the past is prologue

At or around 625 B.C., the great Median empire, in what is now Iran, staggered from crippling blows. The Assyrians had slain the Median king Phraortes. The Median armies, though vast in number, had no tactical organization or formation; they were “all mixed up in a mob,” according to the historian Herodotus. And when Phraortes’ son Cyaxares led a march on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, a surprise attack by the Scythians scattered his forces, costing the Medians the better part of their power.

From these setbacks, Cyaxares would reunite Media and not only slaughter his enemies, but go on to expand Media further. First, the King of the Medes invited the Scythians, nomads and lusty warriors, to a gigantic feast. Getting his enemies drunk, the Medians then slaughtered them. In order that he would succeed where his father failed, Cyaxares then allied with Babylon in order to destroy the city of Nineveh, looting and ruining it utterly. In the course of his conquests, Cyaxares organized the Median army into ruthless efficiency, separating infantry, archers and cavalry. At the height of its power, the Medes received tribute from the Persians, Armenians, Parthians and Aryans: all the greatest forces of the ancient world.

The Medes’ rise to prominence troubled Alyattes, fourth king of Lydia. Alyattes ruled the vast kingdom in what is today Turkey, and launched wars of conquest with caution and cunning. He made a policy of pillaging his enemies without ruining them, allowing them to recover for later harvest. Herodotus notes that, in his annual invasions of neighboring Miletus, Alyattes “refrained from demolishing houses in order that the Milesians, having somewhere to live, might continue to work the land and sow their seed, with the result that he himself would have something to plunder each time he invaded the country.” Capable, and possessed of great foresight, Alyattes had every reason to fear a union between Media and Babylon.

For five years, the Lydians and the Medians clashed regularly, with the balance of victories split very evenly. Each great empire had just cause to fear the other, but the early assaults matured into a relentless conflict. The feuding had reached the intensity of a bonfire when the great armies met in western Turkey, at the Halys River. They charged, filling the sky with arrows and plowing through ranks of spearmen with heavy horse.

Then, as Herodotus records, “the day was turned suddenly into night.” A total solar eclipse plunged the world into darkness at noon.

Now, the men of Lydia and Medes weren’t ignorant savages. A darkening of the sun would not strike a civilized man as the work of demons. In fact, this same eclipse had been predicted by Thales of Miletus, to the exact day and year. Nevertheless, the generals must have taken it as a sign, because both armies lay down their weapons. The empires of Lydia and Medes made truce. Alyattes gave his daughter to the son of Cyaxares, and marriage sealed the bonds of peace. The Median empire crumbled under the rule of Cyaxares’ son, and soon joined the Assyrians and Scythians in the furnaces of history.

The battle at the Halys river, which produced the peace between empires, occurred exactly two thousand, five hundred and ninety-four years ago, today. I can say this with some certainty, unlike most dates in ancient history. And that in and of itself is astonishing.

Nothing in the fragmented records of historians, who were themselves borrowing from hearsay, gives us this kind of precision … except a total solar eclipse.

By pinning an astrological event to a point in history, we establish not just one date – the last exchange between Lydia and Medes – but dozens of dates surrounding it. From those dozens, we can pinpoint hundreds more, a starburst of concrete information exploding outwards from a single conflict and a single solar occurrence. Combining two unrelated fields, the physical science of astronomy and the social science of history shifts the picture from two dimensions to three. History evolves from guesswork into certainty.

All this from a single clue. Historians refer to May 28, 585 BC as one of the cardinal dates of history – a point of certainty whereby other dates can be established. It’s the Rosetta Stone of the ancient calendar, the Grand Central Station through which the empires of the old world pass. The past is no longer a mystery to us. We know what happened, and, for the first time, when. When one astronomer from a conquered province took the time to predict a solar eclipse and make his prediction known, he gave the future an inestimable gift.

The moral of the story: write everything down.


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