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SUPERSTITIO ET CONIURATIO

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The purpose of this paper is to draw the attention to one of the reasons which may have contributed to the suspicion against—as well as the local persecutions of—the Christians in the second and third centuries. We want to point to the possibility that the new religious community changes into a coniuratio and becomes a danger for the ancient community from which it has come.

Christianity, just as the Bacchanalia, was more than an ordinary superstitio. According to Livy, the Bacchanalia showed four characteristics distinguishing them from a superstitio: 1) new, strong links within the group instead of the ancient ones which connected the members to their traditional social structure; 2) an oath of initiation to respect the own laws of the new community; 3) animosity against the State; 4) the large numbers of the followers.

Pliny the Younger found three of these characteristics with the Christians of Bithynia. For Pliny, the only difference consisted in the fact that the Bacchanalia obliged the members to break Roman law and thereby became a coniuratio, whereas Christians did not commit crimes and for this reason Christianity had not yet changed from a superstitio praua to a coniuratio. However, the vocabulary of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Celsus, as well as the description of the Christian persecution in Lugdunum and Vienna, show that most Romans did not make this distinction. In their eyes Christianity, this new community so similar to the coniuratio of the Bacchanalia, was a real threat to the existence of traditional society and deserved to be punished as such—by extermination.

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