). The origin of this word is explained in various
ways. Q. Scaevola, who was himself pontifex maximus, derived it from
and Varro from pons,
pontiffs, he says, had built the Pons Sublicius, and afterwards frequently
restored it, that it might be possible to perform sacrifices on each side of
the Tiber. (Varro, L. L.
5.83, ed. Müller; Dionys. A. R. 2.73
.) This statement is,
however, contradicted by the tradition which ascribes the building of the
Pons Sublicius to Ancus Martins (Liv. 1.33
), at a
time when the pontiffs had long existed and borne this name.
Göttling (Gesch. d. Röm. Staatsv.
thinks that pontifex
is only another form for
which would characterise the pontiffs
only as the managers and conductors of public processions and solemnities.
Others have suggested (cp. Plut. Num. 9
the word is formed from pons
(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 in this view alludes, is
that of the Argeans on the sacred or Sublician bridge, which is described by
; cf. ARGEI
). But as the word pons
originally meant “way” (Curtius,
1.323), it is very probable that pontifex
meant “those who make the roads and
bridges” (cp. Lange, Röm. Alt.
i.3 371), and are therefore possessed of mathematical and
engineering skill (Mommsen, R. H.
1.178: cf. Jordan,
1.1, 397). Marquardt prefers to regard the
name as coming from the root pu,
“to purify,” in a participial form. No explanation is
satisfactory which [p. 2.461]
does not account for the fact
that the title was used in many other Italian towns besides Rome.
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. 1.20
; Dionys. A. R. 2.73
; Cic. de Orat. 3.19
, 73.) According to Livy
), the original number of pontiffs were
four: it has been commonly assumed that this was exclusive of the pontifex
maximus, and that Cicero (de Rep.
2.14, 26) is including him
when he says that Numa appointed five pontiffs. But it seems probable that
there was no pontifex maximus under the monarchy, the king himself
discharging the functions, which afterwards were fulfilled by him. Besides,
the number three seems to have been attached to this office as well as to
that of the augurs, being retained in the case of colonies, which often keep
faithful to the earliest type. Hence we must assume that Livy is in error in
the account which he gives of the changes made by the Ogulnian law; and
instead of supposing with Niebuhr that four
represent the two earliest tribes, the Ramnes and the Tities, it will be
better to assume that the six, including the king, represent the three
tribes. But we really cannot get beyond
conjectures on this point. In the year B.C. 300, the Ogulnian law raised the
number of pontiffs to eight, or, more probably according to the researches
of Bardt, to nine, and four of them were to be plebeians (Liv. 10.6
). 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.
xviii.). This number of pontiffs remained for a long
time unaltered, until in 81 B.C. the dictator Sulla increased it to fifteen
lxxxix.), and Julius Caesar to sixteen (D. C. 42.51
). 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. A. R. 2.22
). This election was sometimes called
; cf. FLAMEN
at some time in the course of the third century B.C. the practice sprang up,
we do not know more precisely how or when, that the choice of the pontifex
maximus from the other members should be made by the votes of seventeen of
the tribes, a minority of the whole number, determined by lot. This was the
case with the election after the death of L. Lentulus in B.C. 212 (Liv. 25.2
), and with
other later instances (Liv. 39.46
). The ordinary
pontiffs were still co-opted. An attempt to deprive the college of its right
of co-optation, and to transfer the power of election to the people, was
made in the year B.C. 145, by the tribune C. Licinius Crassus; but it was
frustrated by the praetor C. Laelius. (Cic.
de Am. 25
, 96; Brut.
de Nat. Deor.
3.17, 43.) 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 seventeen tribes; that is,
the people elected one from a list of candidates approved by the college,
who was then made a member of the college by the cooptatio
of the priests themselves, so that the cooptatio,
although still necessary, became a mere
matter of form. (Cic. de Leg. Agr.
, 18; ad Brut.
.) 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 cooptatio.
lxxxix.; Pseudo-Ascon. in
p. 102, ed. Orelli; D. C.
.) In the year 63 B.C. the law of Sulla was abolished, and the
Domitian law was restored by a plebiscite of Labienus, which prescribed that
in case of a vacancy the college itself should nominate two candidates, and
the people elect one of them (D. C. 37.37
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. 2.2
, 4). Julius
Caesar modified but slightly this Lex Domitia, but M. Antonius is said to
have again restored the right of cooptatio
the college (D. C. 44.53
ii.2 29) doubts the
accuracy of this statement. Under the Empire the right of appointment
belonged formally to the senate, but virtually to the emperor.
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
) and Dionysius (2.73
). 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
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
) in which they always
followed their own judgment as to what was consistent with the existing
customs and usages (Gel. 2.28
). 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 [p. 2.462]
ad sacra et religiones pertinent, judices
et vindices.” (Fest. s. v. Maximus
cf. Cic. de Leg.
