The Latin word superstitio, from which the common word superstition derives, actually had different meanings across centuries and has been used to define (also) Christianity and later Paganism. But what we are here to underline is that the possibility of misunderstanding has been used to deceive the Pagan under the juridical aspect in late antiquity; from what you can read below, even modern Pagans have a lesson to learn from that about how much important is to understand the meaning that a word has according to the person we are talking to.
The first meaning, in order of time, of the word superstitio is "divinatory practice": with this meaning we can find the word used in Plautus, Ennius and later Pliny. From the 1st century b.c.e. there is another meaning, a very important one for this piece of writing, that is "practice outside official religion": that meant not only a religious practice that didnít belong to official religion because of its different origin (a private practice of a particular family, or one coming from abroad), but also an excessive and unreasonable religious belief, or a practice implying an excessive and unreasonable fear of the gods. This is why Livy uses this word to define the Bacchanalia forbidden by the Senate and Pliny defines Christianity through it; Varro, Cicero, Seneca and Servius used it to call Roman practices outside official religion.
The word enters the juridical language with this meaning. When a word enters the legal language and is used to write laws, it becomes a technical term to define what is legal and what itís not; while a word used in a philosophical or literary context can be explained by the writer or by the context itself, a word used in writing a law should be clear and with one meaning only. Weíll see that this wasnít true for late antiquity laws.
At first, we find the word superstitio in laws against those who lead weak-minded people to excessively fear the deity (a law by Marcus Aurelius) or who practice a religion that terrifies people. This excessive fear is what is called superstitio. So now itís clear why some authors call Christianity a superstitio.
Christian polemicists and apologists of the first centuries found themselves labeled as superstitiosi and so assimilated the meaning of superstitio as "unreasonable belief" and started to apply it on Pagans. In their writings, superstitio becomes a synonym of Paganism. Lactantius writes that religio veri dei cultus est, superstitio falsi, religion is the worship of the true god, superstition of a false one (Divinae institutions, 4.28.11). The same idea can be found in Tertullian, writing of gentilicia or romana superstitio, gentilesí or Roman superstition, and in Orosius.
During the 4th century, when Christianity took more and more importance until it became the state religion, both the meanings of superstitio coexisted: according to Pagans, it meant all excessive religious practices, while according to Christians it meant the whole paganism. In a law dated 319, the word superstitio still means divination.
This ambiguity at the end turned against pagans since it has been used against them. This didnít happen only under the legal aspect: even the panegyrist writing the praise of Constantine who defeated Maxentius (in the famous battle at Ponte Milvio, when the vision of the cross should have occurred, from what Eusebius wrote) uses ambiguity not to displease anyone, saying that Constantine won thanks to divina praecepta, divine teachings, and Maxentius lose because of its superstitiosa maleficia. A Pagan reader could then understand that Maxentius had lost because he had practiced superstitious or illegal magic, trusting on it for victory, while a Christian reader could understand that Maxentius had lost because he was a Pagan and so god had helped the emperor instead. Constantine could act against Pagans only in the Eastern part of the Empire, but not in the Western one, where Pagans were much more and more powerful. In an inscription from Hispellum, Umbria, Constantine forbids the temple to be used in a superstitious way: once again, a Pagan could understand that only unreasonable practices were forbidden, a Christian that all the Pagan rites were. Maybe this is the reason why Eusebius affirms that Constantine forbade sacrifices and temple worship, while we there is no law about that yet.
Obviously, an ambiguity in a legal text is far more dangerous than an ambiguity in a literary text as the praise to Constantine was, because it can be used for advantage of one party. Constans, who was a Christian, used the misunderstanding of the word in the famous law issued in 341: cesset superstitio, sacrificiorum aboleatur insania, superstition shall cease; the madness of sacrifices shall be abolished. Today it seems clear to us that the law was going to abolish sacrifices, but when it was issued, the law could be applied in two different ways: a Pagan administrator would have prevented people from doing too many, useless, sacrifices for superstitious (in modern sense of the word) reasons, a Christian one would have abolished pagan sacrifices at all. In this way, Constans could satisfy the Christian will to abolish Paganism without provoking a strong Pagan reaction he couldnít have been able to face yet, because Pagans understood the law differently from Christians even approving it because it recalled preceding laws against superstitious (unreasonable, outside the official religion, strange and made with boast) practices. In facts, regular sacrifices took place in Rome even before this law; thereís another Constans law against the superstitiones, directed to Catullinus, prefect of Rome, who was pagan, and this law too could be interpreted in two manners.
After Constantius enforced his rule by defeating Magnentius, he didnít need to keep good relationship with Pagans anymore: the laws issued from 356 to 360 forbade image worship, closed temples and forbade divination. None of this law uses the word superstitio.
The word appears back again in 5th century laws, but this time itís clearly defined as sacrifice and worship of temples: Christianity has already taken over the empire and affirmed the equivalence between superstitio and everything different from Christianity. From the 5th century, the word is used also to define Judaism and heresies.
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