The Latin term religio means “binding together,” thus highlighting its role in ensuring the social and political cohesion of Roman society and culture. The Roman authorities were content for individuals to follow their own private religious beliefs, provided these did not come into open conflict with the state religion. Those who openly flouted it were branded “atheists”. The terms “superstition” and “cult” were often used to denigrate religions that were considered to be subversive of traditional Roman values.

Yet Roman religion was primarily about practice and binding duties, rather than an official “theology” or set of beliefs. To use technical terms, it was more about orthopraxis than orthodoxy. While Roman intellectuals often had misgivings about aspects of the state religion, they nevertheless regarded it as a valuable traditional resource that was important in maintaining cultural identity and stability.

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An official Roman religion, therefore, was about creating civic unity, social coherence, and political solidarity. These obligations and expectations were now increasingly imposed upon Christianity. Having only just emerged from the margins of Roman society through being recognized as a legitimate religion, Christianity now found itself propelled to the forefront of Roman civic life. It simply did not have time to acclimatize to being a legitimate faith before it became the religion of the imperial establishment.