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 p939  Pontifex

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp939‑942 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PO′NTIFEX (ἱεροδιδάσκαλος, ἱερονόμος, ἱεροφύλαξ, ἱεροφάντης). The origin of this word is explained in various ways. Q. Scaevola, who was himself pontifex maximus, derived it from posse and facere, and Varro from pons, because the pontiffs, he says, had built the Pons Sublicius, and afterwards frequently restored it, that it might be  p940 possible to perform sacrifices on each side of the Tiber (Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.83, ed. Müller; Dionys. II.73). This statement is, however, contradicted by the tradition which ascribes the building of the Pons Sublicius to Ancus Martius (Liv. I.33), at a time when the pontiffs had long existed and borne this name. Göttling (Gesch. d. Röm. Staatsv. p173) thinks that pontifex is only another form for pompifex, which would characterise the pontiffs only as the managers and conductors of public processions and solemnities. But it seems far more probable that the word is formed from pons and facere (in the signification of the Greek ῥέζειν, to perform a sacrifice), and that consequently it signifies the priests who offered sacrifices upon the bridge. The ancient sacrifice to which the name thus alludes, is that of the Argeans on the sacred or Sublician bridge, which is described by Dionysius (I.38; compare Argei). Greek writers, moreover, sometimes translate the word pontiffs by γεφυροποιοί.

The Roman pontiffs formed the most illustrious among the great colleges of priests. Their institution, like that of all important matters of religion, was ascribed to Numa (Liv. I.20; Dionys. II.73). The number of pontiffs appointed by this king was four (Liv. X.6), and at their head was the pontifex maximus, who is generally not included when the number of pontiffs is mentioned. Cicero (de Re Publ. II.14), however, includes the pontifex maximus when he says that Numa appointed five pontiffs. Niebuhr (Hist. of Rome, I. p302, &c.; compare III. p410; Liv. X.6; Cic. de Re Publ. II.9) supposes with great probability, that the original number of four pontiffs (not including the pontifex maximus) had reference to the two earliest tribes of the Romans, the Ramnes and Tities, so that each tribe was represented by two pontiffs. In the year B.C. 300, the Ogulnian law raised the number of pontiffs to eight, or, including the pontifex maximus, to nine, and four of them were to be plebeians (Liv. X.6). The pontifex maximus, however, continued to be a patrician down to the year B.C. 254, when Tib. Coruncanius was the first plebeian who was invested with this dignity (Liv. Epit. 18). This number of pontiffs remained for a long time unaltered, until in 81 B.C. the dictator Sulla increased it to fifteen (Liv. Epit. 89), and J. Caesar to sixteen (Dion Cass. XLII.51). In both these changes the pontifex maximus is included in the number. During the empire the number varied, though on the whole fifteen appears to have been the regular number.

The mode of appointing the pontiffs was also different at different times. It appears that after their institution by Numa, the college had the right of co-optation, that is, if a member of the college died (for all the pontiffs held their office for life), the members met and elected a successor, who after his election was inaugurated by the augurs (Dionys. II.22, 73). This election was sometimes called captio (Gellius, I.12). In the year 212 B.C. Livy (XXV.5) speaks of the election of a pontifex maximus in the comitia (probably the comitia tributa) as the ordinary mode of appointing this high-priest. But in relating the events of the year 181 B.C. he again states that the appointment of the chief pontiff took place by the co-optation of the college (Liv. XL.42). How these anomalies arose (unless Livy expresses himself carelessly) is uncertain (see Göttling, l.c. p375); for, as far as we know, the first attempt to deprive the college of its right of co-optation, and to transfer the power of election to the people, was not made until the year B.C. 145, by the tribune C. Licinius Crassus; but it was frustrated by the praetor C. Laelius (Cic. de Am. 25, Brut. 21, de Nat. Deor. III.2). In 104 B.C. the attempt was successfully repeated by the tribune Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus: and a law (Lex Domitia) was then passed, which transferred the right of electing the members of the great colleges of priests to the people (probably in the comitia tributa); that is, the people elected a candidate, who was then made a member of the college by the co-optatio of the priests themselves, so that the co-optatio, although still necessary, became a mere matter of form (Cic. de Leg. Agr. II.7, Epist. ad Brut. I.5; Vell. Pat. II.12; (Sueton. Nero, 2). The lex Domitia was repealed by Sulla in a lex Cornelia de Sacerdotiis (81 B.C.), which restored to the great priestly colleges their full right of co-optatio (Liv. Epit. 89; Pseudo-Ascon. in Divinat. p102, ed. Orelli; Dion Cass. XXXVII.37). In the year 63 B.C. the law of Sulla was abolished, but not in its full extent; for it was now determined, that in case of a vacancy the college itself should nominate two candidates, and the people elect one of them. This mode of proceeding is expressly mentioned in regard to the appointment of augurs, and was, no doubt, the same in that of the pontiffs (Cic. Philip. II.2). Julius Caesar did not alter this modified lex Domitia, but M. Antonius again restored the right of co-optatio to the college (Dion Cass. XLIV.53).

