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SACERDOS, SACERDOTIUM. A priest among the Greeks and Romans was a person whose duty was to perform on behalf of a state, or of some organic group within the state, a certain ritual, the object of which was to maintain the proper salutary relations between the state or group and the local gods. This definition, it will be seen, implies a fully developed state. That a priesthood did indeed exist before the state, both in Greece and Italy, there can hardly be a doubt; but of its nature and history we have scarcely any knowledge. Nor, indeed, do we certainly know at what point in the development of a people the priest proper first appears. Roughly, it may be said that an organised priesthood is found wherever the relation of God to man is believed to have a certain stable personal character on which the worshippers can calculate and act. (See W. Robertson Smith in Encycl. Brit. s. v. Priest.) In Greece and Italy this stability of relation seems to have gone with a corresponding stability of human society, i. e. a certain amount of social and political development. In the following sketch of the priesthoods of Greece and Rome such development is assumed, and no attempt is made to unravel the earliest history of the growth of a priesthood.

Priests in Greece.

The most general word for a priest is ἱερεύς (for a priestess ἱέρεια). This word is found in Homer, and lasted throughout Greek history. At all periods its meaning is in the main the same; it denotes a person charged with regular and permanent duties towards a particular deity on behalf of a particular community, and thoroughly acquainted with the traditional mode of performing those duties, whether they consisted of prayer, sacrifice, purification, prophecy, or all of these. He is one “skilled in the rules of sacrifice, prayer, purification,” &c. (Stobaeus, Ecl. Eth. 6.5, 122; Gaisf. vol. ii. p. 562). These rules, too technical for the ordinary individual, by which the gods could be in a sense controlled and their goodwill secured, must necessarily be in the charge of a specialist.

The word ἱερεῖς also implies the existence of a holy place to which the person so denominated was attached. The priest was in Greece essentially a minister in the service of a temple; this is his true differentia (Plato, Legg. 759 A). He was the servant of the god (Plato, Pol. 290 C; Eur. Ion 94, 309; Poll. 1.14, οἱ δὲ τῶν θεῶν θεραπευταὶ ἱερεῖς) to whom the temple was sacred. His history and development are therefore in each case inseparable from those of the temple itself. In some places, we may suppose, which had become famous for a sacred fountain, tree, or cavern, it became convenient to build the local god a house for his own habitation, [p. 2.569]and a keeper would be assigned to the house from among the members of the community interested in the worship. This person, who devoted his life, or a certain portion of it, to the care of the god's house and its ἱερά, would be the ἱερεύς. He would thus be a priest of a simple deity, for each temple was the dwelling of one only. To the Greek, a priest was not a priest in a general sense, but the priest of some local Zeus or Apollo, and was almost always so distinguished in Greek literature. (See Nägelsbach, Nachhomerische Theologie, p. 207.)

Thus the word is far from containing the idea of a sacred caste, and suggests no settled distinction between clergy and laity. The ἱερεὺς was indeed, as compared with the ordinary Greek citizen, a man of professional knowledge, but only in respect of the ritual of his own temple. As every temple had its own strict rules, there was no opportunity for any combined action which might produce a common professional interest. Nor was there at any time a common school of the priesthood, for each priest could learn his duties in his own temple only. And it must be borne in mind that the priests were by no means the only persons who exercised priestly functions; for the king or other magistrate of a state, as well as the heads of families and gentes, could, and did, all offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of their respective communities. How far the aid of the priest was necessary in any such sacrifice is an obscure question (see Martha, Les Sacerdoces Athéniens, p. 73 foll.); but Aristotle clearly distinguished between those sacrifices which were ἱερατικαί, i. e. could only be performed by a priest (probably in a temple), and those which were undertaken by the lay head of the community (Pol. 3.14, 12 = p. 1285 b, 10). Thus much is certain, that the Greek mind did not connect the word ἱερεὺς with any exclusive prescriptive right of exercising liturgical functions, such as at the present day we are apt to associate with the word priest, save only in respect of those which he exercised in his own temple. It is essential to remember this in studying the Greek idea of a minister of religion; but in the present article it is necessary to limit the subject by confining our attention to its more technical aspect.

Not much is to be gathered from Homer as to the position and duties of the priest in the age represented in the poems. Homer describes a state of war and disturbance in which local priesthoods would naturally play no part; and what we hear of them is chiefly from passages of incidental reference. They are not mentioned among the prophets, poets, physicians, &c., in the catalogue of δημιόεργοι in Od. 17.382 foll.: and this may show (1) that they were not a trained professional body or guild; (2) that they were distinguished from the μάντεις, or wandering diviners. Their duties seemed to have been chiefly, as in later times, those of prayer and sacrifice; hence the names ἀρητὴρ (Il. 1.11; 5.78) and θυόσκοος (Il. 24.221). They were held in high honour: of the priest of Scamander it was said that he was honoured as a god by the whole people (Il. 5.78; cf. 16.605). On one occasion only do we hear of insult offered to a priest; i. e. at the opening of the Iliad, by Agamemnon to the priest Chryses: and this was so startling as to rouse the anger of the army and bring down the wrath of Apollo in the form of a pestilence. The local priest is represented in Il. 5.10 as wealthy and important, a fact quite in keeping with the feeling of later times that priests should be of high descent and substantial means. In Od. 9.200 we hear of a local priest dwelling in a house in close proximity to his temple, with his wife and children; a glimpse of old Greek life which is confirmed, as we shall see, by the evidence of a later age. But further details of the Homeric priests are wanting, even in the Odyssey, and it cannot be assumed that they played an important part in the civilisation which the poems represent. (See Buchholz, Hom. Realien, vol. iii. pt. 2.178; Gladstone, Homer and the Homeric Age, 3.279 ff., where, however, the Trojan priests are wrongly considered as belonging to a separate civilisation.)

Our information about priests in historic times is not only scattered about in a great number of authors and inscriptions, but naturally refers to a great variety of the cities of the Hellenic world, in which the usages varied considerably. It extends also over a period of several centuries, down to the age of the Roman empire; and it is unfortunately the last half of this long period, and not the age of genuine Greek civilisation, which has yielded by far the greater part of our results. It is, therefore, difficult to present a consistent picture of the position and duties of the Greek priest in the centuries which may more properly be called those of Greek history. Under the heads, however, of the qualifications, mode of appointment, duties, and privileges of the priesthood, some account may be given of certain features of special interest.


