eclipses. They were, on the other hand, probably acquainted, a couple of millenniums before Meton gave it his name, with the nineteen-year cycle, by which solar and lunar years were harmonized; they immemorially made observations in the meridian; regulated time by water-clocks, and used measuring instruments of the nature of armillary spheres and quadrants. In or near 1100 B.C., Chou Kung, an able mathematician, determined with surprising accuracy the obliquity of the ecliptic; but his attempts to estimate the sun’s distance failed hopelessly as being grounded on belief in the flatness of the earth. From of old, in China, circles were divided into 365¼ parts, so that the sun described daily one Chinese degree; and the equator began to be employed as a line of reference, concurrently with the ecliptic, probably in the second century B.C. Both circles, too, were marked by star-groups more or less clearly designated and defined. Cometary records of a vague kind go back in China to 2296 B.C.; they are intelligible and trustworthy from 611 B.C. onward. Two instruments constructed at the time of Kublai Khan’s accession in 1280 were still extant at Peking in 1881. They were provided with large graduated circles adapted for measurements of declination and right ascension, and prove the Chinese to have anticipated by at least three centuries some of Tycho Brahe’s most important inventions. The native astronomy was finally superseded in the 17th century by the scientific teachings of Jesuit missionaries from Europe.
Astrolatry was, in Egypt, the prelude to astronomy. The stars were observed that they might be duly worshipped. The importance of their heliacal risings, or first visible appearances at dawn, for the purposes both of practical Egyptian astronomy. life and of ritual observance, caused them to be systematically noted; the length of the year was accurately fixed in connexion with the annually recurring Nile-flood; while the curiously precise orientation of the Pyramids affords a lasting demonstration of the high degree of technical skill in watching the heavens attained in the third millennium B.C. The constellational system in vogue among the Egyptians appears to have been essentially of native origin; but they contributed little or nothing to the genuine progress of astronomy.
With the Babylonians the case was different, although their science lacked the vital principle of growth imparted to it by their successors. From them the Greeks derived their first notions of astronomy. They copied the Babylonian Babylonian astronomy. asterisms, appropriated Babylonian knowledge of the planets and their courses, and learned to predict eclipses by means of the “Saros.” This is a cycle of 18 years 11 days, or 223 lunations, discovered at an unknown epoch in Chaldaea, at the end of which the moon very nearly returns to her original position with regard as well to the sun as to her own nodes and perigee. There is no getting back to the beginning of astronomy by the shores of the Euphrates. Records dating from the reign of Sargon of Akkad (3800 B.C.) imply that even then the varying aspects of the sky had been long under expert observation. Thus early, there is reason to suppose, the star-groups with which we are now familiar began to be formed. They took shape most likely, not through one stroke of invention, but incidentally, as legends developed and astrological persuasions became defined. The zodiacal series in particular seem to have been reformed and reconstructed at wide intervals of time (see Zodiac). Virgo, for example, is referred by P. Jensen, on the ground of its harvesting associations, to the fourth millennium B.C., while Aries (according to F. K. Ginzel) was interpolated at a comparatively recent time. In the main, however, the constellations transmitted to the West from Babylonia by Aratus and Eudoxus must have been arranged very much in their present order about 2800 B.C. E. W. Maunder’s argument to this effect is unanswerable. For the space of the southern sky left blank of stellar emblazonments was necessarily centred on the pole; and since the pole shifts among the stars through the effects of precession by a known annual amount, the ascertainment of any former place for it virtually fixes the epoch. It may then be taken as certain that the heavens described by Aratus in 270 B.C. represented approximately observations made some 2500 years earlier in or near north latitude 40°.
In the course of ages, Babylonian astronomy, purified from the astrological taint, adapted itself to meet the most refined needs of civil life. The decipherment and interpretation by the learned Jesuits, Fathers Epping and Strassmeier, of a number of clay tablets preserved in the British Museum, have supplied detailed knowledge of the methods practised in Mesopotamia in the 2nd century B.C. They show no trace of Greek influence, and were doubtless the improved outcome of an unbroken tradition. How protracted it had been, can be in a measure estimated from the length of the revolutionary cycles found for the planets. The Babylonian computers were not only aware that Venus returns in almost exactly eight years to a given starting-point in the sky, but they had established similar periodic relations in 46, 59, 79 and 83 years severally for Mercury, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. They were accordingly able to fix in advance the approximate positions of these objects with reference to ecliptical stars which served as fiducial points for their determination. In the Ephemerides published year by year, the times of new moon were given, together with the calculated intervals to the first visibility of the crescent, from which the beginning of each month was reckoned; the dates and circumstances of solar and lunar eclipses were predicted; and due information was supplied as to the forthcoming heliacal risings and settings, conjunctions and oppositions of the planets. The Babylonians knew of the inequality in the daily motion of the sun, but misplaced by 10° the perigee of his orbit. Their sidereal year was 4½m too long, and they kept the ecliptic stationary among the stars, making no allowance for the shifting of the equinoxes. The striking discovery, on the other hand, has been made by the Rev. F. X. Kugler that the various periods underlying their lunar predictions were identical with those heretofore believed to have been independently arrived at by Hipparchus, who accordingly must be held to have borrowed from Chaldaea the lengths of the synodic, sidereal, anomalistic and draconitic months.
A steady flow of knowledge from East to West began in the 7th century B.C. A Babylonian sage named Berossus founded a school about 640 B.C. in the island of Cos, and perhaps Greek astronomy. Thales. counted Thales of Miletus (c. 639-548) among his pupils. The famous “eclipse of Thales” in 585 B.C. has not, it is true, been authenticated by modern research; yet the story told by Herodotus appears to intimate that a knowledge of the Saros, and of the forecasting facilities connected with it, was possessed by the Ionian sage. Pythagoras of Samos (fl. 540-510 B.C.) learned on his travels Pythagoras. in Egypt and the East to identify the morning and evening stars, to recognize the obliquity of the ecliptic, and to regard the earth as a sphere freely poised in space. The tenet of its axial movement was held by many of his followers—in an obscure form by Philolaus of Crotona after the middle of the 5th century B.C., and more explicitly by Ecphantus and Hicetas of Syracuse (4th century B.C.), and by Heraclides Heraclides. of Pontus. Heraclides, who became a disciple of Plato in 360 B.C., taught in addition that the sun, while circulating round the earth, was the centre of revolution to Venus and Mercury. A genuine heliocentric system, developed by Aristarchus of Samos (fl. 280-264 B.C.), was described by Archimedes in his Arenarius, only to be set aside
- Observations of Comets, translated from the Chinese Annals by John Williams, F.S.A. (1871).
- J. L. E. Dreyer, Proc. Roy. Irish Acad. vol. iii. No. 7 (December 1881).
- F. K. Ginzel, “Die astronomischen Kenntnisse der Babylonier,” C. F. Lehmann, Beiträge zur alten Geschichte, Heft i. p. 6 (1901).
- Knowledge and Scientific News, vol. i. pp. 2, 228.
- Astronomisches aus Babylon (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1889).
- Ginzel, loc. cit. Heft ii. p. 204.
- Die babylonische Mondrechnung, p. 50 (1900).
- S. Newcomb, Astr. Nach. No. 3682; P.H. Cowell, Month. Notices Roy. Astr. Soc. lxv. 867.
- G. V. Schiaparelli, I Precursori del Copernico, pp. 23-28, Pubbl. del R. Osservatorio di Brera, No. iii. (1873).