The Roman Pontifex Maximus

I. Pontifical History in Brief

By ROBERT LEO ODOM, Editor, El Centinela, Mountain View, California

The intrinsic value of this series of six fully docu­mented articles is apparent from the titles of the re­maining five articles: (a) The Pontifical Power, (3) The Regulation of Holy Days, (4) The Controller of the Calendar, (5)The Head of National Sun-Wor­ship, and (6) His Prerogatives Transferred. Every worker and theological student should preserve this series for dependable reference. It provides what we have long needed.—Editor.

One of the official titles of the bishop of Rome is that of Pontifex Maximus, for which reason he is often spoken of as the "Roman Pontiff." The apologists for the Roman Catholic Church do not presume to claim that the apostle Peter handed down this designation and office to the head of the papal hierarchy. It is a legacy which has come down to the pope from the pagan priesthood of ancient Rome. Its story furnishes many im­portant legal precedents, both civil and religious, for the work of him wbo would "think to change times and laws."

In the remote period of the Roman monarchy, which ended in 509 B. c., the religious as well as the civil affairs of the Roman people were regulated by absolute monarchs who were priest-kings. The unanimous opinion of the classical authorities is that Numa Pompilius," who reigned from 715 to 672 B. c., was the one who established the pontifical office for the ad­ministration of the religious life of the Roman people. He appointed four special priests ' to help him in the regulation of the religious activities of the nation, and these ministers were as much officers of the state as were those per­sons who shared with the king the overseeing of strictly civil affairs.

Thus Numa and his four special priest-min­isters constituted the original Pontifical College of Rome,' and the king himself was its head or Supreme Pontiff.'

For more than a thousand years the pontiffs wielded a powerful influence over the political, social, and religious life of the Romans. It was so great that some of their learned men affirmed that "they have the name of Pontifices from potens, powerful, because they attend the service of the gods, who have power to command over all." " The scholarly Varro remarked:

"The pontifices, 'high priests,' Quintus Scaevola the Pontifex Maximus said, were named from posse, 'to be able,' and facere, 'to do,' as though potentnices.

For my part I think that the name comes from p017,S, 'bridge ;' for by them the Bridge-on-Piles' was made in the first place, and it was likewise repeatedly re­paired by them, since in that connection rites are per­formed on both sides of the Tiber with no small cer­emony.'

The majority of authorities agree with Varro in deriving the name from pans [bridge] and facere [to make], and that it literally means "bridge-builder."

During the period of the Roman Republic, from 509 to 27 B. c., when the supreme control of civil affairs was in the hands of more than one man, the head of the Pontifical College continued supreme in religious matters, the Pontifex Maximus being regarded as the spir­itual successor of the kings. Although the re­quisites for, and the mode of election to, the pontifical office varied from time to time,' the dignity was conferred for life.' The Supreme Pontiff was often the most powerful political figure in the republican regime, for at times he held high civil and military offices" in addition to that of chief priest. Too, he often shared in the political intrigues, wars, and crimes " of that age, and sometimes his conduct was char­acterized by indulgence in the worst kind of vice and the most extravagant sort of luxury.'

In the days of the collapse of the Roman Republic, Julius Csar, who was already a member of the Pontifical College, was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 B. c." During the political dissension that followed Csar's death, which occurred in 44 B. C., Lepidus was Su­preme Pontiff." He died in 12 B. c., and Octa­vius Augustus, who had been made emperor in 27 B. c., was elected Pontifex Maximus, and the election was confirmed by a plebiscite vote." From that time forward through the period of the Roman Empire, the emperors assumed the office of Supreme Pontiff along with the civil power." Thus the absolute control of both civil and religious affairs was again vested in the person of one man. In cases where the civil power was shared with another, the regime was still despotic. The Historian Dio Cassius said:

"By virtue of being consecrated in all the priest-hoods and of the right to bestow most of these po­sitions upon others, as well as the fact that, even if two or three persons hold the imperial office at the same time, one of them is high priest,"' they hold in their own hands supreme authority over all matters both sacred and profane."

