“The doctor who knows nothing about astrology is ignorant.” Günter M. Ziegler, President of Freie Universität Berlin (FU), quoted this sentence from the Greek doctor and teacher Hippocrates of Kos on Friday at the opening of the new institute for the history of knowledge of antiquity.

It is headed by J. Cale Johnson, who took up his professorship in the first pandemic year, 2020, and is familiar with the FU through numerous stays, for example at the former “Topoi” cluster of excellence on the transformation of spaces and knowledge in ancient civilizations. Johnson is an Assyrian and linguistic anthropologist whose research includes the origin of writing, Sumerian literature and Babylonian medicine.

Johnson promised at the opening ceremony in the “Holzlaube” that his institute should become “a link and a think tank between archeology and classical studies, between the humanities and the natural sciences”. Eun-Jeung Lee, the dean of FU’s Department of History and Cultural Studies, hopes that the institute will encourage collaboration in minor subjects – spanning the entire period covered there.

Back to Hippocrates: Anyone who believes in horoscopes today is ridiculed in academic circles, as Ziegler pointed out. And yet, thanks to the new foundation, astrology in Dahlem will probably play a greater role than ever before.

Because in astral science, whose origins lie in the Babylonian Empire and have been passed down and transformed via Egypt, the Greco-Roman world and up to the present day, astronomical, astrological, mathematical, religious and social practices are closely linked.

At the new institute, which resides in a villa at Arnimallee 10, these practices are being investigated in the research project “Zodiac – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation”. It started in April 2021 under the direction of Mathieu Ossendrijver. He began his career as an astrophysicist and came to Berlin in 2013 as a professor for the history of science at the Humboldt University.

He brought an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) worth 2.5 million euros with him to the FU, from which “Zodiac” and its international and interdisciplinary team will be financed for five years. The starting point are textual and iconographic sources about the zodiac.

In a new institute and with such a strong focus, researching “where the origin of knowledge lies, for which it is needed and often enough misused,” said FU President Ziegler, was “a strong, unique and important thing” for the Free University. Keynote speaker Daryn Lehoux, Professor of Classics and History and Philosophy of Science at Queen’s University Canada, added: “I’m very jealous of what has been done here in Berlin – we don’t have anything like it anywhere else.”

This undoubtedly includes the entire landscape of antiquity in Berlin, which includes the German Archaeological Institute, antiquity research at the Berlin Academy, the Einstein Center Chronoi, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Knowledge and the Berlin Antiquity Museums.

From the summer semester of 2023, Master’s students in the planned FU course in “History of Knowledge” will also be romping around in this landscape. And maybe one day Daryn Lehoux too – as a visiting professor?

In any case, his speech about “Epistemic Distortions in Ancient Rome” could have been an application lecture. He showed how people struggled for good scientific practice even in antiquity. Galenus, the great doctor and philosopher, saw his writings in abbreviated versions of other authors so “mangled” that he preferred to publish summaries of his originals himself.