BMCR 2005.04.40

Inventing Superstition from the Hippocratics to the Christians

, Inventing Superstition from the Hippocratics to the Christians. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 307. $29.95.

By Dale Martin’s own admission, his new book is meant to correct an oversight made in his previous book, The Corinthian Body. In it, he had stated that educated Greeks would have rejected many Christian beliefs (e.g. resurrection) as superstitious but had neglected to discuss why they would have held this view. Thus Martin’s proclaimed aim here is to identify “what actually counted in the ancient world as “superstition” and why.” (p. ix) The reader soon discovers, however, that Martin’s true focus is much narrower: he is concerned to determine why ancient Greek authors educated in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy thought Christians were superstitious. The result is nonetheless one clearly presented perspective on a subject of wide interest to classical historians of religion and society.

In chapters 1 and 2, Martin lays out the difficulties involved in defining and approaching the concept of superstition in Greek and Roman antiquity. He notes that the Latin term, superstitio, often signified harmful beliefs but not specific activities, while the Greek term most often translated as “superstition”, deisidaimonia, is of uncertain force, as it can range in meaning from “piety” (religious awe) to “superstition” (craven fear of the gods). Furthermore, we cannot impose modern definitions of “superstition” upon ancient society as modern and ancient categories do not coincide. For us, “superstition” does not imply specific activities, but rather whether explanations offered for the activities in question have been couched in sufficiently “scientific” sounding terms. In modern thought “superstition” is opposed to “science” and depends upon some concept of the “supernatural” as separate from “science.” However, Martin argues, this division did not hold in antiquity, as no one denied the existence of the divine or conceived of “supernaturalism” as a category. For the ancients the contrast was one of “legitimate” versus “illegitimate,” or “rational” versus “irrational” belief systems, in which “illegitimate” or “irrational” equaled “superstitious.”

Chapters 3 through 5, which deal with the thoughts of Theophrastus, the Hippocratics, and Plato and Aristotle respectively, discuss the development and character of “legitimate” discourse and the “rational” perspective on the nature of the divine in the classical period. Rejecting traditional expectations that the gods were subject to human emotions and could consequently become angry and vindictive, philosophers instead posited an “optimal universe.” Ontological hierarchy was married to the concept of moral hierarchy, meaning that power was linked to moral goodness; superior beings were thus morally better than their inferiors. Consequently, the most superior beings, gods, were the most honorable, and were incapable of experiencing anger or doing evil to humans (such as causing plagues). To fear the gods was therefore irrational or superstitious, as gods could not act upon emotions impossible for them to have. The concept of proper “etiquette” is also important to Martin’s description of the philosophical view. Just as gods behaved in a manner appropriate to their station at the top of the ontological-moral hierarchy, educated men were supposed to exercise the same propriety in their own actions. That is, they were to observe the “mean,” the behavior appropriate to their own privileged class and status. In religious terms this meant the observance of traditional ritual without excessive displays — to show too little religious sensibility was impious, to show too much, superstitious. In short, “superstition became a vice invented and controlled by the philosophical class.” (p. 77)

Chapters 6 through 8 focus on the works of Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Galen. Martin’s aim here is to discuss the degree of influence the philosophic identification of superstition had on the opinions of other “educated gentlemen” about the nature of the divine. For Martin, Diodorus and Plutarch represent the failure of philosophy to convince many educated men of later periods wholeheartedly. He notes that Diodorus often uses the term deisidaimonia non-pejoratively and waffles between attributing disaster to divine anger and more scientific causes (a mistranslation of Diodorus on p. 87 makes Martin’s observations less convincing).1 Plutarch is inconsistent in his description of daimonic powers, stating sometimes that daimons (as divine beings) can do evil (thus parting ways from the previous philosophic model) and sometimes asserting that daimons, like gods, are necessarily good and unable to do harm. On the other hand, Galen accepts, hones, and clarifies the philosophic legacy of Plato and Aristotle. He recognizes an extreme and hierarchical order in the universe, to which the divine elements are themselves subject. Put otherwise, even gods cannot do anything which is by nature impossible (from making cows from ashes to doing evil). This introduces a point which will become central to Martin’s discussion in ensuing chapters: Jewish and Christian belief that god can do the impossible is diametrically opposed to this Greek philosophical conviction.

