With apologies to Stevie Wonder’s 1972 hit, there’s plenty more to be said about “superstition” — the ancient Roman version, that is. Called in Latin superstitio, it’s a tough word to pin down because it doesn’t quite mean what we think it means. That’s why I’ve come to the Italian province of Umbria, where there’s an important clue about how to define it.
Umbria is northeast of Rome. The ancient via Flaminia slices diagonally across it, joining the capital to the modern beach town of Rimini on the Adriatic. I’ve riden the train up here. It takes two hours, if everything goes as planned. And there’s plenty to do. That’s more than enough time to get you to Assisi, for example, if you’re inclined to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. It also can take you to one of Umbria’s most famous ancient sites, the city of Spello.
Settled by Roman colonists during the civil wars of the first century B.C.E., Spello, or ancient Hispellum, received many benefits with the rise of Octavian, later Augustus. A prominent arch, dedicated to Augustus, can still be seen in one of Spello’s steep, narrow streets. Portions of an inscription, which mention a “deified figure,” or divus — perhaps referring Augustus’ status as “son of a god,” the deified Julius Caesar — can be spotted walled into the same building. (Side note: Eric Orlin is currently exploring the Augustan history of Spello for the Memoria Romana project.) I’ve come up with my eye on the town’s later history.
By the early fourth century C.E., Spello had an amphitheater, a theater, baths, and at least one important sanctuary site outside the city. Like Augustus, Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, left his mark on the city, too. When Spello’s residents expressed their desire to have their own local priests, games and festival to honor the emperor — three features of Rome’s “imperial cult” — Constantine assented. The first Christian emperor explained his decision in a lengthy imperial letter preserved in stone. The inscription is currently housed in the town hall, or Palazzo Comunale, of Spello. A copy has been fixed to the wall of the great hall. This week, I was given permission to see and study the original.
Both in terms of size and importance, it’s an impressive decree. To begin, the stone is about as tall as I am, six feet (You can see a photo of it, without scale, here). The text itself records Constantine’s decision to support the establishment of games in his honor, to be overseen by local priests. To us, the emperor’s graciousness may seem unremarkable. Earlier rulers had often done just the same thing. The fact that Constantine was Rome’s first Christian ruler is what usually makes people pause. Weren’t “the Christians” supposed to be intolerant of all of Rome’s own religious traditions? Perhaps. (I’ve written on this thorny topic before: here and here).
That’s where “superstition” enters the picture. Constantine said that a temple could be erected; priests could oversee the local festival; and the emperor even decided to allow Spello to change its name to Flavia Constans to venerate Constantine’s family dynasty. The only caveat was that the city’s imperial cult celebrations should “not be polluted by the deceptions of any contagious ‘superstitio'” (cuiusquam contagiose superstitionis fraudibus polluatur, Corpus of Latin Inscriptions 11.5265, lines 46-47). The trick is trying to figure out just what exactly the emperor meant.
Superstitio is a relative term. It’s a word Romans used to describe worship practices that were frowned upon as socially unacceptable, weird or queer. So just what was the emperor intimating in his letter to the people of Spello, now Flavia Constans? Some think that Constantine was forbidding animal sacrifice. The problem is that in the early fourth century, sacrifice was not something many Romans would naturally or automatically associate with a “strange” practice. Sacrifice had been a natural part of daily civic life, a mainstay at civic festivals, for centuries. Even if the Christian emperor did consider sacrifice an unacceptable way of worshiping the Roman gods — “Superstition ain’t the way,” Stevie sings — many locals must been justly puzzled at what exactly they were and weren’t allowed to do as part of their celebration.
In the end, the festival went on. The temple was built. The priests fulfilled their duties. And the gods, including Constantine’s own divine ancestors, the divi of the Flavian house, were given their due honors in Umbria. It’s an important moment in the story of early Christianity, too. Whatever his personal opinions were, Rome’s first Christian emperor had expressed his public support for a long-standing Roman tradition, the worship of the deified imperial family.
Not everything changed with the arrival of a Christian Roman emperor.