Skip to main content


CAC2045 : Human Dissection in Antiquity (stage 2)

  • Offered for Year: 2022/23
  • 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


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 enables 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

The following is an indicative list:

• Introduction – Religious obstacles to the emergence of human dissection in antiquity

• Cultural and epistemological obstacles to human dissection in Classical and Hellenistic Times

• Herophilus and human dissection/human vivisection

• Galen, the devoted anatomist and would-be dissector of human corpses

• How to write a documentary commentary and an essay

• Erasistratus and human dissection

• Rufus of Ephesus and the taboo of human dissection

• Zootomy/comparative anatomy (Alcmeon, Hippocratic Corpus, Aristotle, Praxagoras?)

• Vesalius and the break-through of human dissection (without human vivisection)

• Imagining human dissection: Rembrandt's 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp', 1632

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture101:0010:00PIP Lectures
Structured Guided LearningLecture materials101:0010:00Online lectures - to be included as contact hours
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion651:0065:00For one assessment component
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading331:0033:003 hrs reading per week
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching91:009:00PIP Seminars
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities92:0018:00Reading and research materials
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops22:004:00PIP Workshop
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesFieldwork13:003:00Non-compulsory fieldtrip to RVI, date to be arranged with the staff of the Department of Anatomy
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study481:0048:00General consolidating activities
Jointly Taught With
Code Title
CAC3045Human Dissection in Antiquity (stage 3)
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures, both PIP and online, are used:
•       to introduce the types, characteristics and distribution of evidence for or against the ancient practice of human dissection
•       to introduce the methods by which this evidence can be most effectively used in gaining knowledge about ancient anatomy
•       to draw attention to key aspects of this evidence for further, independent study
•       to discuss the interpretation of the evidence, and the problems involved in its interpretation
•       to recommend secondary readings relevant to the interpretive problems raised, and highlight essential arguments and controversies in these readings
•       to challenge students to consider both the preconceptions they may have about the dead human body, and how these preconceptions may shape their interpretation of ancient anatomical practices and their epistemological, ethical, religious, legal, cultural, and scientific contexts.
•       to provide focussed instruction and practice in developing specific research skills assessed in the module (e.g. constructing a bibliography for an essay, structuring an essay, constructing an argument, referencing it and composing a narrative)
Seminars are used:
•       to allow students to discuss a prescribed piece of secondary literature in a small group, in a conversation structured by seminar questions distributed in advance
•       to give students the opportunity to articulate their own arguments about an aspect of human dissection in ancient times
•       to provide a supportive and constructive environment for developing, sharing and evaluating ideas that could form the basis for the coursework essay

Workshops are used to help students switch from the receptive to a productive mode of learning. They will provide an opportunity for group work on specific tasks preparing them for their assignments. They will test their ability to apply the skills acquired in lectures and seminars to specific essay-related tasks. Finally, they will serve to discuss anonymized coursework of previous cohorts and thus turn students into markers

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay1A1003500 words due semester 1 assessment period
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Essay1MEssay Plan (500 Words)
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The essay tests intended knowledge and skills outcomes, develops key skills in research, reading and writing. It provides an opportunity to the students to pursue their own research project within the module's overall theme. They will use the lectures and seminars as well as the workshops as a foundation and the module's reading list as a guide to develop their own pathway of investigation and critical analysis. An essay with its exposure to a focussed topic over a sustained period of time is a much better way to apply acquired skills in an assignment than, say, an exam. Students will again be presented with a range of options, from which they choose the one which suits their interests best.

Study-abroad, non-Erasmus exchange and Loyola students spending semester 1 only are required to finish their assessment while in Newcastle. Where an exam is present, an alternative form of assessment will be set and where coursework is present, an alternative deadline will be set. Details of the alternative assessment will be provided by the module leader.

Reading Lists