Pericles (c. 495-429 BCE) was the leading figure in Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE). During the first years of the war, both sides attacked their opponent using the strategy they were most comfortable with—the Spartan-led Peloponnesians invaded enemy territory by land, while the Athenians mobilized their navy and raided the Peloponnesian coast by sea. With this strategy in mind, Pericles gathered 100 Athenian ships and 50 allied vessels, loaded with thousands of heavy infantry and hundreds of bowmen and cavalry. Yet, as Pericles was preparing his forces for war, the cosmos threw in his path one of the most ominous and supernaturally-significant omens known to the ancient world—a solar eclipse. Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) dated this eclipse to the first year of campaigns in 431 BCE, while the Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), claimed this took place just before Pericles’ second campaign, in 430 BCE, at which time the Athenians tried and failed to besiege the city of Epidaurus. Whatever the case, Pericles’ navy reportedly witnessed this ominous solar event, and the Athenian leader had to act quickly to keep the morale of his sailors from plummeting.
Thucydides described the eclipse itself, writing “there was an eclipse of the sun after midday. The sun took on the appearance of a crescent and some of the stars became visible before it returned to its normal shape” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II, section 28). Plutarch, using whatever sources were at his disposal, wrote about how the eclipse affected the Athenian navy. He wrote, “it happened that the sun was eclipsed, and it grew dark on a sudden, to the affright of all, for this was looked upon as extremely ominous” (Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 35.1). Of the Athenian sailors who were frightened by the event, Pericles’ own flagship steersman displayed some of the worst symptoms; the solar eclipse left him frozen in shock and paralyzed by fear. This stupefied sailor, thankfully, would soon be saved by his captain’s quick thinking and reasoning.
As the story goes, Pericles was able to calm his panicking steersman using a tried-and-true calming method used on all forms of animals, to this day. To snap the sailor back into reality, Pericles used sensory deprivation—specifically blocking the man’s sight. Pericles, it was said, grabbed a nearby cloak and held it in front of the steersman’s eyes. If he was in a particularly dramatic mood, perhaps the Athenian leader tossed the cloak over the sailor’s head, as if it were a birdcage. Once the sight-deprived sailor had begun to calm down, Pericles then began whittling away at the man’s fears through reason, explaining that the solar eclipse, while indeed dramatic, was no more dangerous or ominous than the simple cloak that was before his eyes. Plutarch claimed that this tale, including Pericles’ reasoning, became a favorite story that Athenian philosophers started to teach their students.
Yet, for the Athenians at the time, they likely would have thought that the ill omen of the solar eclipse was justified in their case. The naval expeditions against the Peloponnesus in 431 and 430 BCE were inconclusive, and, even worse, a deadly plague hit Athens in 430 BCE that wiped out a large portion of the city’s population. Pericles, too, died not long after the eclipse, breathing his last in 429 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the life of Gelon, painted by Michele Panebianco (1806–1873), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.