“When beggars die there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, II, ii, 30-31.
Ancient stargazers recorded the appearance of dozens of bright comets. These visiting “stars”, which appeared out of nowhere and caused widespread terror, were often taken as omens and signs of doom or great change. So it was a great historical coincidence that one of the brightest comets in recorded history marked a truly traumatic event– the death of one of the most important statesmen in history, Julius Caesar, in 44 B.C.
By 44 B.C., Julius Caesar had risen through lesser offices in the Roman government to conquer and govern the province of Gaul, quell the petty squabbling and civil wars of the late Roman republic, and establish a strong central government in Rome under his control. But he had grown so powerful, many senators feared he would declare himself King. And Romans, by tradition, fiercely opposed tyrants or kings of any kind. So a small group of senators conspired against Caesar to preserve the republic. They stabbed the great man to death as he made his way to a meeting of the senate on March 15, 44 B.C. (the “Ides of March”).
Caesar was immensely popular with the common people of Rome. So his death was marked by a near-riotous funeral with stirring speeches and a public cremation. It was followed four months later by traditional funeral games, the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris. During these games, in July 44 B.C., a shockingly bright comet appeared in the heavens. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, as celebrations commenced, “a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour, and was believed to be the soul of Caesar.” This awed many common Roman citizens. Caesar himself claimed divine status and his family claimed lineage to Aeneus, the legendary founder of Rome, and to the goddess Venus herself. So the appearance of a brilliant comet in the heavens was unnerving for all, and especially for Brutus, Cassius, and the other senatorial conspirators who murdered the great Caesar.
It was also a great propaganda tool for Caesar’s heir and adopted nephew Octavian. Octavian set about, over the next thirteen years, establishing his authority, dispensing with the conspirators and then, patiently and ruthlessly, assuming total control of Rome. Octavian eventually renamed himself Augustus Caesar and had a coin struck in 19 B.C. with his likeness on one side and the great comet on the other.
Modern studies of records of Roman and Chinese stargazers place this great comet in the constellations Gemini and Auriga in May, where it reached a brilliant magnitude -3 as it passed the Sun. The comet then moved northward and faded to magnitude +5 by early July. It suddenly brightened again, perhaps as material was ejected from the nucleus and set aglow by the Sun. By mid-July, during Caesar’s games, the comet shone at magnitude -4 to -5 in Cassiopeia, as bright as the planet Venus and possibly visible in the daylight, making it one of the brightest comets in recorded history.
Of course, comets have marked the deaths of many notable men. French king Charles the Bald died in 877 A.D. during a comet apparition. King Harold of England was killed during the Battle of Hastings in 1066 A.D. Even Mark Twain was born and died during the apparitions of the same comet, Comet Halley, in 1835 and 1910.
The appearances of comets during these historical events are coincidences, of course. We now know comets have no divine effects on human affairs, and many spectacular comets have come and gone without any ill influence on history or geopolitics.
What an irony, then, that the vigorous opponent of superstition and scientific ignorance, the astronomer Carl Sagan, himself died during the apparition of two bright comets. Sagan passed away in late 1996, a year in which Comet Hyukatake and Comet Hale-Bopp, two of the brightest comets of recent times, blazed across the northern sky.
Nature, it seems, may have a sense of humor after all.