In several instances the emperor-pontiffs were declared to be divine, and the worship of them was placed under the direction of a special priesthood. The peoples of the empire were ordered to worship the imperial Pontifex Maxi­mus as a god, and his images were set up for that purpose throughout the nations. This re­sulted in great suffering to the Jews and Chris­tians, who were consequently persecuted by the pagan civil and religious authorities. The historical and biographical sketches of those emperor-pontiffs, as compiled by such pagan writers as Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch, and others, often present them as monsters of cruelty and vice to a degree that sickens the imagination. The fact that the Roman emperor was at the same time the Pontifex Maximus, the supreme legal supervisor of the religious activities of the people, explains to a large extent the attitude of the pagan state toward Christianity in the early centuries.

Footnotes and Bibliography

1 Plutarch, "Lives of the Noble Grecians and Ro­mans" (Numa); Cicero, "The Republic," bk. 2, ch. 14; "On Oratory," bk. 3, ch. 19; Livy, "History of Rome," bk. s, ch. zo ; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, "Roman Antiquities," bk. 2, ch. 73; Florus, "Epi­tome of Roman History," bk. s, ch. 2; Tacitus, "Annals," bk. 3, ch. 26.

2 In 300 B. c., the Ogulni brothers secured the pas­sage of a law authorizing that four additional pon­tiffs, to be selected from among the plebeians, should be added to the Pontifical College, which made a total of eight ordinary members. Sulla, Julius Cx­sar, and Augustus increased the number still more. See Livy, "History of Rome," bk. so, chs. 6 and 9; "Epitome of Roman History," ,c12. 89; Dio Cassius, "Roman History," bk. 42, ch. 5s ; bk 43, ch. 5s ; Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Csars" (Oc­tavius Augustus).

3 Cicero affirms that in the days of Numa there were "five pontiffs in charge of the religious rites." ("The Republic," bk. 2, ch. s4.) Since Livy mentions that there were four pontiffs in the Pontifical Col­lege until the enactment of the Lex Ogulnia of 300 B. C., it is believed that he referred only to the ordi­nary members, and that Cicero, in speaking of them as five, included Numa himself. See "The Cambridge Ancient History," Vol. VII, p. 427.

4 Not only did Numa exercise the powers and office of Pontifex Maximus in instituting and directing the work of the pontiffs, but "he himself was, it is said, the first of them."-Plutarch, "Lives" (Name). Livy states that "he Numal performed very many priestly duties himself, especially those which now belong to the Flamen Dialis."-"History of Rome," bk. r, ch. 20.

5 Plutarch, "Lives" (Numa), revised Dryden trans­lation, p. Si. (The Modern Library, New York City.) 'The celebrated Roman bridge known as the Pons Sublicius, which, spanning the Tiber, connected the city of Rome with Mount Janiculum.

6 Varro, "On the Latin Language," bk. 5, ch. 83 (in the Loeb Classical Library).

7 Some authors attribute the building of the Pons Sublicius to Ancus Marcius (grandson of Numa), who reigned from 640 to 616 B. c. See Livy, "His­tory of Rome," bk. I, ch. 33; and Dionysius of Hali­carnassus, "Roman Antiquities," bk. 2, ch. 45. Oth­ers, however, declared that it "was finished by Ancus Marcius."-Plutarch, "Lives" (Numa).

8 See Livy, "History of Rome," bk. 20, chs. 6 and 9 ; bk. 25, ch. 5 ; bk. 40, ch. 42; bk. 43, ch, /2 ; Plu­tarch, "Lives" (Casar, 7, 42; Anthony, 33; Appian "The Civil Wars," bk. 2, ch. 10; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, "Roman Antiquities," bk. 2, ch. 73; Dio Cassius, "Roman History" bk. 42, ch. 51; bk. 43, ch. 51 ' • Tacitus, "Annals," bk. 4, ch. 16; Livy, "Epi­tome of Roman History," eh, 18; Cicero, "On Friend­ship," ch. 25; "On the Agrarian Law," bk. 2, ch. 7; 'Epistles to Brutus," bk. 1, Nos. 5, 14; Velleius Paterculus, "Compendium of Roman History," bk. 2, ch. 12; Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Cesars" (Nero).

