Should we be Applying the Term “Religion” to Ancient Societies? 

Should we be Applying the Term “Religion” to Ancient Societies? 

Whilst we cannot deny that ancient societies practiced their own form of polytheistic religion, modern scholars have come to question whether the term “religion” can be accurately applied in this situation. This area of study is wrought with speculation as we try to reconstruct an ancient past and analyze their communities through a modern lens. This article aims to highlight how ancient and modern conceptions of religion differ and how we must be cautious when applying the term to ancient societies. I will be focusing on the pagan beliefs of both the Greek and Roman worlds, using the rise of Christianity to help highlight how religion as perceived by contemporary society was a development that occurred towards the end of the ancient period. We must be aware that the term we choose to use heavily depends upon the individual’s own conception of what a religion is. Many ancient practices, such as sacrifice, the erection of temples, and supplication to the gods, point to the idea that there was a religion, and while the communities revered the gods with fear and respect, there remain many nuanced details that have contributed to a new form of analysis that sees the term religion as simply inaccurate.  

  1. Ancient versus Modern Conceptions of Religion. 

We must first acknowledge that the very category of religion is itself a Christian phenomenon. By this, I mean that modern societies have an overly Christianized and post-enlightenment view of what constitutes religion. Most religions that exist today are monotheistic, which did not make sense to the ancient people aside from the visionaries and prophets of Judaism.  Instead, the ancient people of Greece and Rome practiced polytheism, which encompassed a myriad of Gods, each representing a certain facet of the human condition – even abstract ideas such as justice and wisdom had their own personifications. These gods exercised power in their own domains of love (Aphrodite), war (Ares), wisdom (Athena) and the natural elements – the sea (Poseidon) and the sun (Apollo) and as such, religion permeated all aspects of daily life. Specific gods were consulted to achieve various aims. Here, I propose the alternative term “belief system”, for while they had strict practices relating to the divine, polytheistic religion in the ancient world was not an organized institution and instead acted as a “set of principles”. These did not stem from a centralized focal point (like Christianity, which grew from the initial followers of Jesus, the Son of God). 

Leading on from the idea of a lack of a single focal point, ancient polytheism did not have a primary text which taught the proper and improper manners of a particular religion. Religions today have sacred texts, such as the Bible and the Qur’an. Though the cultures that they were born of do not have a specific term for their practice, they clearly follow an organised system of belief adhering to the boundaries set in place by their holy scriptures. In contrast, ancient religion was characterised by the absence of a systemised instruction and the absence of an edifice of theological reflection declared binding upon the believing community. Divine texts lay out fundamental rules that define and characterise a religion’s principles. As in Greek religion, revelation, holy scriptures and dogma were alien to the Roman religion and religious services, such as those common in modern day Church services, did not include readings of a sacred text or sermon. With the rise of Christianity, we see the Bible and its New Testament (written during the first century CE) aid in forming this new monotheistic organized religion. Also separating paganism from later Christianity is the fact that pagan religion did not observe the practice of proselytizing. According to some Christian texts, they believed that it was desirable for as many humans as possible to be brought within the fold of the Church; we find evidence of this in the Bible where it is stated that one should ‘Go and teach all nations, baptising them and bringing them instruction’ (Matt. 28: 18-20). This proselytising was prevalent throughout the late Roman empire and grew from the written words of Christian holy scripture. 

The pagan world, instead, had poets such as Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil, whose depictions of anthropomorphic characterizations of the gods now provide insights into the Greek and Roman perception of religion. We see that works such as the Theogony and the Iliad did not serve a didactic purpose (as is the case in holy scripture) but instead placed the gods in the realm of our own mortal world. From these written sources we see that  religion in the ancient world was indistinguishable from what is known as mythology in the modern world, thus once again placing ancient belief systems in a category that is removed from modern conceptions of religion. Their gods were vulnerable and succumbed to the ills and desires of mortality such as lust, greed, and anger. They constantly meddled in human affairs, as gracious benefactors but, more often than not, to serve their own whims and purposes. We find examples of this in Homer’s Iliad where Hera cunningly seeks Aphrodite’s advice, seduces Zeus and lulls him to sleep in order to turn the war in favour of the Achaians (14.187-207), and again in Virgil’s Aeneid where Venus uses her son Cupid to ensure that Dido falls in love with Aeneas (1.695-722). It is unheard of in religions such as Islam and Christianity (which are still popular today) for gods behave in ways that mirror human flaws. Pagan gods grew out of the need to venerate the elements of both nature and the human condition, and, rather than fearing and supplicating a single god who was above the shortcomings of the material world and who had sovereign power over even nature herself, they formed a looser, more malleable belief system that allowed them to fulfil their spiritual needs without the tight boundaries of an organized system. 

