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Priestly colleges of ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman religion was divided into two spheres: sacra – all cult practices directed by the community towards the gods; and auspicia – consulting Jupiter on the intended action (auspices). This opinion was read from the flight of birds, in which were hidden signs through which the gods expressed their approval or disapproval.

Initially, the king was in charge of religious life, supported by the colleges of priests, pontiffs and augurs. The pontiffs (pontifices) cared for sacra, that is, about the proper addressing of people to gods and people to people, when divine matters were also important. The Augur inaugurated and made sure the auspices were properly decorated so that all public activities would be done in accordance with Jupiter’s will.

The establishment of a priestly college is connected with the reign of the second Roman king – Numa Pompilius. In ancient Rome, there were a dozen or so priestly colleges (collegia or sodalitates), among which were four larger colleges (quattuor amplissima collegia). They were:

College of Pontiffs

Flamen was a priest in ancient Rome, serving one god.
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It was the highest priesthood college. It watched over the formal aspect of religious worship and related state acts (they drew up a calendar, set the dates of holidays). The college consisted of, inter alia, flamens and vestals. A pontiff was a member of this college. It was chaired by Pontifex Maximus. They were to “build bridges” – that is, to connect the earthly with the divine. The term Pontifex Maximus was then passed on to the Roman emperors.

The Romans considered the college of pontiffs very ancient; it was also credited to the priest-king, who was Numa Pompilius. The original number of its members was five. It is believed that the first and chief pontiff was the king himself, only replaced in the republican times by pontifex maximus. Originally, only patricians were pontiffs; only in 300 BCE plebeians were admitted to the office. The number of pontiffs was raised to nine, except that five were commoners and only four were once-privileged. When Sulla carried out his reform of the entire state system, the number of pontiffs was raised once more, to fifteen, but again with the same proportion. The composition of the college in the last days of the republic was as follows: seven patricians, eight plebeians. The pontiffs were originally for life: in the event of the death of one member of the college, the rest elected his successor by co-option.

College of Augures

It was founded by King Numa Pompilius. it initially consisted of three patricians, one for each of the oldest Roman tribes. They were selected by co-opting to the college and held the office for life. The size of the college was gradually increased, first to six and then to nine members. In 300 BCE plebeians were admitted to the college, establishing that out of nine members of the college there would be four patricians and five plebeians.

In 104 BCE the law of Domitius (lex Domitia) was passed, which decided to abolish the co-optation of the augurs. From then on, new members of the college were selected by a vote of 17 tribus from among 35 existing members. Sulla abolished the Lex Domitia, restoring co-optation and simultaneously increasing the college size to fifteen augurs (seven plebeians and eight patricians). Co-optation was abolished again in 63 BCE.

Augurs from the signs of heaven and the flight of birds officially read the will of the gods. Their privilege was to wear a purple gown with a staff curved at the top – Lituus, which was drawn in a sacred circle – templum, inside which they observed divine signs: meteorological phenomena, flight of birds, behaviour animals and the events of the fortune-telling rite. Initially, the augurs were valued among the people, often advised and played a significant political role, as they could influence decisions about calling assemblies or taking war. Over time, their role weakened and was limited to religious functions: the inauguration of temples, various rooms, cities – assuring the favour of the gods. The last augurs were Wettius Agorius Prektextatus (died in 384 CE) and Ragonius Venustus (died in 390 CE).

Quindecimviri sacris faciundis

It was a college of fifteen (quindecim – quindecimvirs) members. It was created by Tarkwinius Pysny to care for the Sibyl Books, a collection of predictions from Sibyl, the Greek fortune teller from Kyme. They consulted and interpreted the Books at the request of the senate. Another task of this college was to oversee the worship of the gods who had been inducted into the Roman Pantheon.

Originally, the tasks of the college were performed by two patricians (duumviri or duoviri). Their number was increased in 367 BCE. by Lex Licinia Sexti to ten (hence the name sometimes decemvirs). The law stipulated that half of these priests were to be plebeians. In a mature republic, college members were selected by co-opting. In the 3rd century BCE several priests, possibly also quindecimviri, were elected by a tribute committee (comitia tributa).