The college of pontiffs had the supreme superintendence of all matters of religion, and of things and persons connected with public as well as private worship. A general outline of their rights and functions is given by Livy (Liv. I.20) and Dionysius (II.73). This power is said to have been given to them by Numa; and he also entrusted to their keeping the books containing the ritual ordinances, together with the obligation to give information to any one who might consult them on matters of religion. They had to guard against any irregularity in the observance of religious rites that might arise from a neglect of the ancient customs, or from the introduction of foreign rites. They had not only to determine in what manner the heavenly gods should be worshipped, but also the proper form of burials, and how the souls of the departed (manes) were to be appeased; in like manner what signs either in lightning or other phenomena were to be received and attended to. They had the judicial decision in all matters of religion, whether private persons, magistrates, or priests were concerned, and in cases where the existing laws or customs were found defective or insufficient, they made new laws and regulations (decreta pontificum) in which they always followed their own judgment as to what was consistent with the existing customs and usages (Gell. II.28, X.15). They watched over the conduct of all persons who had anything to do with the sacrifices or the worship of the gods, that is, over all the priests and their servants. The forms of worship and of sacrificing were determined by the pontiffs, and whoever refused to obey their injunctions was punished by them, for they were "rerum quae ad sacra et religiones pertinent, judices et vindices" (Fest., s.v. Maximus pontifex; compare  p941 Cic. de Leg. II.8, 12). The pontiffs themselves were not subject to any court of law or punishment, and were not responsible either to the senate or to the people. The details of these duties and functions were contained in books called libri pontificii or pontificales, commentarii sacrorum or sacrorum pontificalium (Fest. s.v. Aliuta and Occisum), which they were said to have received from Numa, and which were sanctioned by Ancus Martius. This king is said to have made public that part of these regulations which had reference to the sacra publica (Liv. I.32); and when at the commencement of the republic the wooden tables on which these published regulations were written had fallen into decay, they were restored by the pontifex maximus C. Papirius (Dionys. III.36). One part of these libri pontificales was called Indigitamenta, and contained the names of the gods as well as the manner in which these names were to be used in public worship (Serv. ad Virg. Georg. I.21). A second part must have contained the formulas of the jus pontificium (Cic. de Re Publ. II.31). The original laws and regulations contained in these books were in the course of time increased and more accurately defined by the decrees of the pontiffs, whence perhaps their name commentarii (Plin. H. N. XVIII.3; Liv. IV.3; Cic. Brut. 14). Another tradition concerning these books stated that Numa communicated to the pontiffs their duties and rights merely by word of mouth, and that he had buried the books in a stone chest on the Janiculum (Plut. Num. 22; Plin. H. N. XIII.27; Val. Max. I.1.12; August. de Civit. Dei, VII.34). These books were found in 181 B.C., and one half of them contained ritual regulations and the jus pontificum, and the other half philosophical inquiries on the same subjects, and were written in the Greek language. The books were brought to the praetor urbanus Q. Petilius, and the senate ordered the latter half to be burnt, while the former was carefully preserved. Respecting the nature and authenticity of the story, see Hartung, Die Relig. d. Röm. I. p214. The annales maximi were records of the events of each year kept by the pontifex maximus, from the commencement of the state to the time of the pontifex maximus, P. Mucius Scaevola, B.C. 133.

