While in the East, a great blaze of light in the sky could be a hopeful sign of the rise of a powerful leader, the Greco-Romans dreaded comets as portents of doom, war or the overthrow of a ruler.
When recording much of the previous ‘knowledge’ of comets in his Natural Questions, including the likes of Aristotle who believed they came from the Earth, Seneca highlights a lot of their historic negative receptions, even when he is attempting to be scientific, while Pliny the Elder records certain comets as “a very terrible portent” (Pliny, NH II.22; Seneca, Natural Questions VII). This was so prevalent that the English word ‘disaster’ comes from the Latin for ‘dire star’, referring to a comet.
During the late second/early first century BC, the Romans will have been forgiven for thinking that their predilection for fear of comets was completely justified. The comets of 135BC, 119BC and 87BC came at a time when the eastern Mediterranean was awash with prophecies of trouble for the Roman state (Sanford (1937), 437-439, 446; Holland (2003), 31-58; Buitenwerf (2003) on Sibylline Oracles), prophecies which seemed to be coming true – external problems abound with Spaniards, Numidians, Germans, pirates and the comet-swathed Mithridates, while internally political instability had brought about increasing bloodshed with the Gracchi, Saturninus, the Social War and the burgeoning war between Marians and Sullans. The Messianic figure to bring down the great tyrant of the age promised by such comets may have seemed just around the corner to many a Roman and Asian…
There were so many prophecies proclaiming seemingly anti-Roman aims and included comets in some way that it could almost be queried whether the Romans were scared of what they thought the comet meant in terms of portents or what it might mean to many of its provincials and hostile neighbours, particularly given the Messianic, tyrant-slaying empire-overthrowing claims amongst the peoples of Asia Minor and the Middle East. Greeks and possibly even some Italians choosing to see these comets in a more positive, revolutionary way could have dire consequences for Rome and her empire.
Into this mire came another celestial intervention during a confrontation at Ortyrae between the forces of Mithridates (under the command of a one-eyed Roman rebel Marcus Varius) and the army of Lucullus in 73BC. As the two armies were about to collide, a meteor struck the ground between them, causing both armies to retreat from the battlefield. While Mithridates already had over sixty years of positive comet propaganda behind him in appealing to divine protection, Lucullus will have been struggling largely against the flow of Roman reception of comets and meteorites to have the positive spin of being saved from a battle he did not want due to being thoroughly out-numbered through divine meteor intervention accepted at home; however, the circumstances of the Ortyrae meteorite may have helped him greatly (Mayor (2009), 267-270; Plutarch, Lucullus VIII.5-7; Stothers (2007); D’Orazio (2007); Keaveney (1992), 77 “Both sides, recognising an evil omen, withdrew”; Strabo XII.5.3 on Cybele’s meteorite; Mitchell (1995), II.20).
Meteors were associated with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, a goddess who had gained a significant following in Rome over the previous decades due to her intercession on Rome’s behalf during the Second Punic War. With the battle with Hannibal reaching its crescendo, the Sibylline Books warned that the great Carthaginian general would only be defeated if Cybele’s sacred black stone meteorite kept at Pessinus in central Anatolia was brought to Italy (similar meteorite veneration continues to this day in the guise of the Kaaba in Islam).
The Romans followed this advice and with great pomp and ceremony the black stone was brought to Rome in 204BC. Scipio Africanus’ subsequent decisive victory over Hannibal at Zama in 202BC saw Cybele worship became popular amongst the Romans, leading to a gradual overturning of the traditional Roman fear of meteors and comets. The Romans did not forget this intervention with the great general Marius making a pilgrimage to its site in 98BC, while Sulla had received encouragement from a visitation by Cybele in a dream.
While the likes of Seneca and Pliny would continue to list the poor portents of many comets, before the first century BC was out, Rome would embrace the potential positives of such wandering starts, although it may have taken a dictatorial/imperial hand to guide them.
According to Suetonius, as celebrations for the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris of 44BC were getting underway, “a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88). This bright, day-light comet was initially thought to have appeared in September, this has recently been reused to July, which just so happens to be the month of Julius Caesar, who had just been assassinated on the Ides of March.
Due to the fortuitous timing and no doubt some ‘encouragement’ from the Caesarian party, this astronomical visitor became known as the Sidus Iulium (‘Julian Star’) or Caesaris astrum (‘Star of Caesar’) and became increasingly identified as “the soul of Caesar” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88), ready to ascend to the heavens once his deification was acclaimed on 1 January 42BC.
Such seeming manipulation of names, dates and meaning of ‘Caesar’s Comet’ raises the suspicion as to whether the star/comet appeared at all or was the total invention of Augustan propaganda (Gurval (1997); Marsden in Ramsey and Licht (1997); Pandey (2013)). However, much like with scepticism over the comets of Mithridates, the records from Han China do suggest that there was a comet in the skies of the summer of 44BC, although perhaps in mid-May to mid-June rather than late July. Whether it existed or not, the Sidus Iulium became a potent propaganda tool over the two decades as Augustus established his power and then established his own links to Aeneas and Venus through Caesar.
It must also be noted that what became known as ‘Caesar’s Comet’ was not always considered to be such. It appeared on coins before 44BC was out but as a tailless ‘Star of Caesar’ rather than a comet. Perhaps as further evidence of the infiltration of eastern positivity towards comets, this Sidus Iulium gradually grew a tail to become a comet and also a depiction of Caesar’s divinity (Gurval (1997)).
