Posted by: ken98 | August 24, 2011

Multiple, Sometimes Misidentified Musings on Comets, Cataclysms and Civil Law

Day 710 – Ken here (W)(8-24-2011)
(DEF II, v.4 Ch.43,44 pp.770-780)(pages read: 1830)


A day of Disaster - Gibbon ends Chapter 43 with a discussion of natural disasters - taken for the most part from the historian Procopius, who goes to great lengths to show how demonic (literally) the Emperor Justinian's reign was - and what better way than to document the god-sent plagues, comets, and earthquakes that occurred while Justinian ruled Rome - Albrecht Durer's famous woodcut (1497) of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - this is one of my favorite woodcuts - sorry just had to include it

A day of woe and doom, calamity and affliction – we end Chapter 43 with a review of disasters: comets, plague, and earthquake.

Then we start a 65+ page review and summary of Roman Civil Law as seen through the eyes of late 18th century ex-pat Englishman (Gibbon), who, while admiring European enthusiasm for Roman Law (as codified under Justinian by Tribonian) since he is living in Switzerland, knows in his heart that English Common Law (which diverges dramatically from Roman Law in the 14th century onward) is, actually, a superior conception of man’s obligations, his rights and responsibilities towards his fellow man.

The Story
  • Comet of 530/1 – was actually Halley’s comet – Gibbon got it right for the wrong reasons
  • Gibbon associates it with a mythical comet and goes off for 2 pages rhapsodizing (very well) on its (the comet’s) career
  • EarthQuakes
  • Justinian’s reign also saw 2 earthquakes – 5-20-526 (levelled Antioch), 7-9-551 (levelled Beirut and the Law School there)
  • Plague – the Bubonic Plague of 542
  • The Great Plague that wiped out half the empire
  • Supposed to be Bubonic Plague – the same as the Black Death of 1348 – the Great Plague of the Middle Ages and thru to 1680’s
  • Roman Civil Law – Overview
  • Starts a review of Roman Law, from the legislation of Kings, Republican Rome, and the Empire
  • Notes there is a lot of controversy as to what exactly the Civil Law is
  • Roman Civil Law – History – Laws of Kings
  • For the most part unknown – as Republican Rome refused to recognize the laws of the Kings
  • Law at this time was religious – ie priests had to administer/interpret it – and it wasn’t written

    One Very Confusing Comet - from a Painting of Great Comet of 1680 Over Rotterdam by Vershuier (1680)

    One Very Confusing Comet - from a Painting of Great Comet of 1680 Over Rotterdam by Vershuier (1680)


    Last Word…


    A Historical Artifact – Gibbon’s mis-identification of Halley’s Comet


    Sometimes, not always but every so often, a very long trail of errors can lead a person right back to where they needed to be all along.

    But being right for the wrong reasons, its a very frustrating experience – for the explainer, the explainees, and any innocent by-listeners. Untangling the whole mess is even worse. But I’ll try in this case, because, really, Gibbon wrote this small comet-romance very well, and in the end he was (unintentionally) smack-dab right on the money – a comet of the 1680’s DID appear over Justinian’s Constantinople in 530. Well, pretty much. Just read on, you’ll see…

    Gibbon inadvertently mixes up 2 comets (the comets of 1680 and 1682 – 1682 by the way is the famous Halley’s comet), Justinian’s comet (530), and a host of other comets in a rapturously elegant, but ultimately incorrect extended reflection on the tangled fates of human history and regularly periodic, orbiting objects in our solar system.

    A False Friend: the Minister Whiston

    In an interesting tangent to both political and scientific (astonomical) history – Gibbon accidentally enshrined (like a bug in amber) the short(er)-lived misconception in science that the the great 1680 comet had an orbital period of 575 years – as calculated (or mis-calculated as it turned out later) by the English astronomer Edmond Halley (of Halley’s comet fame). A English minister, Whiston, leaping upon the tidal wave of interest in all things comet-al, wrote a very popular book – em>New Theory of Earth, (written soon after Halley predicted the 575 year orbit) going backwards in time and associating the 1680 comet with dramatic historical events of the last couple of thousand years, and predicting even greater things (in the far future) including the circumstances of the End Times – all announced by this same comet – what you might call Halley’s 1st comet (see online copy of article from the June 1928 Issue of Popular Mechanics).

