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481 B.C. CATALOGUE 49 CATALOGUE OF OBJECTS THAT ARE (OR MAY BE) COMETS Object 1 481? B.C. mid Sept.–mid Dec.? (B1)54 Linked to Battle of Salamis (late Sept. 480). (text a) Linked to Xerxes’ invasion of Attica (early Sept. 480). (text b) Type: cerastes (horn-shaped) Comet observed from China, mid Sept.–mid Dec. 481 (*) Two sources, the Elder Pliny, writing in the 1st cent. A.D., and the much later 6th -cent. author John Lydus, tell us that a comet shaped like a crescent moon and called “ceratias” (or “cerastes”) appeared at the time of the invasion of Greece by the Persian king Xerxes. The former source links the comet to the Battle of Salamis, the latter to Xerxes’ incursion into Attica, both events falling in Sept. 480 (Hignett [1963], 452–53). Confirmation that a comet really did appear within a year or less of these events is furnished by a Chinese report of a comet in the winter of 481 (*), i.e., mid September to mid December in the western calendar.55 Since the Chinese account uses the generic term for a comet, hsing-po, we cannot ascertain whether it had the crescent shape assigned to Xerxes’ comet by our two western sources.56 54 Placed in 480, the date also assigned by Pingré (1783), 255, who was unaware of the Chinese report for 481 B.C., and by Gundel (1921), 1183; Yeomans (1991), 363; and Kronk (1999), 2. 55 I thank F. Richard Stephenson and Liu Baolin of Nanjing for helping me to determine the western dates corresponding to the “winter” in the 14th year of Lu Ai-Kung (482/1 B.C.). Cf. 32 B.C. (Object 27), for what may be a comparable interval of approximately one year between a “torch” and a major battle (Actium in 31 B.C.), of which it is said to have been an omen. The historian Dio specifically assigns the portent to 32 B.C., a year in which a comet was seen from China. 56 If we assume that the comet of 481 is the one described by Pliny and Lydus, then it, and not the comet of 467? B.C., is the earliest to be attested by reports from both Europe and Asia. There are extant notices of only nine comets earlier than this one, all attested solely in the Chinese sources: Ho nos. 2−10: in 1059, 974, 633, 613, 532, 525, 516, 500, and 482 B.C. 50 SYLLECTA CLASSICA 17 (2006) 481 B.C. There is no mention of this comet in Herodotus’ history of the Persian Wars, but Herodotus’ silence does not necessarily call into question the reality of the comet reported by Pliny and Lydus,57 especially bearing in mind the reliable confirmation from China. Comparable to Herodotus ’ lack of testimony concerning a comet shortly before Xerxes invaded Greece is the silence of the Greek historian Thucydides, also of the 5th cent. B.C., who fails to take note of the comet of 426 B.C. (Object 3, below).58 That comet happens to be securely attested by Aristotle, and it is most likely alluded to by at least one other source that may have been contemporary with the comet (text a, under 426 B.C.). A further cautionary tale against dismissing the Persian War comet solely on the grounds of Herodotus’ silence is provided by the failure of the early 2nd cent. A.D. Roman historian Tacitus to take into account the comet of A.D. 54 (Object 33, below). That comet, too, is securely attested both by a contemporary observer in Rome (Seneca) and by excellent corroborating evidence from China.59 An argumentum ex silentio, therefore, is risky and may lead to the wrong conclusion. Nonetheless, the silence of both Herodotus and Thucydides merits attention because it seems to suggest that Greek writers of the 5th cent. did not necessarily share the view of later antiquity that comets were to be regarded as portents of war and of plague. Otherwise, we would expect Herodotus to mention the earlier one and Thucydides 57 Possibly a report of this comet was handed down by the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5157
Print ISSN
1040-3612
Pages
pp. 49-189
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2021
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