Christianity is increasingly the focus of the remaining chapters. Chapter 9 presents itself as a brief digression into the Roman world to determine why the Romans, unlike the Greek philosophers, deemed superstitiones, and particularly Christianity, dangerous instead of merely wrong-headed. Martin states that Roman concepts of superstitio were influenced by Greek philosophical ideas about deisidaimonia. Thus superstitio was religio taken to excess. Furthermore, it was thought to be focused on the welfare of the individual rather than the community, and ideas about superstitio got mixed up with ideas about magic, lending superstitio a threatening and frightening quality. Martin points out that the apocalyptic elements of Christian writings would have been understandably interpreted by Roman authorities as subversive (had they read them), though it is improbable that the Christian authors meant them to be threatening.

Chapters 10 and 11 remain focused on Christianity as a superstition, but return to its consideration in the light of Greek philosophy. In this pair of very detailed chapters, Martin deals with Celsus’ famous attack on Christianity and Origen’s defense. Celsus’ assaults represent the objections philosophically-educated men of the second century might have had to Christianity. He denies, for example, the possibility that Jesus was divine on the basis that the divine would not associate with what is base and shameful such as human flesh, which is subject to putrifaction. To believe otherwise would be to deny the hierarchies of nature so important to the Platonically-influenced conception of the universe. Origen counters such criticisms by using, among other devices, the arguments of Greek philosophy against itself and in defence of Christianity. Thus Origen argued for the compatibility rather than the opposition of Christianity and the teachings of Greek philosophy; for Origen, Christianity was “philosophy for the masses.” (p. 169) However, the fit between Greek philosophy and Christianity was not perfect, as Christianity admitted the existence of “evil daimons,” whereas these remained an impossibility for many followers of the likes of Plato (but not for all, as Martin demonstrates in Chapter 12). Safety from the actions of evil daimons was assured by allying oneself with a superior and good divine force — and consequently, the “patronal universe” would come to replace the “optimal universe” in Christian and much Greek philosophic discourse.

Chapter 12 describes the acceptance of “evil daimons” as a presence in the universe by Neoplatonic philosophers. Although there was disagreement among Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus concerning the precise nature of evil daimons, the ontological and ethical hierarchy were no longer thought to coincide, and consequently the divine was not subject to “any moral constraint of necessity and nature.” (p. 204) Greek philosophy had come full circle.

The model of the “patronal universe” would in turn become particularly useful for Christian philosophers around the time of Constantine’s conversion. Martin discusses this phenomenon in Chapter 13, with particular focus on the opinions of Eusebius. Eusebius used the arguments of Greek philosophy against both itself and Greek and Roman traditional religion to demonstrate the piety of Christianity and the superstition of “paganism.” All pagan deities were cast as evil daimons; any which were not actively maleficient did nothing to stop those that were, and were thus themselves evil too. Those who claimed the Christian God as their patron (whose clients were Christ and Constantine) had nothing to fear from the old gods. Monotheism and monarchy became mutually supporting concepts and were both acknowledged as safe havens from superstition. Christianity was presented no longer as a religion lacking an ethnos, but as a universal religion which was its own ethnos.

Martin sums up his discussion in a lengthy concluding chapter, which contains an interesting discussion of the influence political theory and rhetoric of the late archaic and early classical period might have had on the development of what he calls the “Grand Optimal Illusion” (p. 227) embraced by the early philosophers (“Grand” because it claimed to describe the whole universe, “Optimal” because it claimed that what ought to have been so was so, and “Illusion” because the theory was not supported by any evidence). He also addresses the influence political context had upon its demise several hundred years later.

