Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module CLAS2901: Ancient Science

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS2901: Ancient Science

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap None. Location Durham


  • CLAS1741 (desirable but not mandatory)


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To introduce the students to forms of knowledge and production, particularly of and about the natural world and the human body, in the Greek and Roman world, from the Archaic period to later antiquity.
  • To consider how knowledge is shaped by social, economic, political, and religious circumstances.
  • To assess, among other things, arguments and explanations for natural phenomena and cosmological theories, definitions of health and illness, notions of the difference between human and animal, and male and female, in the Greek and Roman world and the ancient Mediterranean in general.
  • To explore and analyse a range of relevant textual and material sources, and highlight their connection with aspects of Greek and Roman culture, including literary culture, that the students are already familiar with.


  • This module offers a survey of various forms of knowledge of the universe, nature, and the human body, which were formulated, discussed, and contested by various actors in the Greek and Roman worlds. While chronologically the course spans from the 5th century BCE to the 2nd century CE, the structure consists of self-contained units, focussed on individual fields of knowledge, against the background of overarching themes germane to more than one field.
  • Students will be exposed both to what ancient Greeks and Romans thought about nature and the world, and what explanations they provided for their views. We will pay particular attention to scientific controversies, disciplinary disputes, and also to how knowledge of nature was applied to the solution of real-life problems, such as healing the sick, propitiating the gods, or predicting the weather. Primary sources might include philosophical texts, medical treatises, horoscopes, counting boards, cosmological accounts, and divination manuals.
  • Students will be able to make connections with other modules, and get a better sense of what theories, beliefs and practices ‘in real life’ underpinned discourses about, among other things, sex, the body, slavery, barbarians, fate and destiny, illness and disease, and imperialism.
  • Students will also be exposed to some of the historiography of science, including recent scholarship on the nature of rationality, cultural relativism and naturalisation theories.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Knowledge of ancient sources about science, technology and medicine, both textual and material.
  • An awareness of the diverse evidence available for studying scientific knowledge in antiquity.
  • An understanding of the processes by which ancient knowledge was formulated, communicated and debated, and the means by which modern historians seek to understand such processes.
  • An introduction to approaches and debates in both classic and current scholarship on this topic.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • A developing ability to analyse and draw conclusions from a range of primary sources from the ancient world which is not limited to so-called "literary" sources.
  • A developing ability to recognise that the ancient Greeks and Romans developed theories about the world they lived in, and to bring that awareness to bear on one's understanding of the transmission and reception of those sources.
  • A developing capacity to evaluate the inherent values and problems with particular types of ancient sources and to use them judiciously to construct a careful and nuanced picture of antiquity.
  • A developing ability to engage critically with modern literature on scientific knowledge, scientific explanation, rationality and evidence-based research, and situate independent thinking in relation to this scholarly 'landscape'.
Key Skills:
  • A developing ability to assess and compare a range of different arguments and approaches.
  • A developing ability to use diverse types of evidence to build up a cumulative picture.
  • A developing capacity to produce tight, well-evidenced and clearly expressed arguments in both oral and in written form.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Lectures will provide an overview of the material, and engage closely with relevant primary and secondary sources.
  • Suggested bibliography for each lecture will encourage students to develop their own areas of interest within the course as it progresses.
  • Seminars will afford an opportunity for close reading and extended discussion of key sources.
  • Tutorials will provide an opportunity for the students to get detailed feedback, and discuss more closely, their assessments.
  • Assessment will take place through a gobbet and an essay, enabling students to develop their own areas of interest within the course, engaging closely both with primary sources and with broader questions.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 20 1 per week 1 hour 20
Seminars 6 3 in Michaelmas Term, 3 in Epiphany Term 1 hour 6
Tutorials 2 1 hour 2
Preparation and Reading 172
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Gobbet Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Gobbet 1,500 words 100% Yes
Component: Essay Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 2,500 words 100% Yes

Formative Assessment:

One formative exercise

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University