On Friday’s edition of Ancient Aliens the show claimed that NASA published an “official” paper on ancient UFO sightings in the Roman era. As always, Ancient Aliens got it only half right. The paper was actually an article by Richard B. Stothers from the Classical Journal 103.1 (2007), which was reprinted by NASA because Stothers, who died in 2011, was a mathematician and astrophysicist who worked at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He came to the study of ancient history through his work investigating ancient chronicles to help document climate change. Since I had never heard of Stothers’s “Unidentified Flying Objects in Classical Antiquity,” it’s worth taking a look at Stothers’s argument and evidence.
The article gets off to a good start when Stothers recognizes that early ancient astronaut literature was essentially “long, uncritical lists” of anomalies from ancient sources, perhaps inspired by astronomer Donald Menzel’s work interpreting portents from Pliny astronomically. Stothers’s also points to the 1968 Condon Report’s criticism of the ancient astronaut theory by Samuel Rosenberg. One of the key sentences from that report:
It soon becomes clear that it would take years of full time research to track down and verify the thousands of “ancient” reports included in the nearly 1600 books and articles about UFOs. This means, then, that the general reader, who rarely ever bothers to verify what he reads, is merely given the option to trust or distrust the scholarly accuracy and motivations of the writers who offer him the impressive-looking lists of UFOs sightings.
Now, given that the report was paid for by the United States government and was republished by the U.S. Air Force as a U.S. government document, I believe that means that it has fallen into the public domain. However, because the University of Colorado asserts that it owns the copyright but has made the text available for non-commercial reprinting in whole or in part, I have included their copyright disclaimer in my reprint of the ancient astronaut section in my Library.
Needless to say, when Rosenberg spot-checked the reports, he found, just as I have, that they are a pack of hoaxes, misinterpretations, distortions, and lies. He even goes on to document how several ancient astronaut “ancient texts” were fabricated, including one that was a 1950s hoax by some school kids, accepted uncritically by one author after another! It’s a fascinating read, especially when we remember that this document was written just as Chariots of the Gods was being published in Germany. I’ll probably have more to say about the Condon Report ancient astronaut section in a future blog post.
Anyway, back to Stothers. He proceeded to review ancient texts for space aliens and UFOs by eliminating everything he could attribute to known astronomical phenomena and then cataloging the rest according J. Allen Hynek’s classification of close encounters. However, Stothers begins to lose credibility with me in determining that Livy’s list of prodigies is necessarily accurate because ancient people would never report or record something that didn’t happen! “In view of the time-consuming and costly procedures required by the Roman authorities to investigate witnesses, verify claims and physical evidence, and expiate the more unusual portents, most modern scholars who have troubled to analyze the prodigy lists have come to regard them as trustworthy and accurate.” In fact, he later argues that the “practical” Romans simply reported squarely, without recourse to Greek “theorizing”! The Romans were among the most superstitious of ancient peoples, a trait passed down to their Italian descendants unto this very day! If Stothers truly believes that a government would never manipulate information for political gain, then it seems we owe Dick Cheney an apology over those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Thus, for Stothers, Livy’s report of a shining phantom navy (21.64.4), round flying shields (22.1.9), and a flying rock (25.7.8) are just as accurate as reports of a suicidal ox that hurled itself from a third story window (21.62.3)—even though Livy wrote centuries after the events in question. He is particularly taken with Flavius Josephus’s account of a phantom army in 65 CE that he believes are flying saucers:
Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. (Wars of the Jews 6.5.3, trans. Whiston)
Stothers neglects to note that this prodigy, meant as a premonition of war (written, of course, after the fact) comes in the middle of a list of wonders and prodigies, including a cow that gave birth to a lamb, a sword-shaped star, and a comet that stayed visible for a year. You’d think a year-long comet would have made news, but other reports of the comets of 64, 65, and 66 CE (the last being Halley’s comet) did not make them year-long. Perhaps Josephus had conflated two or three? If so, what would this say about the accuracy of the other prodigy accounts?
But even Stothers concedes that most of the mysterious reports of fireballs that he cites from the usual suspects are meteors. To which: Why include them if he had planned to eliminate any reports that could be dismissed as astronomical? When he questions the details of some—like an account of a meteor five centuries after the fact that suggested it was visible for two hours, unlike most meteors, which burn fast—he displays a touching faith that eyewitness accounts are perfectly accurate in all their details centuries after they occurred. Try comparing the various accounts of the life of Alexander the Great or the four Gospels to see how difficult a claim that is to sustain.
Stothers also covers accounts of meteorites, which again are astronomical and therefore cannot be UFOs. I’m surprised he doesn’t know about Pindar’s encounter with a meteorite from the scholia to Pythian 3, but as I read his sources it becomes plain that he knows mostly the major authors, his major sources. His primary example is a meteorite that landed between the armies of Lucullus and Mithradites in 74 BCE and was still hot and glowing when they saw it (Plutarch, Life of Lucullus 8.6). Again, not alien. He also talks about a weird rain of silver (Dio Cassius 76.4) but not the one of blood (Dio Cassius 63.27), neither of which, unless I am missing something, is a UFO since spaceships are not liquid.
Stothers finishes up by rehearsing one of ancient astronautics’ favorite Roman sightings, the altar surrounded by priests in white recorded twice in Livy (21.62.5; 24.10.10). Stothers offers no commentary except to claim an identical sighting occurred in New Guinea in 1959. Again, it is almost humorous the faith he places in accounts recorded centuries after the fact, accounts that have specific religious and political motivations at the time and place where they occurred. If someone told you his grandfather had seen four dudes at a distance, would you therefore conclude they were space aliens? It’s important to note that Livy himself considered the reports to be so much hogwash: “once men’s minds have been excited by superstitious fears they easily believe these things” (21.62.1; trans. Rev. Canon Roberts). Stothers owed it to his readers—and to the future scholars—to note that his own faith the accuracy of these reports is belied by the ancient authors themselves, who were more skeptical than our scientist author.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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