Judeans, Egyptians, and others: Seneca on the “superstitions” of foreigners (mid-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans, Egyptians, and others: Seneca on the “superstitions” of foreigners (mid-first century CE),' Last modified October 13, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9308.

Authors: Seneca as cited by Augustine, City of God 6.10-11 (link to Latin text; link to full translation).

Comments: In this passage, Augustine of Hippo (writing between 410-426 CE) passes on from summarizing a work by Varro to Annaeus Seneca’s now lost work Against Superstition (mid-first century CE). Augustine’s summary and citations suggest that this Roman, Stoic philosopher’s work surveyed a variety of foreign practices, categorizing them as silly or dangerous “superstitions.” In the process, Seneca deals with Egyptians (with reference to animal worship), perhaps Phrygians or Syrians (with reference to self-castration associated with worship of the mother goddess), and Judeans / Jews (with criticism of Sabbath observance). Nonetheless, Seneca also critiques practices that took place among the populace at Rome itself.

Seneca was a Roman senator (at the upper echelons of the imperial elites) and he reflects that elites’ tendency to characterize as “superstition” (superstitio) any practices that diverged from the Roman elites’ own sense of obligation (religio) to upper-class ancestral customs concerning the gods as practiced at the centre of Rome itself. So this is once again a glimpse into the Roman imperial elites’ perspective on conquered peoples and on the non-elite populace.

Source of the translation: Demetrius B. Zema and Gerald G. Walsh, Saint Augustine: The City of God, books I-VII (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1950), public domain (Zema passed away in 1948; Walsh passed away in 1952), adapted by Harland.


[Augustine:] The freedom of speech which Varro lacked when he was afraid to attack civic concepts about the gods (theologia) as openly as he attacked such concepts about the gods on the stage – even though both were similar – was found, not perfectly but in part, in Annaeus Seneca. We have some evidence to show that he was at the height of his fame in the days of the apostles. However, he was more free with his pen than in the way he behaved.

In a book he wrote Against Supersitition (Contra superstitio), he is much more full and forceful in his criticism of civic concepts about the gods than Varro is in his criticism of that of mythology and the stage. Thus, speaking of idols, Seneca writes:

“Of the cheapest and most lifeless matter they make, by a dedication, inviolable and immortal divinities. They give them the outward appearance of men, wild beasts, or fish, sometimes, with double sex and multiple bodies. Monstrous shapes that would frighten us to death if we met them alive are called deities.”

A little later, in his account of natural concepts about the gods, he summarizes the views of a number of philosophers and then offers this objection:

“Here, someone asks: Am I to believe that the heaven and earth are gods, and that some gods are above the moon and some below it? Am I to put up with either Plato or the Peripatetic Strato, either with the view that God has no body or with the view that God has no soul?”

Seneca’s answer is as follows:

“In the long run, whose dreams are nearest the truth, those of Titus Tatius or those of Romulus or those of Tullus Hostilius? Tatius found a goddess, Cloacina, in the sewers. Romulus, found gods in the rivers Picus and Tiberinus. And Hostilius found gods in the most disagreeable of men’s emotions: Pavor (Fear) in the agitation of a frightened soul, Pallor (Terror) in a change of colour just short of a bodily sickness. Why not take these for deities and find a place for them in heaven?”

Seneca has something to say about the brutal and beastly rites, and does he ever speak his mind!:

“Here is a worshipper who castrates himself; here is another slashing his arms with a knife. What room is left for reverence when love is shown like this? Gods that want this kind of worship should be given none at all. So great is the frenzy of mind disturbed and beside itself that gods are worshipped in a way that not even the most savage people of the most fabulous cruelty vent their rage. There have been tyrants who have tortured people, but none who ordered people to torture themselves. Men have been castrated to gratify royal lust, but no one has ever been ordered by any tyrant to mutilate himself. Yet, in the temples of the gods, men lacerate their own flesh; they offer up in sacrifice the blood from their own wounds. Anyone who will take time off to see what they do and suffer will find things so contrary to self-respect, so inapprppriate to an educated man, so unlike normal behaviour, that he would undoubtedly think these people were mad, if mad people were still in the minority. But today, with so many insane people, we must call them normal.”

