As Dr Who prepares to celebrate his 50th birthday, a talk at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas reveals the earliest origins of science fiction - in ancient Rome.

Dr Justin Meggitt, a Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion and the Origins of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, will give a talk at the Festival this Sunday entitled The final frontier? Space travel in the Roman Empire. The talk is based on a little known book called Lucian of Samosata's True History, written in the Roman empire in the second century CE. It is considered the world’s first science fiction novel and had a significant effect on the emergence of the genre (and the novel more generally in English) in the seventeenth century.

The book includes a trip to the moon, the sun and Venus, as well as a description of the unusual forms of life that live there and their struggles. On the moon, for example, when the inhabitants grow old and die, they gradually turn into vapour and become one with the atmosphere; only males give birth; they have detachable (and swappable) eyes; the wealthy wear clothes made from glass; they drink liquid air; they can see and hear everything that goes on on Earth using a special looking glass.

Dr Meggitt says: “In one sense it is a work of striking imagination, but it is also a work of satire and parody, which tells us a great deal about the arguments of the day about such things as philosophy, ethnography and history, and ideas that the Romans had about the nature of the cosmos and place of human beings within it.

“It could be said to be in the classic travel narrative tradition that goes back to Homer's Odyssey, which was composed some thousand years before, but it also has considerable parallels with the most recent science fiction of the present day.”

Dr Meggitt is in the process of writing about the book and his talk at the Festival of Ideas on Sunday reflects that and, more broadly, some of the multidisciplinary teaching on travel at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education where The True History is included in a course entitled 'Journeys: travelling with prophets, pirates, slaves and saints'.

The Festival of Ideas, which runs from 23 October to 3 November, was the first public engagement initiative by a UK university to bring together an extensive programme of public events exploring the arts, humanities and social sciences. Events are held in lecture halls, theatres, museums and galleries around Cambridge and entry to most is free.

The University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas is sponsored by Barclays, Cambridge University Press and Anglia Ruskin University, who also organise some of the events during the Festival. Event partners include Heffers Classics Festival, University of Cambridge Museums RAND Europe, the Goethe-Institut London and the Junction. The Festival's media partner is BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and its hospitality partner is Cambridge City Hotel.

*The final frontier? Space travel in the Roman Empire takes place from 3-4pm on 27th October at the Institute of Continuing Education, Madingley Road, Cambridge.


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