Earliest known historical event
March 22, 2011 8:29 PM   Subscribe

The earliest known precisely-dated historical event?

Isaac Asimov used to do a column in Fantasy and Science Fiction where he talked about science, and whatever else he happened to feel like writing about. In one of those columns he tossed off an interesting story.

Long, long ago, in Asia minor, two kingdoms decided to fight a war. As was the custom then, both kingdoms brought their armies to a plain in between them. As they were preparing to fight, however, there was a total eclipse of the sun.

This scared the hell out of the two kings, and they immediately made peace and vowed they would never fight again. And, according to Asimov, they never did, right up to the point where they were both absorbed into the Empire of Persia.

Because the location is known, it was possible to date that eclipse to within a few minutes, and Asimov gave the date and time (in, I assume, the Gregorian calendar), which was something like 3500 BC. And he said that it was the earliest historical event for which an exact date and time was known.

I have long since lost that issue of F&SF, and trying to locate it amongst Asimov's prodigious book output seems like an immense task. So I thought of consulting the hive mind. Does anyone know the details? The two tribes, the location, and in particular, the date?
posted by Chocolate Pickle to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Wikipedia has some info on historical eclipses.

This sounds like the story you recall:

Herodotus wrote that Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse which occurred during a war between the Medians and the Lydians. Soldiers on both sides put down their weapons and declared peace as a result of the eclipse. Exactly which eclipse was involved has remained uncertain, although the issue has been studied by hundreds of ancient and modern authorities. One likely candidate took place on May 28, 585 BC, probably near the Halys river in the middle of modern Turkey.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:35 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: Also, Wikipedia mentions Mursili's eclipse of either 1308 BC or 1312 BC, which sounds like what you're describing except for the date. Perhaps he said something like "3500 years ago" instead of "3500 BC"?
posted by madcaptenor at 8:36 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: The article on astronomical chronology might also be helpful.
posted by Knappster at 8:39 PM on March 22, 2011

Response by poster: Perhaps he said something like "3500 years ago" instead of "3500 BC"?

More likely, I'm remembering wrong.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:07 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: According to Google Books, snippet view only, the column or a version of it is included in The Stars in Their Courses and Today and Tomorrow and ... (both 1974):

...Lydia and Media, never fought again, for they knew the anger of the gods when they saw it.* As it happens, modern astronomers can calculate the exact date of the eclipse of the Sun that took place in Asia Minor at about that time.

In any event, Asimov did not discover this; searching brought up discussions in 19th-century Scientific American.
posted by dhartung at 11:48 PM on March 22, 2011

Time and Date has the following passage in The History of the Solar Eclipse:

Solar eclipses have even altered the course of human history. In 585 BCE the Lydians and Medes were engaged in battle in what is present-day Turkey. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that at the height of a particularly fierce battle, darkness fell upon the land. Apparently the two armies waged a war close to the path of a solar eclipse. The armies took this as a sign and stopped fighting instantly, making peace with each other.
posted by amyms at 12:39 AM on March 23, 2011

Earth View has an earlier instance, occuring in China, in Eclipses in History and Literature:

The earliest record of a solar eclipse comes from ancient China. The date of this eclipse, usually given as October 22, 2134 B.C., is not certain. Historians know the account was written sometime within a period of about two hundred years. During that time there were several total eclipses visible in China. The 2134 B.C. eclipse is simply the best guess. The ancient Chinese document Shu Ching records that "the Sun and Moon did not meet harmoniously." The story goes that the two royal astronomers, Hsi and Ho, had neglected their duties and failed to predict the event. Widespread Oriental belief held that an eclipse was caused by an invisible dragon devouring the Sun. Great noise and commotion (drummers drumming, archers shooting arrows into the sky, and the like) were customarily produced to frighten away the dragon and restore daylight. When this eclipse took place, the emperor was caught unprepared. Even though the Sun returned, the angry ruler ordered the astronomers beheaded!
posted by amyms at 12:44 AM on March 23, 2011

I think this depends what you mean by "precisely dated".

We have plenty of written records that are far older than the 585 BCE of the eclipse Herodotus reports during the war between the Lydians and the Medes. Though they might not be as precisely dated as an event that happened in connection with a solar eclipse.
posted by Sara C. at 9:26 PM on March 23, 2011

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