Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians

Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians

Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians

Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians


The Roman author Pliny the Younger characterizes Christianity as "contagious superstition"; two centuries later the Christian writer Eusebius vigorously denounces Greek and Roman religions as vain and impotent "superstitions." The term of abuse is the same, yet the two writers suggest entirely different things by "superstition."

Dale Martin provides the first detailed genealogy of the idea of superstition, its history over eight centuries, from classical Greece to the Christianized Roman Empire of the fourth century C. E. With illuminating reference to the writings of philosophers, historians, and medical teachers he demonstrates that the concept of superstition was invented by Greek intellectuals to condemn popular religious practices and beliefs, especially the belief that gods or other superhuman beings would harm people or cause disease. Tracing the social, political, and cultural influences that informed classical thinking about piety and superstition, nature and the divine, Inventing Superstition exposes the manipulation of the label of superstition in arguments between Greek and Roman intellectuals on the one hand and Christians on the other, and the purposeful alteration of the idea by Neoplatonic philosophers and Christian apologists in late antiquity.

Inventing Superstition weaves a powerfully coherent argument that will transform our understanding of religion in Greek and Roman culture and the wider ancient Mediterranean world.


In a previous book, The Corinthian Body, I found myself making a statement that seemed to me self-evident. In speaking of certain early Christian beliefs, such as the resurrection of the body, I commented that educated Greeks would generally have rejected these beliefs and even found them to smack of “superstition,” but I added that their reasons for doing so had nothing to do with any rejection of “supernaturalism.” I argued in that book that the category of “the supernatural” didn’t really exist in the classical world, so dependence on “supernatural causation” would not have been the issue in rendering a belief or action “superstitious” in the eyes of an ancient intellectual. After finishing that book, it haunted me that I had not provided any alternative description of what actually counted in the ancient world as “superstition” and why, nor did I know of any study that had done so. I set out to find answers to those questions, and this book is the result.

I have attempted to write for a generally educated audience, hoping that more than scholars of antiquity will find my topic in-

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