Seneca gives an account of what takes place in the very Capitol [in the city of Rome] and with the utmost frankness condemns it. No one could believe these things are done by anyone except in mockery or madness. He makes great fun of the fact that in the Egyptian mysteries there is much moaning when Osiris is lost and great rejoicing when he is found, because, although the losing and finding are purely imaginary, the grief and joy of the people who have lost nothing and found nothing is perfectly genuine. Then, Seneca continues:

“It must be admitted that there is a time fixed for this foolishness. Perhaps it is tolerable to go mad once in the year. Just go as far as the Capitol [in the city of Rome itself]. You will be ashamed of the public exhibition of insanity and the fact that it calls itself worship. One person is reading off names to a god; a second is telling Jupiter the time of the day. Here is a man behaving like a policeman, and there a fellow who thinks he is a trainer and is giving a rub-down to an athlete who is not there. There are women who imagine they are hairdressers, combing the hair of Juno and Minerva though they are nowhere near the temple, let alone their statues. Near them are others holding a mirror. Here is a group asking the gods to stand bail for them; there, some lawyers offering their legal arguments and showing them how to conduct their case. There was once a star comedian, well-trained, but now old and decrepit, who used to go through one of his routines every day in the temple as though the gods would enjoy what the people had long been tired of. Every sort of craftsman is there lazily doing a job for the immortal gods.”

A little later, Seneca adds:

“It can at least be said of them that, useless as their service may be, what they are offering to the god is neither indecent nor unbecoming. Certain old hags sit in the Capitol thinking that Jove is in love with them, but they have nothing to fear from the angry jealousy of Juno of which the poets have told us so much.”

Varro had none of this outspokenness. At most, he was bold enough to criticize the poets’ concepts about the gods, but never the civic worship of which Seneca makes such mincemeat. Yet, if the truth must be told, temples where these things are done are worse than theatres where they are merely put on as shows. Seneca took the stand, in regard to the sacred rites in civic concepts about the gods, that it was the part of a wise man to go through with them like an actor, but to give them no allegiance of the heart. Seneca’s words are:

“A wise man will observe all these things, as being commanded by the law, not as being pleasing to the gods.”

He adds, a little later:

“Little good can be said of the marriages of the gods, least of all when we make the unnatural unions of brothers as sisters: Bellona and Mars, Vulcan and Venus, Neptune and Salacia. We leave a few of them unmarried, as though no one had proposed to them which does not surprise me when I think especially of such widows as Populonia and Fulgora and the goddess Rumina. This whole ignoble mass of deites has been heaped together over a long period by unending superstition (superstitio). We will worship them, but we will never forget that the cult is a mere convention, not a conviction.”

Seneca’s idea was that neither the laws nor custom had put anything into civic concepts about the gods which was either pleasing to the gods or based on truth. Nevertheless, the man whom philosophers thought to be so outspoken behaved like the illustrious senator of the people of Rome that he was. Seneca worshipped what he reprehended; he did what he derided; and, he adored what he deplored. Philosophy, I suppose, had taught him one great truth: that he must never believe from a motive of superstition. Nonetheless, in order to obey the laws of the city and observe the conventions of men, he might play the role of an actor never, indeed, in a theatre but at least in a temple. The worst of it is that the lie he acted was acted so well that the people believed that he was not acting at all. For, a true actor would, at least, prefer to amuse us by playing a part than bemuse us by playing a lie.

11 Seneca included among the other reprehensible superstitions among civic concepts about the gods the sacred institutions of the Judeans, especially their Sabbaths. Seneca said that the Judeans served no good purpose by resting every seventh day, since they lost nearly a seventh part of their whole lives and must neglect many matters calling for immediate attention. Seneca’s attitude toward the Christians was neutral, although they were then much hated by the Judeans. He did not dare to praise them counter to the established ancestral tradition of his country, or, so it would seem, to condemn them counter to his conscience. Seneca writes as follows regarding Judeans:

“The ways of that dreadful descent group (gens) have taken deeper and deeper root and are spreading throughout the whole world. They have imposed their customs on their conquerors.”

There is a note of wonder in these words and, little did he know, a movement of grace inspired him to add, in plain words, what he thought of the true character of those institutions. Seneca says:

“The Jewish people know the reason for all their rites, but most of our people merely go through the motions, without knowing why.”

In regard to the tradition of the Judeans, I must discuss, in a later part of this work certain points which I have touched on elsewhere, particularly in my debates with the Manicheans: Why and how far these rites were instituted by divine authority and, later, after the people of God had been given the revelation of the mystery of eternal life, at the proper time and by the same authority, why they were abrogated.

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