The Power of an Eclipse: The Story of the Thales Eclipse

When the moon passes in front of the sun, creating an eclipse, the sky darkens in the middle of the day, something frightening to the ancients. Source: (

The August 2017 solar eclipse was historic as record numbers of people crowded the path of totality to witness the incredible event. The eclipse of May 585 BC was also historic, but for a different reason. This celestial event, which came to be known as the Eclipse of Thales, marked an important time when the sun and moon were instrumental in ending a war. 

The 6-year war between the Lydians and Medes in ancient Turkey ended with a solar eclipse. Source: (

an epic war

In the year 585 BC, the Lydians, a people from Lydia in what is now Turkey, and the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, were at war for nearly six years. Both sides were evenly matched, and although each side won key battles, the war itself appeared to be at an impasse, with neither side showing any signs of giving up. It looked like the fight could go on indefinitely. 

The Lydian army. Source: (

the sky darkens

The soldiers engaged in battle on May 28, 585 BC, the sky suddenly darkened. The entire battlefield and surrounding countryside was plunged into darkness. Men on both sides of the front line were startled and surprised. They were in a state of shock during the eclipse, which lasted only a few minutes. When the moon left the sun and daylight returned to earth, the frightened soldiers dropped their weapons and declared an end to the fighting. A truce soon followed. 

Herodotus gave an account of the eclipse of 585 BC about a century later. (

The written account appeared a century later

The story of how the war between the Lydians and the Medes came to an end first appeared in writing nearly a hundred years after the eclipse interrupted the battle. It was written by the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus. In this account, we find an intriguing reference to Thales of Miletus, an ancient philosopher, who may have predicted the eclipse. Herodotus wrote: “Thales of Miletus foresaw this loss of daylight for the Ionians, correcting it in the year in which the change actually took place.” Did Thales of Miletus really predict the eclipse that ended the Lydian-Medie war? 

Thales of Miletus born circa 624 BC died circa 546 BC Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Miletus. One of the Seven Sages of Greece. Source: (Photo by Ken Welsh Corbis via Getty Images)

Who was Thales?

Long before Socrates and Plato, there was Thales of Miletus. Considered the forerunner of a modern scientist, Thales was unusual for his time in that he used scientific observations and hypotheses to explain natural phenomena rather than relying on myths and attributing unknown occurrences to the mythical gods of ancient Greece. He was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. He even pioneered the concept of trading options. He developed theorems of geometry and impressed his contemporaries by being able to calculate the distances to ships at sea and the heights of the pyramids in Egypt using geometry. He was a brilliant man who was ahead of his time, but did he predict the arrival of the 585 BC eclipse? 

The Path of Totality to the Eclipse of 585 BC. Source: (

the eclipse

Modern astronomers have been able to calculate backwards to determine that the eclipse that caused the truce between the Lydians and Medes occurred on May 28, 585 BC. The path of totality to this eclipse stretched from Nicaragua into Central America, across the Atlantic Ocean and through France, Italy and Turkey. The battlefield in present-day Turkey, where the Lydian and Median armies were engaged in battle, would be in the way of totality. Miletus, the home of Thales, was out of the way of totality, but close enough for the eclipse to be a memorable event. 

In Thales’ time, philosophers believed that the Earth was flat. Source: (

Casting Doubts on Thales of Miletus

Historians and astronomers are not as quick to credit Thales of Miletus with accurately predicting the 585 BC eclipse as Herodotus claimed to have done. Although he was a scientist, Thales did not have the necessary scientific instruments to calculate an eclipse. In fact, Thales believed, like all his contemporaries, that the Earth was flat. It is also intriguing that Herodotus said that Thales predicted the eclipse in the correct year, but not the date. Astronomy is an exact science. If a person is able to predict a solar eclipse, he will be able to conclude the exact date, not just the year.