This college – epulones – was in charge of arranging holidays, public banquets, festivals and games (ludi). Thus, the Epulons assumed duties that originally belonged to the pontiffs. The college was established in 196 BCE and from the beginning plebeians could belong to him. The need for this college arose from increasing celebrations and festivals that required appropriate experts.

Initially, there were three priests, with time reaching seven (also called septemviri epulonum, meaning “seven people epulones”). Julius Caesar temporarily expanded the college to ten members, returning to seven after his death.

Fraternities, colleges and priestly assistants

Lucius Verus as Arval Brother.
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Alongside the colleges, there were various senior religious fraternities (sodalitates) that only operated in a specific ritual and often collectively (e.g., pontifex or augur often singly).

Arval Brotherhood (Arvales fratres, meaning “Farmers” or “Field Brothers”) was a college of 12 priests goddess Dea Dia and Mars. Their name comes from the word arvum. In the temple of the goddess, with the doors closed, the priests, praying for a good harvest, performed a dance that originated from fertility cults. They celebrated the festival in April – Ambarvalie, the description of its course has come to our time’s thanks to the fact that it was written in protocols called Acta. Dressed with ear garlands, they led the sacrificial animals around the fields. After killing them, they danced and sang songs in honour of Mars and the lares.

The Brotherhood’s Songs – Carmen Arvale (songs of the Arwalski Brotherhood) – were written during the Empire and are one of the oldest monuments of Latin poetry. The song begins with an invocation to the Lary three times (in the then utterance of “Lasów”). Then comes the call to Mars. Each of the five chant invocations was repeated three times, ending the prayer by repeating the exclamation Triumpe! five times (later in the development of the Triumphe! language). The text of the song below:

enos Lases iuvate – Lary, help us!
enos Lases iuvate
enos Lases iuvate
neve lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleoris – From hunger, moor, fire, save us all!
neve lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleoris
neve lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleoris
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sala, sta berber – Be full, fierce Mars, stop us from hunger and defeat!
satur fu, fere mars, limen hall, sta berber
satur fu, fere mars, limen hall, sta berber
semunis alterni advocapit conctos – Call us, make us all your servants!
semunis alterni advocapit conctos
semunis alterni advocapit conctos
enos Marmour iuvato – Mars, help us!
enos Marmour iuvato
enos Marmour iuvato
triumpe triumpe triumpe triumpe triumpe – Glory! Praise! Praise! Praise! Glory!1

Cytowska Maria, Roman literature. Archaic period, Warsaw 1996

Salii were members of one of the oldest colleges of priests in Ancient Rome, the priests of Mars. Initially, one, organized by Numa Pompilius on the Palatine – the so-called Salii Palatini, was later split into two. The second group was organized by Tullus Hostilius on the Quirinale near Porta Collina, they were called Salii Collini or Agonales.

There were 24 Salis (12 from the Capitoline and 12 from the Quirinal) and they were elected only from patricians. Their name comes from salio, meaning “I dance”. He was chaired by magister, and praesul (dance leaders) and vates (choir leaders) also played an important role. Twice a year: in March and October, in the form of processions, they performed Old Vital dances and cult songs on the streets of the city, with bronze shields (called ancilia, dressed in old Vietnamese costumes already considered ancient consisting of: tunic, armour, toga (toga praetexta) and pointed cap (apex). In their songs (Carmen saliare) they invoked Mars It was such an old tradition that Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE) translated the texts of these songs into more modern Latin.

Flamines College consisted of 15 priests. The highest rank was a Jupiter flamen called flamen Dialis. The other two are Mars flamen (flamen Martialis) and Quirin (flamen Quirinalis). The others served smaller gods and goddesses such as: Volcano, Flora, Pomona.

