20th September 331BC: A Blood Red Lunar Eclipse

We are now in the countdown to the anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela, which took place on 1st October 331BC.

For me, the start of the countdown is always the anniversary of the lunar eclipse that Alexander and his Macedonian army witnessed after crossing the Tigris River.

The eclipse took place on 20th September, ten days before the battle. Arrian reports it in a very matter-of-fact way. He tells us that after crossing the Tigris, Alexander rested his men. When the eclipse happened, Alexander sacrificed to the Moon, Sun and Earth. Afterwards, Aristander prophesied that the eclipse was a sign that the showdown with Darius would take place that month and that Alexander’s sacrifices showed that he – the Macedonian king – would triumph. The End.

Curtius gives a much more sensational account of what happened. He begins with an account of the actual eclipse.

First the moon lost its usual brightness, and then became suffused with a blood-red colour which caused a general dimness in the light it shed.

Curtius IV.10.2

As the moon turned blood red, the Macedonians, who were already anxious at the impending battle with Darius, were

… struck… with a deep religious awe which precipitated a kind of panic. They complained that the gods opposed their being taken to the ends of the earth, that now rivers forbade them access, met everywhere by desolation and desert. The blood of thousands was paying for the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country, disowned his father Philip, and had deluded ideas about aspiring to heaven.

Curtius IV.10.2-3

According to Curtius, the Macedonians were so spooked that they were on the verge of mutiny. Trouble was averted, however, by Alexander’s Egyptian priests who – although they knew the real reason for the eclipse – told the rank and file that the eclipse indicated a Macedonian victory in the battle ahead. This calmed the Macedonian soldiers’ nerves. ‘Nothing exercises greater control over the masses than superstition’ (C. IV.10.7) Curtius adds with a sneer, which is funny coming from a Roman.

What to make of the two accounts?

Arrian’s is so short and to-the-point that it would be tempting to see him as glossing over what really happened that night, something that Curtius is more than happy to reveal. Curtius’ account, however, is too sensational to be regarded as the gospel truth.

I have no problem believing that the Macedonians viewed the eclipse with a ‘religious awe’. They were a very religious people and saw meaning in natural events as a matter of course. Of course an event as profound as an eclipse would make a big impression on them.

Is it likely that the eclipse would cause them to panic? On the one hand, if they generally regarded eclipses as negative events, I don’t see why not; on the other, I don’t know how ancient Macedonians regarded eclipses so don’t have the knowledge to make a judgement one way or the other.

I am less convinced by the idea that the Macedonians complained that the gods opposed their onward movement, ‘that now rivers forbade them access’, and that ‘desolation and desert’ met them everywhere. And I disbelieve entirely that the Macedonians turned again, even if only briefly, against Alexander in the way that Curtius suggests.

The reason I don’t believe the Macedonians felt that the gods turned against them is that, once calmed by the Egyptian priests, they followed Alexander east without a murmur until the death of Darius. If they really believed this early that the gods – the gods! – were now against them, I would expect to see them turn against Alexander much earlier than India. As it is, when they did start to pine for home, it was because the Great King was now dead and they simply saw no need to go any further east. The anger of the gods did not come into it. Neither did they at the Hyphasis River.

I don’t know what Curtius means by ‘rivers forbade them access’ given that they had just easily crossed the Tigris. Similarly, the idea that they were ‘met everywhere by desolation and desert’ is too much hyperbole. Sure, they had crossed a desert but at no great cost to them either as an army or individuals. Curtius’ statement sounds more like the kind of thing that the Macedonians would say as the crossed the Gedrosian Desert on the way back from India.

Finally, if the Macedonian soldiery really believed that the ‘blood of thousands was paying for the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country’ they would have hated Alexander, not followed him to the ends of the earth, and then rebelled against his wishes with tears in their eyes. This is more hyperbole – more of Curtius adding to what he knows for the sake of his story. Similarly in regards the Macedonians’ view of Alexander’s beliefs regarding his divinity. He had only just visited Siwah a few months earlier. Surely he had not yet come to any settled view regarding who he was? Curtius’ statement here is so specific it seems to me to belong to a different time, maybe a few years later, after Alexander had time to ponder what had happened and arrive at an answer, which Curtius now brings back to the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela for the sake of an exciting narrative.

The Lunar Eclipse
Arrian III.7.6
Curtius IV.10.1-8

Categories: Arrian, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “20th September 331BC: A Blood Red Lunar Eclipse

  1. The meaning of eclipses have a long history in ANE theology and astrology, almost always negative. The Greek Presocratics had long understood them, and Thales famously predicted an eclipse in 585, although at the time, it wasn’t understood why. How he did it is debated. But in any case, being able to predict it gave the Greek-supported Lydians an upper hands against the Medes.

    Anaxagoros, a century later, DID understand them. So what caused an eclipse was not unknown to educated Greeks–including Alexander, who would have learned about them from Aristotle, who had been a student of Eudoxos while Plato was gone, and Eudoxos was the most talented astronomer of the day. Being educated and understanding the planets did not, of course, mean Alexander didn’t necessarily think the gods were involved. But he would have understood the dynamics.

    In the ANE, of course “as above, so below,” and astrology was HUGE, and exacting. Further, the moon was associated with Persia. So the fear was likely on both sides, and it depended on how their leaders translated it. There’s some suggestion from the Babylonian chronicles (if I recall correctly?) that the Persians were quite disturbed. The Macedonians not so much. Curtius is clearly embellishing, I think, with a Roman view of Alexander here. I don’t have either Baynam or Spencer here at home, but it might be worth looking at either of their assessments of Curtius’s account.


  2. Thank you for that, Jeanne; that’s really helpful!


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