BA Latin and Italian

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Men, Beasts and Marvels: the Limits of Nature in Classical Antiquity 

Course unit fact file
Unit code CAHE23361
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The course examines Greek and Roman attitudes to nature. How did they comprehend and explain the world around them?  What was their perception of their own place within that world and how did it relate to the other constituent parts of nature, animate and inanimate?

Starting with nature in its broadest sense, the course includes an introductory overview of ancient cosmology, from the earliest creation myths to the rationalising views of the Pre-Socratics and the later world views of Plato, Aristotle, and the Epicureans and Stoics. We also look at ideas developed to facilitate comprehension of what was beyond measurement, e.g. microcosm and macrocosm and the relation of the universe to the notion of the divine.

Life in Nature introduces the view prevalent in classical antiquity that the natural world existed for the benefit of humanity, together with the practical and ethical issues raised by this teleological idea, including the relationship between man and the other animals and the impact of human activity on the natural landscape.  As geographical knowledge and opportunities for travel increased, we consider ideas which placed humanity in a broader context than that delineated by political borders.

 The final part of the course is devoted to the cultural effects of the expanding horizons of the natural world, in particular the reception of the new and wondrous, including oddities ranging from natural phenomena to human and animal monstrosities, both real and imagined.  At the end, we raise the question of marvels which defy nature’s most basic parameters. Tales of the supernatural in antiquity range from near-death experiences and bilocation to narratives which are the ancestors of the modern ghost story.

An epilogue will consider aspects of the influence some of these ideas had in later eras.


To offer level 2 students the opportunity to study a fundamental aspect of Greek and  Roman  cultural history through the medium of a  range of representative sources. At level 2, emphasis will be placed on a core collection of texts offering a mainly illustrative dimension to the topics covered.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course level 2 students will be able to:

  • demonstrate a basic understanding of the range and evolution of attitudes to Nature in Classical antiquity
  • demonstrate an ability to evaluate a variety of source materials from different periods pertaining to the main themes of the course;
  • contextualise key ideas within their broader historical parameters.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course level 2 students will be able to demonstrate an ability to:

  • perform close textual analysis and more broadly based thematic readings;
  • evaluate critically both primary evidence and secondary literature;
  • apply a range of interpretative approaches; to envisage a written text as one element of a wider historical picture.

Practical skills

By the end of this course level 2 students will be able to:

  • demonstrate good oral and written communication skills;
  • take responsibility for individual learning;
  • to appreciate the views of individuals from different cultures.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course level 2 students will be able to:

  • demonstrate the ability to construct an argument in written and oral form
  • assimilate and summarise evidence;
  • locate and retrieve relevant information from primary sources;
  • conduct bibliographic searches;
  • present the results in a professional manner with appropriate reference to sources and modern published scholarship;
  • use e-resources and gain knowledge of research methods and resources;
  •  manage time and resources;
  • engage in critical discussion.

Employability skills

• analyse and examine information; • see and evaluate both sides of an argument • assemble information from a variety of sources and present it coherently

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 20%
Written exam 50%
Written assignment (inc essay) 30%

Written Commentaries

Feedback methods

Recommended reading

M. R. Wright, Cosmology in Antiquity (London, 1995).

R. French, Ancient Natural History: Histories of Nature (London, 1994)

A. Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters (Princeton,  2000).

 D. Felton, Haunted Greece and Rome (Texas, 1999).

G. L. Campbell (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (Oxford, 2015).

J. Romm, The Edges of the World in Ancient Thought (Princeton, 1992).

R. Garland, The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (London, 1995).

 L. Thommen, An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome (tr. P. Hill, Cambridge 2012)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Tutorials 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Mary Beagon Unit coordinator

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