In the first place, it was essential that a priest, if a man, should be a full citizen of the state to which the temple belonged of which he had charge; and so also, if that worship were the peculiar property of a gens or family within the state, he must be a full member of that gens or family. Thus, at Athens, no μέτοικος could hold a priesthood; e. g. in the case of the priesthood of Heracles, we learn from Demosthenes that no foreigner or metoec could qualify, or anyone who was not a member of a phratria (at that time the test of true citizenship); and he speaks of the priesthood as under the same conditions as the magistracy (Dem. Eubul. p. 1313, § § 46-48). In general terms Plato expresses the same necessity (Legg. 759 C), when he lays it down for his ideal state that the priest should be ὁλόκληρος καὶ γνήσιος, i. e. sound in all respects, including birth. So also an inscription of Chalcedon (probably of the 2nd century B.C.) forbids a priesthood to be. sold to anyone who was not thus sound and in full possession of civic rights (Dittenberger, Syll. Ins. Gr. 369). These regulations, however, did not exclude women from priesthoods, and priestesses are met with in all parts of Greece. At Athens a priestess seems to have enjoyed at least some rights of a citizen; e. g. she could plead before the council, sign documents, &c. (Martha, op. cit. p. 22). For priestesses persons of rank and substance seem to have been preferred; thus in an inscription from Halicarnassus we find that the priestess must be of aristocratic descent for three generations at least (Dittenberger, [p. 2.570]No. 371). And Aristotle insists that no husbandman or mechanic should be a priest; the gods should receive honour from the citizens only (Pol. 7.9, 8=p. 1329 a, 29). The Pythia of Delphi seems to have been an exception to this rule, as she was chosen at large from among all the women of Delphi (Eur. Ion 1323: cf. Plut. Pyth. Or. 22; Hermann, Gr. Alterth. ii. p. 256). This was perhaps for reasons of state, or because it was difficult to procure a woman of the peculiar temperament required by the office.

The second chief, qualification was that of purity, bodily and mental. This is also explicitly laid down by Plato in the passage just quoted from the Laws, and is partly implied in the word ὁλόκληρος already mentioned. As all approach to the gods without purification was a sin even in the ordinary worshipper, à fortiori it was so in the priest. At Athens no one could hold a priesthood who had led a vicious life (Aeschines, Timarch. § 19), or who had neglected his parents (Xen. Mem. 2.2, 13). Bodily purity was equally essential. Strict regulations were often posted at the doors of temples for the guidance of worshippers in keeping themselves pure, which applied even more to the priest; and the highest state of purity was to have a healthy mind, free from guilty conscience, in a healthy body (Newton, Art and Archaeology, p. 156). All contact with a dead body, for example, defiled a man; and if a priestly family were temporarily defiled by the death of one of its own members, the priesthood was sometimes forfeited. Thus the death of a child of a priest of Messene is said by Pausanias to have caused a vacancy (Paus. 4.12, 4). In the same way we find that many priesthoods could only be filled by virgins; and Pausanias mentions one at Calauria where a girl must resign the priesthood of the temple of Poseidon when of age to marry (2.33, 3). On the other hand, all the priests of the Ephesian Artemis were eunuchs (Roscher, Myth. Lex. s. v. Artemis, p. 501 a); and the priest and priestess of Artemis Hymnia at Orchomenus, in Arcadia, were not only cut off from all bodily impurity, but from all intercourse with the world (Paus. 8.13, 1). Such exaggerated asceticism, however, was not truly Greek in character, and was undoubtedly of Oriental origin. There was no general rule against the marriage of a priest. The regulations suggested by Greek thinkers were also more moderate; both Aristotle and Plato recommend only that priests should be of advanced age (Ar. Pol. 7.9, 9; Plato, Legg. 759 D). Old men and women actually occur, as at Delphi and Athens, instead of virgins, for the care of the perpetual fire; but this may have been a later custom, arising from the difficulty of getting virgins to serve (Plut. Num. 9). Boy-priests are occasionally mentioned, who served until the age of puberty (Paus. 7.24, 2, where the boy must be of remarkable beauty; and C. I. G. 6206). In these examples of priesthoods filled by persons of old age or extreme youth, we may also perhaps see the call for purity combined with the Greek feeling that a man in the prime of life was required for the service of the state.

Mode of appointment.

This was by no means uniform; but we may discern three principal methods, which in rough chronological order would be--(1) by hereditary descent, i. e. by devolution or selection out of a gens or family; (2) by public election, either by means of open voting or the lot; (3) by purchase.

1. As regards the first of these, we have abundant evidence that many priesthoods descended in the same family or gens, though we know little of the method by which the priest was chosen from among its members. The reason of such hereditary right is not far to seek. A cultus which had been peculiar to a family or gens before its absorption in a state, retained, even after that absorption, the right to be served by a member of that minor group only; the perfect performance of its ritual being in this way better secured. Thus the family of Gelo of Syracuse claimed to be hereditary hierophants of Demeter and Persephone in the city of Gela, because their ancestor Telines had brought the sacra of that worship from Cnidos (Hdt. 7.153). At Athens the Eumolpidae held the office of hierophant of the Eleusinian mysteries, the Eteobutadae the priesthood of Athene Polias, the Gephyraei that of the Achaean Demeter, the Hesychidae that of the Eumenides, the Phytalidae that of Demeter, Poseidon and Theseus, &c. (see for these and other instances, Maury, Rel. de la Grèce, vol. 2.387 foll.). So too, at least in later times, it was not uncommon for a state to grant a hereditary priesthood to one who had been a benefactor of the cult (C. I. G. 2448; Martha, op. cit. p. 38). Maeandrius of Samos proposed to establish in his family a perpetual priesthood of Zeus, as compensation for giving up the tyranny, on the ground that he had built the temple of the god (Hdt. 3.142). As to the mode of succession to the office in these cases, we know of instances in which the eldest son succeeded (C. I. A. 2.410; C. I. G. 2448; Martha, l.c.); and a Halicarnassian inscription informs us of a priesthood in which the succession was not from father to son, but from brother to brother, devolving to sons of the eldest brother in order of seniority, then to sons of the next brother, and back again to the grandsons of the eldest brother (Newton, op. cit. p. 152). In other cases the lot seems to have been used. Thus in the family of the Eteobutadae a priest is mentioned as λαχὼν ἐκ τοῦ γένους τὴν ἱερωσύνην: in this case, however, he was able to hand on the office to his brother, and perhaps too much stress should not be laid on the word λαχών (Plut. Vit. X. Oratt. 38, 39, p. 843 F; Schömann, Gr. Alt. 2.405). But our knowledge on this point is still scanty.

