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Study information

Ancient Astronomy and the Cosmological Imagination

Module titleAncient Astronomy and the Cosmological Imagination
Module codeCLAM076
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Professor Karen Ni Mheallaigh (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

What did the sky – and its celestial bodies - mean to an ancient viewer? We will seek answers to this question through studying ancient cosmology, astronomy and more. We will explore the sky as imaginative forum and repository of authority on time, present, past and future, read the cosmos as a great chronometric mechanism, the constellations as a glittering archive of myth, and explore the world of astrological prognostication. Our adventures in celestial semiotics will lead us into outer space itself, with the world’s first space travellers. You should be ready for the challenge of studying diverse technical, literary and material evidence.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module aims to:

  • Introduce you to the diverse approaches to understanding the cosmos in Greek and Roman antiquity and the Byzantine period
  • Combine the study of philosophical theories about the origins, nature and purpose of the cosmos with astronomical and astrological treatises, relevant literary and imaginative texts, and material artefacts (such as parapegmata, sundials, clocks, spheres and other astronomical instruments)
  • Offer a distinctive opportunity for multi-disciplinary study of the ancient thought-world

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Use technical language, concepts, theories and methodologies that are relevant to the understanding of the cosmos in the ancient and Byzantine world
  • 2. Understand and critically evaluate a diverse range of evidence from antiquity and the Byzantine period, including technical texts, philosophical theories, literature and material artefacts
  • 3. Demonstrate a strong understanding of the practice of astronomy (and other engagements with the cosmos) in antiquity and the Byzantine period
  • 4. Demonstrate an understanding of the influence of ancient cosmological and astronomical ideas on the early modern thought-world

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Collate and analyse widely different types of evidence, much of which is incomplete and ambiguous
  • 6. Demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between technical knowledge and its political, social and cultural contexts
  • 7. Reflect critically on the origins, development and transmission of technical knowledge in one’s own and another culture

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 8. Compile a bibliography and demonstrate word-processing and time-management skills
  • 9. Conduct independent analysis of written and material evidence as well as of secondary scholarship
  • 10. Construct and defend a sustained argument (both written and oral)
  • 11. Collaborate with module leader and peers in a constructive and responsive way
  • 12. Demonstrate confidence and clarity in oral and written communication

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Time, ritual and the cosmos: from chorus to clock
  • Ancient astronomy 1: Presocratics to Plato
  • Ancient astronomy 2: Aristotle to Ptolemy
  • The story of the Moon (Plutarch, De facie; Demetrius Triclinius, The black figure that appears in the Moon; Lucian, True Stories)
  • The celestial archive: mapping past and future; measuring the present

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching15Intensive seminar and reading group teaching
Guided Independent Study135Working independently and in groups in preparation for seminars and essays

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Seminar participationContinuous1-12Oral from tutor and peers

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay804000 words1-10,12Mark; written and oral feedback
Oral Presentation (individual)2020-25 minutes1-12Mark; written and oral feedback

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-10,12Referral/deferral period
Oral presentation (individual)Essay (2000 words)1-12Referral/deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 50%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 50%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Cherniss, H. 1957. ‘Concerning the face which appears in the Moon,’ in H. Cherniss and W.C. Helmbold (edd.), Plutarch Moralia Volume XII. Cambridge, Mass., 1-223.
  • Costa, C.D.N. (trans.), Lucian, selected dialogues. Oxford World’s Classics, 2005.
  • Evans, J. and Beggren, J. Lennart. 2006. Geminos’s Introduction to the Phenomena. A translation and study of a Hellenistic survey of astronomy. Princeton.
  • Goold, G.P. (trans.) 1977. Manilius, Astronomica. Cambridge, Mass.
  • Hard, R. (trans.) 2015. Eratosthenes and Hyginus: constellation myths. With Aratus's Phaenomena. Oxford.
  • ní Mheallaigh, K. (trans.) Triclinius, On the black figure that appears in the Moon and Plutarch, On the face that appears in the Moon. [ELE]
  • Toomer, G.J. (trans.) 1998. Ptolemy’s Almagest. Princeton.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

  • ELE – College to provide hyperlink to appropriate pages

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

  • Beck, R. 2006. A brief history of ancient astrology. Malden, MA and Oxford.
  • Bowen, A.C. and Wildberg, C. (edd.) 2009. New perspectives on Aristotle’s De caelo. Leiden and Boston.
  • Couprie, D.L. 2011. Heaven and Earth in ancient Greek cosmology: from Thales to Herclides Ponticus. New York, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London.
  • Evans, J. 1998. The history and practice of ancient astronomy. New York and Oxford.
  • Feeney D. 2007. Caesar's calendar: ancient time and the beginnings of history. Berkeley.
  • Gee, E.R.G. 2000. Ovid, Aratus and Augustus. Cambridge.
  • Gee, E.R.G. 2013. Aratus and the astronomical tradition. New York.
  • Graham, D.W. 2006. Explaining the cosmos: the Ionian tradition of scientific philosophy. Princeton and Oxford.
  • Graham, D.W. (ed. and trans.) 2010. The texts of early Greek philosophy: the complete fragments and selected testimonies of the major Presocratics. Cambridge and New York.
  • Graham, D.W. 2013. Science before Socrates: Parmenides, Anaxagoras, and the New Astronomy. Oxford and New York.
  • Georgiadou, A. and Larmour, D. 1998. Lucian's science fiction novel True Histories: interpretation and commentary. Leiden, Boston and Köln.
  • Hannah, R. 2005. Greek and Roman calendars. Constructions of time in the Classical world. London.
  • Lehoux, D. 2007. Astronomy, weather, and calendars in the ancient world. Parapegmata and related texts in Classical and Near Eastern societies. Cambridge.
  • ní Mheallaigh, K. 2019. The Moon in the Greek and Roman imagination: selenography in myth, literature, science and philosophy. Cambridge.
  • Nicholson, M. 1948. Voyages to the moon. New York.
  • Parrett, A. 2004. The translunar narrative in the western tradition. Aldershot.
  • Taub, L. 1993. Ptolemy’s universe. The natural philosophical and ethical foundations of Ptolemy’s astronomy. Chicago and LaSalle.
  • Taub, L. 2003. Ancient meteorology. London.
  • Taub, L. 2008. Aetna and the Moon: explaining nature in ancient Greece and Rome. Corvallis.
  • Taub, L. 2017. Science writing in Greco-Roman antiquity. Cambridge.
  • Volk, K. 2002. The poetics of Latin didactic: Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius. Oxford.
  • Volk, K. 2009. Manilius and his intellectual background. Oxford.
  • Volk, K. and Green, S.J. (edd.) 2011. Forgotten stars: rediscovering Manilius’ Astronomica. Oxford.
  • Williams, G.D. 2012. The cosmic viewpoint. A study on Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones. Oxford and New York.

Key words search

Ancient astronomy, moon, Ptolemy, Lucian, astrology, Plutarch, Manilius, Aratus

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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