For Ellery, in Texas who loves all things to do with the planet Earth.

Hello, this is Bertie, and I’m here with my latest story based on the Histories of Herodotus.

Now if you are up to speed with your Greek mythology, you will know that the ancient Greek god of the sun was a chap called Apollo. If you dont know that, then don’t worry, because we have a handy guide to the Greek gods and goddesses on Storynory.com, and you can check it out. Apollo was supposed to get up early in the morning and hitch the sun to the back of his chariot. He would then spend the rest of the day pulling the great fiery orb across the skies. It’s a pretty story, but you might think that the Greeks were a little bit simple to actually believe it. Well as it turns out, not all of them did. Listen on to to find out what some of their greatest thinkers knew about what was really going on in the skies.

This is a story about a battle in which two great empires of the East came face to face. One was the Lydian Empire which covered most of what we now call Turkey. The other side was a new power, a people called the Medes.

We are going to be hearing much more about the Medes later on in the histories. For now I will tell you that they came for the Zagros mountains in the North West of the place we now call Iran. They were fierce warriors who swept speedily across great distances on horseback. They had already conquered their former master, the empire of Assyria, and had made friends and allies with another great power of the East, Babylon.

Their next target was the empire of Lydia, which was rich in gold, and which looked out onto the Mediterranean sea and many other great prizes further afield. If the Medes conquered Lydia, they would be well on the way to becoming masters of the known world. Not bad for a bunch of wild horsemen from the mountains.

The Medes attacked Lydia, but soon discovered that they had come up against their toughest adversary yet. Like the Medes, the Lydians were strong fighters on horseback. Herodotus tells us that the war lasted six years. In the final year of the war, they fought a battle by the banks of the river Halys in Eastern Turkey.

Both sides fought long and hard, with neither army getting the upper hand. Then suddenly, although it was still day, the soldiers found themselves fighting in the dark. The sun had been partly covered by the moon. It was what we call an eclipse, and to many of those on the battlefield, it seemed like a signal from the gods. For who else has power over the sun and the moon?

The commanders on both sides called off their soldiers. Instead of fighting, they talked peace.

They agreed that the daughter of King Alyattes of Lydia would marry the son of King Cyaxares of the Medes. The family bond was meant to ensure that the peace was lasting. Then they swore a blood pact, in which the leaders on both sides cut the skin on their own arms and licked each others blood. If it sounds yucky, it was far better than shedding much more blood on the battlefield.

In actual fact, the peace lasted around 30 years until it came to a shattering end when one great empire fell and another triumphed.

Now many dates in ancient history are somewhat vague, but in this particular case, we know that the battle of the eclipse took place on the 28th of May in the year 585 BC? How can we be so precise?

Well, an eclipse happens when there is a new moon that comes between the earth and the sun. It’s all to do with the rotation of the earth around the sun, and the moon around the earth. Modern astronomers use mathematical formulae to work out exactly when eclipses happened in the past, and when they will happen in the future. In fact, if there’s going to be an eclipse, you can hear about it on the news before it’s actually happened.

But could an ancient Greek have predicted an eclipse? It doesn’t sound likely, because back then, most people believed that the gods controlled the sun and the moon - or in fact that the sun and the moon actually were gods. But it turns out that not everybody clung to those beliefs.

Herodotus tells us that a scientist from the Greek city of Miletus accurately predicted the date of this fateful eclipse. His name was Thales (pronounced THAY-lees). He is often called an early philosopher - or lover of wisdom. But we might think of him more as a scientist and a mathematician.

To make such an accurate prediction, Thales must have studied the sun and the moon, put in a lot of original thought about what was actually happening, and then done many mathematical calculations. In short, he was a genius.

And as a genius, Thales was never short of big ideas.

One of his theories was that the world and everything in it, is made of water. In fact, we now know that living beings such as humans are about 70 percent water, but that’s not true of other things - like rocks for instance. But the main point here is that Thayles was a deep thinker who was interested in the nature of things. He liked to explain the world by science rather than mythology.

Other Greek thinkers, including the philosopher, Democritus, got even closer to the modern view of the world, when they suggested that everything is made out of tiny pieces of matter called atoms.

Thales was born into a wealthy family in the Greek city of Miletus, on the coast of what we now call Turkey. We've heard about Miletus before in a story about the Greek Oracle of Delphi. It's said that Thales family were related to Phoenicians who were great sailors and traders, from the country that we now call Lebanon. It is said that he had an Egyptian teacher. His life shows how the Greeks were mixing with the peoples of the East and sharing their ideas.

He used mathematics and geometry to calculate the height of pyramids and to work out the distance of a ship from the land. Thats what we now call Triganomitry. He discovered that the year has 365 days in it, and he was able to predict events like solar eclipses. Later on he worked for the Lydian King Croesus and helped his army cross the River Halys by diverting its flow. So he was something of an engineer too.

Thales was known as one of the seven great sages, or wise men, of Greece.
Herodotus, as a historian, is another example of how the Greeks liked to enquire into things and explain them rationally. It was a time when the Greeks and people of the near east were interested in everything. There was an explosion of a science, philosophy, history, drama, poetry, storytelling, art, architecture, medicine, politics, and exploration of the world. They were perhaps the most curious people who have ever lived, which is why I find this period of history so fascinating.

And I am delighted to dedicate this Story to Ellery, in Texas, who recently turned six years old. I’m told she loves all things to do with the Planet Earth. Well this story has been a little bit about the Sun and the Moon as well as our World, but they kind of all go together! In any case, Ellery, I hope you found the story interesting and that you had a wonderful birthday.

Next time I am going to tell you about the most famous Lydian king of all. His name was Croesus. There are many stories about him, some factual, and some perhaps a little bit more like legends. All of them are fascinating.

And if you would like to support us on Patreon, you will be helping us spread a little education and enlightenment around the world. Please consider becoming part of what we are doing. The link to our Patreon page is on our website.

For now, from me, Bertie at Storynory.com, goodbye!