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date: 28 June 2022



  • John Scheid


  • Roman Myth and Religion

Superstitio, though perhaps originally implying a positive attitude, had become pejorative by the end of the 1st cent. bce. Superstition meant a free citizen's forgetting his dignity by throwing himself into the servitude of deities conceived as tyrants. The civic ideal of piety (see pietas) was envisaged as honouring the gods while preserving one's freedom—that is, with restraint and measure. Thus the superstitious were supposed to submit themselves to exaggerated rituals, to adhere in credulous fashion to prophecies, and to allow themselves to be abused by charlatans. The reproach was, particularly but not only, applied to women (Juv.Sat. 6), but also to members of the social and intellectual elite. This conception corresponded to that conveyed by the Greek deisidaimonia, (see e.g. PlutarchOn Deisidaeimonia). As a general rule the Romans considered strangers, and especially barbarians, as superstitious, either because they celebrated monstrous cults, like the Gauls, or because they were terrified by every exceptional happening and attributed it to divine wrath. But one could equally be considered superstitious, like the Jews, in submitting obediently to the prophecies of sacred books (Tac.Hist. 5. 13. 2; see jews; religion, jewish). Under the Empire, the term began to be applied to groups rather than individuals and, with the coming of Christianity, two new forms of superstitious aberration appeared, which both could be described (following Lactant.Div.Inst. 4. 28. 11) as ‘the cult of the wrong gods’. One was the retention, despite all the strong disapproval of the doctors of the Church, of purely pagan beliefs. The other was the use of Christian names, holy books, etc. in magic. See religion, roman, terms relating to.


  • W. Belardi, Superstitio (1976).
  • D. Grodzinski, Revue des études anciennes 1974, 36 ff.
  • J. Scheid, Religion et piété, 2nd edn. (2001), 133.
  • P. G. R. De Villiers and E. Germiquet, Acta Patristica et Byzantina (1998), 52–69.
  • M. Sachot, Revue de l’histoire des religions (1991), 355–394.

R. Gordon, in S. A. Smith and A. Knight, The Religion of Fools?Past and Present Supp. 3 (2008).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat