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p996 Sacerdos

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D, F.R.S.E, Rector of the High School of Edinburgh,
on pp996‑998 of

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

SACERDOS, SACERDO′TIUM. Cicero (de Leg. II.8) distinguishes two kinds of sacerdotes; those who had the superintendence of the forms of worship (caerimoniae) and of the sacra, and those who interpreted signs and what was uttered by seers and prophets. Another division is that into priests who were not devoted to the service of any particular deity, such as the pontiffs, augurs, fetiales, and those who were connected with the worship of particular divinities, such as the flamines. The priests of the ancient world did not consist of men alone, for in Greece as well as at Rome certain deities were attended only by priestesses. At Rome the wives of particular priests were regarded as priestesses, and had to perform certain sacred functions, as the regina sacrorum and the flaminica. [Flamen; Rex Sacrorum]. In other cases maidens were appointed priestesses, p997as the Vestal virgins, or boys, with regard to whom it was always requisite that their fathers and mothers should be alive (patrimi et matrimi). As all the different kinds of priests are treated of separately in this work, it is only necessary here to make some general remarks.

In comparison with the civil magistrates all priests at Rome were regarded as homines privati ( Cic. c. Catil. I.1, de Off. I.22, ad Att. IV.2, Philip. V.17), though all of them as priests were sacerdotes publici, in as far as their office (sacerdotium) was connected with any worship recognised by the state. The appellation of sacerdos publicus was however given principally to the chief-pontiff and the flamen dialis (Cic. de Leg. II.9; Serv. ad Aen. XII.534), who were at the same time the only priests who were members of the senate by virtue of their office. All priestly offices or sacerdotia were held for life without responsibility to any civil magistrate. A priest was generally allowed to hold any other civil or military office besides his priestly dignity (Liv. XXXVIII.47, XXXIX.45; Epit. 19, XL.45, Epit. 59, &c.); some priests however formed an exception, for the duumviri, the rex sacrorum and the flamen dialis were not allowed to hold any state office, and were also exempt from service in the armies (Dionys. IV.8). Their priestly character was, generally speaking, inseparable from their person, as long as they lived (Plin. Epist. IV.8): hence the augurs and fratres arvales retained their character even when sent into exile, or when they were taken prisoners (Plin. H. N. XVIII.2; Plut. Quaest. Rom. 99). It also occurs that one and the same person held two or three priestly offices at a time. Thus we find the three dignities of pontifex maximus, augur, and decemvir sacrorum united in one individual (Liv. XL.42). But two persons belonging to the same gens were not allowed to be members of the same college of priests. This regulation however was in later times often violated or evaded by adoptions (Serv. Ad Aen. VII.303; Dion Cass. XXXIX.17). Bodily defects rendered, at Rome as among all ancient nations, a person unfit for holding any priestly office (Dionys. II.21; Senec. Controv. IV.2; Plut. Quaest. Rom. 73; Plin. H. N. VII.29).

All priests were originally patricians, but from the year B.C. 367 the plebeians also began to take part in the sacerdotia [Plebes, p927], and those priestly offices which down to the latest times remained in the hands of the patricians alone, such as that of the rex sacrorum, the flamines, salii and others, had no influence upon the affairs of the state.

As regards the appointment of priests, the ancients unanimously state that at first they were appointed by the kings (Dionys. II.21, etc., 73; Liv. I.20), but after the sacerdotia were once instituted, each college of priests — for nearly all points constituted certain corporations called collegia — had the right of filling up the occurring vacancies by cooptatio [Pontifex, p940]. Other priests, on the contrary, such as the Vestal virgins and the flamines, were appointed (capiebantur) by the pontifex maximus, a rule which appears to have been observed down to the latest times; others again, such as the duumviri sacrorum, were elected by the people (Dionys. IV.62), or by the curiae, as the curiones. But in whatever manner they were appointed, all priests after their appointment required to be inaugurated by the pontiffs and the augurs, or by the latter alone (Dionys. II.22). Those priests who formed colleges had originally, as we have already observed, the right of cooptatio; but in the course of time they were deprived of this right, or at least the cooptatio was reduced to a mere form, by several leges, called leges de sacerdotiis, such as the lex Domitia, Cornelia, and Julia; their nature is described in the article Pontifex, p940, &c., and what is there said in regard to the appointment of pontiffs applies equally to all the other colleges. The leges annales, which fixed the age at which persons became eligible to the different magistracies, had no reference to priestly offices; and on the whole it seems that the pubertas was regarded as the time after which a person might be appointed to a sacerdotium (Liv. XLII.28; Plut. Tib. Gracch. 4).

All priests had some external distinction, as the apex, tutulus, or galerus, the toga praetexta, as well as honorary seats in the theatres, circuses and amphitheatres. They appear however to have been obliged to pay taxes like all other citizens, but seem occasionally to have tried to obtain exemption. See the case related in Livy, XXXIII.42.

Two interesting questions yet remain to be answered: first whether the priests at Rome were paid for their services, and secondly whether they instructed the young, or the people in general, in the principles of their religion. As regards the first question, we read that in the time of Romulus lands were assigned to each temple and college of priests (Dionys. II.7), and when Festus (s.v. Oscum) states that the Roman augurs had the enjoyment (frui solebant) of a district in the territory of Veii, we may infer that all points had the usus of the sacred lands belonging to their respective colleges or divinities. This supposition is strengthened by the fact that such was actually the case in the Roman colonies, where, besides the lots assigned to the coloni, pieces of land are mentioned which belonged to the colleges of priests, who made use of them by letting them out to farm (Siculus Flaccus, de condit. agror. p23, ed. Goes.; Hyginus, de Limit. Constit. p205, ed. Goes.). It appears however that we must distinguish between such lands as were sacred to the gods themselves and could not be taken from them except by exauguratio, and such as were merely given to the priests as possessio, formed part of the ager publicus. Of the latter the state remained the owner, and might take them from the priests in any case of necessity (Dion Cass. XLIII.47; Oros. V.18; Appian, de Bell. Mithr. 22). Besides the use of such sacred or public lands some priests also had a regular annual salary (stipendium), which was paid to them from the public treasury. This is expressly stated in regard to the Vestal virgins (Liv. I.20), the augurs (Dionys II.6), and the curiones (Festus, s.v. Curionium), and may therefore be supposed to have been the case with other priests also. The pontifex maximus, the rex sacrorum, and the Vestal virgins had moreover a domus publica as their place of residence. In the time of the emperors the income of the priests, especially of the Vestal virgins, was increased (Suet. Aug. 31; Tacit. Annal. IV.16).

As regards the second question, we do not hear either in Greece or at Rome of any class of priests on whom it was incumbent to instruct the people respecting the nature and principles of religion. Of preaching there is not the slightest trace. Religion p998with the ancients was a thing which was handed down by tradition from father to son, and consisted in the proper performance of certain rites and ceremonies. It was respecting those external forms of worship alone that the pontiffs were obliged to give instructions to those who consulted them [Pontifex].


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