Module Catalogue 2020/21

CAC3045 : Human Dissection in Antiquity (stage 3) (Inactive)

  • Inactive for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Thomas Rütten
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
Pre Requisites
Pre Requisite Comment


Co Requisites
Co Requisite Comment



Ancient medicine is one of the most important and influential achievements of classical civilization. The practice of human dissection is at the core of ancient medicine’s legacy to the modern world. It constitutes a cultural practice, in which medicine, science, religion, philosophy, law, and politics converge. Its history mirrors the history of Greek and Roman medicine on a micro level.

We will be looking at early Greek speculations about the human body (pre-Socratic natural philosophers), at the growth of anatomical knowledge through chance observation (Hippocratic authors) and zootomy (Aristotle), at the rise of human anatomy in Hellenistic Alexandria (Herophilos, Erasistratos), the fall of human anatomy thereafter, its critics (Roman doctors and church fathers) and propagators (author of the pseudonymous Hippocratic letters), as well as its most devoted spokesman Galen of Pergamon who wasn’t able, however, to revive the practice of human dissection. We will also be looking at the rebirth of ancient anatomy and human dissection in Renaissance Italy, especially in the work of Vesalius.

The module aims to enable students to study an aspect of (ancient) culture from a variety of angles: history of science, medicine, religion, philosophy (natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and epistemology), law, and society.

The course further aims to:
1. Provide students with a sound knowledge of the origins and development of Greek and Roman anatomy and the numerous ways in which it is embedded in ancient societies and cultures.
2. Provide insight into the ways the Greeks and Romans dealt with death, dead bodies, and cultural taboos surrounding them.
3. Develop the students’ skills of analysis, interpretation and evaluation of texts and secondary sources, and further develop their skills of written and oral communication, particularly in seminars.
4. Develop the students’ capacity for independent study in independent student study groups and enhance their team spirit.
5. Confront students with their own bodies, mortality, ideas about dying and death, and personal sense of decency vis-a-vis the dead body.

Outline Of Syllabus

1. Introduction - Ancient cultural practices surrounding the dead body
2. Cultural and epistemological obstacles to human dissection in Classical and Hellenistic Times
3. Comparative anatomy (Hippocratic Corpus, Aristotle)
4. Herophilus and human dissection
5. How to write a documentary commentary and an essay
6. Erasistratus and human dissection
7. Reverberations of the anatomical revolution (Ps.-Hippocrates, Celsus, Tertullian)
8. Rufus of Ephesus and the taboo of human dissection
9. Galen, the devoted anatomist and would-be dissector of human corpses
10. Vesalius and the triumph of human dissection
11. Imagining human dissection: Rembrandt's The Anatomy of Dr Tulp, 1632
12. Recap and Questions and Answers

Learning Outcomes

Intended Knowledge Outcomes

Students who complete this course should acquire:
1. a sound knowledge of the medical, scientific, religious, ethical, juridical and cultural ramifications
of human dissection in ancient contexts
2. an awareness of the longevity of the ancient practice of human dissection, and its potential of
3. an awareness of the historicity of scientific practices and their evaluation
4. a better understanding of their own body.
5. an awareness of their feelings towards the dead body and their own mortality

Intended Skill Outcomes

Students who complete this course should acquire:
1. skills in analysing, interpreting, comparing and evaluating ancient medical texts (in translation)
2. skills in selecting, understanding, analysing, evaluating and comparing the relevant modern
secondary literature about ancient medicine
3. the ability to design, develop, present and communicate arguments on paper, during discussion
sessions and independent study group sessions

Teaching Methods

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.

Reading Lists

Assessment Methods

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.


Past Exam Papers

General Notes

Original Handbook text:

Disclaimer: The information contained within the Module Catalogue relates to the 2020/21 academic year. In accordance with University Terms and Conditions, the University makes all reasonable efforts to deliver the modules as described. Modules may be amended on an annual basis to take account of changing staff expertise, developments in the discipline, the requirements of external bodies and partners, and student feedback. Module information for the 2021/22 entry will be published here in early-April 2021. Queries about information in the Module Catalogue should in the first instance be addressed to your School Office.