2. Of appointment by voting we hear little. An instance seems to occur as early as Homer (cf. Il. 6.300, τὴν γὰρ Τρῶες ἔθηκαν Ἀθηναίης ἱέρειαν, with the note of the Scholiast in Cod. Venet. Marc. 453). Another is recorded in C. I. G. 2270, 18, from Delos; but this seems to have been a preliminary selection of candidates only, and not the final election, which was by means of the lot. At Athens, as elsewhere in Greece, the commonest practice seems to have been to elect by lot; and it is recommended by Plato on the ground that the lot was an indication of he divine will (Legg. 759 C). Virgil was aware of the Greek custom, and describes Laocoon as “ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos” [p. 2.571]Aen. 2.201). Examples are found in inscriptions (see C. I. A. 352 b and 567 b; and a paper by Boeckh in Phil. Museum, vol. ii. p. 453; also Dittenberger, No. 356, 9=C. I. A. 489 b.). In some cases at least, this sortition seems to have been preceded by some kind of selection of candidates for whom the lot might be cast. Thus in the case of the priesthood of Hercules, mentioned in Demosth. Eubul. l.c., it was counted an honour to Eubulides to have been among those so selected. A somewhat similar practice is mentioned in Paus. 7.25, 13, in the case of a priestess at Aegae in Achaia; and the Delian inscription quoted above (C. I. G. 2270; Martha, p. 32) mentions a priest of Dionysus who was both chosen by the people and also by lot, and points therefore in the same direction. But it does not appear whether the selection was always by voting, or in some other way.

3. As to the practice of purchasing priesthoods, we have only in recent years gained any adequate information. A passage of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.21) had indeed suggested it, in which Romulus is described as appointing to the Roman priesthoods neither by putting them up for sale nor by the lot, but in another way. In 1830 Boeckh published an inscription from Halicarnassus (C. I. G. 2656; Dittenberger, No. 371) which contains a decree affecting the priestess of Artemis Pergaea, who had purchased her priesthood; and it became evident that Dionysius was alluding to a practice of his own city. Since that time several other inscriptions have come to light, which show that Halicarnassus was by no means the only place where priesthoods were sold, and the practice is now proved for Chalcedon, Erythrae, Andros, and Myconos (see Dittenberger, Nos. 369, 370, 371; Le-Bas Waddington, Asie Mineure, pp. 408 and 457). The details of the transaction are still imperfectly understood, and further light is needed. The inscription from Erythrae, however (Ditt. 370), is an extremely interesting document, giving a very long list of these purchases, and the prices paid for the priesthoods, which ran as high as 4,600 drachmas in the case of that of Hermes Agoraios, while others fetched comparatively small sums. These priesthoods seem to have been put up for sale at the same time, and could hardly have been held for life (see Lehmann, Quaest. Sacerdot. p. 52, Königsberg, 1888; cf. also Herbrecht, de Sacerdoti apud Graecos venditione, Strasb. 1885); but these questions are still under discussion. It is to be noticed that the practice, so far as we know, was confined to Asia Minor and the islands of the Archipelago; no instance is known at Athens, nor any of earlier date than the 3rd century B.C. (Herbrecht, p. 6). It is probable, therefore, that the custom arose under the financial pressure caused by the wars among the successors of Alexander (Droysen, Hellenismus, ii.2 p. 355; 3.191 foll.), and was found a sufficiently lucrative source of revenue to spread rapidly (Lehmann, p. 53 foll.). It points not only to the material advantages of the priest's position in later Greek history, but also to a great multiplication of priesthoods, and to a serious degeneracy in the popular estimation of the priestly office. (The literature of this still obscure subject will be found quoted, up to date, in Lehmann, op. cit. p. 7.)


These may be described as partly liturgical, partly administrative. In no case did they include education, either moral or intellectual. The liturgical duties would include the whole of the temple-service: viz. the conduct of sacrifices, both those which were public (i. e. on behalf of the state) and those offered by individuals on their own account (see SACRIFICIUM and Dittenb. No. 371), including the offering of the proper prayers and invocations. How far the priest had the exclusive right of sacrifice and prayer in his own temple is uncertain; but there is no doubt that it was usual for him to superintend private as well as public worship, as being expert in the proper ritual and formulae. Thus in the parody in Aristoph. Birds 864 foll. it is the priest who leads the prayer, selecting the proper epithets of the supposed gods. (Cf. Aesch. in Ctes. § 18, where the proper function of the priests is described as to pray to the gods on behalf of the people; cf. also Dittenberger, 369, 371.) To these duties may also be added that of the care of the statue of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, which, in some cases at least, had to be constantly washed, dressed, and served with repasts on τράπεζαι (Martha, op. cit. p. 45, foll.), in accordance with the survival of the primitive belief that the god actually resided in the statue. Thus the priest was essentially the servant of the god (Serv. ad Aen. 1.73, “dicatus est numini, hoc est ad obsequium datus est” ; cf. Eur. Ion 131; Poll. 1.14).