10 "See Appian, "The Civil Wars," bk. 5, ch. 13; Dia Cassius, "Roman History," bk. 49, ch. 15; bk. 54, ch. Is ; Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve C­sars" (Octavius Augustus) ; Csar Augustus, ''Au­tobiography."

11 See Livy, "Epitome of Roman History," ch. 89; Plutarch, "Lives" (Caius Maximus, 24) ; Cicero, "On Oratory," bk. 3, eh. 33; "Philippics, bk. /2, ch. 4; Livy, "History of Rome," bk. 28, ch. 38. Julius Csar's political career had hardly begun when he was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 B. C.

12 See Livy, "History of Rome," bk. 3, ch. 54; bk. 9, ch. 46; bk. 28, ch. 38; bk. 37, els, 51; bk. 40, ch. 42; Plutarch, "Lives" (Tiberius and Cains Gracchus, 9, 21); Appian, "The Civil Wars," bk. 1, chs. 2 and so; Aulus Gellius, "Attic Nights," bk. 7, ch. 9. Ju­lius Csar is a notorious example in this respect.

13 See Macrobius, "Saturnalia," bk. 2, ch. 9; Hor­ace, "Odes," bk. 2, no. 14. The cruelty and vice of the Pontifex Maximus in the period of the empire ran to great excesses.

14 See Velleius Paterculus, "Compendium of Ro­man History," bk. 2, ch. 43; Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Csars" (Anthony, 33; Julius Csar) Plutarch, "Lives" (Julius Casar) ; Dio Cassius, "Ro­man History," bk. 37, ch. 37.

15 See Dio Cassius, "Roman History," bk. 44, ch. 53; Appian, "The Civil Wars," bk. 2, ch. i8; Cicero, "Philippics," bk. I2, ch. 4.

16 See Appian, "The Civil Wars," bk. 5, ch. 13; Dio Cassius, "Roman History," bk. 49, ch. 15; bk. 54, chs. 15 and 27; Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars" (Octavius Augustus); Velleius Pa­terculus, "Compendium of Roman History," bk. 2, ch. 49; Caesar Augustus, "Autobiography.'

17 See Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve C­sars" (Claudius); Valerius Maximus, "On Mem­orable Sayings and Deeds," ch. i ("On Religion"), par. 12; Aelius Lampridus (in Scriptores Historiae Augustce), "Severus Alexander," ch. 8; Julius Cap­itolinus (in Scrip. Hist. Aug.), "Maximus and Bal­binus," ch. 8. Inscriptions and coins referring to emperors as Supreme Pontiff are too numerous to list here.

18 Not long after Dio Cassius wrote this, there oc­curred the interesting case of joint emperors: Maxi-minus and Balbinus (in 238 A. o.), holding in com­mon the office of Pontifex Maximus. See Julius Capitolinus in ref. No. 17, above.

19 Dio Cassius, "Roman History," bk. 53, ch. 17. (Putnams, New York: 1916.)

20 A good example in the case of the Jews is seen in Josephus, "Antiquities," bk. 18, ch. 8, sec. 1-9; bk. 20, eh. a, sec. a; ch. 5, sec, 2 and 3 ; ch. 6, sec. 3; Philo, "On the Legation to Caius," and "On Else­cus :" Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Cazsars" (Caius Caligula).

21 In the "Epistles" (bk. so, epist. No. 96) of Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia twice states that at the trial of those accused of being Christians, the worship of Trajan's image, with incense and wine, was a test applied to them.

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By ROBERT LEO ODOM, Editor, El Centinela, Mountain View, California

January 1943

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