Commodus’ Supernova?

The Telegraph has an item which opens thusly:

The Chinese were baffled by what they described as a “guest star”, which appeared in the night sky in 185AD and lingered for 8 months.

Similarly, the Guardian piece on the same subject opens:

A puzzle that has baffled astronomers for centuries has been solved – almost 2,000 years after the first supernova was documented by the ancient Chinese.

I’m not sure why the press is missing out on this one, but this same supernova of 185 A.D. appears to have been mentioned by a couple of sources closer to our hearts in relation to the time of Commodus. As Paul and Lesley Murdin mention in their Supernovae, Herodian and the Historia Augusta both seem to be referring to this event. First, the HA from the life of Commodus (16 via Lacus Curtius’ translation):

Before the war of the deserters the heavens were ablaze.

As Bill Thayer mentions in a note, the ‘war of the deserters’ happened in early 186. Herodian mentions a similar sort of omen about the same time (i.14 via

Stars remained visible during the day; other stars, extending to an enormous length, seemed to be hanging in the middle of the sky.

… nothing in Dio, alas. Whatever the case, I’m often struck how celestial events recorded by Chinese astronomers seem to show up as portents in our various ancient historians. I’m sure someone has already done a thesis on this …


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