Under the head of administration may be included in the first place the charge of the fabric and contents of the temple. In the Chalcedonian inscription already quoted, the priest is directed κοσμεῖν τὸν ναὸν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν, and to see that the stoa in front of it is swept clean. He had also to see that the regulations of the temple in respect of the conduct of worshippers were thoroughly carried out, as we learn, e.g., from an inscription of Ialysus in Rhodes containing a law relating to the sacred precinct round the temple of Alectrona (Newton, Trans. Royal Soc. Lit. 11.443). From Athens we have also an inscription (Ephem. Arch. 3139) containing a proclamation issued by the priest of the temple of Apollo, who, in conjunction with the demarch, is to exact a fine from anyone taking timber or firewood from the ἱερόν (Newton, p. 156). The priest was thus in this case, as no doubt in many others, joined with the civil authority in the protection of the temple from sacrilege. But with him, as with the dean of a modern cathedral, lay the immediate responsibility: thus we find the priestess of Athene on the Acropolis personally withstanding Cleomenes the Spartan king when he tried to force an entrance into her temple (Herod, 5.73). In enforcing these rules they were in larger temples assisted by vergers and constables under various names (ῥαβδοφόροι, κλειδοῦχοι, ζάκοροι, νεωκόροι, &c.; see Martha, op. cit. p. 88 foll.; for slaves and diaconi, Newton, Essays, p. 165). With the more important management of the revenues, repairs, &c., and the general administration of the property of the temple, the priest in historical times seems to have had little to do. The union of all functions, liturgical and other, survived no doubt in smaller temples in country districts (see esp. [p. 2.572]Arist. Pol. 6.8, 18); but in all large cities of which we possess detailed information, the management of sacred property had passed almost entirely into the hands of the state by the time when inscriptions begin to be instructive on this subject (i. e. from the latter half of the 5th century B.C.). As the temples developed into public and also private banks, it became impossible to make the priests responsible for their treasures; under various names (ταμίαι, ἱεροποιοί, ναοποιοί, ἐπιμέληται, &c.) public officers were appointed for the purpose not only of taking charge of the treasures and other property, executing repairs, &c., but for providing victims and disposing of their skins. [On this subject, which lies outside of the scope of this article, see articles ARGENTARII, DERMATICON, SACRIFICIUM, and VECTIGALIA TEMPLORUM; Schömann, Gr. Alth. 2.397; Homolle in Bull. Corresp. Hell. vi. pp. 1-167 (for Delos); Martha, op. cit. pp. 88-114, and Hicks, Gr. Hist. Ins. p. 88 foll. (for Athens); Dittenberger, No. 294 (for Delphi); Newton, p. 154.]

On the whole it may be concluded that the later the age the more strictly ritualistic do the priest's duties become; and it is significant that in one inscription, of a date not long before the Roman empire, the conditions under which the priesthood is sold include a rule that even the fees paid in by worshippers in the temple of Artemis are to be under the charge, not of the priestess, but of ἐξετασταί, i. e. auditors (Dittenb. No. 371, line 30, foll.).


In return for their duties, the advantages of the priests were considerable. At all times they were held in high honour, and their persons were deemed inviolable. Homer, as we saw, describes them as honoured by the people like gods (Il. 5.78, 16.605). When Cleomenes insulted a priest at Argos, he was considered mad (Hdt. 6.81 and 84). When Alexander sold the Thebans into slavery, he excepted the priests only (Aelian, Ael. VH 13.7). At Athens, where we know most about their position, they were reckoned as equal to the magistrates, accompanied them in public processions, and had seats of honour with them at the dramatic representations (C. I. A. 2.410, 589; Martha, p. 128 f.); facts which are not astonishing if it be remembered that the distinction between magistrate and priest was not clearly conceived in the earliest times, nor at any time so sharp as that to which we are ourselves used. Decrees of special honours awarded them are not uncommon in inscriptions (C. I. G. 1063, 2270, 2462; C. I. A. 2.410, 589). In many cases they enjoyed a house adjoining the temple (Od. 9.200; Paus. 2.11, 6; 10.34, 7); whether this was so, however, at Athens and in large cities, may be doubted (Martha, p. 119). Lastly, they had certain perquisites arising from sacrifices, which must have formed a considerable source of income. These are described in many inscriptions from various parts of Greece, and show a great variety of usage in respect of the portion of the victim which fell to the priest; generally, however, these were the skin and legs, and often the tongue (Dittenb. 373, 376, 379; C. I. A. 610, 631; Journ. of Hellenic Studies, vol. ix. p. 328; and article SACRIFICIUM). These perquisites were apparently universal in the case of private sacrifices, and fees paid on these occasions are also mentioned (C. I. G. 2656; Newton, p. 158); but at Athens, when public sacrifices of a great number of victims were offered at one time, the skins were sold for the state (Martha, p. 123 foll.; Boeckh, Staatsh. Appendix viii. and viii. b; DERMATICON). They were also enriched by the offerings of fruits, cakes, &c., constantly brought by worshippers for the use of the god, which, believed by primitive man to be consumed by the god himself, had gradually come to be regarded in Greece, as elsewhere, as the priest's perquisite (see esp. Aristoph. Pl. 676). In some few cases, but apparently only in later times, they were empowered to collect money (Dittenb. 369, 371, 393; for the priests of Cybele, Cic. de Leg. 2.9, 21). They must, therefore, have had ample means of amassing wealth; and this is confirmed both by the monetary value of priesthoods noticed above, by the competition for them, and by the evidence we possess from inscriptions of valuable endowments presented by some of them to their temples (Newton, p. 161).