We also find that they did not believe that the world and its inhabitants had been created by a single all-powerful being, as is the case in religions such as Christianity and Judaism. Looking at ancient texts, we find that the stories of creation, though scientifically implausible, were generated from an understanding that everything was born of nature and her elements. Hesiod in his Theogony provides a theological and mythological account of the earth’s creation which is centred around Gaea (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) who formed ‘the first duality of above and below while Pontus (Sea) lay against Earth, embracing her’. The ancients did not deny that it was the fusing of natural elements that formed the earth’s trajectory to a place full of life. In Cicero’s discourse on religion too, we see this acknowledged; he states that ‘that which we call nature is therefore the power which permeates and preserves the whole universe, and this power is not devoid of sense and reason’. He sees nature as the driving force of all life. That it is ‘not devoid of sense and reason’, supports the philosophical view that the gods grew out of a need to venerate these life forces. They were created like human beings who emulated the culture of these societies ‘and like them were found in this world but do not appear anywhere as their creators’. These foundational pagan ideas that formed their belief system are essential in the argument against the term “religion” for what they venerated was not an abstracted idea of an otherworldly figure but rather mere personifications of what they saw around them. They paid homage to these gods, but these rituals did not conform to our ideas of religion for these gods were intertwined in their own mortal world.  

Moving away from the theological differences, to further understand these religious principles in a manner that is removed from our idea of religion, we must heed ancient vocabulary. The terms religio (a way of ‘honouring the gods’) and superstitio (a way of ‘wronging the gods’) as expressed in Seneca’s De Clementia (2.51), offer valuable insight into the practices and theological ideas of the time. Early Latin literature such as Cicero’s De Natura Deorum often uses the term religio to refer ‘to a feeling of awe for the supernatural’ which was used as a ‘general rather than a technical term’. This reinforces the idea that religious practice was an intrinsic facet of daily life and was seen as an innate aspect of the human condition. Just as one has words to describe an emotion, the ancients described their inclination for the divine in a similar manner. It is clear that such terms were not used to describe a religious movement or institution, but rather denoted the correct and incorrect ways one could partake in acts of piety. Ancient literature shows that religio (the stem word for religion) did not develop a sense that is close to our modern conception of religion until the late second century CE. We find evidence of this in the works of Christian writers such as Tertullian, who in his work titled Apology, comments on the ‘true religio’ of ‘the true god’ (24.2); this is representative of the time as Christianity began to spread and took on the form of a more organized religion, thus supporting Nongbri’s statement which called ‘religion a Christian phenomenon’.  

  1. Religion, Politics and Community life 

When we look at ancient religion, we see that it was intrinsically linked to both politics and economics. Can ancient belief systems be termed as a religion when there was no separation between religion and state? Critic Brent Nongbri focuses on the term “embedded religion” and how it ‘highlights how ancient cultures differ from a modern world that typically posits sharp divides between religion and politics or religion and economics’. In this section I aim to discuss the term “embedded religion” using examples from ruler cults in addition to the traditional Greek and Roman faiths. 

