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Pontifex maximus, between religion and politics

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Octavian Augustus as Pontifex maximus
Octavian Augustus as Pontifex maximus

At first glance, it seems that the Roman political scene in the republican period was led by the most important senators and officials, such as consuls, praetors, censors, and dictators in emergency situations.

These officials, behind the political power of the Senate and symbols of Roman power such as imperium and potestas, give the impression that they are the only players in Rome. Of course, this thesis is largely true, because the political scene of the Roman Empire was filled almost exclusively by secular senators and officials, but this picture shows one person, pontifex maximus, who distorts the uniform image.

Pontifex maximus is the office of a priest that, according to Roman tradition, was created by King Numa Pompilius. His domination in the clergy of the Republic period is evidenced by the fact that he was the head of all priests, and above all of the college of pontiffs, which he presided over and was one of the members. He was legally fifth in the hierarchy of priesthood offices, but he actually held the most important religious office in the country. He lived in a special building for pontifex maximus, called Regia, situated on the Forum Romanum. The special significance of the pontifex maximus residence is underlined by the fact that Regia was the former palace of the Roman kings. Each month during the Eid, pontifex maximus accompanied by the Vestals, made his way to the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, where he sacrificed for the welfare of the city of Rome. These were the most important religious and political events in the Roman calendar. An additional task assigned to pontifex maximus was the selection of Flamen Dialis, Martialis and Quirinalis. Pontifex maximus had the important task of keeping a record of the elected magistrates, the list of judging judges and the register of its decisions (commentarii). Being responsible for such important state-level tasks proves that a pontifex could be a man coming from outstanding aristocratic families, in which Roman values ​​and education are nurtured. In fact, this thesis was fully confirmed, because it was the leading representatives of the most important families who became the high priests. You became a priest of this rank at the end of your career because it was to be the crowning glory of your life career. Experience and knowledge allowed him to conduct special yearbooks called annales maximi, in which he wrote down important events concerning divine cults and events in the country.

The importance of pontifex for Roman law is evidenced by the long period of ius civile development by pontiffs, including a high priest. It was they who decided what the procedural formulas should look like, how the law should be interpreted and how it should be used. Initially, they had exclusive access to it, but the turning point came in 254 BCE. when the plebeian Tiberius Coruncius. He changed the approach to Roman law and began to teach simple Romans rules and regulations, which influenced the spread of basic knowledge of the law in the society. It was a real revolution that opened the first Roman jurists to deal with the law without the need to hold the office of a priest. Despite typical religious tasks, pontifex maximus played a very important role in Roman politics, because it was strongly related to religiosity, and as he was a high priest, he could interfere in the political arena. In addition, an important fact is that the person taking this office could also hold other public offices and command the army. So it can be seen that the public and sacred law of the Republic adapted pontifex to participate in the political and social games of the state.

Pontifex maximus was initially elected from among the members of the college, but eventually, Sulla decided that pontifex maximus would be elected from among the members of the pontifical college. Pontifex maximus was dressed in a special toga that also covered his head (capite velato) and usually held an iron knife (secespita) or a plate in his hand. Initially, pontifex maximus was banned from leaving Italy, which was broken for the first time by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica (141-132 BCE), was forced by the Senate to leave Italy.

The history of Scipio Nazyka refers to the political battles of 133 BCE when Scipio Nasica became the provocateur of the brutal murder of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. The murder of the people’s tribune and the throwing of his body into the Tiber caused a great riot in the streets of Rome, the people accused the senators of violating the sacrosanctitas tribune and demanded criminal liability for the killers. Nasica as pontifex maximus committed a huge crime, but the fact that he managed to persuade almost the entire party of conservative senators to murder proves the important role he played on the political scene. Nasica had to leave Italy, but a few decades later it was pontifex maximus that became a victim of Roman domestic fights. In 82 BCE, when Sulla was conquering Italy, the loser Marius the Younger decided to murder Quintus Mucius Scevola, pontifexa maximus, who was attacked as early as 86 BCE. Scevola, as the high priest, strongly criticized the authorities of Marius and Cynna, which is why he became a political enemy of the popular. This shows how many roles pontifex maximus played on the political scene and how much he could threaten his opponents.

Another pontifex maximus whose priesthood period coincided with controversial events was Gaius Julius Caesar, 62 BCE he witnessed a tremendous sacrilege in his own home. Patricius Publius Claudius Pulcher sneaked into his house during the Bona Dea festival when only women were allowed to enter the house of pontifex maximus wife. This resulted in a huge scandal among the people of Rome and ended with a court tribunal. The whole case due to the corruption of the judges was silenced, but the stigma left by Claudius on the opinion of pontifex maximus persisted for many years. The role of pontifex for the Roman state was also appreciated during the Empire, and thanks to its continuation by the Catholic Church, we have the title pontifexa maximus used by the popes to this day. This shows us clearly how important a position and role in the state was played by the high priest.

Author: Cyprian Herl (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Aldona Jurewicz, Rzymskie prawo publiczne - wybrane zagadnienia

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