While Virgil’s “never did fearsome comets so often blaze” seems to link comets to death rather than Caesar’s divinity (Virgil, Georgic I.487-488), this transformation appears to have been complete by the dedication of the Temple of Divus Iulius in 29BC for at the back of the temple a huge image of Caesar was erected with a flaming comet fixed to its forehead, leading the temple also being called the ‘Temple of the Comet Star’ (Pliny, NH II.93-94; Ovid, Meta. XV.840, cf. 745-842).
Again much like with Mithridates, Augustus must have been happy with the timing of the return of Halley’s Comet in 10BC, as it just happened to coincide with the massive funeral games the emperor staged that year in honour of his great friend and general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who had died in 12BC.
The seeming transformation of the ‘Julian Star/Star of Caesar’ into ‘Caesar’s Comet’ is similar to the development of the reception of perhaps the most famous comet in the ancient world… after the comets that signalled the coming of Mithridates and the heavenly ascent of Julius Caesar, there was the wandering star juxtaposed into the birth story of Jesus of Nazareth. Much like what is supposed for the Red Comet, this ‘Star of Bethlehem’ acted as the herald for a new King, a guide and a symbol of a Messianic arrival. This association of the celestial guide of the Wise Men with a comet has a long history, with C.R. Nicholl’s 2015 work The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem being just the latest (Rosenberg (1972) Brown (1975); (1993); Cullen (1979); Hughes (1979); Humphreys (1992); Paffenroth (1993); Jenkins (2004)).
Even more maligned emperors like Nero had numerous celestial visitors to use for their propaganda and political ends. The death of Claudius and Nero’s accession to the throne in 54 was greeted with bright tailed comet, while in 64, the emperor used the appearance of a comet to have numerous senators he disliked executed. However, in 66, when Nero’s regime was beginning to crumble, his popularity replaced with growing opposition, Halley’s Comet returned to the skies.
Perhaps the Jews took this appearance as a sign to overthrow the tyranny of the Romans, breaking out in revolt in the summer of 66, while many Romans may have welcomed the old prophecies of comets bringing about the downfall of tyrants…
Within a decade, during his fifth consulship of 76, the future emperor Titus, the man who had put down said Jewish revolt, wrote a poem about a javelin-type comet, which Pliny the Elder considered to be famous (Pliny, NH II.22).
Down to Modern Times
Even with the seeming embrace of comets by much of the world, these wandering stars continued to provoke a range of response throughout the medieval period. Halley’s Comet appears above Harold Godwinson in the Bayeux Tapestry, seemingly as a hint of subsequent events during the Norman Conquest (with the benefit of hindsight).
The record of the First Crusade is also littered with instances of cometary sightings in connection with significant events, for good and ill. Comets and meteors had been taken as God’s blessing for Pope Urban’s call of what became the Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A meteor shower visible at Constantinople was seen as a predictor of the arrival of the Frankish ‘locusts’. The Turkish camp of Kerbogha besieging the Crusaders in Antioch was seen to be hit by a meteor on 14 June 1098.
In various parts of Europe, it was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, birth defects and even the Black Death, with Pope Callixtus III excommunicating the comet in 1456 as an “instrument of the devil.” Its 1835-1836 return was claimed to have caused a large fire in New York, a massacre of Boers by the Zulu in South Africa and the siege of the Alamo.
On comets in general, a 15th century poem claimed that they brought “fever, illness, pestilence and death, difficult times, shortages and times of great famine,” which would be an apt description of the consequences for the locals upon the appearance of the Conquistadores in Central and South America. Indeed, Inca and Aztec astrologers saw comets as signs of divine wrath, with one reputedly appearing in the days before the conquest of the former by Francisco Pizarro.
The 16th century French physician, Ambroise Pare, thought a comet of 1528 “was so horrible, so frightful, and it produced such great terror that some died of fear and others fell sick. It appeared to be of extreme length, and was the color of blood.”
It was not all negative. By the 17th century, European winemakers claimed that comets caused higher temperatures and therefore aided their grape production and taste, while Napoleon connected some of his early military victories to the appearance of comets.
As science progressed into the 20th century, the old adage of ‘a little knowledge being a dangerous thing’ came into play. In 1910, “comet pills” and “comet insurance” appeared on the market and some Americans felt the need to board up their houses due to the supposed threat of poisonous cyanide gas as Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet.
One might think that as the 20th century progressed that fear of comets was to be confined to Hollywood story lines, but forms of ‘comet fever’ still survive into more modern times. When Comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the skies in 1997, it was taken to be a cover for the apocalyptic appearance of ‘Nibiru/Planet X’ or the pre-emptor of an alien space ship, which a group called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in order to be beamed aboard.
Comets inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different ancient societies and even to this day, they continue to fascinate, astound and even frighten for the same core reason – they are something out of the ordinary in a sky which is almost always predictable.
Even the polar opposite receptions of comets have their own modern versions. While Greeks and Romans may have seen divine warning of an impending disaster, modern viewers of Halley or Hale-Bopp could be all too aware of that apocalyptic threat posed by such (not-so) Near Earth Objects.
And on the other hand, the eastern views of great positive, even Messianic change to come in the wake of a comet also have their modern theoretical backing in their bringing of the essential Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to Earth in order for life to emerge.
Whether by luck or design, G.R.R. Martin and the creators of Game of Thrones captured this ambiguity perfectly in their words and scenes on paper and screen. The Red Comet is a “harbinger of change,” but what that change is depends on your perspective – victory for your enemies or yourself; the arrival of ice zombies or the dragons/Messiah seemingly sent to defeat them; new life or death.
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