Ancient astrologers come under scrutiny at prestigious public lecture in Leicester

An ancient astronomical table, calendar with zodiac symbols. Credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum / Olaf M. Teßmer.

A world-leading authority on Babylonian astronomy will deliver a prestigious public lecture at the University of Leicester in May.

Professor John Steele will jet in to the East Midlands from Brown University in the USA for a British Academy Lecture, on Thursday 9 May.

The lecture, titled the place of theory in Babylonian astral science, will see the historian examine the ways in which ancient Babylonian scholars interacted with the night sky.

Professor Steele said: “These scholars interacted with the night sky in several ways: they regularly observed a range of lunar and planetary phenomena and kept systematic records of these observations; they developed methods of calculating future astronomical phenomena; they created mathematical schemes to describe astronomical phenomena; they interpreted astronomical phenomena through systems of astrology; and they applied their astronomical knowledge to address various societal needs including the regulation of the calendar and fixing the time of cultic rituals and festivals.

“Babylonian approaches to describing and calculating astronomical phenomena were primarily – though, as I will show, not exclusively – through numerical modelling rather than by means of geometrical or physical models. And therein lies the rub: some historians claim that geometrical models and physical theories are a requirement of science and so therefore judge Babylonian astronomy as falling short of being true science.

“In this talk I will discuss whether this is an appropriate way to understand whether an early astronomy is scientific and, more to the point, show that Babylonian scholars did indeed construct theories of the behaviour of the sun, moon, and planets but that historians have usually been looking in the wrong place to find those theories.”

The University of Leicester is one of just 12 UK universities to have the honour of being a British Academy Lecture partner for 2023-25.

Delivered by the most outstanding academics in the UK and beyond, the British Academy’s flagship lecture programme showcases the very best scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. Held at the British Academy and across the UK, these landmark occasions offer students, scholars and specialists a chance to expand their networks and learn about the latest developments in their field.

Tickets to Professor Steele’s lecture, which starts at 5.30pm on Thursday 9 May, can be reserved for free on the event website.