, 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 their duties and functions were contained in
books called libri pontificii
or pontificales, commentarii sacrorum
or sacrorum pontificalium
(Fest. s. vv. Aliuta
which they were said to have received from Numa, and which were sanctioned
by Ancus Martius. These were preserved under the charge of the pontifex
maximus in the regio. Ancus is said to have made public that part of these
regulations which had reference to the sacra
); 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. A. R.
). One part of these libri
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
Verg. G. 1.21
). A second part must have
contained the formulas of the jus pontificium
(Cic. de Rep. 2.31
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. Nat. 18.3
: Liv. 4.3
; 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. 23
; Plin. Nat. 13.27
; August. de Civit. Dei,
7.34.) These books were found in 181
B.C., and one-half of them contained ritual
regulations and the jus pontificium,
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
this story, see Hartung, Die Relig. d. Höm.
214. 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
(Cic. de Orat. 2.12
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
, 20). One of their principal duties was the
regulation of the sacra
watch that they were observed at the proper times (for which purpose the
pontiffs originally had the whole regulation of the calendar: see CALENDARIUM
Vol. I. p. 342
&c.), and in their proper form.
In the management of the sacra publica
were in later times assisted in certain performances by the tres viri
], and had
in their keeping the funds from which the expenses 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
and adoption by
took place. (Gel. 5.19
) Whether the presence of
the pontiffs together with that of the augurs and two flamines were
necessary in the Comitia Curiata also in cases when other matters were
transacted, as Niebuhr thinks (i. p. 342, ii. p. 223), does not appear to be
quite certain. The curious circumstance that after the decemvirate the
pontifex maximus was commanded by the senate to preside at the election of
tribunes of the people, is explained by Niebuhr (ii. p. 359: cf. Schwegler,
3.66, and Mommsen, Röm. Staatsr.
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
, 12). In most cases the
sentence of the pontiffs only inflicted a fine upon the offenders (Cic. Philip. 11.8
, 18; Liv. 37.51
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. A. R.
) Liv. 22.57
; Fest. s. v.
). 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.
Incest in general belonged to the jurisdiction of the pontiffs, and might be
punished with death (Cic. de Leg.
, 47). 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.
p. 46, ed. Orelli). Such cases, however,
seem to have been mere irregularities founded upon an abuse of the
tribunician 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
regulations which served as a guide to the pontiffs in their judicial
proceedings, formed a large collection of laws, which was called the
and formed part of the
(Cic. de Orat.
ii 43, 193; 3.33, 134; pro
13, 34: JUS
new decrees which the pontiffs made either on the proposal of the senate, or
in cases belonging to the sacra privata,
that of private individuals, were, as Livy (39.16
) says, innumerable, (Compare Cic.
de Leg. 2.2. 3
, 58, Macr.
; Dionys. A. R. 2.73
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
, 12), were held in the
on the Via Sacra, to which were
attached the offices of the pontifex maximus and of the rex sacrorum. (Suet.
46; Serv. ad Aen.
; [p. 2.463]Plin.
.) 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
(D. C. 54.27
). All the
pontiffs were in their appearance distinguished by the conic cap called
with an apex upon it, and the toga praetexta.
The pontifex maximus was the president of the college and acted in its name,
the full rights of the king in religious matters having descended to him
(Mommsen, R. Staatsr.
2.17-70). 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.
). Two of his especial
duties were to appoint (capere
) the Vestal
Virgins and the famines [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 before the persons who made the vow or the dedication, the
formula with which it was to be performed (praeire
or praefari verba,
). 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 to do so by the people.
A 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.
); instances of a pontifex maximus being at the same time consul
are very numerous. (Liv. 28.33
; Cic. de Harusp. Resp. 6
, 12; cf.
Ambrosch, Studien und Andeutungen,
p. 229, note 105.) But
whatever might be the civil or military office which a pontifex maximus held
besides 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
; V. Max.
; Oros. v, 10); 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. 4.35; Symmach. Epit.
9.128, 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 (D. C.
; Suet. Jul. 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.
1117, 1118). The last formally renounced the title in A.D. 382. From this
time 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
Various opinions have been
entertained as to what these pontifices minores
were. Niebuhr (i. p. 302, n. 775) 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
patres majorum gentium;
subsequently, when the meaning of the name was forgotten, it was applied to
the secretaries of the great college of pontiffs. This supposition is
contradicted by all the statements of ancient writers who mention the
; compare Jul. Capitol. Opil.
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
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
Macrobius (Macr. 1.15
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 seems to have
been, at least after the time of Sulla, three (Cic.
de Harusp. Resp. 6
, 12). 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 luxurious
living of the pontiffs became proverbial at Rome (Hor. Carm. 2.14.26
, &c.; Mart. 12.48
). (Cf. Bouché--Leclercq,
Les Pontifes de l'anc. Rome,
Paris, 1871; Marquardt,
3.227-238; Madvig, Verf. u. Verw.