In short, for Martin, concepts of superstition in both Greek and Roman antiquity are inextricably interwoven with the tenets of certain Greek philosophies. However, few will finish the book convinced that this is all there is to it. How, for example, is Lucretius’ praise of Epicurus as humankind’s liberator from the terrors of religion to be understood within Martin’s framework?2 Are Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Galen best understood only in the context of Greek education, and in complete isolation from their social and political context? Are Roman concepts of superstitio so synonymous with deisidaimonia as to warrant only 10 pages of discussion?3 Need one be educated in Greek philosophy to have conviction that one’s religious beliefs are truer than another’s? As has been demonstrated effectively by Richard Gordon, the debate over legitimate religious knowledge was probably less a well-ordered Socratic dialogue than a cacophony of simultaneous and diverse responses.4 For all that Martin has provided a cogent description of possible Platonic responses to the claims of Christianity on the subject of “superstition” in antiquity in general, he has shown us but one image in a room full of mirrors.

This criticism is perhaps the result of a second complaint which might be laid at Martin’s door. Martin betrays little familiarity with current or recent scholarship on either Greek or Roman religion. The absence of these discussions in Martin’s own have resulted not only in a relatively narrow consideration of “superstition”, but also on occasion in some perplexing assertions (e.g. his definition of miasma as “atmospheric pollution,” “a countertheory to that of divine causation”),5 and some uncomfortable statements (e.g. his claims about the “decline” of traditional religion and oracles in the early centuries AD).6 More surprising is the fact that Martin fails to engage with recent scholarship on magic in antiquity. Discussions of “magic” as a social phenomenon or legal category often invite considerations of “superstition” as a related concept, and there is no dearth of scholars pursuing such investigations.7 But Martin appears to be so oblivious to their work that he frequently uses the notoriously slippery term “magic” with no attempt to inform the reader of his working definition.8

In light of all these considerations, few historians of ancient religion or magic are likely to find Martin’s book indispensable. Still, the clarity of his discussion is refreshing and may do much to bridge gaps between disciplines with related interests or common focuses. Furthermore, a more general audience (indeed, the sort of audience Martin envisions, p. ix) may well be more appreciative of a lucid introduction to a fascinating topic. For these reasons, Martin’s book will no doubt find an appreciative audience.


1. Diodorus 14.70.4 does not offer alternative causalities for the plague in question (i.e. divine retribution or the result of the geographical location), but rather says that the geographical situation was probably responsible for the extent of the plague (see συνεπιλάβειν LSJ II.2).

2. Lucr. DRN 1.62-79

3. Compare Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price (eds.) Religions of Rome: Volume I. Oxford: OUP, 1998, Ch. 5 for discussion of this topic and further references.

4. See especially Richard Gordon “Imagining Greek and Roman Magic,” in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Greece and Rome. B. Ankarloo and S. Clark eds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, pp. 159-275.

5.p. 87, discussing Diodorus Siculus. Note that Diodorus does not use the term miasma in the passage in question. Compare also p. 237. See Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

6. p. 208 “Another proof of the decline of traditional Greek religion was the historical demise of oracles.” In general, narratives of religious “decline” in the empire have not found recent favour. See, e.g., David Frankfurter Religion in Roman Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. For the continuation of Greek oracles in particular, see Robin Lane Fox “Language of the Gods,” in Pagans and Christians. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986. Note also that it is in the second century AD that Alexander developed an extremely successful oracle site along the coast of the Black Sea (Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet).

7. The bibliography on magic is immense. See the bibliography provided in Ankarloo and Clark’s collection, note 4 above, as a starting point. Richard Gordon’s “Imagining Greek and Roman Magic,” within this collection features a useful bibliographic essay.

8. The closest Martin comes to discussing the definition of magic is on pp. 129-131, where he contrasts Pliny’s attitudes towards magic and superstition respectively. There are also seemingly countless articles devoted to the discussion of the problem of definition of magic. The reviewer merely offers a personal favourite as a starting point: H.S. Versnel, “Some Reflections on the Relationship Magic-Religion.” Numen 38 (1991), 177-197.