As to the rights and duties of the pontiffs, it must first of all be borne in mind that the pontiffs were not priests of any particular divinity, but a college which stood above all other priests, and superintended the whole external worship of the gods (Cic. de Leg. II.8). One of their principal duties was the regulation of the sacra both publica and privata, and to watch that they were observed at the proper times (for which purpose the pontiffs originally had the whole regulation of the calendar, see Calendarium, p230, &c.), and in their proper form. In the management of the sacra publica they were in later times assisted in certain performances by the triumviri epulones [Epulones], and had in their keeping the funds from which the expences of the sacra publica were defrayed. [Sacra.]

The pontiffs convoked the assembly of the curies (comitia calata or curiata) in cases where priests were to be appointed, and flamines or a rex sacrorum were to be inaugurated; also when wills were to be received, and when a detestatio sacrorum and adoption by adrogatio took place (Gell. V.19, XV.27; Adoptio). Whether the presence of the pontiffs together with that of the augurs and two flamines was necessary in the comitia curiata also in cases when other matters were transacted, as Niebuhr thinks (I. p342, II. p223), does not appear to be quite certain. The curious circumstance that on one occasion the pontifex maximus was commanded by the senate to preside at the election of tribunes of the people, is explained by Niebuhr (II. p359, &c.).

As regards the jurisdiction of the pontiffs, magistrates and priests as well as private individuals were bound to submit to their sentence, provided it had the sanction of three members of the college (Cic. de Harusp. Resp. 6). In most cases the sentence of the pontiffs only inflicted a fine upon the offenders ( Cic. Philip. XI.8; Liv. XXXVII.51, XL.42), but the person fined had a right to appeal to the people, who might release him from the fine. In regard to the Vestal virgins and the persons who committed incest with them, the pontiffs had criminal jurisdiction and might pronounce the sentence of death (Dionys. IX.40; Liv. XXII.57; Fest. s.v. Probrum). A man who had violated a Vestal virgin was according to an ancient law scourged to death by the pontifex maximus in the comitium, and it appears that originally neither the Vestal virgins nor the male offenders in such a case had any right of appeal. Göttling (p185) considers that they had the right of appeal, but the passage of Cicero (de Re Publ. II.31) to which he refers, does not support his opinion. Incest in general belonged to the jurisdiction of the pontiffs, and might be punished with death (Cic. de Leg. II.9).º In later times we find that even in the case of the pontiffs having passed sentence upon Vestal virgins, a tribune interfered and induced the people to appoint a quaestor for the purpose of making a fresh inquiry into the case; and it sometimes happened that after this new trial the sentence of the pontiffs was modified or annulled (Ascon. ad Milon. p46, ed. Orelli). Such cases, however, seem to have been mere irregularities founded upon an abuse of the tribunitian power. In the early times the pontiffs were in the exclusive possession of the civil as well as religious law, until the former was made public by C. Flavius. [Actio.] The regulations which served as a guide to the pontiffs in their judicial proceedings, formed a large collection of laws, which was called the jus pontificium, and formed part of the libri pontificii (Cic. de Orat. I.43, III.33, pro Domo, 13; compare Jus, pp656, 657). The new decrees which the pontiffs made either on the proposal of the senate, or in cases belonging to the sacra privata, or that of private individuals, were, as Livy (XXXIX.16) says, innumerable (compare Cic. de Leg. II.23; Macrob. Sat. III.3; Dionys. II.73).

The meetings of the college of pontiffs, to which in some instances the flamines and the rex sacrorum were summoned (Cic. de Harusp. Resp. 6), were held in the curia regia on the Via Sacra, to which was attached the residence of the pontifex maximus and of the rex sacrorum (Suet. Caes. 46; Serv. ad Aen. VIII.363; Plin. Epist. IV.11). As the chief pontiff was obliged to live in a domus publica, Augustus, when he assumed this dignity, changed part of his own house into a domus publica (Dion Cass. LIV.27). All the pontiffs were in their appearance distinguished by the conic cap  p942 called tutulus or galerus, with an apex upon it, and the toga praetexta.