Flamines were probably one of the oldest (if not the oldest) priestly colleges in Rome. The archaic nature of their function is evidenced by many ritual prohibitions (taboos) and limitations that affected flamines. For example, flamen Dialis could not ride a horse, look at an armed army, take oaths, cut his hair, his clothes could not have any knots, etc. (see Gellius in book X chapter 15 for a complete list).

Luperki worshipped Faun (Roman deity, half-human, half-goat) during the Roman festival of Lupercalia. At that time, sacrifices were made, and priests called Luperki (Lupercii, from lupus, “wolf”), dressed in the skin of a freshly killed goat ran around the Palatine Hill and struck passersby with straps (februa) from the skins of sacrificial animals, which was supposed to guarantee fertility for women.

Vestal Virgins were selected from girls aged 6-10, from patrician families and only those where both parents were alive. There were six of them. The superior of the Vestals was Virgo Vestalis Maxima, the oldest Vestal, and they were under the religious care of Pontifex Maximus. He, too, made a selection of girls for the service.

Vestal Virgins (virgo Vestalis) had to be in service for 30 years and kept their virginity during that time. The loss of virginity by the vestal was punished very severely to ward off Vesta’s anger. Roman historians described several cases of the use of this punishment: the woman was buried alive in the grave, leaving her with some food and water, and a lamp; then she was left to die and took no more interest in her. After the end of the service, the vestal was able to get married and have children.

The task of the vestals was to keep the eternal fire in the temple of Vesta (which was the fire representing Vesta itself) and to perform periodic, ritual cleansing of the entire city. The vestal responsible for it was flogged for allowing the fire to extinguish.
Vestalas were held in high esteem. There was a death penalty for insulting the Vestal. Their privileges included places of honour in the theatre, the company of lictors and the right to grace the convicts.

Ruins of the college of Augustales in Herculaneum.
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Titii sodales (later referred to as Titienses or Sacerdotes Titiales Flaviales) was a priesthood college that originally represented the Sabine tribe. It is believed that the college was founded on the initiative of Titus Tatius, king of the Sabine city of Cures, or by Romulus. During the Roman Republic, we no longer come across information about this college, because the cults of the Italian tribes were integrated with the Roman ones. During the time of the empire, the priests of this college were restored to honour the emperor.

Sodales Augustales (Sacerdotes Augustales or Augustales) was this a college established by Emperor Tiberius to maintain the cult of Augustus and Julius in 14 CE. The college consisted of 21 priests elected from the patrician state. Members of the college were Tiberius, Drusus, Claudius and Germanicus as members of the imperial family. The Flamines could also be priests of Augustales.

Fetiales was a priesthood college of twenty dedicated to Jupiter. Priests were elected for life. They wore special woollen robes and headbands. The college was probably established by one of the first kings in the 7th century BCE. At the behest of the senate or an official, they made a formal declaration of war, an alliance, etc. (on the border with a hostile state or, in the case of peoples not bordering the Roman state, at the column in front of the Bellona temple in the Field of Mars in Rome), following the rituals prescribed by regulations. They operated under a special law (ius fetiale). Their activities were closely related to religious rituals and surrounded by the highest secrecy. According to him, they officially expressed the will of Jupiter, and in fact the orders of the ruler. They ceased their activities in the 1st century CE.

Haruspices were brought to Rome during the Second Punic War, from Etruria, to make divinations – haruspicina. Practically until the end of the republic, the Haruspiks were brought from Etruria, and then this function was also performed by the Romans. The Haruspices family advised both the state and private persons. The priest (aruspex, haruspex) dealt with divination from animal entrails. They interpreted the will of the gods based on the shape of the liver of the sacrificial animals. Their speciality was included in the so-called disciplina etrusca, who was considered particularly holy and venerable. Emperor Claudius established a college of haruspices, and Alexander Severus created a chair of haruspices.

