In my Latin in translation class the other day, we were discussing whether or not the Romans had a word for religion, and if so, what it was.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t. The closest words that they had were probably the words cultus and pietas: in other words, the (loosely translated) cult/”knowledge of giving the gods their due”, and one’s loyalty and duty to friends and family.
But one student suggested that the word “superstitio” was the Romans’ word for religion, with all the connotations that our word “religion” has today. This about threw me into mad little fits of laughter. While superstitio may have been a word used to describe some religious practices and religions, and while religious people could be superstitious, it was by far not what the Romans would have called their own practices.
The thing is, superstitio was NOT a good thing, and to be called superstitious was, obviously, likewise not a good thing.
Superstitio is excessive devotion and enthusiasm in religious practices, or doing practices that conflict with traditional Roman practices. According to Cicero, superstitio is the “empty fear of the gods”; Seneca defines it as “something that wrongs the gods”, unlike religio, which “honors the gods”. Superstitio could be anything from magic to other foreign religions, such as Christianity and Judaism.
Some modern scholars think that it was something thought to be natural to slaves and women.
According to Richard Gordon in his article on superstition (which is an absolutely wonderful resource, apart from being really, really long), superstitio can be seen as a “rather a dismissive way of referring to what in the speaker’s opinion appeared excessive, dishonourable, unmanly, sometimes simply new and unfamiliar, sometimes actually wicked, forms of religious action or expression.”
The Christians later adopted the term to use as a descriptor for “pagan”, or “false religions”.