The Roman Pontifex Maximus

II. The Pontifical Power

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

The official residence of the Roman Pontifex Maximus was the Regia,1 situated on the Sacra Via of the city of Rome, which was sup­posed to be the place of domicile of the ancient kings. In very early times it was not customary for the supreme pontiff to travel beyond the con­fines of Italy, but later the custom was disre­garded.2 He wore "the purple-bordered robe" which distinguished the great men of state3 and on his head he carried a conic cap, or miter, with an apex.

The pontifical books4 consisted of annals, records, commentaries, and the like, which re­ferred to matters of religion, law, history, astronomy, philosophy, calamities, and many other things. Pontifical law dealt not only with religious ceremonies and the priesthood, but was extended to the calendar, the festivals, the adoption of children, wills, funerals, and almost everything that might border on religion.

"All prescribed and liturgical ceremonies de­pended upon the pontificate," said Cicero.' He also remarked:

"Pontifical pronouncements are of such a nature that the powers of their College are as great as those of our juries."

"The office of pontifex maximus, or chief priest, was to declare and interpret the divine law, or, rather to preside over sacred rites. He not only prescribed rules for public ceremony, but regulated the sacrifices of private persons, not suffering them to vary from established custom, and giving informa­tion to everyone of what was requisite for purposes of worship or supplication. He was also guardian of the vestal virgins, the institution of whom, and of their perpetual fire, was attributed to Numa."'

"The last branch of ordinances of Numa related to those who held the highest priesthood and the greatest power among the Romans. These, from one of the duties they perform, namely, the repairing of the wooden bridge, are in their own language called pontifices; but they have jurisdiction over the most weighty matters.

"For they are the judges in all religious causes wherein private citizens, magistrates, or the ministers of the gods are concerned. They make laws for the observance of any religious rites, not established by written law or by custom, which may seem to them worthy of receiving the sanction of law and custom ; they inquire into the conduct of all magistrates to whom the performance of any sacrifice or other re­ligious duty is committed, and also into that of all the priests; they take care that their servants and min­isters whom they employ in religious rites commit no error in the matter of the sacred laws; to the laymen who are unacquainted with such matters, they are the expounders and interpreters of everything relat­ing to the worship of the gods and genii ; and if they find that any disobey their orders, they inflict pun­ishment upon them with due regard to every offense; moreover, they are not liable to any prosecution or punishment, nor are they accountable to the Senate or to the people, at least concerning religious matters.

"Hence, if anyone wishes to call them hierodidas­kaloi [teachers of religion] hieronomoi [lawgivers of religion], hierophylakes [guardians of religion], or, as I think proper, hieroPhantai [interpreters of religion], he will not be in error. When one of them dies, another is appointed, being chosen, not by the People, but by the pontifices themselves, who select the person they think best qualified among their fel­low citizens; and one thus approved of receives the priesthood, provided the omens are favorable to him."'

The original body of pontifical law is said to have been formed by Numa, and it is inter­esting to note that the regulation of all re­ligious festivals and holy days pertained to the pontiffs.

"He [Numa] next chose as pontifex, Numa Mar­cius, son of Marcus, one of the senators, and to him he entrusted written directions, full and accurate, for performing the rites of worship; with what victims, on what days, in what temple, sacrifices should be offered, and from what sources money was to be disbursed to pay their costs. All other public and private sacrifices he likewise made subject to the decrees of the pontifex, that there might be someone to whom the commons could come for advice, lest any confusion should arise through neglect of an­cestral rites and the adoption of strange ones. And not merely ceremonies relating to the gods above, but also proper funeral observances and the propitia­tion of the spirits of the dead, were to be taught by the pontifex as well, and also what prodigies manifested by lightning or other visible sign were to be taken in hand and averted."

Private or family holidays in commemoration of deceased members of the household were all subject to pontifical law." We are also told:

"The Romans of old, who were not only exceed­ingly scrupulous and careful in discharging all other obligations of life, but also in fulfilling religious duties and venerating the immortal gods, whenever they felt an earthquake or received report of one, decreed a holy day on that account, but forebore to declare and specify in the decree, as is commonly done, the name of the god in whose honor the holy day was to be observed; for fear that by naming one god instead of another they might involve the people in a false observance. If anyone had desecrated that festival, and expiation was therefore necessary, they used to offer a victim 'to either the god or goddess,' and Marcus Varro tells us that this usage was established by a decree of the pontiffs, since it was uncertain what force, and which of the gods or goddesses had caused the earthquake.'

An interesting example of this is seen in the case of the emperor Claudius.

"He scrupulously observed the custom of having the praetor call an assembly and proclaim a holiday whenever there was an earthquake within the city, as well as that of offering up a supplication whenever a bird of ill omen was seen on the Capitol. This last he himself conducted in his capacity of chief priest, first reciting the form of words to the people of the rostra, after all mechanics and slaves had been ordered to withdraw." "

In like manner utter disregard could be shown by him for a day long considered sacred. Here is the way the emperor Vitellius began his career of pontifex maximus : "Then showing greater and greater disregard for the laws of God and men, he assumed the office of high priest on the day of Allia," held elections for ten years to come, and made himself consul for life." "


1 Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars" (Julius Caesar).

2 "Plutarch, "Lives" (Fabius Maximus, 24) ; LivY, "Roman History," bk. 28, ch. 38; Plutarch, "Lives" (Tiberius and Cahn Gracchus, as).

3 Livy, "History of Rome," bk. 33, ch. 42.

On the pontifical books, etc., see the works of Livy, Plutarch, Suetonius, Cicero, Aulus Gellius, Macrobius, Victor Aurelius, Dionysius of Halicarnas­sus, Pliny the Elder, Valerius Maximus. (The ref­erences are too many to give here.)

5 Cicero, "On the Answer of the Haruspices," chs. 7 and 9.

6 See note 5.

7 Plutarch, "Lives" (Numa). (Modern Library, New York.)

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, "Roman Antiquities," bk. 2, ch. 73. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1937.)

Livy, "History of Rome," bk. 1, ch. 30. (Put­nams, New York, 1925.)

10 Plutarch, "Lives" (Numa); Cicero, "Laws," bk. 2, ch. 23.

11 Aulus Gellius, "Attic Nights," bk. 2, ch. 28. (Putnams, New York, 1927.)

12 Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars" (Claudius), (Modern Library, New York.)

13 The day on which the Romans suffered a very disastrous defeat by the Gauls in 389 a. c. It was ever after regarded as religiously unlucky.

14 Suetonius, "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars" (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius).

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

February 1943

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