    Unfortunately, through mathematical error, Halley got the Great Comet of 1680 wrong, its oribital period actually being 15,684 years. He got Halley’s comet right though (the comet of 1682) – calculating in 1705 an orbital period of 75-1/2 years – and thus got a comet named after him and proved yet again the soundness of Newton’s system of Celestial Mechanics based on gravity.

    Gibbon Takes Whiston’s Ball and RUNS WITH IT

    Gibbon goes of on a long aside (2 pages) describing the Great Comet of 1680’s long, eventful life – Gibbon discusses the comet because supposedly it was the same one seen during Justinian’s reign (531). Actually, this might very well have been Halley’s comet (the comet of 1682 – see Wikipedia – table of Apparitions of Halley’s Comet) as it appeared September 27, 530 – the month and year of one of the disastrous comet-sightings of Justinian’s reign.


    Although Gibbon gives us remarkable prose supposedly on Halley’s (through the popular author Whiston) comet of 1682, the subject of his 2 pages of comet-talk (the 530 comet) is actually Halley’s Comet (comet of 1682).

    Gibbon was right. Sort of. It was a comet of the 1680’s – just not the one he thought it was. And he was right again, Halley did predict it – just not the same comet – and not at the same time.

    Of course it doesn’t help that it all works out right? Numbers are amazing things: (year 1680 – year 530 = 1150 years – 1150 / ~15 = 76 (Halley’s comet), and 1150 / 2 = 575 (the mythical 575 year comet of 1680).

    It’s never easy, is it?

    By the way – here’s Gibbon’s passage on the (mythical) 575-year-orbit comet – apparently still in the 1780’s, Halley’s misjudgment was not as widely known as Whiston’s publishing success – Gibbon relied upon it:

    Time and science have justified the conjectures and predictions of the Roman sage: the telescope has opened new worlds to the eyes of astronomers; (76) and, in the narrow space of history and fable, one and the same comet is already found to have revisited the earth in seven equal revolutions of five hundred and seventy-five years.

    The first, (77) which ascends beyond the Christian aera one thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven years, is coeval with Ogyges, the father of Grecian antiquity. And this appearance explains the tradition which Varro has preserved, that under his reign the planet Venus changed her color, size, figure, and course; a prodigy without example either in past or succeeding ages. (78)

    The second visit, in the year eleven hundred and ninety-three, is darkly implied in the fable of Electra, the seventh of the Pleiads, who have been reduced to six since the time of the Trojan war. That nymph, the wife of Dardanus, was unable to support the ruin of her country: she abandoned the dances of her sister orbs, fled from the zodiac to the north pole, and obtained, from her dishevelled locks, the name of the comet.

    The third period expires in the year six hundred and eighteen, a date that exactly agrees with the tremendous comet of the Sibyl, and perhaps of Pliny, which arose in the West two generations before the reign of Cyrus.

    The fourth apparition, forty-four years before the birth of Christ, is of all others the most splendid and important. After the death of Caesar, a long-haired star was conspicuous to Rome and to the nations, during the games which were exhibited by young Octavian in honor of Venus and his uncle. The vulgar opinion, that it conveyed to heaven the divine soul of the dictator, was cherished and consecrated by the piety of a statesman; while his secret superstition referred the comet to the glory of his own times. (79)

    The fifth visit has been already ascribed to the fifth year of Justinian, which coincides with the five hundred and thirty-first of the Christian aera. And it may deserve notice, that in this, as in the preceding instance, the comet was followed, though at a longer interval, by a remarkable paleness of the sun.

    The sixth return, in the year eleven hundred and six, is recorded by the chronicles of Europe and China: and in the first fervor of the crusades, the Christians and the Mahometans might surmise, with equal reason, that it portended the destruction of the Infidels.

    The seventh phenomenon, of one thousand six hundred and eighty, was presented to the eyes of an enlightened age. (80) The philosophy of Bayle dispelled a prejudice which Milton’s muse had so recently adorned, that the comet, “from its horrid hair shakes pestilence and war.” (81) Its road in the heavens was observed with exquisite skill by Flamstead and Cassini: and the mathematical science of Bernoulli, Newton , and Halley, investigated the laws of its revolutions.

    At the eighth period, in the year two thousand three hundred and fifty-five, their calculations may perhaps be verified by the astronomers of some future capital in the Siberian or American wilderness.

    From a “future capital in the American wilderness” – 230 years later – one which regularly has 8 lanes of traffic at a standstill bumper to bumper 10 times a week – and so much light pollution you can hardly see any stars in the sky at all anymore – well, this is Ken, over and out.

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