In conformity with their general character as a part of the community, and not distinct from it, the Greek priests wore no dress that can be called distinctive. The wreath on the head, with which the priest always appears in vase-paintings and sculptures, was worn by all persons when sacrificing, and was as much the mark of the magistrate as the priest. These wreaths seem to have been often taken from the tree sacred to the deity to whom the sacrifice was made; thus the laurel was used in the worship of Apollo (Bötticher, Baumkultus, p. 313). The hierophant and daduchus of Eleusis wore also a στρόφιον or head-band (Arrian, Epictet. 3.21, 16), and also wore their hair long, a practice which seems to have been not uncommon (Plut. Arist. 5). On the monuments priests generally appear in a long chiton, of the old-fashioned kind discarded by the Athenians in the Periclean age; so the priest and priestess of Athene appear in the frieze of the Parthenon. Such a chiton would seem also to have been worn by the Pythia of Delphi, as appears from a vase-painting of which a cut is given in Baumeister's Denkm. p. 1110. These garments were certainly as a rule white. This is what Plato enjoins in the Laws (956 A); and it is also enjoined on the initiated in the mysteries of Andania (Dittenberger, 388, 17). Thus Plutarch, writing of the son of Aratus offering sacrifice at his father's grave, mentions, as an exception to the general rule, that he wore a στρόφιον which was not entirely white (Plut. Arat. 57; Id. Arist. 21). A more ornamental dress, both as to colour and adornment, seems to have been occasionally worn in later times, e. g. at the Eleusinian mysteries (Maury, op. cit. 2.400), and purple is mentioned as early as Aeschylus (in the cult of the dead: Eum. 982; cf. Schömann, Gr. Alt. 2.412). But in most cases where the dress is peculiar, we may suspect that the priest or priestess is personating the deity to whom sacrifices are offered. This may be so in the case of Iphigeneia as priestess of Artemis represented on a vase (Baumeister, p. 757; cf. Paus. 10.24, 4). The [p. 2.573]aegis of Athene was worn on certain occasions by her priestess at Athens (Suidas, s. v. αἰγίς). For this class of practices, which in some cases seems to have a totemistic origin, see F. Back, de Graecorum caerimoniis in quibus homines deorum vice fungebantur, Berlin, 1883; Hermann, Gr. Alth. ii. sec. 35.

There remains the question whether the Greek priest was consecrated to the service of his deity by any kind of ceremony. If such ceremony existed, we hear nothing certain of it. Lucian, indeed, mentions the ὁσίωσις of the hierophant and daduchus of the Eleusinian mysteries (Lexiph. 10); and in the Chalcedonian inscription already quoted the word ἄνθεσις = ἀνἀθεσις indicates some kind of dedication of the priest; either an inauguration only, as Dittenberger thinks (p. 524 note), or a dedication to the god of the kind by which slaves at Delphi and elsewhere were made over to the service of the temple (Herbrecht, op. cit. p. 33). Whatever was the ceremony at Chalcedon, it is at least significant that the word ἀνατιθέναι is habitually used of dedicating objects by way of gift in the temples, and the inference would seem to be that the priest himself was reckoned as the property of the god; a notion which falls in sufficiently well with the other facts which have been already mentioned in the foregoing account.


An account of the several Roman priesthoods will be found in the articles on PONTIFICES, AUGURES, FLAMINES, &c.; it will be sufficient here to give a brief outline of the history of the Roman priesthood generally, in order to compare it with the Greek sacerdotal system. In the earliest times it is probable that the Roman idea of a priest and his duties differed but little from that of the Greeks; he was assigned to the worship of a particular god and exercised no direct political influence. The general name for such priests was flamen (i. e. kindler of sacrificial fire), and they continued in existence with gradually decaying importance to the latest times. But their influence was steadily overshadowed by that of those great colleges which we always associate with religious government in Roman antiquity, especially the pontifices and augurs; and thus a new element was introduced which is quite foreign to anything we have met with in Greece. It is a curious fact that at the very time (the end of the monarchy and first age of the Republic) when Rome was becoming penetrated by Greek religious ideas, the simple and unpolitical priestly system which survived in Greece was giving way to a new development which was distinctly Roman and political. It is the history of this change which we must be content to trace here.

Period of the Monarchy.

Every Roman was the priest of his own household [SACRA], and every action of the household had its religious aspect. In the state we see the same leading feature, that the rex was priest for the whole people. This is sufficiently proved (1) by the appointment of the rex sacrorum when the monarchy came to an end, in order to keep up the virtue of certain sacrifices which had been performed by the king; (2) by the position of the pontifex maximus from the outset of the Republic: his office was in the king's house [REGIA], the flamens and vestals were in his patria potestas, and it was he who succeeded the rex in most of his religious functions.

To maintain, then, the full rights of the god as against the state, i. e. to fulfil in the minutest detail the state's duties towards the gods, was a most important part of the king's sphere of action; and here we get at once the germ of the whole Roman conception of a public cult, which was maintained consistently throughout Roman history. The gods are always in direct relation to the state and to its magistrates. They are regarded as interested in the state as a state, and as calling for the fulfilment of duty from the state in the person of its appointed rulers. (This point may be illustrated by reference to the significant fact that the property belonging to the temples was not managed by the priests, but by the magistrates. See Mommsen, Staatsrecht, ii.2 1, 60 foll.)

In the earliest form of the state the king and his household may have sufficed for the performance of these duties. His unmarried daughters were the vestals who attended to the sacred fire of the state in the king's house (Frazer, Journal of Philology, vol. 14.154 foll.); and the origin of flamines may be traced to the king's sons, whose duties were to kindle the sacrificial fire for the worship of particular deities, e. g. Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, &c. Such at least is a fair inference from the fact that, as was mentioned above, both flamens and vestals were in the patria potestas of the rex, as afterwards of the pontifex maximus. This was the earliest form of state worship so far as we can guess it; for further details as to the religious duties of the king, see REX

It is obvious that as the state increased in size and began to come into collision with its neighbours, i. e. as the judicial and military duties of the king grew more complex, he would find it more difficult to fulfil with the necessary precision the state's duties towards the gods. Thus already in the regal period we hear of the introduction, generally ascribed to Numa by the Romans themselves, of certain colleges of priests besides the vestals and flamens. Dionysius (2.64, 70 foll.) mentions the AUGURES, PONTIFICES, SALII, FETIALES, and TRIBUNI CELERUM, to which may certainly be added the FRATRES ARVALES and SODALES TITII. He also mentions the thirty curiones or priests of the Curiae (see CURIA and SACRA), but these were not state priests in the strict sense of the word.

None of these priesthoods, however, had any great influence on Roman history, or contributed to the great change in the religious system which took place in the period of the Republic. In order to understand this, we must turn to the Pontifices and the Augurs.

