Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia is a fascinating piece of work, displaying an understanding of the world that seems remarkably ahead of its time. The first book concerns what we could broadly term astronomy. I recommend reading the whole text, but I am going to focus here on chapter 35, which has been picked up by UFOlogists as possible evidence for a sighting in 76BC:
“We have an account of a spark falling from a star, and increasing as it approached the earth, until it became of the size of the moon, shining as through a cloud; it afterwards returned into the heavens and was converted into a lampas; this occurred in the consulship of Cn. Octavius and C. Scribonius. It was seen by Silanus, the proconsul, and his attendants.”
A “lampas”, or “lampades” in the plural, has no exact translation as we can’t be quite sure what was intended, but it was almost certainly a variety of meteor. If we look back to chapter 25, we have the terms “faces”, “lampades”, “bolides” and “trabes” all used to describe moving objects of light in the sky, literally, “torches”, “lamps”, “darts” and “beams”. The differences in appearance between those four can only be a matter for conjecture.
Earlier in the book we have all kinds of celestial phenomena described, and most of them are clearly indicating natural events that we can understand: eclipses, meteors, the aurora borealis, etc. But this one’s a bit different. How do we explain a falling star that gets to a certain point and then goes back up into the sky?
So firstly it’s fair to acknowledge that the Romans reporting the phenomenon are a proconsul and two consuls, so these are important people and we actually have names of who saw the “lampas”, which is a step up from often vague reports of this kind of thing in history. Also, Pliny moved in the highest circles of Roman society, so it is quite possible that this account came direct to him from the horse’s mouth, rather than the usual game of Chinese Whispers where accounts can get hugely exaggerated, although it is important to realise that a secondary source with even just one link in the chain is open to a distortion of the facts. People like to impress their friends with anecdotes, and the temptation to tweak things a little bit to sound more exciting is huge.
There has been much speculation over the years of what Silanus and his consuls might have seen, with suggestions of a comet, a nova or ball lightning not quite fitting the description. RB Stothers, writing in 1987, suggested a meteoric fireball, with the “return to the heavens” and conversion to a “lampas” the point at which it exploded in the atmosphere. A “spark falling from a star” does sound like a piece breaking off of a larger object that is burning up in the atmosphere, so I don’t think we can chalk this up as a Borg sphere leaving its cube with any degree of confidence!
This one is open to interpretation, but I always think that the rational approach is to reach for the UFO explanation as the last possibility on the list when nothing else makes sense, rather than the first conclusion we leap to. RP