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Eclipse and plague: Themistocles, Pericles, Anaxagoras and the Athenians’ war on science

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2020

Richard Janko*
Affiliation:
University of Michigan*
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Abstract:

The biography of Anaxagoras (500–428 BC), the most brilliant scientist of antiquity, contains many unresolved contradictions, which are best explained as follows. After he ‘predicted’ the fall of the meteorite at Aegospotami in 466, he lived nearby at Lampsacus as the protege of its ruler Themistocles. In 460 Pericles became his patron at Athens, where he lived for the next 30 years. In 431, Pericles was taking part in an expedition to the Peloponnese when the sun was eclipsed; he tried to dispel his helmsman’s fear by covering his face with his cloak, illustrating Anaxagoras’ correct account of eclipses. In 430 he led a second such expedition, which failed badly; its return coincided with the plague. The seer Diopeithes brought in a decree that targeted the ‘atheist’ Anaxagoras by banning astronomy. This enabled Thucydides son of Melesias and Cleon to attack Pericles by prosecuting Anaxagoras, on the ground that Pericles’ impiety had angered the gods, thereby causing the plague. Pericles sent Anaxagoras back to Lampsacus, where he soon died; Pericles was himself deposed and fined, in a first triumph for the Athenian populist reaction against the fifthcentury Enlightenment.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies

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Footnotes

*

rjanko@umich.edu. I wish to thank Armand D’Angour, Emmanuela Bakola, David Blank, Sara Forsdyke, Daniel Graham, John Morgan (Department of Physics, University of Delaware), Enrico Landi (Department of Climate and Space Sciences, University of Michigan), David Potter, Francesca Schironi, Ruth Scodel, Tao Tao 陶涛(Hubei University, Wuhan), my audience at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Washington DC (January 2020) and the journal’s anonymous referees for helpful suggestions and information. Responsibility for errors remains my own.

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