It is not possible to determine with certainty what part was played by these two colleges under the monarchy, or to what extent they were, strictly speaking, sacerdotes at all (Mommsen, Hist. 1.177). They may have formed bodies of advisers of the king on religious matters of importance; and the king was probably at the head of each of them, and chose them himself from the patrician gentes, to which all priesthoods then and for long afterwards were confined (Marquardt, iii.2 240 foll.; Mommsen, Staatsrecht, ii.3 24 foll.). The Augurs, we may presume, advised the king, or acted for him [p. 2.574]in all the minute lore of the old Italian ritual of dedication and inauguration [see TEMPLUM and AUSPICIA]; the Pontifices. in all matters of the jus divinum, i.e. of the laws of marriage, burial, portents, and general religious supervision (Liv. 1.20). For detailed information about these colleges, references may be made to the separate articles. It is easy to see how with the rapid development of the state under the last two kings, and with the admission of the Plebs to a voice in the government, the increase of territory and the consequent admission of new cults, the administration both of the auspicia and the jus divinum must have tended to pass more and more from the king into the hands of these experts. And it is in this way that we must explain their rapid rise to power when the Republic came to an end.

Period of the Republic.

Three great, though gradual, changes are to be noted in this period. The first of these is the natural development of the influence of the Pontifices and Augurs, which was already on the increase towards the close of the Monarchical period, and the corresponding decay of the purely sacrificial priesthoods. So long as the king was the centre of all state religion, appointing and controlling the priests, and being himself of their number, it had been impossible for them to acquire any overpowering political influence; but when the state came to be governed by yearly elected magistrates, who could not be specially trained in religious law or lore, a great opportunity was offered to the experts both in the jus divinum and in the ritus auspiciorum, of which full advantage was taken. The Pontifices became the advisers of the republican magistrates on all technical matters relating to religious law, and thus gained a permanent hold on the state machinery as well as on the private life of individuals.

Secondly, we have to note the rise to power in this period of a third great priesthood, already instituted by the last king, which henceforth ranked with the Pontifices and Augurs as one of the three great religious collegia,--the decemviri (at first duoviri, later quindecimviri) sacris faciundis. [See DECEMVIRI Vol. I. p. 601; SIBYLLINI LIBRI]

Thirdly, the decay of the older priesthoods in this period is hardly less striking than the gradual development of the power of the three great colleges. So long as the Romans retained something of their native religious feeling, these priesthoods no doubt kept a certain hold on the popular mind; but as new forms of religion came in, as the pontifical theology adapted itself to them, and as Rome advanced in conquest and the absorption of foreigners, they were left, as it were, stranded, and void of meaning. Towards the close of the Republic they began to disappear altogether, and we have the singular historical phenomenon of obsolete curiosities like the Flamen Dialis and the Fratres Arvales being restored at the beginning of the Empire, when once more the general supervision of the state religion was concentrated in the hands of a monarch. One only of these priesthoods retained its life and prestige almost undiminished throughout the whole of Roman history--that of the Vestal virgins; a fact that can be explained partly by its feminine character, which kept it out of all competition for political influence, and still more by the nature of the worship of Vesta as the religious focus of the state-life, and the legends which in the popular fancy connected it with the foundation of the city.

There were other changes of a more technical character in this period, besides those which immediately affected the relative importance of the several priesthoods. While the offices of Rex sacrorum and the older sacrificial priesthoods were always confined to patricians, the three great collegia were in course of time thrown open to plebeians also. With the gradual equalisation of the orders, it was found that those had grown too politically important to escape the plebeianising of the secular magistracy. The democratic changes first in the number of members in these collegia and the admission of plebeians, and secondly in substituting election for the more exclusive cooptation, have been detailed in the articles AUGUR, DECEMVIRI, and PONTIFEX Thus the great Roman priesthoods were in this period steadily carried along by the full force of the political current to which they owed their power, while the more antiquated ones left the centre of the stream and were gradually stranded. And thus also it came about that the Roman religion and its ministers, though having to deal with matters so technical and a sacred law so minute as apparently to offer every chance for the growth of a powerful priestly caste, never became dissociated from the state, or from the public life and interests of the individual citizen; and Cicero could boast with truth that there was no grander principle in the constitution than that which placed the best men in the state at the head at once of the religious system and of the political machinery (de Dom. 1, 1). And this in spite of the fact that the priesthood and the magistracy were as such entirely dissociated from each other in Roman constitutional law; no priest having by virtue of his office any direct hold upon the state-machinery, and no magistrate having any part in the state's religious functions (Mommsen, op. cit. pp. 17 foll.). This was the republican theory; and though towards the end of that period there were signs of its collapse (as in the details of the new system of election), it maintained itself on the whole until further great changes took place on the establishment of the Empire.

(For the relation of the haruspices to the priesthoods during the Republic, see Marquardt, Staatsverw. 3.410; they were not properly a priesthood, and are here omitted from consideration. For what little is known of the municipal priesthoods of Italy in this period, see the same work, pp. 475 foll.)

Period of the Empire.

The history of the priesthood under the Empire is a subject of great difficulty, and as yet imperfectly investigated. It must suffice here to give a brief outline, which may partly be filled up from the works of Mommsen and Marquardt already quoted, Henzen's Acta Fratrum Arvalium, and especially from a tract by P. Habel, de pontificum Romanorum inde ab Augusto usque ad Aurelianum condicione publica. Popular accounts of particular aspects will be found in Boissier, Religion Romaine, vol. i., and Friedländer, [p. 2.575]Sittengeschichte, vol. iii. Cp. also Bouche-Leclercq, Les Pontifes. But no work can be done in this period without constant reference to the Corpus Inscriptionum, and the best works on coins of the period.

The subject falls into three divisions: 1. The union of the existing priesthoods in the person of the emperor; 2. The new priesthoods connected in Italy and the provinces with the worship of the emperors; 3. The priesthoods of the foreign worships introduced in the period.