The pontifex maximus was the president of the college and acted in its name, whence he alone is frequently mentioned in cases in which he must be considered only as the organ of the college. He was generally chosen from among the most distinguished persons, and such as had held a curule magistracy, or were already members of the college (Liv. XXXV.5, XL.42). Two of his especial duties were to appoint (capere the Vestal virgins and the flamines [Vestales; Flamen], and to be present at every marriage by confarreatio. When festive games were vowed or a dedication made, the chief pontiff had to repeat over the persons who made the vow or the dedication, the formula with which it was to be performed (praeire verba, Liv. V.40, IX.46, IV.27). During the period of the republic, when the people exercised sovereign power in every respect, we find that if the pontiff on constitutional or religious grounds refused to perform this solemnity, he might be compelled by the people.

pontifex might, like all the members of the great priestly colleges, hold any other military, civil or priestly office, provided the different offices did not interfere with one another. Thus we find one and the same person being pontiff, augur, and decemvir sacrorum (Liv. XL.42); instances of a pontifex maximus being at the same time consul, are very numerous (XXVIII.38; Cic. de Harusp. Resp. 6; compare Ambrosch, Studien und Andeutungen, p229, note 105). But whatever might be the civil or military office which a pontifex maximus held beside his pontificate, he was not allowed to leave Italy. The first who violated this law was P. Licinius Crassus, in B.C. 131 (Liv. Epit. 59; Val. Max. VIII.7.6; Oros. V.10);​a but after this precedent, pontiffs seem to have frequently transgressed the law, and Caesar, though pontifex maximus, went to his province of Gaul.

The college of pontiffs continued to exist until the overthrow of paganism (Arnob. IV.35; Symmach. Epit. IX.128, 129); but its power and influence were considerably weakened as the emperors, according to the example of Caesar, had the right to appoint as many members of the great colleges of priests as they pleased (Dion Cass. XLII.51, XLIII.51, LI.20, LIII.17; Suet. Caes. 31). In addition to this, the emperors themselves were always chief pontiffs, and as such the presidents of the college; hence the title of pontifex maximus (P. M. or PON. M.) appears on several coins of the emperors. If there were several emperors at a time, only one bore the title of pontifex maximus; but in the year A.D. 238, we find that each of the two emperors Maximus and Balbinus assumed this dignity (Capitol. Maxim. et Balb. 8). The last traces of emperors being at the same time chief pontiffs are found in inscriptions of Valentinian, Valens, and Gratianus (Orelli, Inscript. n1117, 1118). From the time of Theodosius the emperors no longer appear in the dignity of pontiff; but at last the title was assumed by the Christian bishop of Rome.

There were other pontiffs at Rome who were distinguished by the epithet minores. Various opinions have been entertained as to what these pontifices minores were. Niebuhr (I. p302 n775) thinks that they were originally the pontiffs of the Luceres; that they stood in the same relation to the other pontiffs as the patres minorum gentium to the patres majorum gentium; and that subsequently, when the meaning of the name was forgotten, it was applied to the secretaries of the great college of pontiffs. In another passage (III. p411) Niebuhr himself demonstrates that Luceres were never represented in the college of pontiffs, and his earlier supposition is contradicted by all the statements of ancient writers who mention the pontifices minores. Livy (XXII.57; compare Jul. Capitol. Opil. Macrin. 7), in speaking of the secretaries of the college of pontiffs, adds, "quos nunc minores pontifices appellant;" from which it is evident that the name pontifices minores was of later introduction, and that it was given to persons who originally had no claims to it, that is, to the secretaries of the pontiffs. The only natural solution of the question seems to be this. At the time when the real pontiffs began to neglect their duties, and to leave the principal business to be done by their secretaries, it became customary to designate these scribes by the name of pontifices minores. Macrobius (Sat. I.15), in speaking of minor pontiffs previous to the time of Cn. Flavius, makes an anachronism, as he transfers a name customary in his own days to a time when it could not possibly exist. The number of these secretaries is uncertain; Cicero (de Harusp. Resp. 6) mentions the name of three minor pontiffs. The name cannot have been used long before the end of the republic, when even chief pontiffs began to show a disregard for their sacred duties, as in the case of P. Licinius Crassus and Julius Caesar. Another proof of their falling off in comparison with former days, is that about the same time the good and luxurious living of the pontiffs became proverbial at Rome (Horat. Carm. II.14.26, &c.; Mart. XII.48.12; Macrob. Sat. II.9).

Thayer's Note:

a Plutarch (Tib. Grac. 21.3) reports explicitly that the pontifex maximus Publius Nasica left Italy, permanently, in 133 B.C.

For a much simpler summary of the Pontifex Maximus, see this good page at Livius.Org.

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