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Science and Technology in the Graeco-Roman World - 10 credits (HS3373)

Staff: Laurence Totelin

What type of history do science and technology have? What historiographical issues is the historian faced with when reading ancient scientific texts? Can we talk of progress when studying ancient science? What are the links between ancient science and philosophy? How did ancient science relate to ancient technology? How were scientific ideas transmitted in the ancient world? Did women practice ancient science? How was science portrayed in literature? These are some of the questions that will be tackled in this course, whose aim is to provide the students with the tools enabling them to read ancient scientific texts directly (in translation). Scientific ideas will be replaced in their intellectual, social, economic, and political context. Attention will be also paid to archaeological material, inscriptions, papyri, and other non-literary sources. This course requires no knowledge of science, but a willingness to try and understand difficult concepts. Students will be allowed to choose the sciences and technologies they want to study. The module will be taught in an interactive style, with a high level of participation expected.

Optional for: all Ancient History degrees
Availability: spring semester in alternate years
Teaching: 10 lectures and 2 seminars
Assessment: one essay (50%) and one 1-hour examination (50%)

Syllabus content

The module examines the history of science and technology from c. 500 BC (when written texts started to emerge) to c. AD 500. Scientific ideas and technological developments will be placed in their intellectual, social, economic, and political context. After two introductory sessions (one general introduction and a session on ancient 'physics', students will be allowed to choose 4 sciences and 4 technologies from the following list:

  1. Astronomy
  2. Astrology
  3. Mathematics
  4. Music
  5. Botany
  6. Zoology
  7. Geography
  8. Physiognomics
  9. 'Science-fiction' (basically Lucian's True Story)
  10. Technology of time-keeping
  11. Agriculture and horticulture
  12. Military engineering
  13. Hydraulics
  14. Metalwork and alchemy
  15. Technology of writing


  • To study science and technology in the ancient Greek and Roman world from c. 500 BC to 500 AD.
  • To understand how and in what intellectual, social, political and economic contexts scientific ideas developed and were transmitted.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, the student will demonstrate:

  • a knowledge of the history of science and technology, c. 500 BC–AD 250.
  • a knowledge and understanding of the most important sources for the study of ancient science and technology.
  • a knowledge and understanding of key approaches and debates about interpretation of ancient science and technology.
  • an ability to demonstrate an understanding of the history of ancient science and technology and deploy it effectively in addressing issues and problems.
  • an ability to apply critically the literary evidence as well as the material evidence in studying the history of Greek and Roman science and technology.
  • an ability to read ancient technical literature in translation.
  • an ability to analyse and discuss the issues in written work with coherent and logical arguments, clearly and correctly expressed.
  • an ability to contribute to group discussions, ask pertinent questions and co-operate with and learn from peers.

Primary sources

J. W. Humphrey, J. P. Oleson & A. N. Sherwood, Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook (1998)
G. L. Irby-Massie & P. T. Keyser, Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era: A Sourcebook (2002)

Preliminary reading

E. Gee , Ovid, Aratus and Augustus: Astronomy in Ovid’s Fasti (2000)
G. E. R. Lloyd, Early Greek Science (1970)
G. E. R. Lloyd, Greek Science after Aristotle (1973)
J. E. Murdoch, Album of Science: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1984)
T. Rihll, Greek Science (1999)
L. Taub, Aetna and the Moon (2008)
C. J. Tuplin & T. Rihll, Science and Mathematics in Ancient Greek Culture (2002)
K. Volk, Manilius and his Intellectual Background (2009)

Related modules

Prerequisite modules: HS3101 Introduction to Ancient Greek History or HS3102 Introduction to Roman History

Other modules to consider taking in conjunction with this one:

HS3330 Gods and the Polis

HS3331 Roman Religion

HS3372 Greek and Roman Medicine