1. The union of the existing priesthoods in the person of the emperor

Julius Caesar was already pont. max. when he attained to supreme power. Augustus waited until the death of Lepidus, who had succeeded Julius, and was not elected till B.C. 11 (Mon. Ancyr. ed. Mommsen, p. 28). From that time onwards the office was not only an invariable accompaniment of the imperium, but was reckoned at the head of all the other offices (Mommsen, Staatsr, 2.19), and in the title followed the cognomina immediately. With this the emperor also held the augurship, and was a member of the other two great collegia of the quindecimviri and the epulones (Marquardt, 222); and the same policy was pursued, in a greater or less degree according to the standing of the individual, with regard to his sons or other male relatives (Habel, Caesares, p. 60 f.). In his hands also, directly or indirectly, was the power of filling up vacant places in these colleges (D. C. 42.51); and thus it may be said without exaggeration that the days of the early monarchy had returned, and that the union of the secular and religious powers in the state was complete. It must, however, be remembered that these great priesthoods had by this time done their work, and that we rarely find instances of their being put by their imperial holders to any important practical use. They served to increase the dignitas rather than the potestas of the emperor, who was seldom present at meetings of the collegia, and the actual work, such as it was, was probably done by substitutes (promagistri, Habel, 90). Even in the case of the supreme pontificate, which alone might be regarded as exercising a great influence over the life of Roman citizens so long as questions of adoption, sepulture, &c., could arise, it is hard to prove this influence by actual examples (see, however, Tac. Ann. 4.16, 6.12; Plin. Epp. ad Traj. 68). We must in fact regard them as little more than useful ornaments; but as ornaments which increased their prestige, and carried it into the remotest parts of the Empire. In the same way the right of filling up the collegia became a powerful source of patronage, and served to secure the goodwill and allegiance of important personages and their families, without giving them burdensome duties. (Agricola, e.g., was many years absent from Rome after his appointment to the pontificate: Tac. Agr. 9.) Thus it was an object of ambition to secure one of these priesthoods, and we have the evidence, both of historians and inscriptions, that they were valued at a higher rate even than magistracies (Habel, 88, and reff.). Thus the greater priesthoods of the Republic were absorbed into the personal equipment and patronage of the emperors, and so continued, gradually losing more and more of their original use and meaning, until Christianity became the state religion. Meanwhile the more antique priesthoods, which we left in a state of decay at the end of the republican period--the Rex Sacrorum, Flamines, Fratres Arvales, Salii, Sodales Titii, &c. [see under the separate articles]--had been revived indeed by Augustus, according to his policy of renovating and completing the religious outfit of the state, and thus satisfying the popular feeling for a better service of the gods; but in most cases they survived, not so much by pursuing their original ritual as by transforming it to suit the worship of their patrons (Marquardt, 3.438), and may thus be better noticed under the next heading.

2. The new priesthoods connected in Italy and the provinces with the worship of the emperors.

The most striking feature of the religious history of the Empire, viz. the deification of the emperor, naturally produced new priesthoods, the importance of which, both in regard to society in the capital and organisation in the provinces, forms a complete study in itself, and can only be very briefly alluded to here. In Rome and Italy, it was the policy of Augustus to discourage his own worship (Suet. Oct. 52; D. C. 52.35); but inscriptions show that in spite of this there was an unauthorised cult of him even in his lifetime in several Italian cities, presided over by flamines or sacerdotes (flamen being the general word in use in municipia), e. g. in Pisa, Praeneste, Pompeii, Beneventum (Marquardt, 3.465, note 1). Later on this cult was organised in all the municipia of Italy, in conjunction with that of other emperors, and was maintained by flamines together with Augustales, a kind of sacred guild belonging chiefly to the inferior classes, but invested apparently with a certain priestly character (C. I. L. 5.3386; AUGUSTALES). After the death of Augustus, Tiberius pursued the policy of declining divine honours for himself, while on the whole he encouraged the worship of his predecessor; and in the first year of his reign (A.D. 14) was established the famous priesthood which was specially intended in Italy to maintain the cult of Augustus [AUGUSTALES], which reckoned thenceforward as one of the great priesthoods, and received as its symbol the bucranium, answering to the simpulum of the pontifices, the patera of the epulones, &c. In its sphere was included the worship of Claudius, the next emperor who was deified, and then we hear of Sodales Augustales Claudiales; later on again of a new priesthood on the same model for the worship of Vespasian, and afterwards of Titus (Sodales Flaviales Titiales), and so also with that of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, so that the number of these priesthoods became eventually four, the last established serving for the cult of later emperors (Marquardt, 3.479 foll.; Dessau in Eph. Epigr. 3.205 f.; Desjardins, in Revue de Philologie, 3.33 f.). Thus, even in Rome and Italy, not only did the emperors absorb into their own persons and families the dignity and prestige of the great existing priesthoods, but they enjoyed the advantage arising from an organised priestly worship of their predecessors, with the anticipation of the same honour for themselves afterdeath. And, with the same object as was mentioned under the last head, the ancient sacrificial priesthoods revived by Augustus were made to contribute, so that throughout the whole range of priestly functions the new political system [p. 2.576]and the new turn given to religion were alike everywhere present. Thus the name of Augustus was included in the Saliare Carmen used by the Salii (Mon. Ancyr. p. 27), and this honour was also paid to several later emperors and members of the imperial families. The LUPERCI had a new collegium gentilicium added to them in B.C. 44, that of the Luperci Julii, which continued far into the Empire. The Sodales Titii numbered Augustus and Claudius among their members, and were under obligations to Vespasian (Marquardt, 447). But it is from the fortunate discovery of the inscriptions of the Arval Brotherhood that we gain far the most insight into the way in which all kinds of religious ceremony were pressed into the service of the Empire; and a study of Henzen's Acta Fratrum Arvalium is perhaps the best introduction to a study of the new system [see ARVALES FRATRES]. Thus the odour of sanctity adhering to the oldest rural priesthood of the primitive Romans was made to contribute to the lustre of the latest imperial system, even down to the time of Constantine and his sons, and after Christianity had become the recognised religion of the Empire (Marquardt, 462).