Sacerdos were any priest or priestess. There was no priestly caste in ancient Rome, and in a sense, every citizen was a priest because he presided over domestic rites. There were two kinds of sacerdote: one supervised the form of worship (caerimoniae) and sacra; others interpreted the signs and sayings of visionaries and prophets. Another division was that some were not dedicated to a specific deity and others had an individual deity. Initially, all priests were patricians, but from 367 CE plebeians could also take part in sacerdotia.

Rex sacrorum (also rex sacrificulus; “sacred king”) was a priestly office. Contrary to its name, it was not a high priesthood rank at all: rex sacrorum was called after the expulsion of Tarquinius the Proud and the establishment of a republic to perform these religious rites which were the king’s duties during the monarchy. Rex sacrorum was chosen from among the patricians by Pontifex Maximus. It was a lifetime office and could not be combined with any secular offices. The institution rex sacrorum survived almost to the very end of the ancient Roman religion.

Rex sacrorum wore a toga, undecorated leather boots (calceus), and carried a ceremonial ax. His wife was called regina sacrorum. This office was deliberately depoliticized; he was not elected, and his inauguration was accompanied by comitia calata for that very purpose. The priest was excluded from a military and political career (unlike the pontiff and augur).

Ruins on the shore of Lake Nemi

Rex Nemorensis (“king of the forest”) was the title of a priest in ancient Italy – protector of the sacred grove and the temple of Diana on the lake Nemi in Aritia. His partner, the “queen of the woods”, was Diana herself.

Rex Nemorensis held his priesthood for life. It was a law enforcement person, generally a runaway slave. The priesthood protected him from pursuit and punishment, but anyone who was able to do it in hand-to-hand combat could kill him. The indispensable condition for the start of the duel was the newcomer breaking a branch from the sacred tree (which rex had to guard like an eye in his head). If the newcomer won the duel, he could become the new rex Nemorensis, with all the consequences.

The described conditions made this function rather unprofitable due to the constant threat of death. Therefore, it was decided only by those who otherwise had to die anyway, in torment (on the cross, etc.).
The cult of trees cultivated in Aricia, and especially the mode of succession as a priest of Diana, lead to the assumption that it was a very old, prehistoric institution. Already in antiquity, it was considered a bit barbaric. The rex Nemorensis institution, however, lasted until at least the Antonine dynasty, and probably much longer.

Galli (singular Gallus) were priests-eunuchs of the Phrygian goddess Cybele and her companion Attis. The first Galli in Rome appeared in 204 BCE, when Cybele was incorporated into the Roman religious system. Roman citizens were forbidden to become priests, and therefore they were mostly of Eastern descent and of slave status. During the reign of Claudius, this restriction was lifted. Eventually, Emperor Domitian confirmed the ban on castration (eviratio) for Roman citizens.

The Galli castrated themselves during an ecstatic celebration called Dies sanguinis or “Blood Day” on March 24. They wore women’s clothes, usually yellow in colour; type of turban; along with pendants and earrings. They wore long hair and heavy makeup. They wandered with their followers, asking for mercy and in return promising a prophecy. On the mourning day, Attis ran wild around. They performed dances in ecstasy, whipping themselves to blood.

Curio was the head of the curia. He was elected by comitia curiata only when he turned 50 and held the office for life. The Curiones must be in good health and without physical defects, and could not possess any other civil or military office. He performed the sacred rites with the participation of a priest (flamen curialis). The head of all the curias was curio maximus, who was elected at the commissions.

Aeditui were the people who looked after the temples and kept them clean. Regardless of the servant function of the office, they participated in rituals and were sometimes called priests by the Greeks. In many cases, this function was mainly performed by women. Rather, it is certain that there were several Aeditui categories and they had different tasks.

Exegetae were interpreters of religious signs and laws.

  1. Own translation from Polish.
  • Dębiński Antoni i Kuryłowicz Marek (red.), Religia i prawo karne w starożytnym Rzymie, 1998
  • Jaczynowska Maria, Religie świata rzymskiego, Warszawa 1987
  • Murray John, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, London 1875

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