Friday, August 31, 2007

defectiones lunae

I enjoyed very much watching the lunar eclipse we had in Sydney earlier this week. It's interesting that such a natural and well understood phenomenon can inspire such excitement and wonder. Lots of natural events (eg earthquakes, volcanoes) were mysteries to the Romans, but eclipses, of both the sun and the moon were things they could not only understand, but even predict.

Lots of Roman writers mention eclipses- Pliny in his Natural History, Seneca in his Natural Questions, and even Cicero refers to them from time to time. Here's one example from Cicero's De Republica, part of a conversation between Scipio Aemilianus and his nephew Tubero:

Scipio: I remember when my father was consul in Macedonia and we were in camp (I was quite young at the time), our army was troubled with superstitious fear because on a clear night the bright full moon suddenly failed. Galus was then our staff officer, about a year before he was elected consul. On the next day, without any hesitation, he made a public statement in the camp to the effect that this was not an omen; it had happened then, and would continue to happen at fixed times in the future, when the sun was in a position from which its light could not reach the moon.... He relieved those desperately worried worried soldiers from groundless superstition and fear...

Something of that kind also happened in the great war which was fought with such ferocity between Athens and Sparta. When an eclipse of the sun brought sudden darkness, and the Athenians' minds were in the grip of panic, the great Pericles is said to have told his fellow citizens a fact which he had heard from his former tutor Anaxagoras, namely that this thing invariably happened at fixed intervals when the entire moon passed in front of the sun's orb; and so, while it did not occur at every new moon, it could not occur except in that situation...

At that time it was a new and unfamiliar idea that the sun was regularly eclipsed when the moon came between it and the earth- a fact which was reputedly discovered by Thales of Miletus. On a later occasion the point was also made by our own Ennius. He writes that about three hundred and fifty years after the foundation of Rome:

On June the fifth the moon and night blocked out
The sun.

In this area there is so much scientific sophistication that earlier solar eclipses are calculated from this day (recorded by Ennius and the Major Annals) right back to the one which occurred on July the seventh in the reign of Romulus. In that darkness nature carried Romulus off to a normal death; yet we are told that on account of his valour he was raised to heaven.

The banishment of superstition is a common theme throughout Cicero's philosophical writings- the good life (vita beata) is the life lived in accordance with reason (ratio) and nature (natura). And so notice how he applauds the calm rationality of Galus and Pericles, and provides a rationalistic version of the death of Romulus- 'nature carried Romulus off to a normal death', at the same time distancing himself- 'it is told'- from the supernatural or superstitious version of events.

[If you're interested in reading more about eclipses and Romans I found this essay fascinating]


Anonymous said...

Completely irrelevant, but in lieu of our joke-telling session earlier this week in class, I thought you'd appreciate this one:

A Greek man walks into a tailor's shop holding a pair of trousers. The tailor takes the pants and holds them up, turning to the man and he says "Euripides?"
"Yes," the man responded, "Eumenides?"


Anonymous said...


Why can't nouns climb mountains?
Because they decline!

Did you hear about the frog who learned Latin prose composition?
The other frogs said of him, "Scribit, scribit..."

What did the verb say to the noun?
I'd ask you to conjugate, but I'm afraid you'd decline.

A centurion walks into a bar and asks for a Martinus. The barman says, "Don't you mean a Martini?" The centurion responds, "No - if I wanted a double, I’d have asked for one!"

Caesar walks into a bar full of centurions and says "Right, lads, this round is on me. What will you be having? The centurions stand, salute, and cry, "Ale, Caesar!"


Anonymous said...

there must be exams on at the moment...

one of my favourites is the old saying that Latin teachers never die- they just decline and parse away.