 Ancient paganism, particularly that of republican Rome, did not have extensive religious organizations that were secular to divine functions. In fact, ‘the only organization we know of in Rome, whose function was exclusively religious, was the colleges of priests; their duty was to act as advisors on the niceties of the ius divinum’ and even then, they were actively involved in the political scene of Rome for they served ‘as a consultative committee of the senate’. Following the rise of Christianity and an increased popularity in aestheticism and monasteries, we learn that having religious institutions outside of the state was an invention that did not occur until the end of the ancient period. The state and the Roman people’s Republic had godly partners. They had a shared mission which was to take part in the political and institutional lives of the Roman citizens. The god’s interlocutors were mainly Roman magistrates; this reinforces the idea of embedded religion for the state could not function without its religious counterpart. We find that this was also the case in Greece, as state and military functioning also looked for divine guidance in the oracles, particularly that of Delphi. The polis anchored, legitimated and mediated all religious activity, which implies that there was no religion beyond the polis of Greek and Roman antiquity, and though it does not account for the rise in cult worship, it provides modern scholars with a clear image of just how intertwined religion, politics, and economics were and how integral the city-state was to their beliefs. In line with this argument, we also see that the community depended on religious activity to be brought together, it was much more public than it is today. That new cults such as the Cults of Bacchus and Isis were initially frowned upon, evidence of which we find in Livy’s History (39.8-14) and Juvenal’s Satires (6.522-41) respectively, is testament to the idea that religion was seen as a state and universal affair. Practices that did not conform to the state-approved religious ideals were seen as being superstitio or incorrect. Another crucial factor separating ancient practice from the term ‘religion’, as we conceive it, is that their system was more adaptable and could change to accommodate the ever-transforming political scene. Syncretism, the joining together of different elements of deities to create new gods, grew out of this political inclination. An example of this is the god Sarapis, perhaps envisioned by the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria as Ptolemy sought to create a unifying god which combined both Greek and Egyptian elements. Modern religions do not allow for such adaptability and the admittance of new gods for they are centred around single organization and a single god.  

Ruler cults in the Hellenistic world also give us valuable insights into the ‘embedded’ nature of religious belief. Both Antigonos Monophthalmos and Demetrios Polirketes were offered isotheoi timai (honours equal to a god), evidence for which we find in Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius (10).  Ruler cults formed as these figures had offered protection to the Athenians and vengeance against those who had attacked them. This idea corresponds to the Greek idea of divinity, an essential feature of which is not immortality, but the willingness to hear the prayers of men and offer them help in need. That mortal men could be revered with the same respect and awe as the gods supports the idea that the political and adaptable nature of their beliefs was paramount. The fact that immortality was not the deciding feature in worship links back to the first section of this essay where I discussed how ancient belief systems are removed from modern conceptions of religion for their divinity grew out the need to praise life giving and protecting forces. Returning to the idea of politics and religion, it is arguable that the way in which cities interacted with their rulers and their cults was cynical, and about diplomacy; flattering their rulers afforded them greater benefits. We also find evidence of imperial cults in Rome where Julius Caesar too received divine honours. Ruler cults could be seen as the physical manifestation of the intrinsic nature of politics and religion, thus pointing towards the term “embedded religion” as more appropriate than merely “religion” when discussing ancient societies.  

It is impossible to use modern terminology, which has been heavily influenced by Christianised ideas, to describe a world that is so far removed from our own. By studying their polytheistic religion and the texts that historicize their beliefs, we find many differences that separate their conceptions of the divine from our own. Religion today can be seen as a dividing force while ancient paganism saw it as a unifying one. They took what they saw around them and created a complex belief system which infiltrated the community, politics, military tactics, and every other aspect of daily life. Theirs was a malleable system which catered to the spiritual needs of the community without the need for institutionalized organizations which we associate with religion today.  

Written by Kavisha Kamalanathan 


Brent Nongbri, ‘Dislodging Embedded Religion: A brief note on a Scholarly Trope’, 2008, pp. 440-460  

Joshua J. Mark, ‘Religion in the Ancient World’, 2018  

Mark Cartwright, ‘Ancient Greek Religion’, 2018  

John Schied, ‘Politics and Religion in Ancient Rome’, 2013  

Gothóni, René. “Religio and Superstitio Reconsidered.” Archiv Für Religionspsychologie / Archive for the Psychology of Religion, vol. 21, no. 1, 1994, pp. 37–46.   

Chaniotis, Angelos, ‘The Divinity of Hellenistic Rulers’, A Companion to the Hellenistic World, 2005, 431-445  

Goodman Martin, ‘Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire’, 1995  

Cicero, ‘On The Nature of The Gods’  

Homer, ‘Iliad’  

Seneca, ‘De Clementia’   

Virgil, ‘Aeneid’ 

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