The earliest lunar eclipse, of which we have any trustworthy information, was a total one which took place on the 19th March, 721 b.c., and was observed from Babylon. For our knowledge of this eclipse we are indebted to Ptolemy, the astronomer, who copied it, along with two others, from the records of the reign of the Chaldean king, Merodach-Baladan.
The next eclipse of the moon worth noting was a total one, which took place some three hundred years later, namely, in 425 b.c. This eclipse was observed at Athens, and is mentioned by Aristophanes in his play, The Clouds. Plutarch relates that a total eclipse of the moon, which occurred in 413 b.c., so greatly frightened Nicias, the general of the Athenians, then warring in Sicily, as to cause a delay in his retreat from Syracuse which led to the destruction of his whole army. Seven years later—namely, in 406 b.c., the twenty-sixth year of the Peloponnesian War—there took place another total lunar eclipse of which mention is made by Xenophon.
Omitting a number of other eclipses alluded to by ancient writers, we come to one recorded by Josephus as having occurred a little before the death of Herod the Great. It is probable that the eclipse in question was the total lunar one, which calculation shows to have taken place on the 15th September 5 b.c., and to have been visible in Western Asia. This is very important, for we are thus enabled to fix that year as the date of the birth of Christ, for Herod is known to have died in the early part of the year following the Nativity.
In those accounts of total lunar eclipses, which have come down to us from the Dark and Middle Ages, the colour of the moon is nearly always likened to "blood." On the other hand, in an account of the eclipse of January 23, a.d. 753, our satellite is described as "covered with a horrid black shield." We thus have examples of the two distinct appearances alluded to in Chapter VII., i.e. when the moon appears of a coppery-red colour, and when it is entirely darkened.
It appears, indeed, that, in the majority of lunar eclipses on record, the moon has appeared of a ruddy, or rather of a coppery hue, and the details on its surface have been thus rendered visible. One of the best examples of a bright eclipse of this kind is that of the 19th March 1848, when the illumination of our satellite was so great that many persons could not believe that an eclipse was actually taking place. A certain Mr. Foster, who observed this eclipse from Bruges, states that the markings on the lunar disc were almost as visible as on an "ordinary dull moonlight night." He goes on to say that the British Consul at Ghent, not knowing that there had been any eclipse, wrote to him for an explanation of the red colour of the moon on that evening.
Out of the dark eclipses recorded, perhaps the[Pg 103] best example is that of May 18, 1761, observed by Wargentin at Stockholm. On this occasion the lunar disc is said to have disappeared so completely, that it could not be discovered even with the telescope. Another such instance is the eclipse of June 10, 1816, observed from London. The summer of that year was particularly wet—a point worthy of notice in connection with the theory that these different appearances are due to the varying state of our earth's atmosphere.
Sometimes, indeed, it has happened that an eclipse of the moon has partaken of both appearances, part of the disc being visible and part invisible. An instance of this occurred in the eclipse of July 12, 1870, when the late Rev. S.J. Johnson, one of the leading authorities on eclipses, who observed it, states that he found one-half the moon's surface quite invisible, both with the naked eye and with the telescope.
In addition to the examples given above, there are three total lunar eclipses which deserve especial mention.
1. a.d. 755, November 23. During the progress of this eclipse the moon occulted the star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus.
2. a.d. 1493, April 2. This is the celebrated eclipse which is said to have so well served the purposes of Christopher Columbus. Certain natives having refused to supply him with provisions when in sore straits, he announced to them that the moon would be darkened as a sign of the anger of heaven. When the event duly came to pass, the savages were so terrified that they brought him provisions as much as he needed.
3. a.d. 1610, July 6. The eclipse in question is notable as having been seen through the telescope, then a recent invention. It was without doubt the first so observed, but unfortunately the name of the observer has not come down to us.