In the provinces the priesthoods of the new worship came to be of very great importance. It was here the policy of Augustus to associate his own cultus with that of Dea Roma; and this conjunction was steadily retained and systematised, and is to be carefully distinguished from all other forms of the apotheosis which made their way into the provinces. (See Desjardins, in Rev. de Philol. 1879, pp. 42, 63.) In almost every province we find a sacerdos (or flamen) Romae et Augusti provinciae; the priestly title is found in numberless inscriptions under various forms, both in Latin and Greek (ἀρχιερεύς), and occurs in a shortened form as simply sacerdos provinciae. This great priest was elected yearly (in most provinces, but for Asia see W. M. Ramsay in Classical Review, vol. iii. p. 175) by the general meeting of representatives from the various cities of the province (communia, concilia, κοινά), from persons of consideration among the provincials, and was charged with important duties, such as the collection and management of the funds for the temples of the cult, the presidency of the games, and also of the assemblies of legati just mentioned [NEOCORI]. Of this assembly he was also the immediate representative in all communications with the emperor, and was thus independent even of the provincial governor. His importance in the development of the imperial system can hardly be over-estimated. (Desjardins, l.c.; P. Giraud, Les Assemblées Provinciales, Paris, 1888; Marquardt, Staatsv. 1.366; Ephem. Epigr. 1.200 f.)

The cities of the provinces, as well as the communia or κοινά, possessed priests of the worship of Rome and Augustus: this was at least the case in the African provinces, where they constantly occur in inscriptions under the titles of “flamen Augusti,” “flamen Augusti perpetuus,” or “flamen” simply. As these appear to have been elected yearly, it is probable that the epithet “perpetuus” indicated an honorary rank conferred in some cases on the holder. Flaminicae also occur, as in the worship of the Divi in Italy. The word sacerdos is also found in these inscriptions, but it is uncertain whether these were identical with the flamines. These municipal priesthoods may be considered as a subordinate part of the main provincial organisation of the worship of Rome and the emperors, and distinct from that of the Divi, which is found in the provinces also (Desjardins, op. cit. 55 f.; FLAMEN).

In the 4th century A.D., after the establishment of Christianity by the state, these titles, under the forms of sacerdotales and flamines perpetui, constantly occur, though their original meaning had vanished; and it is supposed that they indicated some dignity or honorary rank in the Ordo or Senate of a municipium (Desjardins, l.c.); i.e. they are no more than the civil survival of a once living religious organisation. It was in fact in the first three centuries of the Empire that these priesthoods were working realities in the imperial system; and both the nature of the cult and of their duties would enable them easily either to survive as nonreligious titles or to disappear entirely. But the process by which these changes were effected is not yet fully investigated.

3. The priesthoods of the foreign worships introduced in the Empire.

Some reference must be made here, in general terms, to the priests of the foreign worships which found their way to Rome and Italy in the first three centuries of the Empire. In a priesthood are usually found expressed the leading characteristics of a religion, as we have already seen both in Greece and Italy; and the success of a new form of priesthood indicates the presence of a new type of religious feeling. The Roman world, now become cosmopolitan, had outgrown the narrow formulae of the native religion, and the Roman priesthood had become first political, then imperial, in its character. Ever since the attempted introduction of the Bacchic rites in the 2nd century B.C., it had been obvious that there was a growing desire in Italy for some more emotional form of worship, which that priesthood could not supply, and which could not be satisfied even with the continuous invasion of Greek rites under the influence of the Sibylline books and their keepers. The Roman priests had little or no desire or opportunity of inculcating virtue; the notions of sin, penitence, regeneration, brotherhood, were wholly foreign to their worship, or at best were present there in a fossilised form, and had reference to the state rather than the individual. These were exactly the ideas which ruled in the Oriental forms of religion which the Romans met with as their empire extended itself in the East; and these, transported to Italy and even further west, found there a congenial soil. It is the tendency of all such worships to magnify the influence and mystic power of the priesthood; and thus the last type of priest which we find in the ancient world before the final victory of Christianity was, in its relations with individuals, the most powerful and efficacious of all the series. So much was this the case, that the priestly defenders of the old religion against Christianity frequently found it politic to, clothe themselves also with the attributes of one of these more effective priesthoods (Boissier, Religion Romaine, 1.445).

Among these may be mentioned--

  • 1. The priests of Cybele or the Magna Mater, whose worship was introduced as early as 208 B.C., but did [p. 2.577]not take its most emotional form till the period we are now dealing with [see MEGALESIA]. Of the same character were the famous TAUROBOLIA, where the priest (taurobolus) underwent a baptism in the blood of the victim, the virtue of which he then communicated to others.
  • 2. Another cult in which the priestly power was great was that of the Cappadocian Bellona, who even in republican times had usurped the place and name of an old Italian goddess. The priests and priestesses of this deity walked the city robed in black (Mart. 12.57), wounding themselves as a sacrificial act: “ipsi sacerdotes non alieno sed suo cruore sacrificant” (Lact. Inst. 1.21, 16; cf. Tib. 1.6, 45).
  • 3. But the most striking of all these priesthoods was that of Isis and other Egyptian deities, especially noticeable for the important share obtained in it by women (one of the characteristic features of the religion of the age); for the licence practised in its rites, as described by Juvenal (6.522 foll.); and on the other hand for the asceticism it preached, and its doctrines of conviction of sin and the necessity of purification and atonement. There can hardly be a doubt that these priests really believed their initiations and fastings to have a real power of bringing the worshipper nearer to a knowledge of the divine nature, and of leading him “ad portum quietis et aram misericordiae” (Apul. Met. 11.15); and it is only thus that the marvellous spread of this cult even to the western provinces of the Empire can be accounted for (see Marquardt, 3.77; Boissier, R. R. 1.398, 418). The same tendencies are also seen in the cults of Jupiter of Heliopolis, and especially in that of the Persian sun-god Mithras, so famous in the third and fourth centuries of the Empire. In all the priests are all-powerful and all-persuasive; working privately and independently of the state; having a definite yet mystic doctrine to preach, and preaching it to all comers without respect of persons; and lastly with a graduated process of initiation, amounting to a veritable discipline. As all these features were almost wholly absent from the Roman notion of a priesthood, there arose by degrees and spread over the whole Empire an entirely new idea of the priestly office and its duties; and this, eventually coinciding with the old Roman idea of a state religion, pointed out earlier in this article, paved the way for an official recognition in the fourth century of an organised Christian hierarchy.


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